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Men on a Mission: Swapping the stands for the seminary

Earlier this year, the BBC documentary Priest School shone a light on the life of seminarians in the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, which was universally well received. The programme allowed the young men—who will form an important part of the future of the Scottish Church—to express themselves on camera, show their dedication to the faith and perhaps even dispel some myths about the priesthood along the way. Missio Scotland decided to delve a little deeper with some of them to find out why they’re embarking upon this very special personal mission.

Gerard Gough

FOR someone who is as big a football fan as Michael Kearns, swapping the stands for the seminary was maybe somewhat of a sacrifice, but while walking up the Celtic Way every fortnight is no doubt special; it pales in comparison to hearing God’s call and following the path to priesthood.

Michael, from Kilwinning in Galloway Diocese, is the youngest of four children and grew up in a family for whom faith played a pivotal role and has just completed his second year of studies, but his life could have been so much different had he not experienced a deepening of that faith while studying law at Glasgow University.

“Being a solicitor would have undoubtedly been my career path, had I not decided to apply for seminary, which I did just after graduating,” Michael (above) said. “While at university, my relationship with God was taken to a new level. I would go to Mass several times a week; I went to Confession for the first time in years and I gradually learned much more about our faith. I think the early years of adulthood can really be ‘make or break,’ times for a lot of young people’s faith. I was very lucky to have the university chaplaincy right there to minister to me and others like me.”

Influences and support

As he mentioned on film, the fact that he began his university course at the same time as Pope Francis was elected, played a part in this deepening of faith and his eventual decision to take up his vocation, as he began to pay particular attention to the words and actions of the new Holy Father.

“As I said I was learning more about our faith and deepening my relationship with Jesus, in part thanks to the teachings of Pope Francis, who had just been elected at the time,” he said. “I realised for the first time that faith isn’t a private matter or a personal thing we should keep to ourselves. It’s a wonderful gift from God and we have to share it.

“The example of the two priests at the chaplaincy during my time at university (the then Fr John Keenan and Ross Campbell) was influential too. I saw that, while different individuals, they were both clearly very happy in their vocation and also effective at getting the message of Jesus across to young people. I thought ‘I could do that too and I’d be happy doing so,’ which I took as God’s way of encouraging me to think about it and pray about it more.”

And think about it Michael did, eventually making the decision to take up his vocation, to which his friends and family reacted to positively. In fact he found it a little surprising just how positive people have been in terms of wishing him well and supporting his decision.

“It gave me a real spring in my step which I think just says ‘this is good what you’re doing, keep doing it,’” he said.

“I could be wrong, but I think the etymology of the word comes from ‘vocare,’ which is the Latin verb meaning ‘to call,” he added. “God creates everyone with a special and unique purpose. As St John Henry Newman said, we may never know what that purpose is until we die, but for me I think following your vocation is acting in a way, and leading your life in a direction, which you can honestly tell yourself seems like God’s plan for you—and for others. This last point is important; every vocation needs to be of service to others. This is especially true of priests. God does not call men in a vacuum, or to be priests for their own sake. If the people who you will serve aren’t the main reason you think you are being called to the priesthood, that’s a good sign you are not being called.”

Inspiration and strength

That focus on God’s people is something that is apparent in the scripture passage from which Michael draws a great deal of inspiration, Luke 10:20, which says: “He said to them: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers for his harvest.’” It’s a passage that has particular resonance within the Pontifical Mission Societies too because it reaffirms the fact that every man and woman is expected to be a missionary for their faith in whatever form that takes. However, while inspiration is a necessity, the need to draw strength from somewhere to continue on our mission is equally important and something that Michael had his own take on.

“For me, I draw strength from prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration,” he said. “There’s also the Sacrament of Reconciliation too. The love and support of family and friends is important as well, including in the College. Relaxing and having a right good laugh are of fundamental importance. If you aren’t laughing, you’re in the wrong walk of life!”

Seminary life

Seminary life for Michael began at the Royal Scots College in Salamanca, the propaedeutic seminary, where all the seminarians are at the same level. It was a gentle introduction to seminary in what he describes as ‘probably the best city in the world.’ It was there that he learned to be part of a faith community in a different country and enjoy experiences that would live long in the memory.

“At the end of our time in Spain, we went on retreat to a tiny village called Mota del Marques. The convent we stayed in was originally a 17th century palace. Everything about it was stark and beautiful, the chapels, the architecture, the surrounding countryside. I’ll never forget it.”

The move to Rome would see him surrounded by equally beautiful historic architecture, churches and vistas, albeit the study and prayer schedule in the Pontifical Scots College doesn’t leave a great deal of time to admire them. And while he admits to missing family, friends and, of course, Celtic, this new fraternal family (above) in which he finds himself has helped him to develop in a personal and spiritual sense, including better understanding the characteristics that a seminarian must possess and the diversity and universality that makes the Church so vibrant and strong.

“I think it’s important to have realistic expectations,” he said. “If you are a ‘people person,’ who appreciates a diversity of personality and enjoys a good sense of humour, you’re better suited to it and, as I said before, laughter is important. Sometimes you could have had a hard or exhausting day, and you end up at dinner at a table of guys where the banter is just non-stop and it really saves your day and your mood.

“In Rome, we’re also given the chance to get to know people from all over the world, which is an enriching experience.”

“In terms of the faith, I’ve learned more about God, how He works and what He means to people,” he continued. “Seminarians have to have a love of Jesus—as depicted in the Gospels—and a desire to follow an imitate Him. We also have to have a love of people and a desire to serve them and to bring Jesus to them. Everything we know, everything we have, everything we are, needs to be shared.

“With regard to personal qualities, many are necessary and many more are desirable, but absolutely fundamental is integrity. A seminarian has to be honest with himself, with God, with others and with the formation process. God doesn’t call anyone to pretend to be something they aren’t, he calls everyone to try to be the best version of themselves and some of the priests who teach us are a great example of that. I think different people influence you in different ways. Priests don’t need to all be the same in the way they do things. I’m a big fan of there being diversity in the Church; diversity of style, of opinion, of approach. We are one Church and we aren’t going to achieve much if we ever pretend to split into camps. Different generations should accept they could learn from the experiences of those older or younger.

“I think you have to use your time in seminary to become as self-aware as possible. No one will ever be perfect—nor should we be—but we do need to be considerate of others and how our faults and flaws play out, and how, if unchecked, they could prevent us from being the most pastoral priests that we can be. As I said before, integrity is key.”

However, as Michael has alluded to previously, enjoying the lighter side of life is important for development as anything else and it’s one of the things he feels is somewhat of a misconception about seminary life—the fact that it is seen as more difficult than the life of a lay person and with less time to relax and unwind.

“I think people sometimes assume it’s a much harder life than anyone else’s,” he said. “Yes, it isn’t easy, and there are some difficulties very unique to being a seminarian, but it’s just not true to say we have a harder life or are under more pressure than, for example, parents of children. It’s in their hands that the future of the Church really lies and everyone should support them as much as possible.

“As I said my time has not merely been taken up with study and prayer, I’ve been able to enjoy a great many entertaining experiences in Rome so far. The annual Burns Night in the college is invariably a real hoot. Seminarians from all the other colleges in the city are desperate to get an invite! Being from Ayrshire, I take particular delight in the irreverence of the occasion. The main highlight for me so far was the Lazio vs Celtic game. It’s the type of thing I’d have travelled to from Scotland had I not been in seminary and the type of thing I miss. So for Celtic, and 10,000 supporters, to come to our doorstep instead was a beautiful gift. Personally I had a lot of friends and family who travelled. The whole week was like a carnival atmosphere. It was great to have a Mass the morning of the match that we helped organise, attended by hundreds of supporters. And then the result on the night itself, there are no words!”


Getting back to his faith, Michael has a very clear and defined view on his own mission and the wider mission of the Church. He has a desire to serve as a diocesan priest, encourage vocations, work with young people, support people in their own mission and promote the work of Missio Scotland, the Scottish branch of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

“I think our whole life is a mission,” he remarked. “It’s a mission to find God, which can be easier or more difficult at times, and a mission to share Him—in a large number of ways— with others. Mission has connotations of enthusiasm, energy, urgency—even—and I also think when you picture a ‘missionary’ you picture someone who is a bit gung-ho, someone who puts everything in the hands of God and just goes out and gets on with it. I don’t think hesitance, caution and belts-and-braces is what comes to mind.

“From a personal perspective, I would love to be a high school chaplain and to work with youth groups and youth pilgrimages. Passing our faith on to the next generation is the main task, and the draw to do that is one of the main things that brought me to seminary. I still consider myself fairly young, I love youth culture and humour and I think I have a good understanding of it, which doesn’t come easily in the Church or indeed many institutions or organisations.

“Lay people can and must be missionaries too and they can do this by making sure that they know and love Jesus as much as possible, pray often and don’t miss Mass,” he added. “Then, they must take him out to people in their lives. Of course, that can be done without words, by showing love and radical forgiveness, by speaking well of others and being generous with your time. The best advert for Christianity needs to be good Christians who are inspiring to their friends, neighbours and colleagues, but also we need to share Jesus with our words. This is hard, because it’s more natural for our faith just to be a private thing and it can be awkward or difficult to talk about it with others, but we really need to try. Otherwise, eventually our churches will become empty and close.

“Support for Missio Scotland and the work that they do is a great way for lay people to live out their mission too. There are many reasons why they should support the charity, but one thing that really struck me—when I was learning about Missio Scotland—is the work that is done to support seminaries in poorer countries. It isn’t cheap to form a priest, so for Scottish people to be able to financially assist in this vital task for countries where the Church has less in the way of resources, is a great opportunity. And while we need to do better at promoting priestly vocations from among our own communities, we also need to be prepared to welcome missionaries from places like Africa, where the tables have very much turned in the last century or so.”

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