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Men on a Mission: From the Port to the Pontifical Scots College

Earlier this year, a BBC documentary 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

IT’S perhaps not surprising that someone who hails from Port Glasgow—and who would no doubt have been able to see many magnificent examples of ships sailing up and down the Clyde—would have chosen to study Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at University. However, it was the decision to answer God’s call that would see Ryan Black’s life steer a different course.

Making waves

Despite having a firm grounding in the faith from his mum Joan and dad Norrie—having gone to Mass and Confession with his brother Chris and been aware that the Church would always be a part of life—Ryan (above) never saw himself being ‘anywhere else other than the pews.’ Of course that would change, but for a time his life was all about the waves (above), in more ways than one.

“If I am honest, the reason I chose to study Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering was because the money was good and there were job prospects around the world,” Ryan admitted. “Having visited family in Hong Kong, I fell in love with the place; I wanted to move there, and there were plenty of job opportunities in the field.

“While I was at university studying, I also worked as a DJ and radio presenter. It was a commercial station called YOUR Radio, broadcasting in West Dunbartonshire, Helensburgh and Lomond, and Inverclyde. My love of music has never left me. I received three great gifts from my parents: life, faith and an appreciation for 80s pop!

“I would like to think that skills developed while working there have stood me in good stead as I prepare to be ordained a priest. It is fundamental that priests are good communicators, for example, so that they can proclaim the Gospel to the different people they will meet in their ministry.”

Parish priest paves the way

Proclaiming the Gospel to different people that a priest meets during the course of his ministry is something that Ryan had an excellent example of in his home parish, with his former parish priest having acted as a catalyst for him deciding to take up his vocation (above). He provided Ryan with a greater insight into the universal Church and always offered good counsel.

“The major catalysts for me deciding to take up my vocation, were my former parish priest and the mission trips to South Africa he organised,” he said. “Having experienced the daily life of some Mill Hill priests there, I started to think about what a life in the priesthood might look like. Until then, much of my experience of priesthood had been limited. On my return from South Africa, I began to consider the way in which my parish priest lived his life, and I had many questions about faith, the Church and the priesthood, such as the Divine Office and his obligations to it; celibacy; and how he had discerned his own vocation. Thank God, he answered them, and he also got me involved in the week-to-week life of the parish.”

Support, surprise and vocation

When Ryan eventually made the decision to study for the priesthood, he admits that everyone within his family (above) and circle of friends were supportive, but perhaps a little surprised at first. However, he can understand that initial emotion because, as he admits, deciding to follow his vocation brought its own surprises.

“The most obvious surprise was the realisation that there was such a thing as a call from God,” he said. “I had never believed in the idea of a call, thinking rather that the good priests I knew had simply chosen to be priests in the same way that people chose to be doctors and nurses, teachers and taxi drivers.

“However, after I returned from South Africa, I became aware of a niggling feeling, a random thought that would pop up every now and then: what about priesthood? This niggling feeling started popping up so frequently that I thought I would have been actively ignoring it if I did nothing about it. Then, with the help of the vocations director, I realised that this was indeed the way in which God had manifested His call to me.”

Once Ryan got over the initial surprise, his understanding of vocation began to grow and intensify and, making reference to the call made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during his visit to the UK in 2010 when he suggested that we can all be saints, he explained what the term now means to him, and its wider meaning.

“The word ‘vocation’ is huge,” he said. “In a broad sense, it refers to the way of life that God has created each of us for—we all have the vocation to holiness, we are all called to be saints. However, in a more particular way, it refers to the specific way in which God wants us to be holy. We all have a shared vocation, and we all have our individual vocations.

“Our shared vocation—the one given to each one of us—is to become saints. I once asked full classrooms of secondary school pupils to put their hands up if they wanted to be holy and, unsurprisingly, very few did. I then asked the same pupils to put their hands up if they wanted to go to heaven when they died and, unsurprisingly, they all put their hands up. It was wonderful to be able to explain to them that those two questions are in fact one question. Often, we can feel repelled by the idea of holiness. However, it is just another way of talking about being close to God— holiness, at least in this life, is not perfection, but rather it is being close to God even with our faults and failings.

“The individual vocation is the way in which God wants us to be holy and to help others to be holy. For some—and I would say for more than we might think—that vocation is to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life. If we are all called to be holy and to help others to be holy, then the special role of the clergy and religious is to help others to realise their full potential as disciples. As a priest, it will not be my job to save people; it will be my mission to show people how they themselves can come close to God in their own lives.”

Scripture, Saints and Sacraments

In terms of being able to foster that closeness between God and His people, for Ryan (above), inspiration can be found—as it can with so many who are called—from within the Scriptures and among the Saints. His vocation is strengthened by them, but also by the Sacraments too.

“Perhaps my favourite verse from scripture is 1 John 3:1: ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ For me, it sums up the spiritual life: we love God because He loved us first; I want to be a priest because I hope to be able to make God’s love known to others.

“As for a favourite saint, am I allowed to say it is Our Blessed Mother? Maybe that would be too easy! I have a great devotion to St Maximilian Kolbe for several reasons. His love of Mary is palpable when you read his writings, and he believed in the power of new media for proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel, something I hold to as well. Another saint who seems to have followed me throughout my life is St Jerome: I was born on his feast day, he is the patron saint of biblical theologians (I am working on a Biblical Theology licence at the moment) and he is buried in the chapel where my family celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving after my ordination to the diaconate.”

“I draw strength first and foremost, from the Lord in the Sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament,” he added. “Sometimes, it is difficult or impossible to receive or adore Him in the Eucharist, but I can always turn to my Bible and pray with the scriptures. As St Jerome said, ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Shaped in seminary

While Ryan can—at some point this year, God willing—look forward to his priestly ordination, he speaks fondly about his time in seminary, despite being the only seminarian in his year group. His time at the Pontifical Scots College allowed him to make friends for life in spite of that, meet the Holy Father (above) three times, understand what it takes to get the best out of seminary life and decipher his mission as a priest for the Diocese of Paisley.

“Seminary is a funny old place,” he said. “I do not have any year mates, so my first impression was that it could be a lonely place if you allowed it to be. However, it meant that I had no choice but to make friends quickly and I am thankful that so many of the older seminarians were welcoming— some of them have become my best friends.

“Studying at the college and living as a seminarian has confirmed to me that a seminarian must be honest. He must be honest with himself, with his spiritual director and formators, and especially with the Lord. If he is not honest, he will struggle; if he is, then he will thrive. Of course, not everyone who enters seminary will be ordained a priest, but the process works as much for someone who discerns that he is not being called to priesthood as for someone who discerns that he is. Honesty is key.

“Meeting the Holy Father three times was a highlight of my time in Rome,” he continued. “Especially the second time, in 2017, when the Scots served for Pope Francis at the Easter Vigil in St Peter’s Basilica. It was an incredible experience, and it transformed the basilica for me. It could sometimes be difficult to remember, with all the thousands of tourists packed in like sardines, that it is a church. Now, whenever I enter the basilica, I remember processing in by candlelight and serving Mass on the holiest of nights. Another special moment was my ordination to the diaconate in the Scots College chapel. I was blessed to be joined by so many of my family and friends, including the seminary community and several priests from Scotland. It was a wonderful day.

“So much of my own vocation story is tied up with missionary priests and with the Dominicans and Jesuits who have taught me in Rome and their work is invaluable, but the overwhelming experience I have had of priesthood is that of secular priests. I have a great love for my diocese and the people and once I started to think about being a priest, I thought about how much I’d love serving my diocese, so diocesan priesthood is what I’d consider my own mission to be.”

Mission and missionaries

Having that interaction with missionary priests in Rome, coupled with his own experiences of mission, has allowed Ryan (above) to develop a very succinct understanding of the universality of the Church, a continued appreciation for the men and women who work in mission countries and territories, our common mission as Baptised Catholics and the importance of the Pontifical Mission Societies in supporting missionary work, which he describes as ‘vital for spreading the Good News around the world.’

“The word ‘mission’ is another big word,” he said. “Immediately, it makes me think about the important work being done in developing countries to spread the Good News of the Gospel. So many heroic priests and religious do so much work in these mission countries and territories every day. However, upon reflection it makes me think about the task at hand for every Baptised man and woman, boy and girl. The mission is tied up with the common vocation I spoke about earlier. Since we are all called to holiness, we are all called to do what we can to help others to be holy as well—that’s the common mission.

“The work of Missio Scotland and its partners in the Pontifical Mission Societies is vital for the spreading of the Good News around the world. Even if there are few societies around the world that have not heard of Christ—unfortunately there are several that have simply rejected Him—the work of Missio Scotland goes a long way to supporting those who evangelise these societies so that they will once more turn to Christ and recognise Him as their saviour.”

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