Last year, a BBC documentary shone a light on the lives of seminarians in the Pontifical Scots College in Rome. The programme, which was universally well received, followed the young men who will form an important part of the future of the Scottish Church. It allowed them 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.
IN SPEAKING to Chris Furmage (above)—a seminarian for Motherwell Diocese, who is currently finishing his first year of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome—something that became apparent during the course of our conversation was the importance of family, both in the traditional and wider sense.
A family with a strong faith focus, is crucial to growing that faith, allowing us to use our God-given talents and carry out our mission of spreading the Good News throughout our lives. Indeed, this is something that Pope Francis highlighted during his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, when he opined: “The work of handing on the faith to children, in the sense of facilitating its expression and growth, helps the whole family in its evangelising mission. It naturally begins to spread the faith to all around them, even outside of the family circle. Children who grew up in missionary families often become missionaries themselves; growing up in warm and friendly families, they learn to relate to the world in this way, without giving up their faith or their convictions.”
Chris described himself as coming from a ‘traditionally Catholic, Coatbridge family.’ He attended St Bernard’s Primary School and St Ambrose High School in the town, but it was his and his family’s involvement in St Bernard’s parish that helped light the fire of faith in him from a young age.
“My grandparents were very much into their faith and the traditions of the church,” Chris said. “For example, whenever I stayed at my gran’s we would pray together before I fell asleep. As a family unit we were very much involved in the church. Myself and my sister were altar servers for numerous years. My dad was in the SVDP and my mum also helped in various ways in the parish. This meant forming a very friendly relationship with the priest.
“So, when I was growing up, my faith was probably the biggest part of my life. It would be quite common that I would more than happily be removed from class to go to the parish to serve a funeral or wedding. I attended Mass weekly and loved being an altar server— probably taking the role too seriously at times. Because of this, whenever priesthood was discussed in primary school all the kids would point to me and say that’s what I would be doing. I feel it was something I really wanted for a long time.
Lourdes and loving inspirations
Another family that no doubt added to Chris’ desire to take up a vocation was the one to be found among the HCPT groups who travel to Lourdes on pilgrimage every year as volunteers (above), looking after those with disabilities or life limiting conditions. Many of those who participate in these trips enjoy the experience so much they go back multiple times, which simply serves to underline that the transformative power of faith is not something solely felt by the sick.
“My sister, dad and I also all went on a pilgrimage with HCPT to Lourdes every year in the summer months from the time I was 16,” Chris explained. “There has been many a happy time in Lourdes but mostly with the group that I attended with as the people involved are just fantastic—some of the things we do work because of the people in our group.
“By far the things that stand out most are: attending the grotto itself, the torchlit procession and the baths. I was very surprised at how spiritual the experience of the baths was.”
While the experience of Lourdes was likely a catalyst for Chris’ decision to enter the priesthood, the opportunity to meet and speak with seminarians while on pilgrimage was something that he admits played its part too, as did some of priestly examples he had growing up in Motherwell Diocese.
“For me, the catalyst was a bit of life experience combined with meeting seminarians whilst in Lourdes,” he said. “There, I was able to speak to these guys who were currently going through the life that I was considering at the time. Moreover, I did not feel uncomfortable talking to them. Here were these men that—even as an outsider—I could ask all the questions my heart desired. At the time I was living in my own house in Bathgate with a reasonably paying job and more or less settled in the lifestyle I would be accustomed to for the next 40 years, but it didn’t provide me with the happiness that society says it should.
“Looking back too, I always remember the work of the Xaverian Missionaries based in the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge. They were always priests that I looked up to as inspiring because they would often provide cover in my parish and a few would even pay a visit to the school to discuss their work abroad. Obviously, a few parish priests such as: Fr Damien Gilhooley, Fr Charles Dornan, Fr Bernard Zulu, Canon William Dunnachie, are some who both inspired and re-established that call of God as well.”
When Chris eventually made the decision to follow his vocation, it came as a bit of a shock to his mum and dad, but less so to his sister, who he described as ‘excited and happy as she had been getting several people to pray for my vocation for many years.’ After a propaedeutic period in the Royal Scots College in Salamanca (above)—which gave him an insight into the history of the colleges that have been educating priests for Scotland for hundreds of years—he began his studies in Rome and found that almost everything seemed to just click into place as he became part of another family.
“The first time I came to Rome for Holy Week and the Triduum, to see all the sights and meet all the guys who were in formation was quite something,” Chris said. “The Liturgy was so meticulously planned out too, to make it so much more special and different. It was also my first time experiencing silent retreat, which was both difficult, but also amazing.
“Then, in my first year when I arrived on the Monday, I was told that I had to quickly run out to buy a collar for a cassock as on the Thursday we would be attending a private audience with the Scottish Bishops with Pope Francis. I remember it so vividly. When he walked in the room I just couldn’t stop smiling as I thought to myself ‘what am I doing here and how did I get here?’
“From the application weekends to my time in Salamanca and now to my time here in Rome I just feel extremely happy as I feel this is where I need to be right now. The experiences I get to have living in these places is incomparable."
Shaping a seminarian
While study, celebration of Mass (above) and prayer are key to the life of a seminarian, Chris, like many of those who have gone before him, is quick to challenge some of the misconceptions of seminary life, while at the same time describing what he feels are the most important characteristics that a seminarian must possess.
“I would have to say honesty,” he said. “Not simply in terms of what we say, but seminarians must be honest with ourselves, our formation staff and the bishop. It helps you in every way possible. It helps with spiritual direction, confession and formation meetings.
“I think it’s important to be open to change as well in all aspects of your life. You are given an early insight into the different aspects of priestly life. One of the key components of it is the hundreds of different people you meet; from those you live with—your fellow students—to those who you study with at the different universities who come from all over the world. In some of my classes alone there are people from the US, India, France and so on and all from different backgrounds and with different experiences of life.”
Indeed, Chris spoke of drawing strength from his time in seminary from many of the people around him stating that he loved ‘spending time with people, whether that was simply out walking, having a laugh or in prayer’ and the universality of the seminary experience no doubt enhances that feeling. He also mentioned prayer as something that also emboldens his faith, but admits that one of the most common misconceptions about seminarians is that they instantly have a fantastic prayer life.
“Don’t expect to enter into seminary and suddenly have an amazing prayer life,” he said. “It takes time. And in growing in prayer, you can’t compare yourself to others because it’s a process that is all about the individual. I appreciate prayer even more now and always make space for it in my daily life as it’s an important thing that needs to be developed in your life as an inspiring priest.”
Scripture and the saints
Scripture and the lives of the saints are another source of faith inspiration for Chris (above), highlighting, he feels, the diverse nature of Christ’s followers down throughout history and all over the world.
“Peter 1:5-9 has always been my go-to piece of scripture,” he said. “I love it because of the things it describes, we are those who choose to follow Christ, not because we have seen his wonders and works, but because we have this great faith that is more precious than gold—which exists through a trial of fire—and that is constantly challenged and tested, yet it remains within us.
“I also pray often to both Padre Pio and St Ambrose, both men for me are shining examples of handing over their entire trust to God. Padre Pio from his early youth was called to enter into a deeper relationship with God, often fasting for many weeks and being sustained by the Eucharist alone. St Ambrose for me shows the example that every sinner has a future and that for God all sin can be overcome if we cooperate with Him.
“I enjoy reading about the lives of saints that I find interesting as they often provide something that is not simply theology or spirituality, but a certain way of life and a way of seeing the world which most of us just simply miss.”
Sharing our faith with the world
While Chris’ experiences so far in Salamanca (above) and Rome have no doubt shaped his way of seeing the world and also his faith, when he mentioned that once ordained, he’d perhaps like to work with the sick in some capacity, it’s clear that family of faith formed in trips to Lourdes has had a long and lasting positive impact on him.
“I think I’d like to work in hospitals or with the disabled,” he said. “Part of my vocation came from a bi-annual trip to Lourdes with HCPT and working with the kids and adults that went with my group. It was great and something I look back on fondly. I say hospitals as in all my placements I’ve done thus far I’ve found nothing more moving than visiting the sick— especially in hospital—as there always just seems to be an atmosphere that is indescribable, and I could say nothing about it other than God is truly there for those people.”
This personal mission, so to speak, is symbolic of the term in a wider sense, something that Chris was aware of and spoke in depth about in the course of our conversation. He is cognisant of the need to reflect Christ’s mission while on earth in our own everyday lives, but also to support the work of the Pope’s official charity for overseas missions, Missio Scotland, in enabling priests and religious throughout the world who are providing excellent examples of witness in their work.
“Everything we do and say is our mission, to reflect that of Christ,” he said. “I think that in today’s ever more secularising world we need to do it now more than ever. We should do as the concluding prayers of Mass suggest: "Ite ad Evangelium Domini nuntiandum" (Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord) "Ite in pace, glorificando vita vestra Dominum" (Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life). The joy and hope that we experience in our daily lives as Christians can easily be shared with those around us. In a personal way then it’s how we share our faith with the world.
“If we look to the traditional examples of missionaries, we think of these men who went to somewhere that had no idea of who Jesus was and how important He was to the world and all the people in it. We can take these examples with us into the modern day and look at how we can go out into the world and share the Good News, not simply by standing on a street corner and spouting off passages, but by the way we act and how we treat others.”
“Having spent time with those involved with Missio Scotland and seeing what they do, I think it’s important and necessary work for those less fortunate,” he added. “And it’s a relatively easy way for people to get involved with missionary work. Something that may hold people back from missionary work is the time involved, crossing borders and reaching the places where people need help. Supporting Missio Scotland is one way in which people can participate and completely transform people’s lives who are thousands of miles away.
“One thing I love is the aid that they provide to foreign seminarians and religious. I myself know that it can be quite a costly thing and I absolutely love the fact that Missio Scotland is helping these men and women follow their vocation.”
Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/missioscotland, follow us on Twitter: @Missio_Scotland and Instagram: MissioScotland
To donate to Missio Scotland, you can visit the following page on this website: http://www.missioscotland.com/donate, you can e-mail: email@example.com or send donations to: Missio Scotland, St Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge ML5 3LJ