Better Beda Than Never

Marketing television shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Simpsons” is not the kind of activity you would expect to see listed on the curriculum vitae of your local priest.

But both those shows are in the background of Robert O'Callaghan, who, God willing, will be ordained a priest in the diocese of Nottingham, England, in three years. Like all his fellow students at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, O'Callaghan was called late to his vocation.

Founded in 1852 by Pope Pius IX and more commonly known simply as the Beda, the college has ever since devoted itself to training men who come late to the priesthood. Located in suburban Rome, in the shadow of the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls, its original purpose was to train convert clergymen from the Anglican Church, a tradition that continues to the present day.

But nowadays, the college, which enrolled 15 new students this academic year, also trains older men from other walks of life, including widowed fathers and students from around the world.

“It's quite fascinating, the amazing variety and richness of background and experience that so many of the men have brought with them,” says Jim Mulligan, a final-year ordinand with an interesting history. He was a miner in the Yukon Valley in Canada, a teacher in inner-city London schools, and a sheet-metal worker in New Zealand.

Other students include a former barrister, a South African soldier, a professional musician, a research chemist and the former headmaster of one of the most successful secondary schools in Britain. Before earning a good living in London as a marketing manager for the media corporation 20th Century Fox, Robert O'Callaghan used to repair watches at Sekonda.

All the Beda's students have had their own unique paths to the ordained ministry. Mulligan responded to his calling at 50 while sitting on the top deck of a London bus near the Archway Bridge.

“It came over me like a Joycean epiphany that this is what I must try to do,” he remembers. He says there then followed a “long period of private discernment” before he “took the plunge” and wrote to the vocations director in the Archdiocese of Westminster.

A Bishop's Bequest

O'Callaghan's story is particularly special: At 36 he is already a widow, his wife having died from meningitis in 2000, just a year after they were married.

“Of course, my faith took a nosedive,” he recalls, “but once I recovered from the bereavement I went on many retreats to re-find my faith.” A short time later, he received a calling to the priesthood.

“In some ways I feel a bit like a convert,” he explains, “leaving my faith and coming back, but through the actual form of bereavement.”

Each student at the Beda is referred to the college by his local bishop. Some have been sent straight there, others have spent a foundation year or so at another college. But, unlike their younger counterparts, they will then embark on a four-year course instead of the usual six, attending in-house lectures as part of an integrated formation program.

The college is particularly distinctive for its openness to other cultures — a tradition that harks back to the days of the British Empire but has since continued, often because of an absence of such colleges in students’ home countries. In Africa, for example, anyone over the age of 25 will usually not be admitted to a conventional seminary because younger students will defer to them as elders rather than equals.

As a young man, Kenyan student Michael Babugichuru trained at his seminary in his home diocese of Malindi, but left before completing his studies. Seventeen years later, and after a 10-year stint studying and working in Greece, he believes the decision to leave was a mistake.

“Every time I seriously tried to get settled, get married, raise a family, the thought of priesthood would come up,” he explains. So now, at 40 years of age and after much searching, he is delighted to be able to try again for the priesthood, this time at Beda College.

“After I had made that decision,” he adds, “I felt relieved — like tons of weight were lifted off my back.”

The Beda also occasionally trains students from countries where Christians are persecuted. One student from China called Paul (not his real name) studied for six years in his home country, only to see his bishop arrested and not replaced. He fled to the United States. After completing one year of studies at the Beda, he will return to his parish in Hawaii. (House arrest awaits him if he returns to China.)

“It's difficult,” he says. “You can't imagine it. In my seminary life, we kept running from one place to another. We couldn't stay in one place more than six months. We had to keep moving.”

For college rector Msgr. Roderick Strange, the widely diverse backgrounds and advanced ages of the students are a plus.

“There is an expectation when they come to us that they are mature human beings,” he says. “Certainly that's the way I would like them to be treated.”

As head of the college for the past eight years, Msgr. Strange says most students see their time at the Beda as one of discernment, albeit a relatively short one, in which they are open to explore the possibility of priesthood.

“The majority come with that sense of awe of what they're doing, saying, ‘Gosh, I really should have done this years and years ago, and I really didn't feel it could possibly be me.’” They have that “good sense of being open to formation,” he adds.

No Small Sacrifice

Meanwhile he is wary of a small minority who can have an “absolute certainty” about becoming a priest — which, to him, often indicates a flight from other responsibilities, a certain kind of immaturity or a search for security within the Church.

“Sometimes they say to me, ‘But I've sold my home, I've given up my job for this; you have to ordain me,’” he adds. “It doesn't work that way. You can't buy yourself into priesthood.”

Most students agree that leaving behind entrenched attachments to a secular way of life is no small sacrifice.

“To detach myself from some of life's trappings and values to concentrate on serving others, serving the Lord, was quite a painful transition at first,” says O'Callaghan. “At one moment you're in charge of people, you make decisions, you're in charge of accounts worth two or three million pounds — and then you're turned around and being formed.”

So far, like so many students at the Beda past and present, he has no regrets.

Edwin Pentin writes from Rome.