St. Mary’s in London: Pocket of Catholicism in an Increasingly Faithless Land

Vice Chancellor Francis Campbell, formerly Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, is committed to establishing the university as a major part of Catholic life in Britain.

(photo: St. Mary's University, Twickenham Facebook)

LONDON — St. Mary’s University at Twickenham, on the outskirts of London, grew out of a teacher-training college established by the Vincentians in the 1870s. It seeks to be a Catholic university, open to all, and with a Catholic ethos. In its entrance hall, a picture of Pope Francis is flanked by one of Her Majesty the Queen and one of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster.

As a university, this is a new venture. Most of the students are not Catholic, and they are there to study sports management, business, law, media, tourism or theater, to name just some of the courses available. They enjoy beautiful grounds, modern library facilities and a sense of community, all within a Catholic ethos — but probably few identify strongly with the large chapel that dominates the main frontage or the chaplaincy that stands in the forecourt.

However, the university still trains good numbers of teachers for Catholic schools. There is daily Mass and a thriving residential Benedict XVI House in which a small group of Catholic students live in community, sharing the Daily Office and a common life. And the influence of Benedict XVI — it was during his pontificate that full university status was sought and established — can be felt at many levels.

And it is much needed. A recent survey conducted in May by St. Mary’s University showed that, for the first time in recorded history, there are more nonbelievers than Christians in Britain.

Pope Benedict visited here on his state visit to Britain in 2010, meeting thousands of children from Catholic schools, and the university is proud of this link. A recently opened Benedict XVI Center organizes conferences and seminars on Catholic social teaching.

Vice Chancellor Francis Campbell was formerly Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See and is committed to establishing St. Mary’s as a major part of Catholic life in Britain. He points to its rich heritage: Catholics teachers have been trained here for more than 150 years, and each year a fresh batch of them graduate to take up posts in schools. The theology department attracts many priests and deacons for post-graduate degrees. It is strong on ressourcement theology, emphasising the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, influenced by the work of Joseph Ratzinger.

Campbell sees great opportunities for Catholics in Britain today. “During Benedict XVI’s state visit, a highlight was at Westminster, where he addressed members of Parliament and representatives of a great range of groups in British society,” he told the Register. “All four of the prime ministers then living were present. He was given widespread media coverage — and all of this in a country that is less than 10% Catholic.”

In this situation, he says, a Catholic university has a profoundly important message to offer: “We have a public status, not a private one. We are there to engage, to speak to contemporary society, which is open to faith. John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University has its message for us. This is a vital task.”

“Pope Benedict addressed the central issue: our duty to God and to Caesar,” Campbell added. “Over time, the Church has reflected on the experience of Catholics living in countries where there is authentic religious freedom. Look at Britain: generous public funding for the Church’s social and educational work and freedom for the Church to prosper. It is significant that in Britain and other countries of the [British] Commonwealth, once freedom for the Church had been obtained, there was no need for a concordat [a convention between the Holy See and a state]. The Church has been able to prosper under the laws that protect human dignity and the common good. The Church seeks no special status — just the freedom to flourish.”

Campbell believes that the Petrine Office, “with its immense staying power,” is able to speak to everyone in a convincing way, across the changing political situations of the centuries.

“The two most recent European popes — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — both saw the state consume society. In a sense, they saw the Church as having a message of freedom, of being a sign of contradiction. They offer a model that works: The Church doesn’t expect special protected status, but also doesn’t agree that any discrimination against Christians is acceptable.”

He sees that a strong and vibrant Church is essential: one in which Catholics understand what it means to take up responsibilities in society. After the speech in Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict XVI paused briefly at the plaque marking the spot where St. Thomas More stood for his trial 400 years earlier. He had spoken movingly of More during his speech, referring to the saint’s statement that he was “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Francis Campbell sees this as a strong message for the way that Catholics in today’s Britain should face their task.

Campbell’s style is open and friendly: Students greet him as he goes about, and the atmosphere of the campus is cheerful and welcoming. The large, modern refectory is a hub where students meet and where there is lively chatter at mealtimes, while beyond are wide green lawns, some fine 19th-century buildings with lecture halls and administrative offices and a range of modern campus accommodations. To one side stands the original Strawberry Hill House, a Gothic folly built by Horace Walpole in the 18th century that is now in the care of English Heritage, with the university having access for formal events and celebrations.

It’s a curious mixture, perhaps reflecting the unusual history of the Catholic Church in England. The ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge were built by Catholic hands in a different era. St. Mary’s is emerging in the early years of the 21st century, centered on the same faith and confident in the ability of that faith to engage hearts and minds with powerful effect. The challenge is to present the faith in a way that ensures that non-Catholic — indeed, post-Christian — young people who arrive to study will encounter it as life-changing and crucial, presenting a vision for life that makes sense of the challenges they face in the years ahead.

Outside of term time, the university’s attractive buildings are available for other uses, and the popular Catholic charismatic gathering “Celebrate” will be there this summer, with Eucharistic adoration, teaching sessions, youth activities and outdoor Masses and processions. The university also hosts a variety of other Catholic events, notably a recent popular conference on the theology of the body, which attracted many young teachers and parish catechists.

“The Church is not there to ride out the contemporary tide, but, in an important sense, to be a sign of contradiction, to be prophetic,” said Campbell, who believes that the need is crucial at a time of rapid change in Britain.

“The Church is a voice for reason, for respect for the other, for authentic freedom. And it is a voice which speaks strongly to contemporary society, with its sense of seeking, its openness to faith.”


Joanna Bogle writes from London.