The Ongoing Witness of UK University Chaplains

Three Catholic priests reflect on life at today’s British universities.

Dominican Father Samuel Burke serves as a college chaplain at the University of Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy in Scotland.
Dominican Father Samuel Burke serves as a college chaplain at the University of Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy in Scotland. (photo: By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland - University of Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons; CSU Edinburgh (Catholic Students' Union) Facebook , used with permission)

LONDON — On Aug. 25, England’s Nottingham University refused to “recognize” a Catholic priest, Father David Palmer, as university chaplain. The reason given: the way in which Father Palmer had expressed Church views on abortion and assisted suicide. 

In the ensuing dispute between the university and the local Catholic diocese, the United Kingdom’s Free Speech Union (FSU) wrote to the university authorities in support of Father Palmer. The FSU pointed out that the university had had a Catholic chaplain for 90 years without any difficulty and that the views Father Palmer had expressed were those of the Catholic Church. 

The FSU went on to point out that, in withholding recognition of Father Palmer, the university could be contravening the 2010 Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on religious grounds, as well as “creating a hostile environment” for Catholic students and staff at Nottingham University. 

After further negotiations, the university relented so that now, for the new academic year, Father Palmer has been allowed to minister to Catholic students. 

The incident comes at a time when some Catholic students have found themselves marginalized by college authorities. Again at Nottingham University, in 2020, a Catholic student, Julia Rynkiewicz was blocked from entering her degree program’s hospital placement phase when the university learned of her leadership of a pro-life student group. She later received an apology and a financial payment from the university. 

The current British government is alarmed about attempts to stifle free speech at Britain’s universities — so much so that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was introduced into the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament in May by then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. If passed into law, this could mean that universities will be fined if they fail to protect freedom of speech for students, staff, and visiting speakers.

So as a new academic year starts for British universities, what is it like to be a Catholic chaplain in the current climate? 

The Register spoke to three Catholic priests who are involved in ministry with university students: Father Joseph Evans in Manchester, England; Father Matthew Roche-Saunders in Aberystwyth, Wales; and Dominican Father Samuel Burke in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Reflecting on the recent dispute in Nottingham, Father Evans comments, “I would not describe the atmosphere on British university campuses as being, in general, hostile to Catholicism. At least, it’s not consciously, positively, so. We Catholics have to be careful not to exaggerate and so fall into a persecution complex. This is Britain not Afghanistan!”

“Yes, as our country loses its Christian moorings, one finds Christianity being ever more marginalized and traditional Christian morality being contested,” he adds. “But universities are fundamentally reasonable places — still, I think — where ideas can be discussed. Catholic views can still be expressed, but, yes, we need to do so carefully and tactfully.”

British universities, with their students and staff, reflect the wider society that has shaped them and to which they belong. Father Roche-Saunders is keenly aware of this. Therefore, he views the university campus as “a microcosm of the secular understanding of the Church’s mission,” a microcosm that is both “positive” and “negative.” 

But he adds that the university campus is also “a remarkably accurate place [in which] to experience the questions that matter to young people at the moment. Though their answers to those questions may be different from ours, interaction between the Church and ‘the campus’ enables us to ask ourselves the questions that young people are asking and to continue to be a voice in the minds and hearts of young people who may otherwise live happily without ever engaging with the Church’s mission. Being present on campus is a continual call to the Church to step out of our comfort zones and encounter people in the reality of life.” 

The very fact that chaplaincies exist and prove popular with staff and students remains a source of hope. And, as a consequence, Father Burke views the very presence of a Catholic chaplaincy as “an invitation.” 

“Here, in Edinburgh, we [the chaplaincy] are a substantial building right in the heart of the university, on George Square, across from the library. You really can’t miss us; the invitation is visible!” He notes that “people are free to reject or embrace that invitation. Thankfully, a good number do the latter. Such hostility as there might be arises, I think, mostly from misunderstanding. … Sometimes I feel like writing on the door of the chaplaincy in big letters, ‘Sinners especially welcome!’” 

In 21st-century Britain, a decidedly secular land, how do today’s chaplains perceive their day-to-day ministry with students? 

Father Roche-Saunders perceives his ministry as a call to be a visible Christian presence. 

“I understand my day-to-day ministry as being visibly present on campus, in the town and in the parish church,” he says, “so that chaplaincy is not only the significant conversations that happen when someone is going through a tough time, but that it’s also the incidental conversations that happen in a shop checkout or a street corner where the life of faith becomes a question of everyday life and is not reserved only for moments of great need.” 

While accepting that his role of proclaiming the Gospel will involve questioning accepted norms in the wider society, Father Roche-Saunders does not see that it is “the job of the chaplain to win every argument or to convert every soul.” That, he explains,  “is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we pray his grace will be abundant in our places of work.” 

The work of the chaplain, he stressed, is to be “a constant reminder to the students and staff with whom we work that there is more to life — simply by our love, our presence and our friendship. I think this is massive.”

Whereas for some observers today’s young people may appear uninterested in matters of faith, this is not the case with Father Burke, who thinks, “Above all, students are searching for truth.” 

He says, “They long for meaning in a modern world full of pretenders and ersatz alternatives. Scientific method takes you only so far; lots of partying leaves you with a hangover; and Netflix — that great time consumer — soon becomes unappealing. There’s so much more to life than this paltry offering!” 

It is, he goes on, “the challenge and the privilege of a chaplain to university students to show them Christ: to deepen the devotion of practicing Catholics; to reengage the lapsed by providing stimulating formation and challenging them to moral heroism; and to live and to encourage students to live lives that beg the interest of non-Catholics and then to be instruments in God’s calling of all people to himself.”  

While Britain is secular, seemingly with little time for religion, the university campus feels even more remote still from faith-based matters. 

“While I don't think there is any persecution of Catholics on U.K. campuses, yet it is still very hard for a young Catholic to live his or her faith,” points out Father Evans. 

He senses that “the general atmosphere is against” that faith, not least to the many enticements to immoral living in its various forms. Religious faith, he senses, is seen as “a bit odd, or at best something totally private and which shouldn’t affect how you live. … Young Catholics face a lot of pressure, so it’s really important that they have a space where they can express their faith freely and joyfully. They need somewhere to breathe God. Hence, good liturgy and solid Catholic formation are really important.” 

His view of the “essential” ministry of a Catholic university chaplain is “to support Catholic students in the living out of their faith.” 

Father Evans’ pastoral experience suggests that this entails being available to listen, encourage and support students. 

“A chaplaincy should aim to be as Catholic as the Church: It’s really great that there are many charisms, activities and forms of Catholic life in a chaplaincy, united in essential Church teaching. It would be very sad if there were only one form of Catholic life in any chaplaincy.” With that in mind, he feels that when chaplaincies become “cliques,” where students escape from ordinary student life, then they have failed. 

“Chaplaincies mustn’t become a refuge for the inadequate. Chaplains should encourage their students to be fully engaged in all the aspects of university life they reasonably can and to be exemplary students interested in their particular field of study.”