Reflections on St John’s Seminary - Wonersh
By Fr Thomas Lynch, Parish Priest of English Martyrs, Strood
Seven years ago - would it be too Adrian Mole to add “and a half”? - I left St. John’s. I walked around, touched the walls, walked the
corridors, said goodbye. This house had been the place where my soul was formed, where my mind and heart changed, where I was prepared for priesthood.
Since the news that Wonersh will cease to function as a place of priestly formation has broken, I have been thinking of how the building itself formed me, and gave me a little of its spirit, how the building itself is part of the priestly tradition of our diocese. Place matters, geography and architecture matter. The soul lives in the body, and the body lives in a place - and the place seeps into the soul.
I remember Fr Sean Finnegan talking about the architecture of Wonersh with its broad windows, unbroken corridors, the building stretches out to the visitor, rather than closing in around a cloister. The idea is communicated that everything is shared, everything seen; the staff and students work together and grow in holiness together, which was the formation ideal of Francis Bourne. As opposed to gothic niches, enclosed chapels, hidden corners and intrigue - I’m sure Oscott is lovely really! - St. John’s was open, shared and generous.
I think particularly of the Ambulacrum, the expanse of light, wooden floor, broad windows out to the trees and the cemetery. Where, bursting out of lectures, we could expand, talk again, and move. Where, emerging quietly out of the chapel, we could hold onto what we had received until we reached the refectory. The ambulacrum: at once both playground and cloister.
“In principio…” The prologue of John’s Gospel is written beautifully along the ambulacrum, but with a hint of anarchist graffiti, as if the incarnation of the Lord might be forgotten, as if St. John himself had passed and tagged his territory. As if he was looking forward to the future, maybe even our future.
This simple walkway, which was the first and last view of the interior we received, was both welcoming and unnerving, at first stretching out before us like the six years to come, and later ushering us out in a timely or untimely fashion.
In my day, the bedrooms were shabby, furniture piled on the Rileys corridor like a flea market: one day a bookcase disappeared to be replaced by a much coveted sofa – so did “brothers live in unity” (Ps 133:1). I found the “bring and buy” quality of Rileys quite endearing – it felt like inheriting a tradition. In fact, don’t we see in the life of the church a similar use of tradition? As our holy traditions are passed on, they might spend a little time in the corridor, but will always be put to use in time.
I think I was on sacristy duty for two years, which was painful in the winter when I padded down to lay out vestments or prep chalices. In Lent, the chapel bell was rung at 10pm for the Great Silence, an additional penance for the sacristan in the dark cold of the back sacristy; another penance came upon returning to the corridors to hear the Great Silence being broken.
But I loved the solitude of the sacristy – those few moments of absolute silence before Holy Mass began, and making some spiritual reading between ringing bells and lighting candles. Being the first to arrive and the last to leave the church was excellent preparation for priesthood. In my own parish church, the grace of the solitary moments I spend with the Lord while at work were learnt in the cold, dark sacristy at St. John’s at around 6:45 on frosty January mornings.
The Sacred Heart chapel at St. John’s was a place of particular holiness with its side chapels holding the relics of the saints, the heart of Cardinal Bourne, and, under the centre aisle, the body of Bishop Butt. And, of course, the arc over the altar with another graffito from St. John: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16)
I can’t even imagine the movements of the soul that have happened in that chapel – but we know that every fear and anxiety have been faced in that place, every aspect of love rejoiced in, every type of burning anger and painful forgiveness dragged from the depth of the soul – each of these have been lived in that chapel. Each response of the human heart to God has seeped into the bricks, varnished the wooden stalls, polished the marble, and sanctified even the dust. “For her stones are dear to your servants; her very dust moves them to pity.” (Ps. 102)
When I think of the chapel, I think of silence, of the particular quality of silence which comes from concentration, mutual respect and expectation. I loved the Thursday evening adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I loved the retreats and desert days.
During the recent lockdown, I was often asked how I was: was I lonely without family? even more isolated than before? I always answered (to the disappointment of my questioner) that I was really well, and lockdown is almost what our training was for. Solitude, silence, a life lived with Jesus – these were learnt in the chapel and taken around the seminary like a lantern, and remain a light for me now.
But suffusing all places, present in every corner, heard on every step and echoing down every corridor was the friendship and generosity and idealism of the students. I was at an ordination this summer and, as I thought about my own formation and seminary life, I was filled with an affection for that time.
It’s very easy to talk about how “oppressive”, “regimented” and “scrutinised” our time at seminary may be (or not be), but never are so many people gathered in the same place, at the same time, desiring the same thing. From this intensity comes fervour and friendship. And I thank God for the good friends I made at the seminary, and the grace of continuing those friendships.
Idealism is often ignored or mocked. “Get down from the clouds”, “Get into the real world”, “You’ve got to have your feet on the ground.” Yes, but holy idealism gives the soul something to grow toward, something against which you can hold yourself to account. An ideal also gives a community something to grow toward together, and a basis for friendship. I thank God for the ideals given me at Wonersh.
My hope is that many more seminarians get to experience the joys I experienced at seminary, and that the particular traditions of St. John’s may be continued. That spolia from St. John’s might be repurposed and grafted into another building, and another seminary – that an open and joyful priesthood may give glory to the open and joyful heart of Jesus.