FATHER PHILIP CUNNAH, who is now is priest secretary to the Bishop of Middlesbrough, on the questions his year in Spain helped to answer…
Valladolid is undeniably a place of great importance for the Church in the UK, but it is perhaps true that until experienced, this is often not appreciated.
Established in the 16th century in the heart of north-west Spain, St Alban’s Royal and Pontifical College might feel a long way from 21st century England.
Yet it is here that men are sent for the first year of seminary formation. It’s understandable that those who are sent may have questions about going to St Alban’s to study for the priesthood, but I would suggest that few leave that year without their questions being answered.
In fact, they gain a real appreciation for the importance of the college and the value of men being sent there to prepare for ministry. So, as a priest, what do I value from my experience of Valladolid when I studied there from 2008-9?
What struck me most in Spain were the cultural differences from England. From the first moments in the airport trying to figure out the Spanish language to the feeling of unease walking around during the afternoon siesta when Valladolid feels like a ghost town, I knew this was something I was going to have to work at to acclimatise to.
As I did so I found myself enriched. The cultural life I experienced in Spain was based on family, faith and learning to pace yourself. Semana Santa alone was a good experience of this, one that I will always cherish. These struck me as good principles for any life, but definitely for parish life. In addition, Spain’s patrimony of Catholic spirituality and architecture fed my own faith, inspiring me to go deeper.
In my life as a priest today, I’m always having to acclimatise to a new culture as I move between parishes. Sometimes it’s a challenge to find the best in that culture and sometimes it’s a challenge to change that culture.
The Propadeutic year helped me to develop skills for building a culture of family, faith and pacing myself in the parish, but I could not have done that without the community around me.
Unlike most seminaries, Valladolid does not have an established student community. Instead, the onus is on that year’s group of strangers to get on and create that community from the off.
Eighteen men joined in my year and I had great fun and companionship with them. We played a lot of sport, travelled around Spain and enjoyed the occasional glass of tinto. There were lots of laughs, even some tears. That experience of community has been invaluable for me as a priest.
For in those community interactions I learnt a lot about myself, either when others pointed something out or perhaps when reflecting alone. This has been really helpful for processing the many interactions of parish life and preparing myself to enter new or difficult situations. In priesthood too, it is in friendships with those who know you best that I find support and encouragement for a life that can be very solitary. Valladolid has made me very conscious of reaching out to other priests to encourage these friendships. Finally, I recall the quality of pastoral reflection as one of the most formative aspects of the Propadeutic year.
In January, we were sent to a broad spectrum of different environments for our pastoral work. These included a US parish, full-time hospital work, parishes in rich areas and parishes in poorer areas. When we returned to the College in February, each person brought back with them these new experiences. We reflected on each, and learned from them together, taking time to absorb these experiences and see their significance.
Priesthood has always felt like an ongoing process of this kind. Whether it’s a tough visit to the hospital or trying to find new ways to engage First Holy Communion parents, there is an ever-present process of prayer and reflection that was formed in Valladolid.
I can honestly say I had my reservations when I knew I was being sent to Valladolid. I wondered about the value of increasing a long process of formation by another year and I’m still not sure what the word “Propaedeutic” means.
However, I feel immensely grateful to have experienced St Alban’s College and to have entered that part of the history of English Catholicism. It gave me space and time to reflect more deeply on the work of priesthood and on my own calling. Without my experience of that 16th-century College in Spain, I might not have formed many of those personal skills needed for priesthood in 21st century UK.