The BBC Makes Something Both Useful and Interesting

The BBC has made something both useful and interesting, and has done so without any need to preach its social liberal view of the world. I refer, of course, to the documentary two years ago called “Priest School”. In particular, the episode on the Pontifical Scots College.

The college itself was established in 1600 as the main training facility for men who wish to enter the priesthood in Scotland. The establishment of the Pontifical Scots College far from the shores of Scotland in Italy became necessary since the Reformation in Scotland was fortunately more thorough than elsewhere. Almost the entirety of Roman Catholic assets became the property of the national Kirk and most Scots took great pride in the Kirk and their view that Scotland might be a “new Israel”. Few places came as close as Scotland to the complete extinguishment of the Roman Church.

The documentary simply follows a group of young Scottish men and tries to give a sense of their routines and life at study. It does not really dig deeply into their curricula – almost nothing of the seven year’s worth of material they cover got a mention – but devotes most of its time to reporting their comments and attitudes. It’s the sort of fare that consciously shies away from anything that a modern audience would regard as “too heavy”, which is to say, anything that involves more than five seconds of thought. Instead it prefers the “human angle”.

What makes it interesting to a Protestant, however, is some sense of how these men are trained and what they are being trained for.

Firstly, it was quite clear that all of the young men were trained to be nice. I don’t mean this facetiously. What psychologists call “agreeableness” was clearly a desirable quality of a priest at Scot’s College, and moreover had been given moral weight. Consequently, one could not imagine these young men being as outspoken as Christ or as Paul when they had to be. Rather they seemed to aim for an inoffensive, go-along-to-get-along methodology.

In fact, one of their trainers alluded to the fact that they had to be able to fit into the modern world and find angles of relevance for another generation. What he seemed to mean by this is that western priests had to be a new kind of Postmodern Priest, who will never be particularly firm or clear on the Roman Church’s moral teachings.

Secondly, all of the classes attended by the priests were in Italian. In other words, they needed to be bilingual to learn their priestcraft. Moreover, more than one student commented about how well they lived in Italy, with cooked meals, barbecues and alcohol, and a whole gamut of extras. The cost of training these priests is therefore no doubt exceptionally steep. Each of them would have an education that cost far more than most people who attend college.

This is an interesting demonstration of how Roman Catholic training organisations capture young men for life. They are whisked away from families and friends, housed in an institution where they can be “shaped” by the institution, and they finish with some grasp of the great cost and effort to which they are obligated.

Thirdly, whatever they learn in their seven years, expositional preaching is not one of them. One scene in the documentary featured young men having “preaching classes”, and if the samples were anything to go by, it seemed eerily reminiscent of the many Roman Catholic homilies I’ve endured over the years: some guy gets up with a half-baked 15 minute ramble that ties the Bible to a social justice issue, or gives a detailed discourse on a particular tradition (“Why do we have altar candles, children?” or “Why are we all wearing red today?”).

Priests are not trained to preach. It’s not what they are prepared for. They are prepared for the priestly administration of sacraments, often replete with arcane finger gestures or rituals.

Check out the documentary (if it is still there).