A Roman Exchange

Sion Hughes Carew recently spent Michaelmas Term on exchange with The Venerable English College in Rome. He offers a light-hearted and heart-warming reflection on his time in the Eternal City.

My arrival in Rome was not entirely propitious. I discovered, upon emerging from the terminal into the baking Roman late-summer noontide, that the promised lift to the College had not materialised. The staff member with whom I had liaised about my arrival had not furnished me with a contact number, merely informing me that ‘someone’ would be there to meet me and another first-year student off the same plane. ‘Someone’ having not arrived after half an hour, I began scrutinising my fellow arrivals in an attempt to identify the other student. My eye fell on a likely-looking lad chaperoning two large suitcases. “Are you by any chance heading to the English College?”, I asked. “You can always tell a fellow seminarian”, came the cheery rejoinder. “Ha!”, I said, blushing the same colour as my trousers, before reciting the response that was to become mantra, excuse, apology and cause for much ribbing during the following four months: “I’m the Church of England exchange student.” Tumbling into a taxi and out of the heat, our journey into the heart of Rome was accompanied by much hilarity and excited conversation.

The Venerable English College, or ‘the VEC’, as it is universally known, was founded as a seminary in 1579, and is currently the home to some 26 men in full-time formation for the Catholic priesthood. They hail largely from English dioceses, but also include a Welshman; a Dane; a half-Swedish, half-Brazilian Finn; two Canadians; two Irishmen, and five Norwegians. In addition to the seminarians there are also six student priests (adding to the cosmopolitan flavour by including two Maltese) who, having completed their ministerial formation, are now at work on further specialist postgraduate studies in the form of ‘licences’, in areas such as the spirituality of St John of the Cross, the psychology of family counselling, and the rich arcana of Catholic liturgies.

On the noticeboard in the Common Room is a sheet which lists all the seminarians and student priests, grouped and colour-coded according to year in formation, academic pathway, and status. I was touched to observe that I was in a category all of my own – ‘Anglican Exchange’ – and my colour, fittingly, was martyrs’ red. Also resident at the VEC, and tasked with the students’ formation, are the five formation staff. These comprise the Rector and Vice-Rector, as well as the Academic, Pastoral and Spiritual Directors, all of whom the students meet with regularly, and with whom I spent many fascinating hours. The majority of the seminarians are under 30 and, while most have been to university beforehand, some have entered the College straight after completing their A-Levels. The result is a lively, gregarious and vivacious community, where jokes, gibes, barbs and capers are rife, the corridors ringing frequently with raucous laughter.

It was Fr Rector’s desire that I behave and be treated no differently to the other students during my time at the VEC, in order to have as fully authentic an experience of Catholic formation as possible. As such I counted, to all intents and purposes, as a supernumerary seminarian, rather than an ecumenical guest.

Alongside the other ‘New Men’ (thus are the freshers at the College termed), I had Italian classes every day. I attended classes at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (known invariably as ‘the Ange’), including ecclesiology, pastoral theology, canon law, ‘faith, hope and charity’ taught by the Papal Theologian, and – my favourites – Mariology and spiritual theology.

I took part in the ‘New Man Show’, the annual ‘talent’ performance put on by the freshers to amuse, entertain and occasionally scandalise the remainder of the student body and staff. (For my act, I donned Church of England clerical choir dress and recited (no singing allowed, mercifully) a version of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which I had rewritten in reference to the Church of England in all her breadth.)

I was also given a house job, which entailed spending two hours a week cutting out articles relevant to the College, or English Catholicism more generally, from The Tablet, the Catholic Herald, and L’Osservatore Romano and pasting these into massive scrapbooks, dating back over a century. It was through this entirely enjoyable occupation that I came into regular contact with the College’s Archivist, who was kind enough to show me a number of the treasures lurking in the archives, some from before the existence of the College, when the buildings had housed the English Hospice, a hostel for English pilgrims to Rome, founded in 1362. If the scrapbooks for the period of my tenure contain rather more articles relating to ecumenism, the ministry of women, and LGBT+ issues than before or since, I make no apology. I merely hope and trust that they will serve as a reminder of the spirit of ecumenism and bonds of fraternal affection I experienced during my time on placement at the College.

There is not sufficient time nor space for me to go into detail concerning my time at the VEC; mainly because I’ve used it up. But insomma, the experience was one of the most formational and transformational of my life to date.

Never have I felt more individually and personally welcome, and yet simultaneously so fundamentally excluded: kneeling in the College church at Mass every day over those four months while the entire community filed past me to receive Communion certainly helped focus my prayers. I made friendships during my time in Rome as strong as some of those I have enjoyed for many years which, equally, taught me a huge amount about similarity and difference, acceptance, aspiration and, most of all, Christian love.

And yet amidst this raging, seductive, siren-studded sea of Catholicism, I am supremely grateful for the quiet, faithful witness of both the Anglican Centre in Rome, presided over by Archbishop Ian Ernest – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Personal Representative to the Holy See – and his wife Kamla, where I was able to receive Communion once a week; and the Anglican church of All Saints where Fr Rob Warren, his wife Caireen and their team of ‘Young Adults’ provided a home away from Rome, and the space for a great many developmental conversations and encounters. I owe them all a very great deal – more than I or they shall probably ever know.

I should like to leave you with a handful of mental snapshots, which I hope might capture something of my experience:

Walking around the Sistine Chapel and being completely aware of its function as a place of worship, whispering to my companion, as we shared the experience with barely a dozen other people one weekday afternoon.

Many nights of singing around the piano at the College’s villa, ‘Palazzola’, on the slopes above Lake Albano just outside Rome. The lights of Castel Gandolfo twinkling across the Lake, as strains of Irish folk songs, Latin Mass settings and Matt Redman (transformed beyond all recognition) drifted out on the still autumn air.

Light from a high window playing across the gilded reredos of the thirteenth-century villa church during a service of exposition while I wrestled with a problematic question, slowly lighting up each saint in turn, until perfectly framing the image of Christ crucified in answer to my petitions.

Tears, as the stage lights blinded us after our ‘New Man Show’ performance and the community sang Ad multos annos in perfect harmony.

Tears, one sweltering afternoon in the chapel at the Anglican Centre during Communion, when I realised that I knew the words to the Prayer of Humble Access by heart.

Tears, on the flight home, the Alps gleaming, returning to an unfamiliar country and a future burst wide open.

Sion Hughes Carew

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