Arriving only a few minutes before mass was scheduled to begin, I pelted along the cloistered corridor towards the chapel. Entering the room, service sheet in hand, I was greeted by 60 expectant faces. Not only was I a visitor - very evident among members of a tight-knit community like this - but I was, and still am, a girl. And Catholic priests-in-training are boys.
I followed my companion to a seat, enduring a brief but awkward moment during his genuflect. These seats were no ordinary seats. They were a choir-stall-come-fold-down-chair affair, and I committed the ultimate visitor faux pas. I pulled the seat all too vigorously, it leapt out of my hand and collapsed downwards with an almighty bang. Not the great first impression I had hoped to give my new-found friends at St Mary's seminary.
Throughout the day I committed more and more heinous blunders: singing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong key; forgetting to turn my phone off during silent prayer; holding my rosary beads in an entirely incorrect fashion. But, thankfully, every one of the seminarians was extremely forgiving and welcoming. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was blown away by the young men that I met during the day.
Firstly - there was Gavin Landers. Gavin was a glazier before he felt the call to join the priesthood.
Secondly, there was Frankie Mulgrew. Son of Jimmy Cricket - that famous comedian from the 80s - Frankie followed his father into show business. But, even though requests from talent scouts came pouring in, Frankie felt that there was more that God wanted him to do.
Thirdly, there was Patrick Milner. The youngest of the three, Patrick is 22 years old. Patrick knew from an early age - when he was just 3 or 4 - that he wanted to join the priesthood. I chatted with Patrick about the radical calling placed on his life, and the state of the priesthood today.
On the train back to London, as I was reflecting on the events of the day, I couldn't help but feel convicted that we 'lay' Christians have a lot to learn from the priestly way of life. The life of a priest is one of discipline. Every day the seminarians wake up at 6:30, to make it down to the chapel for silent prayer at 7. This they will do each and every day for the seven years that they are in training, and potentially for the rest of their lives. The life of a priest is one of sacrifice. All freedoms - such as the freedom to go as and where you please, the freedom to get married, the freedom to plan out your life - must be surrendered. The life is one of obedience. One of the priests-in-training told me that despite their hopes to go to seminary in Rome, their bishop had sent them to Birmingham. When enquiring why, the bishop had simply replied: 'The priestly life can be one of disappointment.'
The call to become a priest is costly. What is so astounding is that each of these young guys has considered the cost (Luke 14:28–33). They are under no illusion that the life ahead will not be difficult. And yet they are willing, for Jesus Christ's sake, to pay the price of priesthood. And that is glorious.