Interview: A Sense of Vigour and Hope
Joanna Bogle talks to Francis Campbell, vice-chancellor at St Mary’s University in Twickenham.
Wide green lawns, a large central chapel, hordes of young people hurrying down the corridors, a library with people silent at computers, a chattering refectory . . . and Francis Campbell walking with a greeting for everyone and an easy style as he collects a cup of coffee and settles for a chat.
Britain’s former ambassador to the Holy See now seems very much in his element in his new role as vice chancellor of St Mary’s University at Twickenham on the banks of the Thames. The University has recently opened a Benedict XVI Centre specialising in Catholic social teaching, and is proud of its particular links with Pope Emeritus Benedict, who addressed a vast crowd of children gathered there from schools across Britain on his State Visit in 2010.
Francis Campbell sees Benedict XVI’s message – especially as delivered to a gathering of MPs and leaders of civic society in Westminster Hall, a highlight of the State Visit – as central for today’s Catholics, striving to make a positive contribution to national and community life in the 21st century.
"He emphasised the real role of the Church – not seeking a protected status within an official structure, but operating in true freedom, offering an authentic message. There is a distinction between the State and society. At Westminster Hall you had Cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, all the then-living Prime Ministers, and this great spread of people representing groups and organisations, and they were all there to listen to the Pope. And all this in a country which is less than ten per cent Catholic."
What is needed, he believes, is a sense of vigour and hope within the Catholic community – Catholics who are well-formed in their faith and with a strong recognition of the contribution they can make to the wider society. The British constitutional position allows for healthy checks and balances which ensure true pluralism in which the Church can flourish.
St Mary’s has a strong tradition behind it – founded in the 19th century by the Vincentian Fathers as a Catholic teacher-training college, in the past decade it has become first a College offering courses in a range of subjects, and now a fully-fledged University. Top-quality sports facilities, two large libraries bristling with everything in the latest computer technology, and links with overseas projects and travel opportunities are all part of the scene.
There is a Catholic chaplaincy and daily Mass, and a house – named in honour of Benedict XVI – where students can live for a year in community sharing daily prayer and forming a core of faith commitment. Most of the University’s students, however, are not Catholic, and when studying theatre, sports, media, business, physics, English, psychology, or one of the other degree courses on offer, may or may not feel any sense of link to the Church.
"But the Church can still speak to everyone. The office of the Papacy – with its immense staying power – has a message for every generation. And there is a sense too of the sheer historical sense of it all – the links going back back, linking to the Greek and so on...a reminder to everyone of the central place of religion in society.
"And this in turn sends a message about optimal respect for the ‘other’, and for the search for truth."
Francis Campbell makes his own commitment to the Church clear, whether it is in his presence at Mass or in his talks and lectures. He also emphasises a sense of continuity, and seeks to ensure that St Mary’s offers a connection with the Church’s great tradition of education and culture. He is keen to emphasise that the Church must often be a "sign of contradiction", challenging ideas and offering a rational debate that opens up fresh thinking in a secularised culture.
St Mary’s, following the tradition established a century and a half ago, still trains large numbers of teachers for Catholic schools. Today’s students looking ahead to their careers in the classroom are aware that the Church teaches much that seems baffling to non-believers.
The Editor of Faith led some of St Mary’s young theology students on a Catholic History Walk around London and found them to be a lively, committed and enthusiastic group, many of whom were planning to be at World Youth Day in Poland and had already made pilgrimages to Lourdes working with the sick, or were active with various Catholic movements.
"What we have to affirm is an understanding of the relationship between faith and reason – that was one of the things that Benedict XVI came to teach us" Francis Campbell affirms "We need to understand about the importance of freedom, or being open to difference – and knowing what it means to offer the Faith in that context.
"The Catholic Church speaks to contemporary society in a very open way. We have a responsibility to engage, and great opportunities."