Catholics Review: Holey Confession

CATHOLICS – PRIESTS: Thursday 23 February, 9pm, BBC4

Jabbing his holy finger at a sleek-looking camcorder perched precariously atop a tripod, an elderly priest asks whether his video recordings can be downloaded onto a Mac. Elsewhere in Allen Hall, one of England’s only three remaining Roman Catholic seminaries, a fledgling father is preparing to “tune in and drop outâ€? with the aid of his laptop and a hefty pair of headphones.

Award-winning filmmaker, Richard Alwyn, certainly challenged our preconceptions of fusty, troglodytic bible-bashers but the first in this three part series missed a great opportunity to explore the recent scandals from within the church. If we were being cynical, we might even say the Beeb had sanctioned this rather run-of the-mill doc in a bid to portray Catholic priests in a more favourable light. It’s not that they don’t deserve a chance to present themselves in a more balanced way, but it could have been done with more imagination.

There are 45 aspiring men of the cloth currently residing at Allen Hall, one of England’s only three remaining Roman Catholic seminaries, all of whom are different stages of their six year journey towards ordination. Their “courseâ€? entails two years of in-house education (Biblical Greek, Beginner’s Latin etc), one year of placement in a parish and a further three years of a theology degree at Heythrop College in London. After all that they are officially God’s representatives on earth and are free to ascend the ranks, gradually acquiring more religious bling as they go.

Filming the men in a variety of scenarios from the depths of a classroom debate about celibacy to a chatabout the perks of final year en-suite accommodation, the documentary provided an insight into the daily lives of these trainee priests. Whilst it did hint at the “devastating scandalsâ€? that have hit the Catholic brotherhood in recent years, exploration of the issue involved little more than an account of the screening procedure for candidates. The majority of interviewees, though endearing, might as well have been speaking straight from their “How To Be A Priest: Saying All The Right Thingsâ€? manual. There was a disappointing lack of discussion about how the trainees or their seniors view the scandal and its impact upon them personally, opting instead for an arm’s length voice-over acknowledgement of the headlines.

New recruit Robert Hunt (former adulterous rock band roadie) was the most willing to provide an honest perspective on his new life speaking frankly about the need for comic relief in the shape of numerous DVD box sets. The baseball cap-wearing, music–lover also invited the cameras along to his regular Monday morning punishment session which involved singing in Latin. But with no mention of what his “rule-breaking” entailed, viewers were yet again deprived of an honest look at the more sinister side of the church’s amenable face.

Despite its shortcomings, Alwyn did not fail to see the amusing banality of life in the holy seminary and used it to great humanising effect; from shots of the friendly “Sacristy Dutiesâ€? noticeboard to the champagne-fuelled BBQ for end of term celebrations. In defense of Catholics (the programme), sits the argument that this next generation of fathers have not really had a chance to defend their blighted collective character. The church is not likely to have welcomed this fly-on-the wall intrusion lightly or without due cause – and that is one thing they certainly have.