A Discussion with a Catholic Chaplain at Trinity College in Dublin
June 12, 2019
As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June of 2019 undergraduate student Mackenzie Price interviewed a Catholic chaplain at Trinity College in Dublin. In this interview, this chaplain discusses his role as chaplain on campus, the Laurentian Society, and secularism at Trinity.
How did you get into the chaplaincy at Trinity?
I came here four years ago… This vacancy became available, and my provincial, which would be my direct superior in a sense because I’m a Dominican, so he’s my religious superior.
So in the general—in the Catholic Church, not necessarily at Trinity.
Not in Trinity, no. Yeah. So he asked me if I’d be interested, and I said I would because I was traveling up and down to Kilkenny, which was an hour and three quarters. It’s not a lot, but it was fine. And I was only in Kilkenny temporarily anyway. And then he put my name forward to the archbishop, which is the person who nominates the chaplains (the Catholic chaplains), so he nominates me to the board of the college, and then the church accepted, and then I began on September 1, 2015, here.
What made you interested in the position? Was it more of the Dominican saying "Do this", or "This is open...yeah, sure!"?
I like working with young people when I’m not studying… I kind of tend towards extreme academic work and work youth ministry.
What makes working with young people so fun?
I think it’s because it’s that time in their life when deeper questions are coming. A lot of life enthusiasm. And there’s a kind of sincerity here as well, an openness as well. So, at that time in their lives to be a mentor, a chaplain, a director, a friend, you can be quite helpful. I like the company of young people.
So, you were saying—what’s your self-envisaged role as a chaplain? Mentor… what else?
Yeah, it’s hard to define because you operate on different levels. You’re a public functionary in the college. You’re a quasi member of staff, because we’re kind of visitors as well. So you have a kind of role to the college, where you’re a chaplain to the college. A chaplain is there for times of distress, times of emergency. You know, to represent a college at times. To have welcome services, for example, in the chapel. To be there on Trinity Monday, is, you know, when the academics of the college come to the college chaplain. We have a service of Thanksgiving; the new scholars, the fellows, are invited to that as well. So you’re very much a visible figurehead in that sense, on a public level.
And most of our work is with students… I work mostly with Catholic students. So we have a drop-in center (as you know) downstairs, a common room.
Right, a common room.
So people come there of their own volition, different faiths, different engagement with the church, or with Christianity, sometimes with other religions. And I offer some kind of short programs to them, like weekends away, weeks away, short pilgrimages. Short talks, academic talks, talks about Thomas Aquinas, trips to galleries, things like—small day trips as well.
That’s really nice. Is the common room open 24/7?
It must be open… it must be open from 8:00 a.m. in the morning at least, to 8:00 p.m. at night about. Depends on when they close up. So it’s very free in that sense. The only sort of formal thing in that common room is the free lunch on Tuesdays.
You seem like “ugh, the Free Tuesday Lunch.” How do you feel about the Free Tuesday Lunch?
It’s, uh, it was here before I came… it does invite people, it does welcome people. I suppose it… it lacks follow-through, in the sense that it can be very limited.
How do you mean?
In the sense that you might come forward to explore other things in the chaplaincy, but they come for the food. You know, the bar is at the food? That’s the agreement, you’re coming for food, you know? But of course a chaplain, or a pastor, or a priest would have other expectations, you know: Why don’t you come to this Catholic course? Why don’t you come to our prayer time? Why don’t you come to our choir? So it can stop at food, you know. And that’s a basic social interaction but that can be very limited.
Do you think the Food Tuesdays have anything to add, or would you prefer they just not happen anymore?
I think it’ll stay. It’s kind of like an institution at the moment here for all chaplains… I do use it as an event for getting to know people. And I do get students who come here who would never come here. Would never come to the chaplaincy, never come meet the chaplains, never get involved. So, in that sense, it does break down kind of barriers. The food is a common interest, you know. So yeah. It’s very informal, really.
Does anybody who wouldn’t usually be in the chaplaincy, do they come back after the Free Food Tuesday for other chaplain events, or…?
I would say the majority don’t tend to do that; some few, a minority will become acquainted with the chaplain and stay. They’ll come for coffee, they’ll come for a breaktime and things like that. So it’s an introduction for some people, you know. And generally, the Tuesday crowd is different than to our regular. Some of our regulars won’t come on Tuesday because everyone else is there.
What’s the group of regulars like?
Regulars would be… I’m sure it’s quite a number of students, but they come while they’re in between classes. Some of them are directly involved in chaplaincy, so the Catholic chaplaincy they come to Mass, go on retreats, they come to talks, they want to be involved full-time, that sense. Others are not—they just come for their coffee break, chaplain friends. They might get to know a chaplain or two, or maybe not. So it’s very different level with regulars. You kind of get to know 10-15 who come in here regularly on a first name basis.
Are they friends with each other as well?
Sometimes, not always.
You were saying part of the role as a chaplain is consoling, times of crisis? What did you mean by that?
Yeah, sometimes you kind of have people in crisis. Now and again I have a student come in in distress or something over an exam, it’s happened in accommodation, or something like that, but it’s more often on the general population of the students when the college contacts us when there’s been a mortality, when there’s been a suicide in the science department, or in the medical faculty. And everyone’s very distressed over there: Can one of the chaplains come over? Or there’s going to be a funeral of someone, and we’ve just heard of the fatality of a student. During summertime, for example, someone away on holidays has died, and there’s going to be a funeral for the family. We as chaplains tend to represent the college there, tend to be on the front level there.
I think RB was saying the chaplaincy helps decide how and when the information is released.
Yeah. We’ve had to contact the parish recently because we didn’t know if it had been made official that a person had died. So the first people to know are probably parish, when they are contacted and there’s going to be a funeral and they’ve been in contact with the family. So we ring the parish in the area, just to confirm the person’s death. And then we can formally begin to work with the network here, the counselors, and different services.
So, what happens is, you first phone the parish…
Yeah, so what happens is—sometimes you might get a rumor of a death. So it’s a rumor, but it’s not confirmed. The college has to be very careful with that, in that we can’t make that public, do you understand? Because it may not be true. We have to confirm it before we use a student’s name, or network together different agencies in the college. So that’s the reason, it’s just a protocol.
And then are there commemorative services?
We have what are called memorial services. They’re only strictly for fellows of the college. There’s a few exceptions.
What’s a fellow of the college?
Someone whose academic pedigree has been recognized by the college, their contribution to the academic life of Trinity. You know, a senior professor, someone whose lectured here for several years, is producing, publishing. Someone who's well-grounded academically. Yeah, that’d be a fellow of the college.
When they die, whether they’re Catholic or Protestant, that all takes place in their own parish or where they come from, their own family, or priests, or vicars. But sometimes, as a way of marking their achievement, their contribution to the college, we could have ourselves a memorial service, which is held at the college chapel. A lot of their colleagues can come; their family can come. Sometimes a colleague can request it, or someone who worked with them. But it’s because of their standing in Trinity College. It’s a way of giving thanks, or remembering the person, of distinguishing. It’s a short biography; it’s a remembrance of their life.
What do you do at the memorial service?
Well, the choir would sing (the chapel choir sings beautiful music), there are different readings, usually scripture, and then there’s an address, by—it could be a friend, it could be a college member, sometimes family members have spoken as well.
Do a lot of students come in, when do they come in [the chaplaincy]?
They come in early in the morning; a lot of students come by bus here. They probably got up so early that they haven’t had breakfast, so there’s some cereal before here as well. I think Father Paddy who was here before me said during his period some students weren’t eating. … I still think that’s the case. Some students aren’t eating, there are cash problems, that can get spent on other things. It’s not used a great deal, but it is used.
Someone was telling me that there’s, like, Latin readings occasionally [at commencement].
We generally don’t attend those. We just meet the graduates when they come in the front square as they process from the examinations hall. That’s in the examination hall, which, I think they’re allowed two members of their families. They might get some extra people in. They get their degree. Then they process to Truthful Square. They go to the dining hall, and we just generally meet them in the front square. Because we’ve known them for the past few years, and it’s nice to see them graduate.
How do you pay for the plane tickets [for the trip to Taize]?
Through our own funding. We have funding from different organizations ourselves. The Catholic chaplains would have funding from the Catholic bishops of Ireland. So we have funding every year so we can function as chaplains. We don’t really get funding from the college.
Why do you think the Catholic church funds chaplains in the college?
I think they see a value that we’re here, because it can be a secularized place. You know, where there’s indifference to religion, and faith. So you are on the cutting edge in a sense, you know? I mean I’m quite distinctive in college—I’m underdressed at the moment, I’m usually wearing a white habit, you know, I’m a Dominican. So I’m wearing black, dressed as a Catholic priest—there’s no one else in the college dressed like this. So people know that I’m around. It’s a presence, it’s a visible sign. And people generally know who you are. That’s one reason we’re here, we’re kind of a presence. A chaplain, he “loiters with intent,” you know?
What’s the intent?
Intent, maybe get to know people? Talk to people? Show an interest in them and make them welcome. Because it can be quite a lonely place for students as well. Sometimes they’re very vulnerable; sometimes they refer students to the chaplains from counseling.
So the chaplain also acts a place where students get referred by a counselor?
Sometimes that can happen. It can happen in the other direction here as well. We get a phone call for someone looking for counseling, or from the families concerned about a student.
In what situations would students be referred from counseling to the chaplaincy?
I think loneliness, you know. They want to have a good role model. Some students are not able to really make friends, fluently, confidently, like other students. A lot of our students are very articulate, they can express what they want. But there are other students who are just very lonely, very enclosed, very vulnerable. They’re here to complete their studies, they’re here to complete a course, but the naturalizing, socializing is not normal for them.
The chaplaincy can be more of a safe zone as well. People aren’t going to tease you here. They’re not going to target you. If you go on the Taize trip, for example, you’re much more likely to be accepted into the group; you’ll be a part of the larger group, a part of that community for a week.
As a Catholic on campus?
Accepted, like, as a Catholic on campus, or just as a person in general?
I think just as a person, yeah. I think there is some of that as well, some Catholics come here because they can meet other Catholics, people who are into their faith, are interested in their faith, faith dialogue, you know, all those topics. So they come here for that kind of support. They come to me or to Father Peter, because they like all the Catholics and the Catholic activities as well.
How many people involved in the chaplaincy would you say are of another faith [than Catholicism]?
Oh, I would say a majority. I’d say about, hmm, maybe one-third come here for reasons of faith. Whether that’s Christian faith or involved in the Christian Union, or involved in the Catholic chaplaincy. And it’s a smaller group. But then, the larger group, even the regulars that come here, they’re not formally involved in the church or in the Christian community. They may have faith privately, but that’s not their motivation for being here. They’re here because they’re welcome, for a cup of tea. They’re here because they’ve got to know the chaplains, or they’ve made some friends here. So it’s much more, kind of human.
There were Catholics on campus but they requested a chaplain. So the first Catholic chaplain came here in 1970, and that was through the Laurentian Society. So that was revived a number of years ago, and they’re the Catholic society on college, in a sense.
What does that mean, that Catholic…
That’s a good question, Catholic society. They organize Catholic events. Catholic speakers... Mostly speakers really. Or tea clubs. They had ecumenical croquet, that was interesting, with the Christian Union. They had an ecumenical quiz for Christians, not Catholic. We had it in a pub, a quiz. That was good. And… the croquet, the Laurentians against the Christian Union one time as well. Kind of build up connections, build up bridges. So I guess the Christian Union Christians come here as well. They can come to the chaplaincy they can come feel more comfortable. Because it’s technically an ecumenical chaplaincy. It works on that ethos that there’s a Methodist chaplain, an Anglican chaplain, two Catholic chaplains: it’s an ecumenical team. The college sees us that way. Our different congregations see us that way; it’s an ecumenical chaplaincy. Within that there are denominational chaplaincies: there’s a Catholic chaplaincy, there’s a Methodist chaplaincy, there’s an Anglican chaplaincy.
Do you interact a lot with the Methodist chaplain and Anglican chaplain?
Yeah, yeah, we have meetings every week, yeah. And we have common events as well. There are four college services every year. There’s the welcome service, there’s the Trinity carol service, there’s the Good Friday service, and there’s Trinity Monday. They’re very public events.
Yeah, I heard the carol service was very popular.
Oh yeah, it’s flooded. It’s the biggest event of the year. We are filled to capacity, there’s some 400 people in there. There’s the Good Friday service. Even though the college is closed on Friday, there’s a service there. And Trinity Monday is after the announcement of the new scholars and the new fellows in the square, we have an act of Thanksgiving, a service of Thanksgiving in the chapel with a distinguished speaker as well. We used to also have a chaplaincy lecture, as well; that’s kind of faded in the past two to three years. Maybe around February, March. We alternated—I think it was a Protestant one year, a Catholic another year. Also with the Trinity Monday service it’s Catholic/Protestant. It was Catholic this year so next year it’ll be Protestant.
And which of these events are optional—students can come to them if they want—and which of them is, like, an all-school event?
Those four main services are open to everyone. Like even, then, after the… attacks in New Zealand, we had a, a kind of commemorative service in the chapel as well, quite a lot of the Muslim community came to that. So that was just a one-off. So we had some readings in the Quran and a reading from sacred scripture as well.
Are any of these, like Trinity Monday, mandatory?
No, nothing is mandatory. I don’t think anything is mandatory in the chaplaincy. Unless you sign up for the college choir and you need to attend practice, or something like that. No, nothing here is mandatory; everything is kind of optional. I mean, we’re here—we’re a college service; we’re here at the service of the students if they need us, if they want to call upon us. We’re a complementary support service, in that sense, with a faith tag… So students can buy into it if they want to, or they may opt out of it if they want to. Some students are not interested; it’s not their thing. And we understand that, you know.
How many students would you say it is their thing versus not their thing—like what percentages of students would you say?
I would say… it’s over 80% of students it’s not their thing, you know. And that may not be—what should I say—a clearly defined decision? They may not feel drawn, or they may not feel called. Some students, they find their way here by accident, you know? They come here in their third year of college and say, "I never knew this existed! I never knew there was coffee here." And then they come, you know. So they’ve never made any decision not to come here; they’ve never had any antipathy. They just are not really knowing… it’s not indifference either. That’s the way knowledge percolates here, it gets out. We used to address all the students—in first year, we’d go out in orientation week and one of the chaplains would speak to them. But we don’t do that anymore because all the services started speaking so we stopped that. And now the senior tutor addresses them and tells them about the different services. And when you get a lot of information in your first year, you don’t always take it in. And knowing about the chaplaincy doesn’t mean you come here, you know. I’m sure there’ll be some students it wouldn’t be their thing, but I think the large majority of people who don’t come here—they really haven’t made any conscious decision.
How do you feel about that?
Um… I suppose you can feel a bit outside the mainstream and all that. You can feel that the college, the arts building, it’s like a railway station where there’s lots of young people and students. Who are going in different directions in their life and you’re kind of outside—you’re very much on the margins. You’re a marginal figure. You understand, a chaplain—I mean, in a parish, I work my way out. You understand?
But at university, I’m on the margins. I have to work my way in.
As you said, kind of a visitor.
A visitor, yeah.
Do you prefer it that way, in a university setting? What would be your ideal—in a university setting—of the chaplaincy?
Em, my idea would be a chaplaincy that’s flourishing, okay. That’s helping people to integrate faith into their lives, okay. Their busy, sporting, academic lives, their social lives, that their faith is integral to that. And also that it’s giving them a lot of happiness, it’s giving them a lot fulfillment, joy, in that sense. God is not anti-human in that sense. There’s a godly way of living, but there’s also—it’s a human way of living. And that there’s a community sense of that, shared among students. And you as a chaplain are part of that. You’re part of that community belonging here. That’s really, that’s kind of flourishing Catholic and ecumenical communities (you know I’m usually working with Catholics). So that would be my ideal. Where people are making their own decisions in life or their getting through their courses, and they’re handling the difficult moments and you’re part of that. So you’re part of their life, you understand, on a different level. Even, for example, one of our students chose to enter religious convent last year. So I would’ve been very much part of her journey towards that; we regularly talked about the whole process…
So yeah. Being part of that on a different level. I don’t like the surface level, I don’t like artificiality, I don’t like being on the margins so much. I like becoming someone’s friend, if that’s the way you put it, you know. I think that’s the best—it’s the highest degree of a chaplain you can be when you become someone’s friend.
I’ve been speaking with people and a lot of the things that have come up in relation to how people talk about things at Trinity and what campus is like right now is the controversy of a lot of political issues like the abortion referendum, and the gay marriage law on campus. So how do you—as someone in the chaplaincy—navigate that environment, and how does that affect your day-to-day work?
Yeah, that’s very interesting. It’s tricky, because I come from a certain Catholic position. During those debates—I wasn’t here for the same-sex referendum, I wasn’t here for that—I was here for the abortion referendum; that was last year. The funny thing about it, it didn’t come up a lot here [laughs]. Didn’t come up a lot, you know. Because, um… [sighs] my old kind of thing on it is that, I’m a staff member—okay technically I don’t think we’re, we’re kind of, we’re treated like staff but we’re not treated like that by the college. We are staff. If you really… we’re like visitors, okay, visiting staff—but, I’m on a different level than the students. Like, I wouldn’t be comfortable coming into something if they’re talking about something, getting into a debate, taking sides. Do you understand?
Do you mean students taking sides?
I wouldn’t be comfortable intervening as a staff member, maybe in a student debate. If it came up, you know. So, it didn’t really come up with students, unless they ask me—one time, one student asked me about the same-sex referendum. For Catholics, she was quite disappointed that Catholics held a different position. I said to her, "Listen: referendum is not a good time to get to know people [laughs], okay?" It’s not a good time to know what people are like. You need to sit down with them sometime, have a coffee, go to their flat or something and get to know them, and sometimes tricky situations can come up. But, referendum—a political cauldron like that, it’s not a good time to get to know people and what they’re like. Or make friends, you know? And if you really want to know about what Catholics believe or what they’re really like, there’s a non-gauche, you know what that is?
When you say “intervene” as staff in a student debate, what did you mean by intervening?
Intervening—like one time I remember coming to the chaplaincy and there were students downstairs who were a bit upset. There was a huge debate going on, a huge, emotional debate going on down here. It just happened once. About abortion a few years ago. And this would have been my first year here, you know? And, like, they were shouting at each other. There were people pro and for and against. It was a very heated debate and it just blew up. And I came, and I decided not to come into the room.
Where they were debating?
No, they were downstairs—same room as this year. So I would’ve been in my office, okay. And a student came to me and I said, "I think I’ll let that play out by itself, you know?"
Oh, so the student came and asked if you’d come…
No, he wasn’t really—he was just telling me what had happened and I said, "Yeah, I think it’s better that I don’t go in there." I think with my collar, with my status, with my role, I’m always going to take a position. I don’t think I’m going to help things, you know?
So this garb is a position for you?
Yeah it is. I’m in a uniform, you know? It does have effects on people. I’m not comfortable that I’ll get into debates with students on huge matters, you know. I’ll talk to people one to one. And I’ll talk to them in a civil way. But getting into a heated argument like that, I don’t think it would help anyone. If you understand.
Yeah that’s ...
I’m a bit diplomatic in nature, that’s how I am. I tend to be friends with, I talk to a lot of people.
What kind of effect do you think the—you said habit?
Yeah, I think the habit would be more effective here? Because it’s very clearly a religious garb.
What do you mean by effective?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think, hmm, what should I say, it’s a transcendent symbol. It’s a symbol of something transcendent. It speaks in the language of signs. It’s not a verbal communication. It’s not speaking verbal to someone. It speaks as something transcendent. Why have you concentrated your life—why are you dressed like this? What does it symbolize about you? People are naturally attracted by that, I think often, but it’s also very good when people get to know you and they’re wearing your habit. And they know Father Alan, and they know Brother Alan, and they—you know—they like that, they like knowing us. And they like being comfortable with us. Also, if you come across as happy and kind of content in your way of life, that’s very attractive. The truth is very attractive. You know, Pope John Paul II said, “Don’t say the church says this, or the church says that, just say, this is the Truth.” The truth has a natural attractiveness. Don’t just say the church says God is three and God is one, just say, "God is one. And God is three." Just say it. Do you understand?.. We don’t have to say it authoritatively, that this is the case, you just say that it is, it is the case. Do you understand?
So if the habit says something not verbal, what does it say and what does it mean to whom?
We don’t know. We don’t know. But it means something. And it invites people, it calls people. But really, the person, yourself, I find that if I’m at peace with myself, people always come to you. If I’m nervous, if I’m ill at ease in a situation with people I don’t know, I don’t know it doesn’t seem to work the same way.
How many students on campus would you guess know about the Laurentian Society?
Um, yeah it’s not very well-known. They get around 100 people to sign up every year. There might by 15 to 20 who engage with that over the year. So they’re will be lots of students, a percentage, I can never gauge a percentage I’m not good with that, really. Because it’s dealing with 17,000 students, I can’t deal with what they know or what they think they know [laughs]. Yeah, so, it wouldn’t… because the Laurentian, the name doesn’t tell you what it is. It’s St. Laurent O’Toole, so you call it Laurentian. So St. Laurentian O’Toole, he’s an archbishop in Dublin, he’s a saint. So, because they’re in the heart of Dublin, they associate with the archdiocese of Dublin, they’re Catholics. People don’t know… they’ll see our posters around, what the event is, what the talk is, so they’d be aware.
So you said they don’t know what the Laurentians do, what do you mean by "the Laurentians do"?
I suppose being active in their faith. Being active Catholics in their faith. And promoting Catholic culture on campus. Which means… we had a talk on beauty, the Catholic understanding of beauty last year. A reformed gangster came in to talk as well. Some of the events I’ve organized are Laurentian events; we’ve had an actress in. She’d had an experience in England where she was on a London bridge, you know? She was about to throw herself over the bridge, but then a friend came and stopped her. And she just talked about her experience, and her career in acting, and how her faith had helped her. Then we had a friend of mine who was a Manchester United football player. And now he’s a Catholic priest. So we brought him in. They’re my events, you know. He spoke to them. I had a thing, a kind of series where we’d have celebrities in. You know, they’d talk to people a bit about their life and their background, their profession, acting and football. And about faith, about how faith engages them in that work.
Do the chaplaincy and the Loyola Institute do any collaboration?
We had, yeah, one collaboration there recently. Julian organized it. A speaker came from the United States and was in the chaplaincy and the Loyola co-sponsored it. I wasn’t there.
And would you say, how many people would you say know about the Loyola Institute?
I would say not too many, you know? I mean, it’s a faculty in the college. Apart from people who are interested in that area, interested in theology. I think all the Catholic world would know about it, you know? People outside of it would know that there’s a theology institute here. I think probably most people who know about it would be interested in theology or world religions or something like that, ecumenism. But people who are in science are, um, maybe out of the humanities subjects, I think pretty much science students wouldn’t. Because it’s a very small faculty. Very small.
What was your experience like on the Heads of Services?
Oh I felt, um, I felt they were a lot more experienced than me in the college, they know a lot more about the college, you know [laughs]. So my input was very little. And um… yeah that’s how I felt. Sometimes I can be just… a small bit on the margins there again. They’re very welcoming; it’s not the people themselves. It’s just that they talk college stuff. I suppose for some things, you know like child protection things like that, you’re interested in. Different things like… different protocols that you need as well for being in the college. Your safety statement, things like that. Not child safety, but I think like safety for being in the building, things like that. I mean, it’s quite a bureaucratic meeting. It’s not an intimate sharing of your personal views. It’s the technocratic, bureaucratic side of life; it’s the business side of life, so it’s a business meeting really.
What do the chaplains do in this meeting? …
Yeah, I’m trying to think… [ugh] I mean there’s lots of learning programs, there’s things that come up. Like you’re invited to brush up on your skills in computer literacy and things like that. Data protection. That came up a lot, the rules governing data protection. Getting vetted for child protection. And then cases came up where, maybe something happened in the college that wasn’t well handled… And sometimes we’re involved also in the granting of grants. I’m on the finance committee where at least once a year we meet and we allocate grants to people, their bursaries, can give 2,000 euro to people.
Are you on that committee as a layperson or as a chaplain?
No, as a chaplain. Yeah, so we make decisions about who gets allocated grants.
What kinds of range of topics could the grants be for?
They’re just used to help people who are, people are… struggling. Like maybe an adult student with kids. They don’t have a second income and they’re trying to get through college, or they can be living in vulnerable accommodation, they can be homeless. So those people, their cases are monitored, it’s recorded, we get the case presented and we see what level of emergency it is. So we grade them like A-, B, B+, the most urgent ones we tend to give the highest amounts of money to. I prefer that one, even if it’s about money, because you’re actually helping real individuals. It’s not bureaucratic.
So I’m talking with people about Trinity being a secular institution, and its shift over time. So a question that’s come up for me has been, how is Trinity secular today, and are there ways in which it’s not secular?
Okay, how is Trinity secular today—I think on the whole it’s secular, you know? I think a good number of the academic staff are quite secular. They’re the ones teaching the courses so the atmosphere can be quite secular. There are occasions when you meet an academic or professor who’s got Christian convictions, as a Catholic, but they’re few, I think. I don’t seem to know many. But on the whole, what can be presented on the professional academic level can be quite secular. And then, in other ways, when there are dramatic moments, the secular doesn’t really know how to deal with that, you know? Like we lost a professor on Mt. Everest there, just a few weeks ago he died. He actually got to the top, but on the way back down he fell. So they organized an event for it in college. We opened the chapel. We had a candlelight vigil. They sang some secular songs, but there was still a religious element in it, you know. So I was quite happy to go to it and we met his parents. And they light the candles and, you know, they’re going to have a memorial service for him as well. Because he was doing some work for charity, he was quite a popular person. So in an instance like that, it’s not secular, you know? And it’s not secular in the way it’s very welcome, it’s very friendly, it’s very open to the chaplains, even though it’s a Christian denomination. There’s no antipathy—I’ve never really felt any, maybe on one occasion, but it wasn’t direct. But mainly with staff and with the college I’ve never felt unwelcome or a problem, or a controversy, you know. I’m not a controversial figure. So people are generally friendly, they get to know you. I mean, some people don’t use the term Father, with staff, in general. Students will call me Father, and that’s okay, but staff will just call me Alan. You’re not dealing—the title thing doesn’t really work there [laughs].
What about among the students? You’re not a controversial figure among staff—was that a specific wording?
No, among students no, I don’t consider really. Chaplains are meant to be - I think, as you say in the army, a chaplain is meant to be a friendly guy who gives you cigarettes. That was an army chaplain. What is a chaplain? He’s a friendly guy who gives you cigarettes. (This is years ago, you know.) Translate that into a student chaplain: You’re a friendly guy—if it’s male—who gives you free biscuits and tea. And doesn’t cause any trouble [laughs].
Do you like the way the administration is secular in that way? Is that positive? Some people say, "Oh, yeah, I like that." Some people say, "No, I think we should do this."
Um, I don’t know what the answer to that question really is. I think, because the functionaries in the college are friendly, that can change your attitude to how the institute presents itself. Because you know the functionaries, I know the secretary of the college, I know the secretaires, I know the provost a little bit. But because they’re open and welcoming, you don’t feel territorially a foreigner here. But really, we’re not at the forefront of how Trinity presents itself. We’re just there for special occasions. Like when it’s a Christian marking of some event. Like a Thanksgiving, or its the carol service.
We’re there as Christian presence on campus, okay. So anything we would come into publicly, it’s not for Trinity. It’s not for the physics department, not for the computer science department; they do their own things, but we have our own website as well. We present the Christian ethos at Trinity. So that’s what we do. We’re not responsible for how Trinity presents itself, you know. We can be kind of removed from that, how it presents itself as a university, anyway.
In higher academic institutions in general, how do you think the chaplaincy and the Christian ethos can balance themselves best?
Well, I think one of the things we are on a secular campus, we’re the memory of civilization.
We’re the memory, yeah. We’re here to remind people there’s a spiritual heritage to humanity. Do you understand? Because the one thing about modernity, it has no memory. Everything’s changing. Things that were rights years ago now are fundamental rights. Like things that were rights five years ago are now a fundamental right. It’s the most controversial things. Things are just changing all the time. And you know, we’re just a memory. [Laughs] The memory coming forward into the present.
Is that a challenge, the changing times?
I suppose yeah, when people get confused, yeah, when they get eaten up by their own secularism. It is a problem, excuse me.
How is one eaten up by their own secularism?
Um, people can be destroyed. In terms of sexuality, for example. Now, I haven’t met it directly, but… I suppose people are manipulated sexually, or have a very open… understanding of sexuality and, you know have maybe had sex with a number of partners, but have been treated dreadfully [Laughs]. On American campuses there is that sense of… because you’re not able to bond with multiple partners. And if you have sex with multiple partners your bonding ability lessens… it can eat people up. When people say it’s simply, it’s only my body, I do what I want with it. Well, I would say, as a Christian, your body is you. Your body expresses very intimate things about who you are. And you can’t just give it away sporadically, without consequences. Yeah, that would be one way.
Yeah, it’s not a polemical kind of place. That’s good about Trinity. We’re not at each other’s throats, I don’t think. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.