LEICESTER, United Kingdom – After receiving high ratings, a BBC documentary on the Rome-based Pontifical Scots College is being made available online for an extended period.
“Priest School” aired on BBC Scotland on April 19 and received the highest audience for any digital channel in Scotland – 80,000 people and an 8 percent share.
As a comparison, BBC Scotland’s flagship drama “River City” only received a maximum of 30,000 viewers on the channel.
“I’m delighted with the reaction to the documentary,” said Deacon Ryan Black, who is studying for the priesthood for the Diocese of Paisley.
He noted that even after the initial good showing, the viewing figures are actually climbing, due to the hourlong documentary’s availability on the BBC iPlayer. Originally due to be available for 30 days after broadcast, the BBC extended that to 11 months due to the positive response.
“So many people have commented on how informative, entertaining and joyful it was. Please God, it will have a positive impact on the lives of young men who are thinking about applying for seminary,” Black told Crux.
The Scots College was founded in Rome in 1600 to help train Catholic priests, since Scotland had imposed anti-Catholic laws during the Reformation and clergy had to be trained abroad.
The documentary crew was given access to the school for 18 months in 2018 and 2019.
“At first, when the rector told us about the plans for a documentary, we didn’t know what to expect. Images of a ‘Big Brother’-like documentary flashed before my eyes!” Black said.
However, he said the crew from Solus, the production company, had something more serious in mind.
“They were very friendly. Each time they returned, [Tony Kearney, the director and producer] had follow-up questions, and it became clear that they were genuinely interested in our way of life,” the deacon said.
“The members of the team from Solus had different experiences of the Church; some of them are Catholic, others aren’t. Tony had previously shot a documentary about Scotland’s youngest Clan Commander [an officer of the ancient Scottish Clan kinship system], and some filming took place in St Peter’s Basilica, so I guess he had some experience working with the Vatican. I don’t think they had any knowledge of the seminary way of life,” Black said.
Kearney told the Daily Record he was happy “to get rare access into an ancient Scottish institution and what it’s like to train as a priest – we’ve never seen it before.”
“These are down to earth, ordinary blokes who like a drink, like the football and live ordinary lives. It smashes the mystery,” he said.
During filming, Kearney had one frustrating experience with the Vatican media apparatus, when the pope made a joke after receiving a bottle of Oban scotch during an audience with the students and staff of the Scots College.
Pope Francis quipped, “Questa e la vera acqua santa,” which means “This is the real holy water.” For any filmmaker, this would be trailer material, but the Vatican refused to let them include it in the documentary.
“He guffawed with laughter and it was a real ice-breaker with the students and put everyone at ease,” Kearney told the Daily Record.
However, to get permission to film in the Apostolic Palace, the team had to agree that the Vatican would approve the footage – and they didn’t.
“We were really annoyed at first, but they insisted they didn’t want the Pope to be seen to be endorsing whisky. I think it’s quite funny how guarded his image is,” Kearney told the Scottish newspaper.
“Francis is ripping up the rule book, he’s ahead of the curve, and the flunkies around about him need to catch up,” he added.
Black said he actually missed the pope’s remarks about the whisky during the meeting.
“I feel terrible, but I can’t actually remember him saying it! The ad limina visit was the third time that I met Pope Francis, but I was still nervous and there was a lot going on in my head,” he told Crux.
“However, I do remember that before the Easter Vigil in 2017 [during which the Scots College provided the altar servers], when he was told that the Scots were serving, he remarked that we had brought him whisky when we last met him at an audience in the Palace in 2016; he certainly remembered that gift!” Black said.
A petition has been started to get the documentary released on DVD, and it is serving an educational purpose during the coronavirus lockdown – several teachers have asked their online students to watch the film as homework.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome