LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Seminarians must have the “wisdom and grace” to making living through the COVID-19 pandemic a “fundamental element” of their priestly formation, according to the rector of the Royal English College of St. Alban in Valladolid.

The college in northern Spain was founded in 1589 to train English priests during the Reformation. In 1998, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales made St. Alban’s a “propaedeutic seminary” – a one-year program of formation before students transferred to a major seminary.

“This situation we all find ourselves in affects everything and our students will need to have the wisdom and grace to make living through it a fundamental element of their formation.

The institution’s 11 seminarians – ranging in age from 18 to 57 – were sent back to the UK ahead of the full coronavirus lockdown in Spain, which is one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic. It is the first time the school has been evacuated since World War II.

“The government started shutting all Spain’s schools and universities just before the full lockdown and we decided we wanted to get the men home before they closed the borders,” said Father Paul Farrer, St. Alban’s rector.

Farrer and his vice-rector, Carmelite Father Damian Cassidy, have stayed behind in Spain and are continuing to lead the students through online studies.

“The fact that the men have gone home is unfortunate and we know that other seminaries will have much bigger academic problems to sort out,” Farrer said.

“However, formation continues for all seminarians because life continues. This is an extraordinary situation which is going to form them. They’re a good group and we know they will rise to that challenge.”

Farrer said the students are “understandably concerned” about how the situation will affect their studies, but the priest said academic work is only one aspect of the formation of priests.

“The Church says being a genuinely good member of the human family must come before all other considerations for a prospective priest. The joys, sorrows and suffering of that human family are also the joys, sorrows and suffering of the Church and we priests are called to be in the thick of things, doing all we can to help,” he said.

The rector said his students are “learning life-changing lessons” as they deal with the challenges posed to the Church by social distancing and quarantine measures, including the suspension of public Masses. Most of the seminarians are now assisting in parishes, including helping live streaming liturgies and providing pastoral assistance where able.

“This situation we all find ourselves in affects everything and our students will need to have the wisdom and grace to make living through it a fundamental element of their formation,” he continued. “The whole Church is working to find ways of ministering adequately in this situation. The very fact that this crisis means people can’t come to Mass raises fundamental questions about our image of ministry within the Church.”

Meanwhile, Farrer and Cassidy are doing what they can in Valladolid, where at least 260 people have died from the coronavirus.

“We guessed we were going to be stuck on one side or the other of restrictions and decided to stay here because we didn’t know if the building might be needed for people who were ill or homeless,” said Farrer. “So far that hasn’t happened but we’re helping out in the city as far as possible. We also felt it was important there was somebody still in the college so that we could bring the lads back as quickly as we can when this is over.”

The rector said the college has donated money to the local Caritas, which has been working to help the poor of the city deal with the crisis.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome