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'Regrettable sign of the times' as Scotland's last seminary to close

Centuries of Catholic tradition in Scotland will come to an end this summer, as declining numbers training for the priesthood force the country�s last remaining seminary to close.

Helen McArdle Centuries of Catholic tradition in Scotland will come to an end this summer, as declining numbers training for the priesthood force the country's last remaining seminary to close.

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Scotus College in Bearsden will suspend training in June this year ahead of the 2009/2010 academic session. The nine students currently enrolled will be transferred to alternative seminaries at their bishop's discretion.

This may include transfers to England, Ireland, or, in the majority of cases, to the Scots College in Rome, where 11 other Scotus students are already based.

The Bishops' Conference of Scotland, which announced the move yesterday, took the decision after falling rolls had made running a full-time education institute in Glasgow too expensive.

The annual intakes have rarely risen above 10 for the past decade, although - ironically - the 2009/10 session was set to see a record level of 16 new entrants since the college opened in 1993.

In a statement the Bishops' Conference said the relocation to Rome would "take advantage of the spiritual, cultural and academic opportunities available in the Roman Pontifical Universities and other institutes of higher learning at the heart of the church".

While it was a "matter of regret" that the Church would no longer train priests in Scotland, the statement added that "should the number of seminarians increase in future, the bishops would be delighted to reassess the situation."

A spokesman for the Catholic media office in Scotland told The Herald that "no decision had yet been reached" on the future of the property, but its prime location in Bearsden means it would likely fetch upwards of £400,000 if the church opted to sell.

For Father Willie McFadden, rector of Scotus College, the decision is "sad" but understandable. He said: "The practicalities of it are very difficult, and the bishops have had to make a very difficult decision which you can understand.

"But the emotional side of it is that it means not having a base in Scotland for the training of priests when there has been training here for such a long time, and it's part of our tradition. Of course there are benefits from all the students being together, and at the Roman institutions. Where there's death there's life, so there will be new possibilities."

It marks a watershed moment in the history of Catholicism in Scotland. When the Roman Catholic Church was outlawed during the 16th century Reformation, training for the ministry was driven underground to makeshift seminaries in the Highlands and Islands. Scotland's first official seminary, Scanlan, was founded in 1714, and at a peak in the 19th century the country was home to five Catholic seminaries.

But the past 100 years have seen the numbers called to the vocation erode, and one seminary after another has closed. Scotus college itself was created by the amalgamation of Chesters College in Glasgow and Gillis in Edinburgh.

Historian Tom Devine said it marked "a return to the past" when training abroad was the norm. He said: "I don't think it's really any big deal. I think the clergy should be educated internationally.

"But it's also a very telling symbolic manifestation of the shortage of priests and of course, also the shortage of staff who can be seconded from parishes to actually teach. It will be regarded by future historians."

Professor Patrick Reilly, who taught philosophy at Scotus, said he was "deeply saddened" by the closure: "It's a regrettable sign of the times, but secularisation is proceeding apace and fewer and fewer men feel committed to the priesthood as a vocation. That's just a fact in western European countries today."

But despite the decline, Scotland still outstrips many traditionally Catholic countries in the priest to parishioner ratio.

Ronnie Convery, spokesman for the Archdiocese in Glasgow, explained: "We're still one of the best in the world in terms of our proportions.

"We have about 750 priests to 750,000 Catholics in Scotland, a thousand per priest, which is very high compared to even Catholic countries like Spain and Italy."

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