It’s a baffling mystery to our secular society: why would a young, good-looking, talented and highly qualified young man such as Ian Verrier give his life completely to the Lord and pursue a vocation to the priesthood? For many Catholics, perhaps, an even bigger question is why Ian is learning to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form and has gone to Lincoln, Nebraska, to do so. Lincoln is a bleak, flat region in the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. Ian jokes that “it’s a giant chessboard”. But he has persevered in this dry, dreary climate and is delighted to be in his fourth year of seminary with the Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP). Ian chose the FSSP when he was 25.
“I really felt God wanted me to have this form of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the centre of my priesthood,” he explains. “I met priests from the Fraternity of St Peter and discovered that they centre not only their idea of the priesthood but their very lives on the traditional Latin Mass. So I entered Our Lady of Guadalupe seminary, the Fraternity’s international English-speaking seminary in Nebraska in September of 2008.” Ian was brought up an Anglican, but his family did not practise very much until Ian was 12. He says that his childhood faith took the form of little
chats with God, whom he thought of as a grandfather figure in heaven. He would pray: “God, please look after this person who is having a tough time.” Ian learned the cello and piano, later finding an outlet for his talent when his family started attending St Mark’s, a high Anglican parish in an underprivileged area of the West Midlands. At the age of 15, Ian was the organist and director of the choir. The care given to the liturgy in this particular church made a deep impression on Ian. “There may have been leaks in the building and no one was well-off, but we gave the best of what we thought we had to God, and much attention was devoted to the exterior aspect of liturgy,” he recalls. While studying at Birmingham University Ian was received into the Catholic Church on the feast of Pentecost 2003, after 10 months of instruction. Explaining when he left the Anglican Church, he says: “There wasn’t unity in belief. Everyone believed different things. The realisation dawned that it was not the True Church. I was drawn to the universality of the Catholic Church, that no matter where you go in the world the Church is the same, as God made it to be, founded on St Peter and his successors, the popes.”
As a new member of the Catholic Church, Ian was initially wary of the Latin Mass, because he thought “it was being used as a political football”. In 2006, Ian had settled in well to Catholicism and was offered a teaching job. He had felt a deep call to work for the Church in Europe after seeing the funeral of Blessed Pope John Paul II. Ian answered that call by accepting work at an “unashamedly Catholic school” in France. It was at Chavagnes International College where he found a living charity in a close-knit Catholic community in the Vendée region. While at Chavagnes, Ian met a young, inspirational priest who loved celebrating Mass in the Extraordinary Form. He began to assist at Masses more regularly. “I fell in love with the traditional Latin Mass,” he says.
At Chavagnes, Ian felt for the first time that he lived “a fully Catholic life”. He clarifies: “I experienced the best of everything that I had seen of the Church: Mass ad orientem, staff and pupils committed to their faith, and we were allowed to say grace before meals.” While working at the school Ian felt the first stirrings of a priestly vocation. He gave a definite Yes to God’s invitation after walking the 2007 Paris to Chartres pilgrimage with a group of boys and teachers from the school. At Chartres Cathedral Ian was overawed by the closing Mass. “I was reduced to tears. Everything in the Mass took on its full spiritual significance. The choir were like angels singing divine praises and the priest was in the form of Christ. At that instant, I said yes to becoming a priest.”
Now, having spent three and a half years with the Fraternity of St Peter, he is even more certain of his priestly vocation. On November 13 he received the minor orders of acolyte and exorcist.
Although only half-way through the seminary’s demanding seven-year programme, Ian loves the intellectual rigour, especially the study of philosophy and theology of St Thomas Aquinas. Ian is one of seven British seminarians in the FSSP. At Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary alone, they accepted 25 new seminarians last year and this autumn saw the arrival of 22 new seminarians. The average age of the 392 priests and seminarians working with the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter
is 34. Before becoming an FSSP seminarian, Ian admits that he fell prey to generalisations about traditional Catholics and worried that he would find it difficult mixing all the time with “Traddies”. He argues that Latin Mass communities are sometimes unfairly characterised by their extremely strict members “and then people think that we are all very severe”. But Ian was
pleasantly surprised by the other seminarians and says that all the seminarians have great fun, get on very well together and support each other.
Ian believes that traditionalists have often been misunderstood and thus mistreated. “Like all of God’s children they deserve mutual respect as they bring a rich and diverse element to the Church of today. Casting aside the imperfections of some ‘traditional Catholics’, one thing is important: the Mass they love. The Extraordinary Form offers a rich treasure, both tried and tested, to men and women regardless of place and time, since in the words of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI: ‘What was sacred for prior generations, remains sacred and great for us.’ ”
Vatican II reiterated the sentiment that should be shared by all Catholics,“traditional” or not: that the source and summit of the spiritual life is indeed the Eucharist.
On December 12, Ian and his fellow seminarians celebrated the feast day of their patron, Our Lady of Guadalupe, by having a procession with Mexican Marian hymns, followed by Solemn High Mass. In the evening the seminarians had high jinks by hanging a piñata and bashing it with sticks until chocolates and sweets rained down.
The FSSP encourages all it seminarians to have a balanced lifestyle and they have periods of recreation. When they enjoy better weather, they play spirited games of football on their own pitch. The seminary has a weight room with some high-tech weightlifting equipment, which is a big hit with the seminarians. During the colder months since they have no gym of their own, the seminarians drive through ice and snow to play basketball in a nearby country gym.
Ian misses some British home comforts, such as the NHS. He doesn’t get ill much, but had chest pains after eating a lot of fried food and had to pay a high fee to find out that it was indigestion.
When I ask him what he misses most about Britain, he exclaims: “Yorkshire pudding, I absolutely love it!’ He’s not so keen on “the ketchup-smothered meatloaf” that is so beloved by Americans, but it is a useful penance for Ian. He says that, while he is British, the seminary is his “spiritual home” and that he has found deep fulfillment living in community. In 2010, Ian’s father lay dying of cancer in Birmingham and when Ian travelled back to be with him the other seminarians were fervently praying and having Masses said. Ian prayed daily for seven years that his father would become a Catholic and shortly before his death, his father swam the Tiber.
The FSSP likes to put priests back in their country of origin and Ian likes the thought of being a priest back in Britain, perhaps in the FSSP’s apostolate in Reading. He says that in the wake of Anglicanorum Coetibus he looks forward to the possibility of being surrounded by many fellow former Anglicans who are now Catholics.
Ian is 29 and I ask him if he is daunted by his decision to forfeit the opportunity of having a wife and family. His response is so lucid and sincere that it convinces me of his commitment. “The celibate life totally frees the man for the priesthood,” he says. “The priest makes a sacrifice by living out his public promise of celibacy. And instead of having his own biological children he is a father to many souls, the exact number of which we will only know when we reach heaven. If you are acting as Christ to offer Mass, hearing Confessions, that must be confidential and putting your whole life into being a spiritual shepherd for whoever your flock is – it’s not practical to be a husband and have a natural family at the same time. You can’t do both to the best of your ability.” He thinks that priestly celibacy is misunderstood. “Our vocation is the means of our salvation and celibacy is a sacrifice,” he says, “but it’s a gift to the priesthood, and if you use it to give yourself fully to Our Lord, then it becomes a joy.”
I wrote this article for this week's edition of The Catholic Herald. Alex Begin, very kindly, gave me the first photo of Ian that you see in this post.