As the Scots College community prepares for the new academic year, there is a chance to reflect on the experiences of the summer. Bobby Taylor from the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh writes about his pastoral placement with the chaplaincy of the Royal Navy.
As a one-time member of the Merchant Navy, the visit of Fr. David Conroy RN to the College last September as part of the annual pastoral week was of particular interest to me. The sea has played a large part in the story of my vocation. In fact, I feel strongly that my final beckoning to the priesthood came during my time at sea and the talk of Fr. Conroy on the work of the chaplaincy sparked the thought in my mind that perhaps any future ministry I may enjoy may also involve working with others at sea.
The first thing I learnt in the experience of the naval chaplaincy was patience – with myself! It took me the whole college year to organise, through Fr David and Monsignor McFadden, a two-week placement in the three main bases on the south coast of England. But during two weeks of July that patience paid off in what was both a pastoral and spiritually enriching experience.
The first phase of the placement began, along with a Redemptorist, Brother Chris Reynolds, in HMS Collingwood with Monsignor Andrew McFadden and our attendance at the annual Naval Mass in Portsmouth Cathedral. As an opening experience, to see the Cathedral church full of Catholics serving in the Senior Service and the faithful of the city supporting them was a moving and uplifting experience. I had thought that the community of Catholics would be small, although lively. What I was not prepared for was this overwhelming display of such a vibrant community. I also learnt quickly on that first full day, that the Navy doesn’t do modest, as a group of people adjourned to the Nelson Wardroom for lunch where we sat surrounded by painted scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar.
I will admit to having a very twee idea that the work of the chaplains only involved them in a spiritual capacity. That was soon dispensed with at Collingwood. After sitting in on the weekly Chaplaincy meeting, Chris and I soon got an idea that the spiritual needs of ratings, cadets and officers was only one aspect of the Chaplains’ work. Moral and ethical guidance, aspects of leadership and team work, not forgetting a strong pastoral role are some of the other aspects required of a chaplain in the Navy. They also need cooking and organisational abilities as Fr. David Yates demonstrated during out short stop at HMS Sultan – it was handy that our visit coincided with the weekly bacon butty round at Aggies, where Fr. Yates donned his apron and fried the bacon. The Chaplaincy and Aggie Weston’s work closely together on Naval bases. Aggies is a charity that operates, along with the chaplaincy, through a network of havens on naval bases supporting service personal and their families.
Every base has its own role to fulfil in the training of members of the Navy. However, it struck me during our travels that each base has a strong sense of character and nowhere was the more apparent that at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Approaching in the pouring rain along the winding roads behind slow drivers and then driving up the hill through the trees to the impressive college building was an experience. Our visit was timed perfectly as Fr. Michael Sharkey, Rev. Keith Robus and the rest of the chaplaincy team had a team building day planned. It was an excellent day which allowed us to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work of the chaplaincy and understand the effort that goes into making it work… as well as enjoy the beautiful Devon countryside.
During our stay at the College we had the chance to observe a simulator class – which brought back some memories for me and to join cadets on the river as they prepared for the Maritime Assessed Realisitic Leadership assessment, or MARL exercises. These exercises involves the cadets spending a lot of time of the river, living in boats carrying out situations. Another interesting experience was joining a tour of the college, where amongst other things, I will remember the tour guide’s words that, at sea, even the most atheistic person turns to a higher power when confronted with bad weather or deep personal challenges
Our next stop was HMS Raleigh where we were able to witness the passing out parade, and join the Catholic community on the base for Mass in the chapel of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. We also witnessed how the classes offered by the chaplains differed from other experiences that the recruits might have in basic training and how the Navy core values or C2DRIL are conveyed through historical examples found in the Falklands War or the heroism of “Boy Cornwall”, a 16 year old who died in action at the Battle of Jutland in World War I.
Chris and I were also able to visit HMS Albion, as it prepared for its recommissioning. The chaplain, Fr. Charles Bruzon, also gave us a full tour of the vessel from the bridge down to a ‘wet’, or cup of tea, in a Marines barracks and then on to the galleys, chapel and the internal landing docks before we were treated to lunch in the Wardroom.
Two weeks was a perfect length of time in which to see the workings of the Royal Navy Chaplaincy. We also managed to sneak in a brief stop at the Royal Fleet Air Arm at RNAS Yeovilton, where Rev. Tommy Goodwin, gave us a whistle-stop tour of the base and the Memorial Church. It was an exhausting but fulfilling two weeks: meeting chaplains and the teams they work with throughout the Navy. The time with the chaplaincy served to remind me, of the vital importance of building community in any pastoral situation and something to be fostered sensitively and carefully.