A ‘Home Away From Home’ Ignites the Faith
Father Lawrence Lew, O.P. was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, into a devout Christian family; he attended a Brethren church, though most of his family became evangelical Pentecostalists.
Today, he is a Dominican at the University of Edinburgh chaplaincy of St Albert, one of a long line of Dominicans in Scotland dating from the 1200s. He is also spearheading an unlikely movement of Scottish Catholicism on the university campuses – famously the cradle of 18th century Enlightenment ideas, 19th century liberalism and today’s fashionable atheism.
Amazingly, students from both Catholic and non-Catholic backgrounds are finding their way to the Dominicans’ doors, discovering the ancient Faith there. Father Lew graciously welcomed Regina Magazine to the Edinburgh Chaplaincy, where he discussed his life and his work.
Can you tell us about your vocation?
From my family I inherited a love for Christ, a veneration of the Scriptures, and a zeal for preaching the Gospel of salvation. As a child I remember three-hour long church services with sermons lasting almost an hour and I would have to sit silently through it all. To occupy myself, when I was old enough to read, I perused the Bible or a hymn book.
Perhaps this is where my love for church music originated. However, services were very word-based. There was no art whatsoever in the church, no feast days, no liturgy as such – just hymns and sermons.
How were you exposed to Catholicism?
When I entered a Catholic boys’ secondary school run by the De La Salle brothers in Singapore, my world was opened up to the Church and our Faith in its fullness. Here was a world of Liturgy, Church history, an intellectual and theological tradition, saints and their spirituality, the finest art, architecture and music of Christendom, and all the elements of culture and practical wisdom and moral action that made up Christian (and Western) civilization. In short, I discovered Catholicism, and I have been fascinated with it ever since. That adventure began when I asked to be baptized at the age of 15.
You have a deep interest in sacred music, as well.
Throughout my undergraduate years reading law at Leeds University, I sang in the Cathedral choir where I had been awarded a choral scholarship, and this exposed me to the Church’s treasury of sacred music as well as the best of the fine Anglican choral tradition. As a result of all this I am acquainted with Christian music from Gregorian chant to the contemporary ‘praise and worship’ genre, and during my time in the Philippines as a lay volunteer with the Dominicans, I also was exposed to inculturated forms of church music and art.
How did you find the Dominicans?
Upon graduation, I began my theological training as a seminarian for the diocese of Leeds. This was interrupted for two years when I spent a year in Manila, the Philippines, and during this time I discerned a call to religious life, and more specifically, with the Dominicans.
Underlying this was my love for theology especially as taught by St Thomas Aquinas, a desire to explain the Faith (something I had been doing since my teenage years when I had to explain the reasons for converting to my family), the need for community life, and the evangelical zeal of my childhood. With a lawyer’s attention to making distinctions in argumentation, and a love for words and their power to convince and persuade, the vocation of a friar preacher seemed a good fit.
As a Dominican novice I spent a year in Cambridge and in that picturesque and historic town I began my exploration of the world of photography. This continued in Oxford where I spent five years engaged in philosophical and theological studies until my Ordination in September 2011.
Everywhere in Scotland, people kept pointing us to the chaplaincies at the universities. Why is this?
One’s undergraduate years are the first time one has genuine independence of one’s family. Living with new friends and in a new context offers one a chance to, as it were, start anew and build one’s identity as an adult. As such, one experiences freedom by which I mean that real decisions need to be made which determine one’s course in life.
In an unprecedented way the teenager actually has a choice, and one’s Faith is part of a whole gamut of choices that need to be made by the young adult. Obviously, our human freedom is given to us by God so that we can choose that which is good and true, and ultimately, choose to love. The more we do so, the more free we become. As St Paul says: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).
Hence, I often stress in the first Sunday sermon of the new academic year that one has come to university to seek Truth, for only Truth is worth living and dying for, and the Truth, of course, is a person whom we can encounter and come to know better.
Why do students seek out the Dominican chaplaincy?
The students who come to the Chaplaincy have made an active choice to engage with their Faith, and to seek Christ; to seek Truth. The students who come to St Albert’s know that they can meet other young people who are similarly interested in their Faith, and as chaplains we aim to be available to them to help them find answers to the questions they have about the Faith and about living the Christian life and building a civilization of love, as Pope St John Paul II called it.
Many come because in the university they are being challenged by their peers and their courses and readings to think about their faith. As Chesterton might have said, Catholic Chaplaincies have become societies for the sane, a light in the darkness. And this, I think, is why they thrive as communities, and the people who spend time in them grow as human beings – they flourish in faith, in fellowship and in friendship. In short, they learn to love God and neighbour as Christians are called to do.
Are the Scottish Catholic students well catechized?
A very small number of Catholics who come to St Albert’s are quite well-catechized – mainly thanks to the ‘Faith’ movement. However, the vast majority are sorely in need of catechesis, even about basic things, and we try to provide this.
But I don’t think the answer is just to have more or better catechesis. The great difficulty is for Catholics of all ages to be engaged with the Faith; to have confidence that this is Truth, and as such, is worth knowing and living for.
The problem, I think, is that many people are practical agnostics, uncertain about the possibility of finding truth at all. So, the “dictatorship of relativism “, as Pope Benedict XVI famously put it has led to a situation in which Catholics do not know if their faith is true, and as such, they’re not really interested in finding out more about it. Much more ‘interesting’, given the demands on our time, are the practical truths and certainties of day-to-day life that have tangible results.
Many, for example, will spend more time in the gym than in prayer and study of the Faith. But as Jesus said: “What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36). For all intents and purposes, one only spends under an hour in church each week; no relationship with Christ can be built up on that.
Do international students seek out your Chaplaincy as well?
Yes, indeed. One young and bright Irish Catholic student, had been educated in Catholic schools and received all the sacraments of initiation, served Mass in his parish, and so on. However, he left Ireland and came to university in Scotland with what he termed a “Sunday faith”. Through his engagement with the Pro-Life society established by our students in the university, he became more interested in the Faith, and he came to more talks in the Chaplaincy, and began to read more. Eventually, he started to read the Catechism, and this, he says, transformed his life. He is now one of our most keen students, coming to Morning Prayer at 8am every day, enthusing others to do so, and is a keen (and perhaps sometimes over-zealous) apologist for the Faith.
Another student, who came for one semester from the USA, was initially wary about having priests around the common room, but she came to realize that we were harmless, and that she could ask us questions and relax with us. She wrote to us at the end of the year, saying: “I now quite firmly believe that God led me to Scotland to find the Chaplaincy. I’ve learned that vulnerability and strength are indeed compatible in this crazy thing called love, and that if we submit ourselves fully to it, it will guide our every action and thought. It’s not something you do, it something you become… My faith is no longer an additional hobby but rather it is who I am”.
A HOME AWAY FROM HOME: “I had no idea when I picked Edinburgh that I would find this community. I have found a home not only with the people of the Chaplaincy, but I have found once again my Catholic home,” said one Australian student. For this reason, we say at the start of each year when we meet new students that St Albert’s is here to be their “home away from home”! And many certainly make themselves very much at home here, even leaving a mess for mum and dad to clear up!
How is it that your Chaplaincy is so successful in this world of ‘practical agnosticism’?
For all the evidence I’ve seen shows that if a Catholic wants to grow in his love for Christ, then he or she needs to invest time and energies every day in prayer, reading about the Faith, finding out about the Liturgy. We now have more access to all this than ever before thanks to the internet.
So, it’s not so much catechesis that we need, but an encounter with Christ and to stir up a desire to seek and know Him. This, I think, is why the new movements like ‘Youth 2000’ are so successful, and it’s also why the community life and joy that are evident in our Chaplaincy is so important. The desire for catechesis is born of this first encounter with a living Catholic community.
Have you had any religious vocations emerge from these chaplaincies? Catholic marriages?
Yes. One of the recent former Presidents of the student committee is currently a Dominican student in Blackfriars Oxford. This summer, too, a former student was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and another former student made her solemn profession last summer with the Benedictine nuns in St Cecilia’s, Ryde.
As Vocations Director of the English Dominican Province, I also see a number of students who are thinking about their vocation. This year we hosted a Month for Vocations, with talks by married couples, Dominican sisters, and a secular priest, and as the Year for Consecrated Life approaches, we will be speaking more about religious life too.
A special joy for us this year has been the number of Catholic engagements and marriages. A couple married last summer have had their first child and I baptized him this month; the family come to St Albert’s every Sunday. Also this month, I married a Catholic couple here in St Albert’s; the bride had been received into the Catholic Church here a few years ago. And we have had three other couples – all Catholics – announce their engagements this year.
I am convinced that we need good Catholic marriages and families, so this is a special joy for me, even if it means sacrificing a few good men whom I had hoped might have become Dominican friars!