BY SCO Admin | June 15 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Inspiration that led to a priestly vocation

— IAN DUNN speaks with Bishop Stephen Robson, the newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, about his priestly life in Scotland and the Vatican and outlines his thoughts on vocations

In the beginning was the bird. Bishop Stephen Robson, the newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh Archdiocese, was a teenage Anglican but a picture of a local priest holding a kestrel was to change his life.

“It was the summer before I went to university and I was living in Carlisle and the local priest Fr Frank Moulding was a great one for nursing animals back to health, and there was this picture of him with an injured kestrel in the paper,” he told The Scottish Catholic Observer. “I loved animals in those days, especially birds, so I went down to the parish house to see if I could see it.”

Although he had already given thought to Catholicism, it was a pivotal moment.

“Well, Fr Moulding and I just got on like a house on fire,” he said. “And I was down at the parish house every day that summer for instruction. He was a big influence on me.”


Conversion and vocation

Soon after, he converted to Catholicism, a decision the new bishop recalled as being ‘a huge thing for my parents’ who had raised him as an Anglican ‘but they were fine.’

When he went to university in Edinburgh he quickly became involved with the Jesuits at Sacred Heart Church. While helping in the parish there, another priest became a very significant influence, the faithful hospital chaplain in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh for 35 years.

“Fr Joseph Senespleda!” he said. “He and the other Jesuits took me under their wing, he was a typical Spaniard, with a very fiery Catholicism but a very warm man.”

Despite this, at university, when he felt a vocation calling him it was not to the Society of Jesus.

“I wanted to be a priest, but not a Jesuit,” the new Auxiliary Bishop said, and it is a decision that has allowed him to experience almost every aspect of pastoral life.

“It is amazing how things turn out,” he added. “The Indian Jesuit, Fr Herbert Alphonso, who was my doctoral supervisor in the Gregorian University in Rome was also Fr Senespleda’s best friend in the Jesuit Noviciate in Catalonia when they were young religious. Their strong influence on me was separated by 33 years. Both were a great blessing for me.”


Monastic and parish life

One particularly memorable period came after finishing seminary and, after early parish curacies, spending several years teaching at Blairs College when he made a decision to try his vocation to monastic life.

“I spent a year and a bit at Ampleforth Abbey,” he said. “It wasn’t for me, though, I was 37 then, too old, but I loved every minute of it.”

It was an experience, which he describes as ‘great formation’ noting the Benedictines ‘don’t take any prisoners just because you’re a priest’ and ‘monastic formation teaches you a lot about yourself.’

“It helps you to hold a mirror up to yourself and see your strengths,” he said. “And I discovered I was more gregarious than thought I was. It was also spiritually very formative for me. And the rule of St Benedict is still something I try to live in my day-to-day life as there is tremendous wisdom in it.”

He has also worked across the archdiocese as a parish priest, most recently in North Berwick and Dunbar and is conscious of the special privileges a parish priest enjoys in being present at the highest and lowest moments of parishioners’ lives.

“At rites of passage like that, people are very trusting, they are looking for someone to guide them,” he said. “It is also when people are most suggestible to Christ’s influence, not in an exploitive way, but if they have been foot loose with their Faith, say, you can help them come back to it at times like that.”



He did leave the people and parishes of the east coast behind in 1998, however, when he was appointed spiritual director of the Scots college in Rome.

“I didn’t have any expectations going to Rome really,” he said. “But it was an amazing experience, working with students—which I loved—but also because of when it was. The drama of the final days of Pope John Paul II, the conclave which of course we were involved with because of Cardinal Keith O’Brien and then when Pope Benedict took over, a new broom, for a time it felt like the whole world was centred on Rome.”

He also took advantage of his time in Rome to renew his studies winning the Bellarmine medal, which was awarded for the two best doctoral theses in theology by the Gregorian University in Rome in 2004 for his thesis on St Bernard’s spiritual theology. After that success he was due to return to Edinburgh.

“The cardinal asked me to stay on for another three years, and I asked him why?” Bishop Robson recalled. “And he turned away, as he often does at moments like that. He then turned back and said ‘I want you do study Canon law.’ This was just after Mgr John Barry (a former canon lawyer of St Andrews and Edinburgh Archdiocese) had died. So I studied Canon law and came home three years later.”


St Andrews and Edinburgh

On his return, Cardinal O’Brien made him chancellor of the archdiocese and it is clear that a close friendship developed.

“People think the cardinal is a man who likes getting his picture taken, they sometimes present that as a shallow thing, but he is actually a very humble man,” Bishop Robson said, his tone serious. “If he gets his photo taken it is to promote the Church; he is a very frugal man, who never spends a penny on himself and anyone who really knows him knows that.”

Those in the press who sometimes paint the cardinal as some ‘big ogre’ also have entirely the wrong impression, he insisted, saying ‘he’s a very loyal, thoughtful person’ and ‘he has his faults, like us all, but he’s the right man at the right time.’ “When Cardinal Winning—who I was a huge fan of—died, no one thought anyone could follow TJ Winning,” he said. “But I think Cardinal O’Brien has done it, though in a totally different way from Cardinal Winning.”


The Church

The two men have a good relationship and, clearly, they will now be working even more closely together, but the cardinal’s new auxiliary is aware of the broader burdens that come with being a Bishop of the Church.

“To be a leader in the Church today is difficult because people often don’t see the Church as a Sacramental reality any more, they see it more as an institution, so they see all the faults and imperfections,” he said, “but little else.”

“These are due to distortion of the Church by us. The Church has lots of faults, and lots of things need changed and renewed, but when people say: ‘I am leaving the Church because of this or that.’ Well, if you really loved Her, you would stay and do something about it.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robson is well aware of the challenges the Church faces.

“[Some say] the Church is a mess,” he said. “But the whole world is a mess, and yet in the middle of the mess is God and that is what the incarnation is all about. That God became a human being and came into the world in order to redeem it.

“The world Christ came into was a mess that didn’t want to have anything to do with Him. He didn’t come to save us because we were good, He came to save us because we needed redemption so if you are looking for a perfect Church in a perfect world you won’t find it this side of Heaven.”


Church teaching

His awareness of the Church’s imperfections should not be seen as any sort of uncertainty on its teachings, however, as Auxiliary Bishop Robson makes a robust defence of the rule of celibacy for priests.

“People say we will get married priests, it is just a question of time,” he said. “I don’t think it is going to happen and I don’t think it should happen.”

When the Church is emphasising ‘more than ever the Sacrament of Marriage, is the total covenant of giving of a man for a woman and a woman for a man, how can you have that and yet be a priest at the same time?’ he asked.

“If I was a married man, let me tell you my whole life would be revolving around my wife and children, not my work,” he said. He also has little truck with those who refer to ‘compulsory celibacy.’

“You even get some priests talking about ‘compulsory celibacy,’” he said. “[Now] you get six years to think about becoming a priest. I would love to have had kids and a family and I haven’t. But nobody ever held my hand behind my back. I knew what I was getting into.

“If it was just a practical issue, a married man could function as a priest but the issue is not what the priest does, but rather what a priest is and what he represents. The priest, like the bishop, has a spousal relationship with his people as symbolised, for example, by the bishop’s ring. And if you give yourself fully to your people I don’t see how you can also give yourself completely to your wife.”

Bishop Robson believes that there are still many young men waiting to hear the call of Christ and give themselves to His people. So much so, that he intends to make vocations a key aim of his Episcopal ministry.

“I don’t believe for one minute that God has stopped calling men,” he said. “We just need the right climate to attract people. I think a lot of young men and not so young men are really interested in the challenge of becoming a priest, they don’t get the opportunity to explore it.”

The new bishop is firm in his belief that ‘vocations work’ begins and ends with ‘personal relationships.’

“Christ didn’t say ‘I’m going to start my Church off so I need a programme, I need a pastoral plan,’” the auxiliary bishop said. “Jesus went to Peter and Andrew and said ‘follow me;’ ‘learn from me;’ ‘come and see!’ and ‘I call you friends’—things like that! If the bishop is interested in vocations, vocations will come. I think for most of us who are priests, there is someone that inspired us, that that made us think ‘I’d like to be like that.’”

The impression Auxiliary Bishop Stephen Robson gives is that the spiritual inspiration he received from Fr Frank Moulding, Fr Joseph Senespleda and Cardinal O’Brien is what he would most dearly love to pass on.


—Mgr Stephen Robson, the newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, after his Episcopal ordination with his family with principal celebrant and consecrator Cardinal Keith O’Brien, co-consecrators Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Mennini, visiting bishops, chapter of Canons and Dr Alison Elliot of the Church of Scotland             PIC: PAUL McSHERRY


Leave a Reply

latest features

Africa has much to teach us and give

April 24th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

I can still remember when Sr Stella Niwagira arrived in...

Meet the individuals thriving because of donations to SCIAF

April 12th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Ryan McDougall tells the stories of two previously impoverished African...

Education and lessons learned from a Ugandan aid trip

April 10th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

Peter Galloway reflects upon a recent aid trip to Uganda,...

We need to spread the love, Wuhan Catholic writes

March 30th, 2020 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS

In a special report, a Catholic living in Wuhan, the...

Social media

Latest edition


exclusively in the paper

  • Unite in prayer against the virus, Paisley bishop pleads
  • Papal award recognises 60 years of Faithful service
  • Catholic high school leads trend with positive outcomes for pupils
  • New memorials celebrate Croy’s proud mining heritage
  • Top Catholic university rolls out programme in Scotland

Previous editions

Previous editions of the Scottish Catholic Observer newspaper are only available to subscribed Members. To download previous editions of the paper, please subscribe.

note: registered members only.

Read the SCO