During all his student years he had hoped to be a missioner in Wales, but at Cardinal Wiseman’s call he now accepted the position of vice-president at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, at that time, the chief seminary for candidates for the priesthood in the south of England. With his post in view, he embarked on a voyage of discovery among the seminaries of Italy, France, and Germany to acquaint himself with the current views concerning the formation of secular clergy and found himself impressed by the College of Propaganda in Rome. He arrived in Ware in the autumn of 1855, and though not yet at the canonical age for the priesthood, and younger than some of the students, he was already vice-president at St. Edmund’s.
At this time, Cardinal Wiseman was also granting permission to Msgr. Henry E. Manning to establish the Congregation of the Oblates, whose work with the poor Vaughan was especially interested in. In 1857 he became an Oblate, which placed him in an awkward position at St. Edmund’s, for Manning was widely suspected of wanting to bring all ecclesiastical education for southern England under the Oblates. The subsequent controversy went to Rome where the Pope ordered the Oblates to withdraw from St. Edmund’s and Vaughan saw no recourse but to follow suit.
The Missionary Challenge
Vaughan looked back upon his work at St. Edmund’s with a sad sense of frustration. The disappointment worked in two ways. He began to look for external work in the immediate present and, for the future, he dreamed dreams. He collected money and built a church in the county town, Hertford, and founded a mission at Enfield. But he wanted to do something great for God. Since he was a boy his constant prayer had been that whatever else was withheld he might live an intense life. He resolved to consecrate himself to the service of the Foreign Missions. Blessed Peter Claver was his ideal hero and saint, and his first purpose was to go himself to Africa or Japan.
In the 1860s, the British Empire was expanding; British influence was spreading wider. Other European countries like France, Germany, Holland, Belgium all had major overseas possessions scattered across the globe and vied with one another to ensure ‘a place in the sun’. Herbert noted the energy and enthusiasm that many people expended on exploration, on trading, on establishing new colonies. They took great risks, they established heroic feats – hoping to become rich and famous. Herbert felt that Catholics ought to show comparable energy and enthusiasm for God’s Kingdom. He wasn’t a man just to have dreams; he was a man of action. By temperament unable to do nothing, and feeling reproached by the expanding missionary outreach of Protestant missionary societies as well as continental Catholics, Vaughan set off on another tour, this time in search of a model of a mission-sending seminary that could be transplanted in England.
The huge difficulties
Mid-nineteenth century England was hardly the ideal place or time to make such a beginning. Catholics were largely a poor minority, most of them immigrants from Ireland – crowded into the bustling industrial towns and cities, into the mining villages. Priests were needed to minister to these people. The Hierarchy had been restored only recently in England and Wales. In Ireland too the Church was still in the process of recovery from centuries of persecution. The ravages of the Great Famine and mass emigration added to the Church’s problems.