When the board of the largest Catholic university in Britain tried to recruit Francis Campbell as its vice-chancellor in 2013, he was intent on turning it down.

“If somebody had said to me then, ‘Where will you be in 10 years?’, I would have said, ‘In another diplomatic posting,’ ” insists the former British ambassador to the Holy See.

Considering the series of crises St Mary’s was undergoing at the time, one could hardly blame him. His predecessor had just stepped down after facing heavy criticism for merging the school of theology, philosophy and history with the school of communications, culture and creative arts – a move critics felt would undermine the school’s Catholic ethos. The dispute had became acrimonious, leading to the departure of staff members.

Simultaneously, the Quality Assurance Agency had launched an investigation into a hypnosis course being offered by the university. Its report found a series of failings that it said were putting academic standards at risk.

Campbell had even composed an email declining the position, but chose not to send it. “I thought I’d wait as I was going to Mass in Westminster Cathedral … and when I came back I was in a different frame of mind.”

That “different frame of mind” was, he says, to be open to a request. “You are asked to discern and it’s not always down to your will,” he says. “There is this wonderful lesson from Newman about not knowing at times what your purpose is, but at the end all will be reconciled.”

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