"It's real all of a sudden – I've been speaking about going to seminary for about two years and it's now happening. There's excitement, nervousness, but I'm ready."
For Joseph Champion-Williams, a "big adventure" began in earnest in mid-September when the 21-year-old from Liverpool travelled to the Royal English College, Valladolid. In the north-central Spanish city he is embarking upon a propaedeutic year which, in short, represents "an introduction to seminary – to prepare you for major seminary if you have discerned that that's what's right for you.
"I feel really privileged to be given this opportunity by the Church, to pray, to focus, to learn more about my faith and what I'm called to," added the politics and international relations graduate, who will chart his progress in a monthly article for the Pic.
Joe's move to Valladolid comes almost three years after a life-changing trip to Everest – "I just remember being overcome by the beauty of the world and feeling a strong sense of Jesus asking me to be a priest in His Church" – and his subsequent period of discernment dovetailed with his degree and work as a resident tutor at Liverpool Hope University. "To now have a year to focus fully on the priesthood should give me more trust and more peace in my decision," he said.
At the English College (informally, 'San Albano'), Joe and four fellow students will study the Catechism with the Rector, Monsignor John Pardo, in addition to attending guest lectures and Spanish classes. There will also be the chance "to experience a culture of Catholicism" with trips to places like Avila and Santiago de Compostela. "I've lived outside home for three years at university, but I've never left Liverpool properly so I can't wait to get out there," enthused Joe.
The keen Evertonian and former army reservist arrives at this juncture buoyed by his summer experiences of assisting Father James Preston at Saint Charles Borromeo, Aigburth and representing the Archdiocese at World Youth Day. The Krakow trip, he said, confirmed "for someone entering training to become a priest" that there is a future for the Church.
His parish work alongside Father James, the diocesan vocations director, reprised a similar placement of 12 months ago. "I came to live in the parish in June 2015 and worked for the summer, then went back to university halls to do pastoral work. I still went to give Holy Communion every week to a lady, and I served Mass every weekend and ran the youth group. Having worked back at St Charles this summer with Father James, I feel completely safe with the idea of Valladolid."
Indeed Joe cites Father James, as well as spiritual director Monsignor John Walsh, among the "many examples of priests who've kept me going", and traces his own vocation back to an "innate desire to serve people" which originally took the form of a wish to join the Armed Forces.
"I was in the army reserve and that's how I got the opportunity to go to Nepal but reconnecting with my faith in sixth form and then university, I realised I was called to serve in a different way – through the priesthood. In Nepal I heard Him calling – it's a big jump, but make the jump and He'll catch you."