Too Strict For Maturity?

PewSitter linked this WaTimes story on Denver’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary. While I realize there’s a desire among some for more rigor in seminaries (especially perhaps from those who will not return to one or ever attend one) does the strict monastic approach really prepare men for life as a parish priest?

In monastic life, there is a great freedom involved in the lifelong sacrifice for the good of the community. But I question it for clergy-in-training. It seems obvious that in parish life, there will not be the reinforcement of superiors, the two-by-two rule, or what is hung in one’s bedroom. I think a strict life protects the seminarian from mischief and worse, my question is: does it protect the priest from mischief and worse? In other words, does it retard the development of adult maturity we hope all of our priests possess?

My questions go beyond the obvious quick judgments of pre-conciliar/post-conciliar, good/bad kind of thing. The international nature of RMS is certainly appealing, and potentially enriching for the students. Certainly, I applaud no television. I wish the whole seminary system could get an honest look, though. It would seem more than a choice between pick-a-decade. I hope RMS isn’t touting seminary style from the 50’s, because lots of those guys left the priesthood, and a fraction of them had their own problems with predation, maturity, and the like.

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Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to Too Strict For Maturity?

  1. Sean says:

    It could be a good thing. I think it is positive to let people work through different avenues of discipline.

    One test would be to see what kind of human being emerges after the training. Do they have both human and professional excellence?

  2. dymphna says:

    If a man can’t get through the mild rigors of the seminary he has no business being ordained.

  3. CarpeNoctem says:

    As one with experience both in the military and as a priest, I am completely behind this idea that our seminaries need to be much tougher on discipline. Priesthood looks like something- it’s not a formless existence that one accidentally comes upon after exploration and experimentation. The seminaries need to step up and demand excellence and self-sacrifice from their students in the spiritual, intellectual, human, and pastoral dimensions that make for great priests. I think guys are up for that and enter with every intention to live up to that… but some do give it all, and some don’t.

    The model I witnessed in my formation was one of “quality control” rather than “quality assurance”. Guys were only challenged by ‘the system’ when they were completely “out of spec” in one or another way… not showing up to Mass, low grades, moral failure, etc. If you laid low and didn’t attract attention, you got none and simply passed through the system. “Quality assurance”, on the other hand, is a process of checking that all aspects of the ‘product’ are ‘in specification’, rather than waiting for a failure. This assurance model is the kind of model that our seminaries need to be following by strengthening their attention and efforts in molding a ‘priestly identity’ in their students… it is a more activist model and, indeed, some might call that being ‘strict’.

    Seminary is a very artificial and sterile environment. Yes, God is present and at work… the prayer and the struggle in community life is as real as it gets, but there is still something very artificial for one who will be deployed as a parish priest. But no matter how strict or lax the seminary is, I would say that nothing is a suitable preparation for the rigors of the priestly life. NOTHING. After what I thought was a pretty good formation program, which I worked at and saw myself grow in, I could have never imagined what would be asked of me when I presented myself for ordination on that May morning some years ago, now. Besides the everyday work of being a priest, I sometimes tremble at the thought of what I may be asked to do in the years to come in the event of continued financial disaster, civil unrest, church scandal, world war, religious persecution, or whatever there is to come. That is a test of character that I hope I am up to when the crap hits the rotating air-blowing device.

    I regret that my military training asked much more of me than the seminary ever did… to lead well, to follow better, to act with integrity and honor in all things, to be ready to give my life for my comrades-in-arms or the American way of life. Going out from training, we knew that it would be hard and the sacrifice would be great. I am most fortunate to have this ‘formation’ as part of my priesthood.

    The seminary was simply a place where if you passed most all your classes (which were not that tough at all) for 4-5 years and didn’t stand out as a troublemaker, you would probably be invited someday to be ordained a priest. Good seminarians busted their humps to pray, study, be present to the Church in the world, and pray some more. A fair number did what was necessary to be ‘politically correct’ with respect to prayer and studies. Some simply slid through (“C’s make degrees”). A few were scoundrels, most (but I fear not all) of whom were caught and kicked out.

    Is the military model the correct model for the seminary? Probably not. There are problems and excesses there too. But there are some good lessons to learn from it, which have made me a better priest in spite of my seminary formation. The military model is designed to give members an awareness, competence, and maturity for what one would be called on to do. At best, the seminary merely hinted at what was to come and placed me and my classmates out there on a hopeful bet that we were up to the job– a disservice to seminarians and to the Church.

  4. CarpeNoctem says:

    What, specifically, would I port over from the military model? A greater sense of accountability for oneself and to one’s peers and commanders. A more “professional” attitude about duties, responsibilities, and priviledges. Accountability for one’s physical and mental fitness. Inculcation of greater loyalty to and responsibility for one’s wing-man. Personal identification with the service, its heritage, its heroes, and its culture (‘once a Marine always a Marine’). Frequent “deployment exercises”, in this cases to operating parish churches, with specific, measurable learning objectives. A plan for ongoing education. Closed campuses for at least the early part of formation. Tough, constant critiques by instructors who are training their students as if their lives were on the line (because, whether a priest or a soldier… it is! No self-respecting drill sgt is going to allow an unsuitable recruit to potentially sit in the foxhole next to him for fear of his inability to be tough, loyal, faithful, and competent in the heat of battle.)

    I would argue these all develop, rather than hinder, maturity.

  5. Todd says:

    Nice testimony, Father. Though I never served in the military, many of my relatives did, including both my parents. I’ve seen much of what you describe in them and in friends.

    No system will be point-perfect, but it might serve the Church well to assess the formation of identifiably excellent priests and pinpoint the commonalities. Disciple for the sake of discipline strikes me as a potential exercise in S&M. Even as a pacifist, I can appreciate the discipline instilled by the military and the positive values it exemplifies.

  6. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Here in Japan a Neo-Catechumenate seminary was set up in one of the smallest diocese, that of Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku. The bishop of the diocese set up the seminary in defiance of the then prevailing consensus of the Bishops Conference at the time to have only two diocsan seminaries one based in Tokyo, and another on the southern island of Kyushu. The Vatican backed him, and a high ranking Curial Cardinal was sent to lay the foundation stone; the rest of the hierarchy were noticably absent. After a troubled history,including a troubling financial scandal that saw the Bishop in court as a defendant in a case brought by some concerned faithful of the diocese, the seminary it only ever had a handful of Japanese seminarians, the rest were imported from Hispanic countries. It was closed down by the present Bishop just over a year ago, following a very unsavory battle with Vatican Curial defenders of its role in the future needs of Japan.(Only one of those defenders has actually set foot on Japanese soil as far as I am aware.) Over its relatively short history it produced very few priests, and nearly all of them serve in the Diocese of Takamatsu. They were trained by non-Japanese priests and show very little understanding of Japanese language or culture. One Bishop, whose predecessor had reluctantly taken on priests who had studied at the seminary due to a lack of diocesan vocations, told me that since ordination only one of them has ever made a reasonable effort to learn the language. The others do the best they can with priests from neighboring parishes covering up in those areas where they can’t handle things.
    My own seminary experience was over thirty years ago, and included theological studies at the Pontifical University of Ireland, Maynooth, the national seminary for the whole of Ireland. As SVD’s we led a more liberal lifestyle, and of the 10 SVD’s ordained in 1975, 8 of us are still active in ministry around the world. The attrition rate among my diocesan classmates was a lot higher, and no further comment is necessary about the current state of the Irish church.

    Now I am part of our own seminary/formation community here in Japan. My main work, as a High School teacher, takes me away from the house for most of the day, but our own multi-national community of seminarians, a diverse mix of Japanese, Indonesians, Indians, Chinese,Vietnamese and a lone Slovak, who use Japanese as their common language, are maybe not your typical group of seminarians, but from what I have seen of their work in parish placements, or their attitude to studies etc., everything they do is marked by a strong sense of commitmemt and responsibility, even though the ‘house rules’, as distinct from our SVD Constitutions, could be written on the back of a postcard. Since their focus is on preparing to engage in mission work here in Japan their outside interests are varied to say the least, from working with the homeless to learning Japanese calligraphy and traditional Japanese poetry.
    Following their ordination, two will be ordained priests next month, and four more will be ordained deacons next spring, wherever they go, as long as they demonstrate a love of the Word of God, a commitment to being true pastors, and also show a care for their parishioners, along with a concommitant respect for Japanese culture and history, they will I believe make a positive contribution to the growth and life of the Christian community here in Japan. I know the good work their more recent predecessors have done and are doing, and have hope for the future.
    Before asking which seminary systems work, there is also a need to ask what sort of priesthood are we preparing them for, where they will work, and what are the real needs on the ground, and that may not necessarily mean training men for a model of priesthood that the the present crop of Diocesan ordinaries/Bishops are comfortable with. One would hope that the present “Year for Priest” might offer some pointers to the shape of presbyteral ministry in the next twenty or so years, but for that to be possible we will need not the holding up of models from the past, but an honest look at where were currently find ourselves, and the rich diversity of needs that present themselve right across the world, and not just in the narrow confines of Northern Europe or North America.

  7. Jimmy Mac says:

    Which would you rather have: tomatoes grown in a garden or a hot house?

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