Monday, April 15, 2002

Seminary Experiences Part II

This is a continuation of a post that I started a week ago.

After graduating from Saint Meinrad College, I was enrolled in a Major Seminary in the southern part of the United States. This seminary, unlike St. Meinrad, had the reputation of being "conservative." The criteria for this was essentially that there was a dress code and you were expected to be at every seminary function. My experiences at this school were mostly positive.

I was approached early on by one gay seminarian, who also boasted that he had paid for the abortion of a woman who worked for his father in the diocesan pro life office. This man was kicked out eventually and died of AIDS a few years ago. After that no one bothered me at the school and in contrast to the other seminary it seemed that there were no gay students. But of course later on, I found out that there actually had been a number of students who were, yet due to the nature of the place it was more hidden at this school.

A problem that did exist and it amazed me then and as I think back it amazes me even more today. Is the lack of faith that was often exhibited in the classrooms. I will tell a story, one that I wrote some years ago and originally was published in the New Oxford Review. Here it is:

Tom showed up at the seminary wearing a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and the two sandals that were on his feet. The first time I saw him, I remember asking him why he wasn't dressed in the seminary's required black pants and white shirt. His reply was that what he had on was all he now owned.
Tom was 33, and had worked for most of his life in construction. He had owned a decent plot of land, on which he had lived in a home that also was his. He lived a normal bachelor's life until one day he had an experience that changed his life. The Gospel became alive for him. Suddenly he understood the urgency of the call of Jesus in a way that he never had before.
At that moment, unlike the rich young man in the gospel, he answered the invitation of Jesus and sold everything giving the money to his widowed mother, and to various brothers and sisters who he felt needed the money more than he. Now he was entering the seminary with only one pair of clothes, and his deep desire to follow Christ.
From the start he was on a collision course; his strong belief in the gospel, a belief he had acted on challenged everyone who met him.
Seminaries attract all kinds of men, and Tom couldn't belief the lack of belief he encountered in some of them. They would question him as to how he could give up everything for the gospel, didn't he know that these stories weren't to be taken that seriously?
At first Tom stood up to them when they belittled his faith. He would challenge them, asking: "how can you give up a normal married life?" They would answer with a flippant response, something to the effect that they doubted they would marry even if they were not ordained a priest. In other words they didn't see the gospel message as something that required you to "give something up."
As time went on, I noticed a change in Tom. He started doubting his own conversion experience. He wondered what had made him take the gospel so seriously. He started referring to himself as a fool. That is what the others were saying about him; they must be right.
His responses to their attacks became less enthusiastic, in fact he started to doubt the whole thing. Confronted with the mixed motivations of the other seminarians that he encountered, he started wondering what had motivated him to come to his decision to leave everything and follow Christ.
This happened at the same time that everything he believed in the Scriptures seemed to be called into question. Suddenly he was being told that the Red Sea was probably a swamp called the "reed sea", that most of the miracles in the Bible had a natural explanation and could teach us something if we could get over trying to prove them as acts that were supernatural.
The last straw for Tom in all of this was reached one day in a Scripture class. The discussion that day focused on the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. The professor speaking on the passage spoke of the symbolic meaning of Jesus walking on the water was that he had overcome death, (something of a miracle in and of itself, I would say).
Tom raised his hand. "Yes, Tom," the professor said.
"Do you mean that Jesus didn't really walk on water?" he asked.
"Probably not," the professor replied.
Tom got up and yelled, "run away," and walked out the door. Some laughed and others looked worried. The professor went on with class.
I spoke with Tom after the class. "Its all a lie," he said.
"Tom, he didn't say that it didn't happen, he said the necessary part of the story wasn't whether Jesus really walked on water or not, but that the passage teaches us that Jesus was victorious over death," I said.
"I've been a fool, to believe all this stuff," not really hearing what I had said, he replied looking off in the distance.
From that day on, he sought to learn all that he could about these new interpretations of the Scriptures. He would sit at the entrance of the library and engage anyone who entered with conversation of his latest find. "Hey, it says here that the mystery religions were doing what Christianity supposedly discovered, centuries before."
"Your finally getting it, Moses (Tom's nickname)," they would reply.
It was sad. This modern day St. Francis was being swayed, not so much by the seminary, as the evil that lies within all of us that doesn't like to see someone answering the call of Jesus better than we.
The day came when he told me, what I already had suspected, he had decided that he was going to leave the seminary. The idea of being a priest no longer interested him; his faith now in shambles.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"I'll go back to construction work, I talked with my brother and he says he can get me a job."
Before he left, there was one more ritual that he wanted to do. He planned it with great ceremony. On the day that he left the seminary he was going to go down to a pond that was located on the seminary property, take off his sandals and throw them out to the middle of the pond. "It will be a kind of shaking off the dust of this place and drowning it," he said.
The day came for this ceremony and about five of Tom's friends gathered around him. He stood facing us, with his back to the pond, sandals on his feet.
"I came here because I believed," he started. "Now I don't," he reached down grabbed his sandals and flung them like Frisbees across the pond out into the center. He walked away from the pond barefoot.
I missed Tom the next year at the seminary. He always offered a concrete challenge to speculations, that are often taught as fact. But his presence was felt even though he was long gone.
I fished in the seminary pond almost every day, and as I would cast my line out into the water, my eyes would catch sight of something moving in the middle of the pond. There they were, Tom's sandals floating upright side by side. They were there for everyone to see. It was like some man, hidden from our view, wore them as he walked on water.


The above story is true. I recall the first time I spotted the sandals I was with some friends fishing and we saw something moving in the water. It took awhile, before anyone figured out that they were the sandals that Tom had flung out their the year before.

I went back to teach at the seminary for a few years. While there I wrote an article that was published in The Priest magazine. When I reread it a few days ago (almost ten years after it was published) it confirmed my memories that what we read about now in the papers is something that has been known about and ignored for the most part for many years. Here is the article:

Few are Chosen

The condom lying on the shower grate disturbed the seminarian. He was walking in to use the shower on a Monday morning and he noticed it lying there, in one of the public showers shared by the seminarians at the seminary. He wasn't sure what it signified. Had another seminarian had sex with someone in this shower or had someone used the condom in some act of autoerotism? Who had left it there and why? Was it left there as an act of defiance or was it a cry for help, to be delivered from a way of life the individual did not feel authentically called to?
I could answer none of the seminarian's speculations, but could only face with him the difficulty of making sense of someone else's struggle. Why would someone who obviously was struggling with the idea of celibacy not come forth openly and perhaps discern that God was calling him to give service to the Church in some other fashion?
Pope John Paul II in speaking to the Bishops of the United States making their Ad Limina visit to Rome in 1993 said with regard to the formation of priests: "The failures of a small number of clerics make it all the more important that seminary formation discern scrupulously the charism of celibacy among candidates for the priesthood."
I think anyone who has worked in formation work would readily agree that this is both necessary and needed. Over the past two years I have worked in seminary formation. I am proud of what we have tried to accomplish here, yet would be the first to admit that this type of work is difficult. There are real problems that one encounters in trying to facilitate discernment among those who feel called by God to serve the church as ordained celibate priests.
The first problem one encounters is that many candidates feel that the process of discernment is finished on the day they are accepted by a diocese and enter a seminary. Their view of discernment is entirely external. They reason, "If God wants me to be a priest, they (the institutional church) will accept me." This method of discernment fails, in that it does not take into account the inner life of the seminarian. Does he fit into the institution? Can he live a celibate life?
Candidates who approach their formation in this way live two lives. They act and speak in the way they feel they should when they are under the watchful eye of their vocation director or seminary formation team. In the modern situation this comes to include using the current glib phrases.
I have sat in admissions interviews with candidates who when asked simple questions answer them like politicians. They speak of collaboration, the need to use inclusive language, and whatever else happens to be in vogue in seminary circles at the time. What is troublesome about this is that it is clearly said not out of any heartfelt commitment, but rather out of the same rote memorization that allowed a generation of Catholics trained in the Baltimore Catechism to give the right answers, regardless if they understood what they meant.
There is no area that one encounters this mechanical routine of someone rattling off the supposed required answers, then when the candidate is questioned about his ability to live a chaste celibate life. You would think that the candidates, regardless of their age, have never had an unchaste thought for their entire life. It gets to the point that when someone actually answers the questions honestly, they appear to be somewhat perverted.
The seminary and consequently the church is presented with inauthentic individuals, who sufficiently pass all of the required tests and are ordained after a period of preparation. The individuals who leave discernment of their vocation to the institutional church either continue to live a double life, or find that they have lost their true identity and give the appearance to the people they serve of being emotionally dead.
The second problem is that the clerical environment is like a club or a fraternity to which prospective priests will do anything to join. They tend to form into subgroups that protect them and support them in whatever might exclude them if they were found out. So one finds subgroups within the seminary environment of practicing homosexuals and heterosexuals. If someone in the group is caught, the rest of the group quickly closes in and turns on the individual claiming that the person was acting out alone. This leads to the formation of clerics that are not only leading a double life but also are quite accustomed to lying.
These subgroups not only involve sexuality, but also form according to ideology. So there are groups who wish that the Church would revert back to Latin, and there are groups that will not be satisfied until every member of the body of Christ is ordained.
Seminarians usually learn this behavior from members of the ordained clergy who they have befriended according to their personal situation. A student entering the seminary coming from a conservative background is warned by conservative priests not to let them know what you really think. The problem with this is that after a while the student no longer knows what he believes. Seminarians who are struggling with a homosexual lifestyle, have been warned by actively homosexual priests not to let anyone in the seminary system know of their orientation.
One might wonder about the spiritual life of such seminarians. Their clerical relationships usually began under the guise of spiritual direction, and no doubt have been told by such priests that their inauthentic lifestyle is okay with God, regardless of what the Church teaches. The result of course is a very confused individual, who after ordination has to answer for a church that teaches doctrine that the individual himself has long since stopped believing in, if in fact he ever believed it at all.
A third problem is that vocation directors and formation directors are concerned more with declining numbers than they are about the individuals who come to them for discernment. There are exceptions and they tend to be those who do vocation or formation work full time rather than as another job added to their already overloaded job description.
Seminarian's know the situation for what it is, and when a seminarian is dropped by a diocese that takes discernment seriously, they immediately gravitate to a diocese known to accept anyone. Bishop's fall into this trap when they believe that a candidate has been dropped either because they were too conservative or too liberal, which is almost never the case.
I know of a situation where a seminarian was dropped by his diocese when a woman came forward to the seminary claiming to have been sexually active with the man on weekends during his time at that institution. He left the seminary believing that an injustice had been done to him, never seeing the incompatibility of being sexually active and preparing to live a celibate life.
The Bishop of this young man was shocked to meet him at a liturgical function in another diocese within six months after he had been dismissed from the seminary. He was now a seminarian for that diocese. The new sponsoring diocese had never contacted their new seminarian's previous seminary or his former diocese. They had no idea why he was dropped from the formation program other than what he chose to tell them, which was that the seminary had dropped him because he was too conservative.
The screening of candidates for the ordained priesthood is very much at the discretion of the people that have been given that mission within a particular diocese. It would be wrong to blame the Holy Spirit on the haphazard fashion in which this is carried out. Some dioceses have groups made up of both clergy and lay people; others have one priest making all the decisions.
Bishops who experience great problems in their diocese, with regard to the discipline of priestly celibacy, need to look no further than the vocation office and the seminary in which the priest was trained. Vocation directors need to be less concerned about numbers and more concerned about the quality of the candidates they send to the seminary. Formation teams need to be more scrupulous in discerning whether someone has the charism of celibacy, and less forgiving when candidates clearly do not..
I have a friend who recently left the active priesthood. The seminary that he went to was aware that he was a marginal candidate because of a difficult childhood. They sent him to a psychologist who administered a variety of tests. At the conclusion of the tests the psychologist who happened to be Jewish, told the seminarian, "These tests make it appear that you are going to have a very difficult time living a celibate life." He advised my friend to leave the seminary.
The reaction of the seminary that had sent him in the first place, was to question the motives of the psychologist in coming up with his evidently unwelcome comments to my friend. The rector of the seminary questioned the veracity of the results because the psychologist was a "non-Christian" and did not share our values. The rector wanted to give my friend a chance, and my friend under the dream like state of desiring ordination took that chance.
He went on to be ordained, because he believed those in charge of his formation were able to discern something that the tests of the psychologist could not measure. But the insight of the psychologist proved to be prophetic, my friend had problems with celibacy throughout his life as an ordained priest, until finally he left. He now is happily married. But had the screening process been allowed to function, much scandal could have been avoided.
I have been struck at times how unwilling the church represented by those entrusted with this mission are reluctant to do what the Pope John Paul II is calling for: the scrupulous screening and discerning of candidates who have the charism of celibacy to do their job faithfully. Rather many seem bent on preparing candidates for a church that does not exist, however it is hard to blame them, for many of them were prepared for a church that itself no longer exists.
I remember some years ago while I was a student myself at a seminary; there was grave concern over the rampant active homosexual activity going on at the campus. The concern came not from the clerical staff, but from the student body. A friend of mine went to one of the priest faculty members and told him of his concern. The priest's response was to tell my friend, "You and the bishops will have to get used to an actively homosexual priesthood." My friend, unwilling to accept that proposition left the seminary and married several years later.
It is time for those entrusted with formation of priestly candidates to take a strong stand in favor of celibacy, and stop wishing for something other than what the church is currently practicing. The seminary as it now exists will have to change its attitude toward those who come to discern a vocation from God.
Some way must be found that will allow for individuals to discern the charism of celibacy in their lives in a non-clerical environment. A formation that allows the individual to be authentically who he is. Many, if not most, will find that they do not have the charism to live a celibate life, when they are freed from the pressures of their friends to go ahead anyway awaiting a new church that does not exist in the present.
This will mean a drastic drop in enrollment in seminaries. Fewer men will be ordained. Yet the situation will be more realistic. Those ordained will have truly discerned that they have been blessed with the charism to live a chaste celibate life, and will bless the church with their service. What would change, is that there would be no illusion of a large presbyterate made up of healthy celibates, something that does not exist now.
I have no doubt that most of the people who come to a vocation director in any given diocese truly feel called by God to be a priest. "Many are called, but few are chosen," Our Lord said. At this time the Roman Catholic Church has decided to choose only celibate males, the others who are called will have to wait, until the church decides to choose others.