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Online Edition - Vol. V, No. 6: September 1999

"I Will Give You Shepherds"

Are American Seminaries "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" into the New Millenium?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

"A totally necessary aspect of the formation of every priest is liturgical formation". -- Pope John Paul II

"It seems to me that the vocation 'crisis' is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda..." -- Archbishop Elden Curtiss

"For the priest", wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1992 Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, "the truly central place, both in his ministry and spiritual life, belongs to the Eucharist, since in it is contained 'the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch and the living bread which gives life to men through His flesh that flesh which is given life and gives life through the Holy Spirit. Thus people are invited and led to offer themselves, their works and all creation with Christ' ".

At the time the Holy Father wrote this exhortation on the formation of priests, it was generally believed that the Church in America was plunged deep into a "vocations crisis" from which it would be virtually impossible to emerge.

There seemed good reason for the gloom. The Church had not recovered from the hemorrhage from the priesthood and religious life following the Second Vatican Council, and few dioceses were attracting more than a handful of men. Seminary facilities built for a hundred or more men were being recycled as retreat centers, sold to Protestant denominations or standing derelict. Doomsayers with an agenda insisted that the Catholic Church would have to ordain women and married men in order to survive.

The situation became the subject of considerable speculation in the Catholic press. Some, predictably, blamed shrinking vocations on celibacy. Some attributed low seminary enrollments and relatively high dropouts to widespread rejection by young people of authority of any kind. Others, including many feminists, saw the priest shortage as "prophetic": many hoped it would help spur a revolutionary change in the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood to accommodate feminist demands for "equal power" in the Church; while other "liberationists" saw it as presaging a revolution and the demise of the hierarchical structure of the Church.

The low number of vocations and poor seminary training has long been a subject of concern. In 1988 the late Bishop John Marshall of Burlington reported to the bishops on a Vatican-commissioned study of seminaries. The study had revealed serious deficiencies, including confusion and dissent concerning key Church teachings even about the meaning of the priesthood.

Pope John Paul II devoted the 1990 Synod of Bishops to the theme, "The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day". Bishops from every country in Europe and from most other countries were present, and many bishops presented interventions.

Liturgical formation essential

The pope's post-synodal apostolic letter, Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I will give you shepherds"), reflected much of what the bishops said but went further, giving broad outlines of the Church's response to what he acknowledged was a "grave crisis".

He strongly emphasized the need for sound prayer formation: "a fundamental condition" for priestly ministry is "a loving knowledge of the Word of God and a prayerful familiarity with it", said the pope. And "the first and fundamental manner of responding to the Word is prayer", because a priest is not only to be a "teacher of prayer", but this will be a source of his own continuing formation. Prayer is necessary to his "deep intimacy with God".

"The high point of Christian prayer is the Eucharist, which in its turn is to be seen as the 'summit and source' of the sacraments", the Holy Father wrote. Thus, "a totally necessary aspect of the formation of every priest is liturgical formation".

To be utterly frank and clear, I would like to say once again: It is fitting that seminarians take part every day in the Eucharistic celebration, in such a way that afterward they will take up as a rule of their priestly life this daily celebration. They should, moreover, be trained to consider the Eucharistic celebration as the essential moment of their day, in which they will take an active part and at which they will never be satisfied with a merely habitual attendance. Finally, candidates to the priesthood will be trained to share in the intimate dispositions which the Eucharist fosters: gratitude for heavenly benefits received, because the Eucharist is thanksgiving; an attitude of self-offering, which will impel them to unite the offering of themselves to the Eucharistic offering of Christ's charity nourished by a sacrament which is a sign of unity and sharing; the yearning to contemplate and bow in adoration before Christ, who is really present under the Eucharistic species. (PDV 47, 48 - original emphasis.)

What caused the "vocations crisis"?

Some bishops began at once to improve the seminaries in their dioceses, and to initiate programs to increase vocations, but serious problems continued.

"When dioceses and religious communities are unambiguous about ordained priesthood", wrote Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha in his candid 1995 article, "Crisis in Vocations? What Crisis?": "when there is strong support for vocations and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life loyal to the Magisterium; when bishops, priests, religious and lay people are united in vocation ministry, then there are documented increases in the numbers of candidates who respond to the call".

"It seems to me that the vocation 'crisis' is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines the ministries", said Archbishop Curtiss. "The same people who precipitate a decline in vocations by their negative actions call for the ordination of married men and women to replace the vocations they have discouraged" (Our Sunday Visitor, October 8, 1995, p. 1).

Signs of spring

Although seminary problems continue, recent years have seen promising changes. The essays in this edition of AB by two young Virginia priests, focusing on the liturgy at their seminaries, reflect some of these changes; and we plan to feature other articles on the subject by seminarians and priests.

Some bishops have taken action in their own dioceses, in efforts to encourage men to consider a priestly vocation, and in strengthening the teaching within their own seminaries or by careful selection of seminaries for their candidates. Eucharistic Adoration for the intention of encouraging vocations is being implemented in several dioceses. Most people no longer find it it surprising that the dioceses where the bishop is most forthrightly orthodox are attracting vocations, or that the decline in vocations continues in dioceses regarded as "liberal".

The "vocations crisis" has not yet passed, and the doomsayers are far from silent; but the "new springtime" Pope John Paul II predicted for the Church seems to be blossoming with unexpected vigor in the United States in the renewal of seminary programs, in the unforseen response of many young men to the call to the priesthood, and in the establishment of new seminaries.

New seminaries in Lincoln, Denver

On August 23, 1998, twelve hundred people stood in the sweltering Nebraska midsummer heat for the dedication of Saint Gregory the Great Seminary in Lincoln. Since the event had received little publicity, the remarkable attendance testified to the great interest among Catholics in the seminaries where their future priests will be trained.

The new complex is still under construction; footings are being poured for a new chapel, scheduled to be ready in October 2000. In the meantime, seminarians attend Mass in an austere temporary chapel, whose altar was hand-built by their spiritual director, Monsignor Raymond Hain. Nevertheless, Saint Gregory the Great has already graduated its first three students, on May 8th, 1999.

According to Father John Rooney, rector, the curriculum at Saint Gregory's aims at four broad areas of development: intellectual, pastoral, spiritual, and personal. Seminarians are typically college-age, but there are also some late vocations. The attached liberal arts college highlights Western civilization, but since it lacks a full roster of faculty at present, some seminarians study math, science, and literature at the Lutheran Concordia College in nearby Seward. Seminarians receive a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, which is offered in the Thomistic sequence of logic, epistemology, metaphysics I and II, philosophy of God, philosophical anthropology, and history of philosophy.

Saint John Vianney Seminary will become the official diocesan seminary of the Archdiocese of Denver in the fall of 1999. Father Samuel Aquila, secretary of education for the archdiocese, will become its rector. It occupies the old grounds of Saint Thomas Theological Seminary, whose enrollment had dropped to about 30 men in 1998, when the Denver archdiocese bought it from the Vincentian Fathers for 2.6 million dollars. The old archdiocesan seminary, Redemptoris Mater, will be folded into the new structure.

Saint John Vianney will be the first American seminary to be linked to the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, founded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV. The affiliation means that the Lateran must approve the new seminary's curriculum. Half the 25-member faculty reportedly hold "Rome-based degrees".

The seminary is one of three divisions of Our Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute. The other two divisions are a Diaconate Formation Program and a Division of Lay Formation, including a Catholic biblical school and a catechetical school. A Graduate Institute that would offer degrees in theology and philosophy to both clergy and laity is envisioned, but is years away from realization.

Mr. Sean Innerst, provost of the new seminary, says that while the seminarians are kept distinct to preserve clerical esprit de corps, the goal is "ongoing formation for everyone in the Church". The Cathedral School in Paris established 20 years ago by Cardinal Lustiger is a partial inspiration for Our Lady of the New Advent, Mr. Innerst said.

An arts and sciences college for seminarians is a distant dream for now. Being associated with the Lateran is a "quick way for the seminary to be able to offer degrees right now". At present, in addition to the Lateran affiliation, two years of philosophy credits are certified through the Jesuit Regis University in Denver.

New construction at Mount Saint Mary's

The influx of seminarians to Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which expects an entering class of 50 students this fall -- for a total population of about 160 -- has required the construction of a new residential wing. And in another sign of the "springtime" heralded by the Pope, the $3.5 million needed for construction was raised sooner than anticipated.

According to Frank Buhrman, the seminary's director of public relations, the average age of entering seminarians is 28. About one-fourth are older men. Last year, a 45-year-old former urologist was student body president, and a 50-year-old former accountant was featured in last October's New York Times article profiling the new generation of Catholic priests.

Other US seminaries have shown similar revitalization.

"Put into practice what is set down"

The need for careful liturgical formation was also stressed by Cardinal Paul Augustin Mayer, OSB, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. In a December 1993 interview, on the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Cardinal Mayer told Father John Zuhlsdorf:

Before man can be called to activity in the liturgy, he must first be called to faith and conversion. Moreover, the council gave a great number of directives for the renovation of rites and texts. Among these were the principle of a noble simplicity, and that the celebrations should have a more varied reading of the sacred scriptures, and that care should be given to the specific character of cultures of different peoples, the aspect of inculturation. Particularly, the Council wished that all the faithful participate with a true, conscious and active participation in the liturgical celebrations; not as standers-by, or silent observers, but as conscious and active people.

Asked what he would tell seminarians and young priests about Latin, liturgy, and music, Cardinal Mayer replied,

They should know, of course, from the Council and from the documents and directives given since, what the Church says about music and Latin and the liturgy. I would also say that we should regain something of what has been lost. We should follow the orientations given. There is really nothing new here, if we would only put into practice what is set down.

There are promising signs that this is now beginning to happen in our seminaries.

***

Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and director of Women for Faith and Family.

David A. Murray contributed to this story.

***

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