The Last of the Junior Seminarians

When one thinks of boarding schools, it’s easy to default to stereotype: a bunch of rich kids riding horses or playing lacrosse as they prepare for an Ivy League college and life as a senator or corporate executive.

My experience a few decades ago (okay, a little over three) was vastly different, yet one I look back on with much satisfaction. I had the privilege of a high school experience unlike many people, at the small college-prep boarding school attached to the Norbertine abbey of St. Michael, secluded in the foothills of Orange County, California.

Founded by a small group of priests who fled communism in their native Hungary, the school was (and remains) simple and a little rustic. We had chores to help maintain the place, such as washing dishes and sweeping floors. Older students were given a lot of responsibilities over the younger ones, responsibilities that we, as teens, sometimes exploited. Some of my fellow students who went through the experience did not look back fondly on it, for various reasons; I thrived, also for various reasons.

As usual for religious communities, St. Michael’s was a place where hospitality was an honored virtue. So it was just a few years ago, when I was traveling in the area on business and found myself sitting next to Father Abbot for lunch after a Sunday Mass. Father Abbot had welcomed me warmly and found a spot for me at the head table. I remembered him well, and with affection—as a young priest, he was the vice principal for two of the four years I was a student there, and we grew close. Now, as abbot, he was trusted with much more leadership, and the abbey was prospering with vocations and looking to rebuild at a more suitable location down the road.

What struck me most that day was an off-hand remark Father offered me. While I am not sure of its complete accuracy, the point was made, and left me thinking about how things have changed, even since the 1980s.

“You were the last of the junior seminarians.”

Since its founding, St. Michael’s had had a junior seminary program where a few students (only one or two a year; I recall only a small handful of others across my four years) took a deeper dive into what it means to be a religious by attending daily Mass, rosary, lauds and vespers. Mass and the Divine Office were in Latin, with the former celebrated ad orientem and communion received kneeling. Not all the junior seminarians ended up as Norbertine priests, but one whom I knew back then is now a permanent deacon in the Los Angeles Archdiocese; another is a Benedictine monk in Oregon.

While I was only a junior seminarian for the last two years I was there, and ended up happily married shortly out of college, my interest in the priesthood had been strong since I became a Catholic in the seventh grade. When it came time to choose a high school, I also spent a weekend visiting a Vincentian high school seminary in the Los Angeles area.

Both this Vincentian seminary (St. Vincent de Paul, in Montebello) and a high school seminary run by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (Queen of Angels, in Mission Hills) have since closed, the Vincentian school in 1986 and the archdiocesan one about a decade later.

To be honest, all students at St. Michael’s were junior seminarians to some degree, whether they wanted it or not, with direct daily contact with so many postulants, seminarians, and priests and so much chapel time, including the required spiritual reading each night while the religious community was chanting compline. We all took part in a profound traditional silent retreat as Holy Week drew to a close, before we were released for Easter break. We all got a sense of what it means to dedicate one’s entire life to God and Church—even the few non-Catholics in the school.

I should not have been too surprised by Father Abbot’s words about being the last junior seminarian, however. It only made sense that there would be a decline in junior seminary programs over the years. Sadly, however, it’s not just a decline, it’s a virtual decimation.

A 2010 article by Fr. Daniel Vitz in Homiletic and Pastoral Review offers some sobering statistics. The number of junior seminaries in the United States had declined from more than 120 in 1967 to only seven at the time the article was written. Students enrolled decreased from nearly 16,000 to fewer than 600. These numbers are smaller now.

The Diocese of Brooklyn continues to have a program at Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary, in existence since 1914, with more than 140 students currently enrolled, though not all are in the seminary program. Two other high school seminary programs are tied to religious orders, the Legionaries of Christ (Sacred Heart Apostolic School in Indiana) and the Institute of the Incarnate Word (Bl. Jose Sanchez del Rio High School Seminary in Minnesota). The latter was founded in 2008.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Chicago closed its high school seminary, Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, which opened in 1918 and had the highest enrollment—183 in its final year—of any junior seminary in the country. Articles about the school noted how some required practices, like daily Mass and rosary, were phased out in the later years of the school. As one alumnus put it, “each passing year from the late 1960s forward made Quigley less and less of a seminary.”

In his article, Fr. Vitz notes also that some of the existing programs aren’t truly focused on preparing future priests and should not really be considered seminaries. Another example, besides the Quigley one cited above, is St. Lawrence Seminary High School in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, operated by Capuchins. It states its mission is to “provide an opportunity for young Catholic men in high school to lay a foundation on which they can build a life of ministry in the Catholic Church as laymen, deacons, brothers or priests.”

In response to the FAQ question on the St. Lawrence website, asking the percentage of St. Lawrence graduates who go on to the seminary for college or on to religious life, the school offers this pithy response: “Most of our graduates marry and become active in ministry and as leaders in their parish. Many choose careers that impact people’s lives in a positive way.”

It is hard to say what’s killing off the junior seminaries, but several factors come to mind.

First, consider cultural changes starting in the 1960s. The rising use of contraception, even in Catholic families, has left its mark not just on the number of children in a family, but on how parents perceive their children’s future. Ask vocations directors what the greatest obstacles to vocations among the young would be, and many will tell you it’s the parents, often because couples are having fewer children.

Paul Bednarczyk, former executive director of the National Religious Vocations Conference and now the vicar general of the Congregation of Holy Cross, mentioned this in a 2011 U.S. Catholic article. “Years ago, when you had 10 children, you were thrilled when two went to the church. Now with one or two children, parents want to be grandparents. The encouragement parents once gave their children to consider a religious vocation is not as prominent as it once was.”

In his new book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher tells the story of a couple who visited their priest with the news that their college-age daughter wants to be a foreign missionary. “That’s wonderful!” the pastor responded. “Oh no, you misunderstand,” the parents replied. “We want you to help us talk her out of ruining her life.”

This is a scene that no doubt plays regularly in many a rectory.

Further, consider the overall diminishment of the idea of a priestly vocation and efforts to shift parish management and even liturgical actions to the laity.

Catholic author Michael S. Rose details this further in his controversial 2002 book Goodbye, Good Men, where he looked at what appeared to be systematic efforts at seminaries specifically to weed out seminarians who held traditional Catholic values, seen as too “rigid” by progressives—a term used to this day in some circles to attack orthodox Catholics. Rose cited an earlier observation by Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, that the priest shortage is “artificial and contrived.” Curtiss also noted that there appeared to be a “death wish” for the male, celibate priesthood among some of those responsible for fostering vocations. As Rose puts it, it’s a matter of “re-envisioning” the priesthood.

As pope, St. John Paul II recognized the importance of junior seminary programs and the great history of saints who knew early in their lives they had a vocation. Writing in Pastores dabo vobis, a 1992 apostolic exhortation, John Paul also recognized the challenges so many young people face today: “The many contradictions and potentialities marking our societies and cultures—as well as ecclesial communities—are perceived, lived and experienced by our young people with a particular intensity and have immediate and very acute repercussions on their personal growth. Thus, the emergence and development of priestly vocations among boys, adolescents and young men are continually under pressure and facing obstacles.”

These pressures and obstacles he cites are exactly why junior seminaries are needed today. John Paul himself visited Chicago’s preparatory seminary in October 1979, addressing the students directly: “Be faithful in your daily prayers; they will keep your faith alive and vibrant. Study the faith diligently so that your knowledge of Christ will continually increase. And nourish your faith each day at Mass, for in the Eucharist you have the source and greatest expression of our faith.”

No other sort of school program can offer this gift to young men feeling called at an early age to the priesthood. When one hears that a seminary does not require daily Mass and rosary, what’s left to expect, but that the program will ultimately fail in promoting and protecting vocations?

A new, larger abbey is in development for St. Michael’s, my alma mater in Southern California. The Norbertines have raised about $80 million so far for this needed and worthwhile project, with $40 million left to go. With a traditional neo-Romanesque design, it will soon be a Catholic landmark, drawing new generations of young men to the high school and the abbey itself. Authentic to its mission and faithful to the Church, it has remained, and will continue for generations to be, one of the few examples of what works well for drawing young men to God.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is an artist’s painting of the planned Norbertine abbey and school in Orange County, California.


K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and four grandchildren.

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