“What’s it like to be a seminarian?” It’s a question I heard often enough before my ordination. A complete answer was always difficult and now, given the present state of the Church, it’s only become more challenging.
Like many others who closely followed last year’s USCCB meetings, I felt powerless in the face of these deliberations. However, after reading different interviews given by bishops over this past year I was particularly stuck by the comments from Bishop Daly of Spokane who gave voice to good faith-filled families. He said:
These families, that continue to encourage their sons and daughters to priestly and religious vocations, they do have a concern about what is happening here this week. It is a concern that we as the body of bishops, who leading them as their shepherds, need to take very seriously … so that they will want to continue to provide and to encourage those vocations.
Considering these comments and the question I’ve been often asked, it’s fair to say that I have a unique role in trying to encourage vocations both at home and abroad. Let me begin with a candid account of my own experience of seminary life, however limited my own witness may be.
To begin with, the reader should know that the majority of men I have met in seminary are good and faithful men who are striving to be authentic followers of Christ. It also must be understood that seminarians are always in a vulnerable spot. Many people in the parish view seminarians as being in some sort of a quasi-clerical state, while most of the clergy rightly understand that the seminarian is a layman in preparation for the clerical state. Nonetheless, these conflicting views make it a unique position to be in when one is a layman attracted to the priesthood.
There are some men who enter seminary with their minds already made up. They think discernment is no longer unnecessary. The problem is, they exclude the freedom of being able to follow God’s will, even if that means (as it often does) leaving the seminary. I have many friends who are priests, others still in formation; I also know many who left the seminary for various reasons and are now excelling where God has called them.
When a man in seminary takes the Pelagian view, it narrows his ability to discern and he can become so focused on his imagined future priesthood that he forgets his present state as a discerning seminarian. The situation is not improved when a seminarian puts on clerics and enjoys instant status by those outside the seminary.
Over time, what this view can develop into is a deep rigidity that is solely focused on appearances. This is the root of clericalism and careerism. They act one way with their classmates and then in a completely different way when around their superiors or the laity. It’s manifested in the failure to acknowledge that sin is something that everyone struggles with, and in theological conversations that can’t extend beyond The Summa and Canon Law. The joke here amongst seminarians is that these guys tend to “sleep and shower in their clerics.”
On the other extreme is the homosexual subculture. Having attended two different seminaries, I’ve met a lot of seminarians over the past seven years, and I know of ex-seminarians and ex-priests, who are now in same-sex relationships. In my first few years of seminary, I was hit on and attempted to be groomed on by older seminarians and priests. I know that I’m not alone in here: I’ve witnessed guys leave the seminary due to these specific issues.
Men who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies shouldn’t be allowed to enter the seminary. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all made this perfectly clear. And yet… and yet, they still are.
To cope with this contraction, an unwritten rule has developed: unless there’s hard evidence of deviant homosexual behavior, it’s better not report it, because the repercussions are generally seen through the ideological lens of conservatism vs. liberalism. Accusers are themselves accused of “pastoral insensitivity.”
This “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude thrives in a toxic mill of rumors, suspicion, and secrecy. It’s why the seminarians at Mount Angel, at least when I was there, could have the saying, “you can kiss a girl in town and get kicked out, but kiss a guy on the hill and still get ordained.” Most seminarians come to think it’s better to say nothing, for fear of being thrown out of seminary by the ideological police.
The majority of seminarians who act out on their same-sex attractions tend to support heterodox moral teaching. I have witnessed this in conversations at the dinner table, where seminarians will dissent from Church teaching only to confess strict orthodoxy to their professors. This process of ordaining discontented seminarians contributes to the popular notion that a rise in clerical dissent will increase the likelihood of change in the Church.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict pointed out recently, scandals in the Church have their origin in the seminary. Is it possible that, as same-sex relationships are more commonly accepted within the wider culture, men who struggle with this attraction have less of a reason to hide it in the seminary and priesthood? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the declining overall number of seminarians is resulting in a higher percentage of men coming to the seminary, not to hide their sexual attractions, but to embrace the priesthood of Jesus Christ and all of its demands.
Regarding the gate keepers of the seminary, a few words must be said to answer the question, “who allows these guys into the seminary?” I think there are a few possible explanations for this.
In some cases, diocesan or seminary authorities disapprove and ignore the papal mandate to prohibit men with these attractions into the seminary. But one cannot discount the likelihood that seminary applicants lie about their deep-seated same-sex attraction. Some bishops are willing to ordain unsuitable candidates because, to their mind, the clergy shortage is a greater danger than any potentially scandalous behavior on the part of a wayward priest.
To make matters more difficult, there’s a financial incentive: their budget depends on the number of students enrolled in their program. If a seminary were to deny entrance to too many applicants from a certain diocese, the sponsoring bishop could simply pull his seminarians out and find a seminary that would be more accommodating.
When scandals breakout in the Church, seminarians and priests are unsurprised and increasingly frustrated that the problems are allowed to fester. My fourth year theology class experienced a taste of the public outrage. At our field education assignments, parishioners made us aware of their displeasure over the recent scandals.
However, I can say that St. Patrick’s has become a place where seminarians feel safe enough to report problems without fear of repercussions. The administration appointed by Archbishop Cordileone has taken steps to root out any problems. Since graduating from Mount Angel six years ago, I have heard many seminarians remark about how the seminary has taken similar steps to correct problems that existed when I was there. Seminarians establish friendships and maintain connections. My own contacts with seminarians and priests who have attended seminaries here in the United States, Rome, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines, claim that their experiences are the same; the only difference is in levels of intensity.
Though these hidden actions have been tolerated behind closed doors and have left a wake of destruction, there is still a ray of hope. This hope is seen in the vindication of those who have been abused, and in how it has slowly created a new public forum where seminarians are able to talk about these issues.
As shocking as these scandals have been, if anything, they have shown how the seminary desperately needs good and faithful men to properly discern God’s call as potential future priests. In the midst of this, know that there are many men in the seminary who are longing to serve the Church as faithful stewards and live out their vocations in the small and simple tasks of the holy ordinary.
To those discerning a call to religious life know that it is difficult and challenging but having an understanding of these details allows one to enter with eyes wide open. And to those good faith-filled families who may have reservations about encouraging a religious vocation, know that in order for the Church to grow in holiness and devotion she needs faithful vocations. So don’t stop praying for them; now is not the time to discourage men from joining the seminary because the watchtowers have been lit, the Church is desperately calling out for your aid.
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]