A New Breed of Seminarians: An Interview with Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Crisis recently had the opportunity to speak with Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, rector of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, about today’s seminarians. Drawing on more than 14 years of experience, he was able to explain why he thinks today’s seminarians represent a promising new generation of future priests.

This interview is the fifth installment of Crisis magazine’s ongoing Seminary Project. We began examining the state of America’s seminaries by featuring Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, (Oct. 1997). Other articles explored the state of seminary curriculum requirements in Latin, patristics, and philosophy (Nov. and Dec. 1998), as well as in moral theology (Feb. 1999). Other authors will explore curricular issues, from the teaching of biblical interpretation to liturgical practices.

CRISIS: Bishop Vigneron, you have been involved in the work of the formation of priestly candidates for more than 14 years, both as professor of philosophy and now as rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. Has the profile of the average seminarian changed much over the years?

VIGNERON: Let me answer your question by contrasting the ordination liturgy of the North American College in Rome of the year 1971 to the ordination liturgy which took place there in October, 1998, specifically the difference in the musical programs.

The Pontifical North American College is the American bishops’ seminary in Rome. One could justifiably characterize it as the flagship in the system dedicated to preparing the next generations of pastors for the dioceses of the United States. In the five decades since the college reopened after World War II, the high points in its calendar during many of those years have been solemn ordinations celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican.

In 1998, the choir of the North American College performed a classic work from the Church’s musical patrimony, Mozart’s setting of the Ave Verum Corpus, as part of the communion rite. In the ordination that took place 27 years earlier at St. Peter’s, in the fall of 1971, one of the major choral offerings was the Beatles’ “My Sweet Lord” — the version using “Alleluia,” not “Hare Krishna,” in the descant — complete with tambourine percussion. To master each work the seminarians devoted a great deal of time and energy, and the effort expended was meant as a tribute to their confreres at this important step in their lives. Each song reflected the ideals and aspirations of the generation of seminarians who performed it.

Which of the seminarians’ ideals and aspirations were reflected in the Beatles’ song in 1971?

The point seemed to be to showcase a work that was unequivocally not a product of the Church’s own culture; to identify the performers and their classmates as emancipated, at least to some degree, from their heritage; and to challenge their elders, in this case any of the “superannuated” canons of the Vatican Basilica who strayed within earshot. In 1998, the choice of a Mozart composition over anything remotely like a Beatles song bespeaks the attitudes of the current generation of American seminarians.

What has brought about this change in today’s seminarians?

Judging from my service in our seminary, I believe that this renewed confidence in the Catholic Church’s life and teaching comes from the Holy Spirit. It is the fruit of the personal conversion to Christ and His Church that grace has worked in the hearts of today’s seminarians. Certainly, it is not impossible for a weak personality to use the Church’s unchanging mission as a cover against facing the challenges of the wider world. And when we in seminary work find such an applicant, we direct him to the help and healing he needs. But the emergence of strong candidates, not sickly spirits, is the real story of seminary life today.

What are your goals in preparing priestly candidates for the next millennium?

One of the principal tasks for seminary personnel is to collaborate with the Holy Spirit in shaping and maturing the zeal for the Gospel we find in the seminarians God sends us. We need them, once they are ordained, to be as effective as possible in their efforts to spread the Good News.

How does seminary formation help to bring about this end result?

Seminary faculty must put particular emphasis on training our candidates in the art of authentic Christian discernment. We want our students, first of all, to have an ease—an almost instinctive ease—in identifying the ways that grace has already prepared their hearers for the Word, and, secondly, to be eminently skilled in framing their proclamation of the Word so that it clearly comes as God’s answer to their listeners’ often unspoken hunger for light and guidance.

We must help tomorrow’s priests see that their burning zeal in the service of sound doctrine about faith and morals finds expression in a persuasive invitation to accept the firm but gentle hold of the Good Shepherd. This is a principal item on the agenda for the program of priestly formation today. These habits and skills constitute the highest level in the exercise of the pastor’s art —the art exemplified by priests like St. Francis de Sales, St. Philip Neri, and St. Vincent de Paul.

How accurate are the media in their description of American seminarians as conservative?

The mainstream press has caught on to the fact that over the last 30 years something has changed, significantly changed, in American candidates for the priesthood. For example, on October 13, 1998, the New York Times put it on the record for all to read that “U.S. Catholic Seminarians [Are] Turning to Orthodoxy.” By describing seminarians as “tradition bound” and “conservative,” the Times ignores their true commitment, which is born of a vibrant love for Jesus Christ and His Church.

What kind of background do seminarians entering theological formation have today?

The clear majority of U.S. seminarians now entering into the four-year program of graduate-level theological formation are not coming from our college seminaries. At my institution approximately 80 percent of those in theology earned at least a bachelor’s degree before entering the program of priestly formation, and some come with masters’ and doctoral degrees.

What have been their professional interests before coming to the seminary?

The most common credentials for our students at Sacred Heart are degrees in engineering or related fields involving technology, such as computers. The second group is made up of those who have degrees which prepared them for careers in commerce—business, marketing, etc. Men in the third have backgrounds in liberal arts or teaching. And the lawyers and physicians comprise a fourth. The majority of these candidates are alumni of state colleges and universities. And a significant number have completed their courses of study with distinction at highly selective institutions.

What is the average age of today’s seminarian?

Most of the students in our theologate are somewhere between 32 and 36 years old. While there are some at either end of the spectrum, about two-thirds land in this middle ground.

What does that show?

It means that the careers these seminarians left in order to enter formation were not well established. Typically, these men finished their professional education, worked for a few years, and then began to reexamine the vocational choices they had made. Usually, they had felt an early attraction to the priesthood, often during their years in elementary school. Somewhere along the way, most often in high school, this aspiration slipped out of the foreground, with their parents or a teacher or counselor urging them to consider a career path that was more conventional. The idea was to go to the university, get a marketable degree, and have something to fall back on, in order to provide economic security for a wife and family, if the path to the priesthood didn’t work out. These men entered the positions for which they were trained, but did not find them satisfying. And so, through prayer and reflection, they returned to an earlier inspiration: the attraction to the priesthood.

What can you tell us about their religious sensibilities?

For American seminarians at the end of the ’90s, assent to the whole range of Church doctrine is not a return or a move back; it’s new, a novelty they find bracing. Integral Catholic faith is for them a fresh discovery, usually made after they left home and, sometimes, attained without much help from home or parish. It is helpful to recall that by the time most of today’s candidates for the priesthood entered religious education programs, the distinctive Catholic subculture, which served as the supporting substructure for passing on Catholic doctrine and morals, had collapsed. For them the experience of growing up Catholic—which some of those born in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s rejected in the ’60s and the ’70s—is an historical artifact, something to be discussed in history texts, after the Great Depression and the Korean War.

The reports in the secular media are on target to speak of their commitment to authentic Church teaching, the orthodox Catholic faith. Where observers are off the mark is in describing this as a form of traditionalism, nostalgia, or a blinkered clinging to their past.

Can you elaborate on your understanding of how seminarians have come to place such importance on their love for Christ and His Church?

Seminarians today value the Catholic faith highly because they do not take it for granted. They hold it as an attainment that cost them moral, emotional, and intellectual exertion; and they treasure it as the long-sought remedy for their own deeply disturbing perplexity about life’s meaning. In short, their commitment to the Church’s teaching is not the result of “cultural Catholicism,” but is a dimension of their personal commitment to Christ. Most of them have experienced some significant conversion in their lives, and this is the hermeneutical key to understanding their attachment to a solid and unambiguous faith. They have lived through the passage from confusion to certainty, from a state of indifference and conformity with the world’s moral compromises to embracing Christ and His way of living. The distinctive moral and doctrinal notes of Catholic Christianity are, for them, not impediments to the happiness they anticipate in the mainstream culture, but are the salutary means for deliverance from the damage the culture and its promises have done to them and their buddies, by means of all the excesses of the age.

The upshot is that our seminarians are at peace with the authoritative, dogmatic faith of the Church and with the Church’s Magisterium. They are eager to share the light of faith with their contemporaries, whom they feel are jeopardized, because they, like themselves, were, unfortunately and unfairly, poorly catechized. They feel that their generation was robbed of the wisdom of the faith, and they want it for their friends, because they know that with the light of faith people will be delivered from hurting themselves and one another. They’ve seen it; they’ve experienced it.

What might their views be on the issue of celibacy?

If I am correct—as I believe I am—in saying that today’s candidates for the priesthood have typically gone through a personal conversion to Christ as the Church preaches Him, then the norm of priestly celibacy seems the best explanation for their state of affairs. It is not the case that young men who dissent from magisterial teaching are absent from our seminaries because they are being turned away. It is, rather, the case that they do not apply. The seminary does not exclude them; they exclude themselves, because no one but a man who is fully committed to Christ as proclaimed in the Catholic Church will be willing to forego wife and children and home as part of his consecration to this proclamation. I maintain that celibacy serves as a sort of fulcrum point, a kind of index, to determine who we’ll find in the seminary. A couple of examples might help: Just as a student cannot matriculate into medical school without passing organic chemistry, and no one becomes an engineer who fails calculus and other higher-level math classes, so the demands of a celibate life ensure that only those who place their hope in the Church’s faith, an eschatological outlook transcending the aspirations of this world, will spend their lives in serving the propagation of that faith.

What changes will result in the Church as this newest generation of seminarians enters the priesthood?

It requires little imagination to understand that this significant shift in the character of candidates for ordination to pastoral service in the Church means parallel shifts within the wider life of the Church.

A first, obvious observation is that the next generation of priests will be able to speak the same language as the next generation of Americans, both Catholics and non-Catholics, because they come from the same background: They went to the same schools and universities, and had the same education and upbringing, the same problems and aspirations. Working on this common ground will be of great strategic advantage to these young priests, as they take up the mission of evangelizing contemporary America.

Second, no one should be surprised if the movement of these young men into priestly service were at times to result in a clash of expectations. It’s not too harsh to say that in some quarters of American Catholic life their listeners will be astonished to hear them preach with conviction the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, attest to their own embrace of priestly celibacy, and unapologetically ask for sacrificial giving to sustain and advance our parochial schools. On these and many other debated issues concerning the teaching and living of the Catholic faith, the momentum seemed for a time to have been in another direction, from which the next generation of priests will lead their people.

The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has taught us to expect a “new springtime of Christianity,” born of the new evangelization. The first signs of that spring are here for “those who have eyes to see.”

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