Crisis in the Priesthood




        When it was reported in the press that the bishop, who confirmed my son, had died of AIDS we were both saddened and incredulous. We had prepared the music for the bishop's confirmation liturgy at various times and had dined with him in the rectory afterwards. We were impressed with the manner in which he celebrated and with his engaging personality and friendliness.

        Whatever the causes of this dreaded disease in his case our puzzlement and anguish increased when we learned in the press that his death certificate listed the cause of death as due to "unknown natural causes" and his death certificate listed his occupation as a "laborer."

        This has prompted me to undertake a serious review of the some of the aspects of priestly formation as I have known it in the past. My own experience covers 20 years both as student and seminary professor.

        Most of us who were trained before and during the Second Vatican Council were formed in the traditional and classical manner as prescribed by the church. Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the church mandated that candidates should be received in their "tender years." This gave impetus to the rise of minor seminaries.

        In the words of Trent: "Whereas the age of youth, unless it be rightly trained, is prone to follow after the pleasures of the world; and unless it be formed from its tender years unto piety and religion, before habits of vice have taken possession of the whole man, it never will perfectly, and without the greatest and well-nigh extraordinary help of God, persevere in ecclesiastical discipline." (Session 23, Chapter 18)

        Trent suggested that candidates for the priesthood be at least twelve years old. In the United States the ordinary age for entering the preparatory seminary was fourteen. So it was that mostly pre-pubescent boys were brought into an all-male boarding school environment. They followed a 16th century model of a highly disciplined regimen and classical academic program without the distractions of "persons of the opposite sex" (the term used for girls in seminary parlance). In this manner young men were trained for a celibate and clerical priesthood. By age 14 I was already wearing a black suit.

        Besides the heavy academic curriculum, supervised study, discipline, and periods of silence, young seminarians participated in daily mass, meditation, rosary, and other spiritual exercises. There was little instruction, however, in what it means to grow as a human person. The criticism is often made that the church tried first to make saints before making well-rounded men. The so-called "facts of life" were not discussed and the most knowledge young seminarians had about "persons of the opposite sex" in my day had to be gleaned from the well-worn National Geographic magazines in the library.

        The "angelic virtues" were stressed. In fact in my seminary there was a club called the "Angelic Warfare". This club of which I was the moderator one year met regularly and made presentations to the student body. It was of Dominican origin and based on the story of how Saint Thomas Aquinas was put to the test by those who were trying to dissuade him from his vocation. While he was imprisoned, a "woman of ill repute" was let into his cell to tempt him. Thomas picked up a torch and drove the woman from his cell. Thereupon, the story goes, an angel appeared to Thomas and gird his loins with a cord with the result that he was never tempted to impurity ever after. Seminarians who belonged to the Angelic Warfare could wear either a cord or blessed medal. (How successful such an endeavor was in the student's life has not been documented.) Recall the wisdom of Pascal who wrote, "Celui qui fait l’ange fait la bête." (literally, Whoever plays the angel ends up playing the beast, , i.e. is all the more an animal.)

        Vacation time, however, was the ultimate test of one’s vocation. Then a seminarian would invariably have to confront those "persons of the opposite sex." To prepare for this harrowing experience we seminarians celebrated the "Six Sunday of Aloysius". Aloysius Gonzaga was a young Jesuit seminarian who was so modest, we are told, that he would never look at a woman_ not even his own mother! On each of these six Sundays before vacation we would have a lecture in chapel on the dangers of the hostile world out there during summer vacation. Each verse of the hymn we sang ended with the lines: "O Aloysi, flos Paradisi" (O Aloysius, flower of Paradise).

        Our seminary rector had a most practical solution to the problem of summer vacation. If we were walking down the street and should happen to see a girl coming who had been our classmate in elementary school we should cross the street and go down the other side thus avoiding an encounter. This actually worked quite well for me and throughout my minor seminary years I was able to avoid any dangerous contact with such a potential temptress.

        An inspirational book, The Young Seminarian written by a French Sulpician, Benjamin Marcettau, was the "bible" for those of us in the minor seminary (high school and junior college). It was a guide as to how a seminarian should behave at all times and warned of the dangers to one’s vocation:

        "Vacation is a test of what you have accomplished since the beginning of your seminary course, and of what you will be able to do, later on as a priest. He himself (Christ) sent them into the world, like ‘sheep in the midst of wolves’ that they might convert the world from its evil ways, and conquer it for their Master. Since you are called to a higher state in life and to a nobler mission, you are naturally bound by stricter obligations than are young men who intend to remain in the world. There are certain pleasures which they may enjoy, certain liberties which they may take, but from which you should now abstain because they are not in keeping with the spirit of your vocation."

        The word "girl" is not used here, but implied of course among those things listed that one must avoid: "such company, reading, and amusements as are not in keeping with your vocation." The only time in the entire book one finds the word "girl" is in the following passage:

        "A future priest should not attend parties or other social affairs where boys and girls freely associate, for there is no room for that kind of recreation in the boyhood of a priest." Furthermore, "you should not seek the company of persons of the opposite sex (that phrase again!), however virtuous they may be; you should avoid familiarity with them in conversation and behavior, you should resolutely decline invitations to such meetings and parties as could endanger your vocation." (op.cit.) The phrase "the boyhood of a priest" seemed very powerful at the time.

        This was to be the program for life for the next 12 years. We were warned especially about the siblings of fellow seminarians. The sister of a fellow seminarian could be the source of many problems. Also one of the worst things a seminarian could do was associate in any way with an ex-seminarian (or in Irish terminology a "spoiled priest").  They were to be avoided.

        One must pause to ask if this was the best way to form a priest for whom half of the people he would be ministering to one day would be women. The fact that many men survived this kind of formation as balanced, whole and mature is a miracle of grace. All too often, however, personalities could be stunted or warped. Some would look upon women with a jaundiced eye. One way to deal with women for whom there was no appreciation or understanding would be to put them down. Misogyny among the clergy is not unknown. One pastor I knew thought it cute to ask the parents of a child to be baptized if it were a boy or girl. "If it’s a girl," he jested, "I’ll do it in the basement."

        Most seminarians kept the rules. Some cheated in the summer time and associated with girls. Maybe they were better off in the long run. Some seminarians entered during or after high school, but they were always suspected as having already been contaminated and a possible bad influences on others. They had to prove themselves in the seminary and were often humiliated.

        No one in our early seminary training spoke of the beauties of human love or the meaningful friendship of a woman. Seminarians were constantly being warned also about "particular friendships" among seminarians. So basically human love was excluded on all sides. The love of Christ and his church would suffice.

        Thus while seminary formation was intellectually stimulating and superior in its curriculum it did little to form an emotionally balanced person who had come to grips with his humanity. Advanced studies in philosophy and theology offered a better opportunity to grow as a person later on. But the all-male environment remained and if a seminarian kept all the rules diligently he would still be ill prepared to minister to women given his lack of any empirical knowledge or interpersonal experience.

        These are only a few of the factors that may have led to the present crisis we see in the older clergy today especially for those who went through the entire seminarian program. I am not sure in hindsight this was the best way to prepare men for the celibate state. If they had followed the seminary program rigorously the acceptance of the celibate state would have little meaning. They would be giving up something they knew next to nothing about, something that probably had never been presented to them as a true value.

        A man who had followed the full 12-year program of formation with diligence and kept all the rules could honestly not name a girl or woman who had even been a friend, let alone someone worth loving. The step into the celibate state was therefore an easy one. Yet it was a blind and unrealistic step, ultimately without much meaning or merit. In many instances it was hardly an informed choice.

        It is no wonder then is such cases that substitutes were often found to fill the emptiness that comes with the celibate state when it is not fully understood, appreciated and totally embraced. Drink, drugs, creature comforts, selfishness, eccentricity, sometimes even deviant behavior can enter in. Hats off to those brave and wholesome priests for whom the celibate state has become a way to give more of self to others, who love those to whom they minister all the more. They are heroic, an evangelical sign, a witness of Christ’s love for his church.

        For thousands of other priests, however, the celibate life did not enhance their ministry or humanity and became a terrible burden.These men have come to realize that the state of holy matrimony would make them better priests, perhaps more in touch with the human condition and therefore more effective. Because of present church discipline, however, they may no longer continue their ministry with the church’s blessing and I grieve for that loss.

How long, O Lord!

Richard Cross