Our Lord told his disciples, “the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt. 9:37-38). There has never been a time in the history of the Church when she has not needed good and holy priests, but it would seem that, at present, there has never been a time when she has needed them more. Sadly, recent memory is full of examples of wicked and unholy priests. The last several years have been one gut-wrenching and heart-breaking story after another of sexual abuse, cover-up, and financial corruption.
Such priests come from seminaries, they do not simply appear out of nowhere. Thus, we see the need for a renewal of the seminary and seminary formation. There is ample opportunity for Catholics to feel desolation and give way to despair. There is also, however, reason for great hope.
First, let’s clarify the mission of the seminary. A seminary exists, ultimately, for one and only one purpose: to form men into good and holy priests. The men entering seminary have many great gifts and skills, but as priests they must direct everything towards winning souls for Christ. The Program for Priestly Formation (PPF), the guiding document for seminaries in the United State, states that, “formation, as the Church understands it, is not equivalent to a secular sense of schooling or, even less, job training. Formation is first and foremost cooperation with the grace of God” (§68). The purpose of seminary formation is not to lead men to be great civic leaders, social organizers, or prolific scholars. To be sure, the Church has had many holy men and women who possessed these gifts and put them at the Lord’s service. The purpose of a seminary, however, is to aid men in responding to the grace and call from God to become alteri Christi, “other Christs.”
The PPF continues by noting that, “the seminary and its programs foster the formation of future priests by attending specifically to their human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation” (§69). These “four pillars” form the heart of the formation by which a man takes on the heart and mind of Jesus Christ. We are not, in the seminary, attempting to create men capable of winning intellectual arguments, nor do we offer instruction in how to raise funds and organize social programs. At rock bottom, the seminary exists to form men into true Shepherds and spiritual fathers.
What is the state of seminaries in the United States? We are all too familiar with the reasons for despair, but I believe here is where we also find true cause for hope. I cannot speak for all teachers. I can only speak from my experience as both a university professor at a Catholic college and now at a seminary. There are striking similarities. The young men and women at authentically Catholic universities are deeply committed to the true Catholic faith, and they wish to share that faith with the world. They are not seeking to beat others over the head with their faith, nor are they “Pharisees” with no true concern for the poor and marginalized. These students wish to encounter Jesus Christ, learn the faith he handed to the Church, and discern how best to live and share that faith.
The seminarians whom I serve, as a professor of philosophy at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, are quite similar to Catholic undergraduates. They are men with a wide array of personalities and backgrounds. Seminarians are not produced from a mold, and they are each unique individuals. Like their fellow Catholics attending larger universities, these seminarians do not wield the faith like a baseball bat. They do not look to smash over the head anyone who dares to ask questions or even express doubts. Our seminarians wish eagerly to share the Gospel and the freedom they themselves have found in Christ with men and women in our current culture.
The only significant, but obvious, difference between our seminarians and the average Catholic undergraduate is that our seminarians have felt a stirring in their hearts from God the Father to follow him in a more radical way. These men simply wish to follow the Shepherd’s voice, and they have heard him asking them to consider giving their lives totally and completely. They are good men, committed to Christ and the truths of the faith, and eager to hand it on to others.
In recent months seminaries have come under significant scrutiny due to reports of heterodox or biased faculty, sexual abuse, and lack of transparency. For instance, there has been frustration over the failure of approximately half of US seminaries to participate the recent joint study, conducted by the University of Notre Dame and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), titled “Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture”. Many worry that this lack of cooperation signals that seminaries have not truly committed to responding to the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church.
Once again, I cannot speak for other seminaries, but my own seminary of St. Patrick’s did in fact participate in this study and enthusiastically supports efforts to prevent abuse. The seminary is deeply committed to creating a culture that respects all members of the community. Readers can read the seminary’s Safe Environment statement. Furthermore, the faculty and staff here at St. Patrick’s are, like our seminarians, men and women of deep faith simply following God’s call. Following the leadership of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, we view our work as a calling from God to help form good and holy priests for the Church.
Like our seminarians, we do not wish to push a particular agenda or to promote a false image of the Church. We simply wish to convey to these men the truth of the Catholic intellectual tradition and thereby form these men, not to be again scholars or great fundraisers, but shepherds capable of leading their flocks. I consider this vocation, and I am certain my colleagues would agree, to be the joy of a lifetime.
What then can you do? I do not wish to downplay the failings of Catholic leaders in the past nor hide the reality that much work still lies before us. I simply offer assurance that there is hope. But we need your help. First, please pray for our seminarians and priests. The one thing Satan hates most is a faithful priest filled with joy, and he does whatever he can to pull down our priests and seminarians.
We also need a renewal of the married life. The Church needs strong and faith-filled families willing to provide the fertile soil in which a vocation, whether to the priesthood or the religious life, can take root and grow. A survey by CARA of the most recently ordained priests reveals that a young man who spends time in deep prayer before Jesus in the Eucharist or as a server in the Mass, has a close affinity to Our Mother Mary, and finds encouragement at a young age, is far more likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood. Families must be true domestic churches of faith and prayer, where their children, both sons and daughters, find not only permission but rather encouragement to consider a vocation. If we build families that teach children to listen to the voice of Jesus, then those children will find greater support for accepting the call to follow.
The family and seminary are ready for a renewal, and both will support one another. There is, as I said, real reason for hope.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!