Worn Out Days

by Chris McDonnell

stpetersarialI recently came across a place I didn’t know existed. A news article I found on the net told the story of St Peter’s seminary near Glasgow, opened in the mid-sixties, closed and left empty by the mid-eighties. Since then, vandalised and ruined by the intrusion of the graffiti artists where weathered concrete walls and brick facings are coloured with names and symbols of graffiti artists, their jumble of images amid the reclaim of natural growth around it. Now there is a movement to restore what is being hailed as a significant piece of architecture of its period. Let’s set that question to one side and ask instead some questions about the changing patterns of seminary life.

In the years that have followed the second council of the Vatican many aspects of our life have changed. And we might add, they needed to change in a radical manner.

Seminaries, where men were taken apart from society and lived an almost monastic existence for six years, had many failings, not the least being a restriction of emotional growth giving rise, for some,  to a stunted maturity. After such a closed and controlled environment, our newly ordained priests were assigned to parishes and thrown into the hurly-burly of contemporary life. That so many survived is to their credit and fortitude, that others didn’t should not be a surprise.

So how have things changed? First and foremost, there are now nowhere near the number of men attending seminary. That number has been falling over the years and continues to do so. In many journals, magazines and news articles, in discussions and letters, the crisis in vocations has been continually raised, to be met with a stony silence from many of our bishops. Their solution of amalgamation of parishes is a short term sticking plaster over an ever widening wound. The option of accepting a married clergy is only recently gaining credibility, tentative though it is.  Brazil is the first Conference of bishops to formally set up a commission to examine the option; if only others would have similar courage.

stpeterscardinalsCertainly, seminary life is a lot more open than it was and the curriculum followed during the time spent there reflects to a degree a growing realisation of the world we live in. The inclusion of programmes for developing and understanding human relations in an open and honest manner it to be welcomed for it is long overdue.

So too is the examination of suitability of those offering themselves for seminary formation. Our appreciation of individuals through psychological assessment has come a long way in recent years.

Our attempts in the management of formation, both in their success and in their failure, have brought us to a point where we can no longer just accept things as they are. We must search for new ways of fostering vocation.

During one of the last retreats, given to Superiors of Women Religious in May 1968, Merton asked them to consider a number of questions, the first of which was “What would you be doing now if you weren’t a religious?”  Indeed a searching question that does challenge the respondent to examine motives and to be honest in giving an answer. Maybe there is the kernel of our discussion of the Church in our time, alternative ways, alternative paths…

I have often mentioned the life and writings of Thomas Merton in my postings and I do so again this week remembering that today, January 31, is the 100 anniversary of his birth in the village of Prades, in France. He was a man who spent his life asking questions, never afraid to challenge the status quo, always seeking a way forward in a turbulent world. The Cure d’Ars has been held up as the model for priesthood since his heroic life in the 19th C. I might suggest that in Tom Merton we have an example of a 20th C. man willing to face up to difficulties, a man of our time, a realist if ever there was one.

A number of still images of St Peter’s Seminary and a video walkabout can be found here.


Chris McDonnell is a regular reader and commenter at Pray Tell.



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17 responses to “Worn Out Days”

  1. Tony Phillips Avatar
    Tony Phillips

    Speaking as a married man with children, you don’t have to be a celibate seminarian to experience ‘restriction of emotional growth giving rise… to a stunted maturity.’ Ask my wife about me.

    I can’t speak to what it’s like to go through a seminary; I’ll leave that to those who have. I have nothing against married priests in principle; there are obvious practicalities to consider but no doubt they can be dealt with.

    But I don’t think the root of the collapse in vocations has to do with celibacy. I think it has to do with a loss of a sense of importance of the Eucharist, and indeed of faith in what the Sacrament really means. And that stems in very large part (here’s where the blog censors pull the plug) on the way the Sacrament has been treated in the modern liturgy.

    The ruins of this 1960s seminary have been getting airplay on the BBC and other news shows here lately. The buildings, the chapel in particular, provide a fitting allegory for the modern church: brutalist, scornful of tradition, and unable to persist for even a single generation. Interesting to contrast it with the videos of another closed seminary, Ushaw, that have been making the rounds lately.

    The hierarchy of the church has never been very good at admitting their mistakes. The whole notion of ‘infallibility’–that unfortunate, inopportune dictum of Vatican I–casts a very long shadow. But the hierarchical church really needs to put their hand up and admit that they got things wrong. People have voted with their feet: empty pews and empty seminaries are the result.

    1. Charles Culbreth Avatar
      Charles Culbreth

      @Tony Phillips

      But I don’t think the root of the collapse in vocations has to do with celibacy. I think it has to do with a loss of a sense of importance of the Eucharist, and indeed of faith in what the Sacrament really means.

      I concur whole-heartedly. The problem, dear Watson, remains how our best theologians, Tradition particularly in how the writings of the Fathers ensconsed this most necessary of dogma’s, have been inculcated in our priest/celebrants/homilists.
      The Holy Mass, whether EF or OF, is not our Father’s Oldsmoblle,, and won’t be ever again. Despite the competence of the lay magisterium in all matters Catholic, if “Father” cannot ( or worse,, wills not) exemplify the totality of alter Christus hour after hour, day after day, at altar and public square, we will be a one-winged dove towards inspiring new vocations.

  2. Nicholas Moe Avatar
    Nicholas Moe

    I first came across this amazing building in a documentary featuring the Action Squad from Minneapolis, Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness. There is a great write-up of this building when it was new on page 17 of Concrete Quarterly 72. It’d be neat to see what could be done to restore the building.

  3. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    I agree with Chris McDonnell that the “inpatient” 😉 seminary model has failed. He’s quite right that the old system of minor and major seminary in some cases has created priests with severe affective deficits, including sexual maladjustment. There’s no going back to this model in the long term. But where to?

    I fully support the ordination of married men to the priesthood. I do not agree that only viri probati, or older married men with adult children, should be admitted to sacerdotal ordination. The presence of married younger priests with younger children is a very potent testimony to family life. Their presence would, I am convinced, rejuvenate Catholic parish life.

    Perhaps a good replacement for the older residential seminary model is a part- or full-time M.Div program designed for off-campus seminary students. Protestant ministry students most often do not live on a seminary campus. Many ministry student friends have juggled a family, work responsibilities, and part-time ministry studies with great success, even given hardships. I am proud of my minister friends, and their success convinces me that a similar model would work for the formation of the secular Catholic clergy.

    However, I suspect that some bishops would not like a more decentralized approach to seminary studies. Decentralization removes direct control (some might say micromanagement) over the seminarians. Perhaps a bishop might be concerned that a decentralized model will produce seminarians who do not fit his “vision” of a priest. We know from the scandals that appearances deceive. Centralization deceives, because it produces an externally uniform product which may not be suitable for ministry. Decentralization admits that seminarians are people whose faults shine through more easily when not micromanaged.

    1. Todd Orbitz Avatar
      Todd Orbitz

      @Jordan Zarembo – comment #3:
      Good luck paying young married Priests enough to raise a family. Think cost of college and realize the whole thing would fold on itself pretty quickly. Unless, of course, somehow the Catholic Colleges started educating these children for a substantially reduced amount, or even free.

      Of course, I can already imagine the backlash developing to that..

  4. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar
    Fr. Allan J. McDonald

    For the most part, modern seminaries today, even the more traditional, are nothing like the pre-Vatican II model in terms of monasticism for priests who will become diocesan, although there may be elements. I think for the most part statistics will show that those Catholics who are involved in “intentional communities” whether charismatic, extraordinary form, Catholic homeschooling and the variety of new moments are producing vocations. Why? Because for the most part they understand their family life and community life as the Church in miniature. They practice natural family planning. They have many strong popular devotions. They go to Mass every Sunday, maybe everyday. They go to confession regularly and they try to be a Catholic leaven in the world, taking most seriously Vatican II’s call to the laity to take Catholic responsibility for the secular, not so much the “churchy.” And what I have just described for the most part characterized Catholic families prior to the Second Vatican Council. What many Catholic parishes were like prior to the Second Vatican Council in terms of having up to 88% of Catholics attending Mass, many of whom extended their religious practices to the home, and producing vocations, these intentional faith groups today and new movements are doing. Sadly parishes for the most part aren’t. We’ve lost that and much of it due to the confusion that followed and still follows the spirit of Vatican II effected by those who despised the pre-Vatican II Church in its entirety, including her liturgy/sacramental system, devotions/piety and way of life and ecclessiology.

  5. Chris McDonnell Avatar
    Chris McDonnell

    Thanks to Nicholas Moe #2 for the link to photographs of St Peter’s seminary in use. I still fail to see how it could have been let fall into its present ruinous state.

    Neither do I understand the essential logic that families who practice natural family planning as outlined by Fr. Allan #5 nurture vocations.
    Maybe I am missing something.

    A people on pilgrimage will encounter many new and challenging situations, that is the nature of a journey. Such an experience changes us as we re-examine where we are, where we have come from and where we might be heading.

    1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar
      Fr. Allan J. McDonald

      @Chris McDonnell – comment #6:
      Those who practice NFP for the most part see children as a gift to embrace rather than a disease to medicate away. They intentionally have more children and thus are more likely to encourage their children to consider priesthood or religious life. But the quality of the religious home, no matter the number of children is what counts. Openness to the gifts of God, children or otherwise counts a lot.

  6. Scott Smith Avatar
    Scott Smith

    Why is it that for so many, the answer to new and increasing challenges of the next few decades, is to do more of the same stuff which has failed to meet the challenges of the last few decades?

    Is not that the definition of insanity? Or least of an ideologue?

    The status quo has just as many new elements as it does old. These new elements too need to be questioned by more liberal voices.

    1. Todd Orbitz Avatar
      Todd Orbitz

      @Scott Smith – comment #8:
      Some would argue we haven’t been “doing more of the same”. In fact, I would argue that we departed from the pre Vatican II seminary model so drastically, one cannot even consider modern seminaries to the be the formal equivalent of what occurred before the Council.

      Whether we should return to a status quo ante, or look for a new model is arguable. But, I, for one, am glad that we have moved past the model of the 80’s and 90’s where seminarians were made to drink the insanities of McBrien, McCormack, Curren, et al.

  7. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    I am seriously failing to see the causal connection between the use of condoms and falling vocations.

    1. Todd Orbitz Avatar
      Todd Orbitz

      @Alan Johnson – comment #9:
      Let’s try this….

      Ask 100 Catholic parents with 2 kids, son and daughter if they would like to see one of them become a Priest or Nun/religious Sister. (One would assume that a majority of them practice an illicit birth control method, at least 80% plus – according to Kaiser Family Foundation – or Planned Parenthood’s research arm.)

      Then ask 100 Catholic Parents with 8 or more children if they would like to see one of their sons or daughters become a Priest or Nun/religious Sister.

      See which one results in more interest.

      Or then again, one need just look to the results of the CARA study on what represents the average new Priest:

      28% have five or more siblings, 10% have four siblings, 17% have three siblings, 25% have two siblings, 16% have one sibling, and 4% have no siblings.

      So, basically families with more than 2 children account for 80% of new ordinands.

      The answers will not be very surprising.

      1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @Todd Orbitz – comment #13:
        Well, if parents are only interested in having their “extra” children enter priesthood or religious life, i.e. the “superfluous” ones after the “more important” business of passing on the family line and producing grandchildren is accounted for, they are not very good models of the faith, are they?

        So practical! Give your extra children to God! That’s how it was in the Middle Ages too, when there wasn’t enough inheritance to go around, and the first son got the estate. The second son went to the church, superfluous daughters went into the convent. Is that really what you want to suggest is the preferable way to produce vocations today?

        I thought we were committed to a notion that God calls these people. Is that a charade? Or do you really want to suggest that God calls only those who are not needed to produce grandchildren for their parents?

      2. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @Todd Orbitz – comment #13:
        One more note about the argument that large families foster vocations.

        The idea that kids become priests or religious to please their parents, or because their parents want them to do so, or even to seek the approval of their parents is today considered suspect, and rightly so.

        A mature decision can’t rely on what parents want. Besides, how many kids today choose a way of life to please their parents, anyway? Many parents are quite unhappy with the paths their offspring take. Some would even just like them to get a job, instead of hanging at home unemployed. But they do not have the kind of influence to make their wishes binding upon their kids.

        We have lower numbers in celibate vocations today because the kids don’t want to do it, not because the parents are holding them back. If the kids wanted to do it, the parents could never hold them back. The stories are legion of this even in the old days, from religious I know personally, and OK, they are anecdotes, but the point is clear. Young people sense a call in themselves, not because it’s something that parents want them to do.

        Need I mention that the offices of therapists and career-change advisers are busy with people who embraced careers to please a parent, rather than following their own gifts and inclinations?

        What large families do sometimes provide is an early training in cooperation and obedience to authority, virtues that are traditionally replicated in religious life, or were when there were large religious houses with many members living together. This is not assured, of course, for each family is different, but the transition to dormitory living and obedience to religious superiors is easier if one’s home life and living space has always been shared with lots of people.

  8. Chris McDonnell Avatar
    Chris McDonnell

    Thanks Alan #9
    Pleased I’m not missing something after all

  9. Chris McDonnell Avatar
    Chris McDonnell

    Well put Rita. I have deliberately refrained from further comment on Fr Allan’s remarks #5 and #7. I found the comment in #7 that “Those who practice NFP for the most part see children as a gift to embrace rather than a disease to medicate away.” particularly distasteful. I will say no more

  10. Bill deHaas Avatar
    Bill deHaas

    Thanks to both of you. Like you Rita, it sounded like we were resurrecting the notion of *primogeniture* – 1st son inherits family fortune, leaving second or third son to enter the priesthood. It also appears connected to some of the comments of the earlier post on newly ordained and a tendency to be traditional in some cases – comments that many of these come from an older, traditional family idea of large families, conservative liturgical styles/practices, etc.
    Given his data quote – should we look at how many are left handed vs. right handed; how many have blue, green, brown eye colors?

    Have noticed that Alan is again posting. My response to his #5 & #7 – well, one person’s intentional community is another’s cult. If this is his future, he will really be re-interpreting, dancing fast, and re-creating his own ideology in Sept. Oct. Nov with the papal visit and the Synod on the Family. Talk about fringe, escapism, modern day Essenes, etc. Thought we were called to engage the world – not hide from it.
    Oh well….par for the course.

    Chris – your post and pics reminded me of our college seminary – now gone; knocked down and replaced with a modern priests retirement/nursing facility for the religious order. But, in the 70s, remember the debates – seminaries needed to be isolated, removed from the nitty gritty, almost a monastery vs. those who were trying to anticipate the future, move the houses of studies on large catholic university campuses with engagement in local ministries, outreach, etc. and interaction with their own peers (male and female).

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