As Rector of Saint John Vianney College Seminary, I have been reading these comments on seminary formation with great interest.
There are many admirable qualities in today’s college seminarians: a nearly universal fidelity to the Church in every respect (and this is largely a credit to their families and pastors, as they do not arrive at the seminary needing to be convinced about this, but already convinced); a sincere desire to grow in holiness, in truth, and in the life of prayer as taught by the Church and her saints; a fervor to bring others to Christ through evangelization and apologetics and, especially, through the graces of the Church’s Sacraments. I am very proud of these remarkable young men; we who hope for a continued renewal of Christ’s Priesthood have a sound basis for such hope.
There are two principal challenges in the early stages of forming such men today, both of which concern the influences of contemporary youth culture in the U.S.
First, today’s young seminarians have grown up in a world without coherence, [Amen.] a world without edges and corners and connecting tendons, an unstable world. They have lived with a daily routine that is fast-paced and ever-shifting, with enormous amounts of information thrown at them, and no one taking the time to explain how it all fits together. Thus the need for a sound program of Philosophy to form their bright-but-unformed minds. Thus the need for a daily Holy Hour, not only to offer adoration to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, but to retire from the freneticism of typical college life for a few moments of silence, of prayer, of consecration to God. And the “daily” aspect of this is no small matter. Today’s seminarians arrive with the best of intentions regarding prayer, but most of them have not, in fact, been praying in any sort of consistent way. No surprise: if they don’t eat their meals at the same time for two days in a row, why should we think that they pray at the same time for two days in a row? [!] Many of us who argue back and forth about how much structure is appropriate in today’s seminaries are woefully out of touch with the underlying principle of disorder that permeates American youth culture. And it’s getting worse. (I chuckle as I hear our 21-year old Seniors comment about the newly arriving Freshmen: “Whoa, Father, these new guys are gonna need a lot more formation than we did when we first got here!”) Could too much structure lead to unhealthy results that reflect problems of an earlier era? Certainly. But I’m not seeing such disorders among most of the actual seminarians who are coming through formation today, and I honestly don’t think that this rigid Scylla is what most threatens them today; it’s the swirling Charybdis of a disordered youth culture that threatens to swallow them. [Well said and good image.]
If the first challenge involves a lack of shape, the second challenge concerns a lack of tempo. Simply put, today’s young people have never experienced anything that takes a long time. [A characteristic of our age is the decreasing attention span.] They expect to figure out whether to become a priest within a few weeks of joining the seminary. And why not? Google provides them with information in a matter of seconds; why can’t the Lord keep up with that pace? As countless saints have noted, the important things in life take a long time for most of us: conversion, the breaking of habits, the interior life of prayer. In the call to holiness, “real change is slow change.” The same is true with the cultivation and discernment of a vocation, and today’s seminaries have the task of slowing our seminarians down, of setting their expectations at a realistic level regarding the normal life of divine grace at work in their souls. This is not easy, and today’s seminarians are probably more easily frustrated than those in times past with regard to their own stubborn sins and their seemingly slow spiritual progress.
When I first arrived at Saint John Vianney as Rector ten years ago, I noticed that some very fine candidates were dropping out within a year of joining, not because they had “met a girl” or had become disillusioned with a possible priestly calling, but because they had “met” their true spiritual condition in prayer and spiritual direction and were disillusioned with their struggle for holiness. These men lacked a spiritual and a moral maturity that was substantial enough for them to do the heavy lifting of vocational discernment. I told them, “Slow down! God is so very patient with you. Take the time to know Him, to love Him, to obey Him, and then you will be able to ask Him, ‘How shall I follow You, Lord?’”
Again, I wish to honor our seminarians for their remarkable, even heroic, dedication to Christ and the Church. Most of us have never had to face the challenges in living the Catholic Faith that they have endured by the ripe old age of 18 or 20. [A good point.] Let’s keep praying for them, and let us offer them the best possible formation, through the intercession of Holy Mary, Mother of Priests and Seminarians, and Saint John Mary Vianney, Universal Patron of Priests.Comment by Fr. William Baer — 4 July 2009 @ 10:46 am