Sunday, September 13, 2009

Redemptoris Mater: New Approach to Molding Future Priests

The seminarians' wallets are empty, except for driver's licenses and insurance cards. To buy cigarettes or clothes or anything else, they must ask their superiors for money - an exercise in obedience and a reminder that material things aren't important. They have virtually no time alone, on or off campus, and are required to travel in pairs, "two by two," like Jesus' disciples. They live in a world without cell phones or personal computers, and their evenings end promptly at 10.

No Roman Catholic seminary is a resort. But few men who study for the priesthood endure the sort of rules that govern life at the Redemptoris Mater House of Formation. Redemptoris Mater is a new experiment in molding Catholic priests who are faithful to church teaching and authority and zealous in their desire to lead other Catholics down that same road.

On the one hand, the rules are a throwback to 50 years ago, when would-be priests led regimented existences apart from the rest of the world. But Redemptoris Mater men also teach the faith at parishes and spend two years on mission trips, knocking on doors looking for Catholics in Bronx housing projects or Minneapolis suburbs.

The rules "are difficult to get used to, but it's because we come from this very individualistic society, where it's just me," says seminarian Joseph Toledo. "Those things have to be torn down. But it isn't like we're living in a bubble, either." Toledo is the 29-year-old son of a Puerto Rican cabdriver and is one of the few American-born seminarians on the rolls in 2008-09. All told, there are 33 students from 14 countries.

In this, they reflect the changing face of the U.S. priesthood. Their greater ethnic diversity and hunger to show fidelity to the church are hallmarks of the coming generation of priests, according to a study released this month by the National Religious Vocation Conference, an organization of Catholic vocation directors.

In other ways, Redemptoris Mater seminarians stand apart from their peers. The seminary is not the province of a religious order or a diocese headed by priests and bishops. Instead, Redemptoris Mater seminarians and the priests who oversee them come from Neocatechumenal Way communities, groups of 20 to 50 who bond over intense study and an evangelism foreign to most Catholics.

The Way, an international movement largely run by Catholic laypeople, is controversial; some critics say it is separatist and causes division in parishes, though its defenders deny it. The group's approach to discipline at the seminaries it operates in the United States (besides Denver, Redemptoris Mater seminaries have opened in Boston; Dallas; Newark, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.) has attracted notice in important places.

When a Vatican office summarized a 2005-06 study of U.S. seminaries seeking answers to the clergy sex abuse scandal, it recommended that seminaries make their rules more demanding so men shed a "worldly style of life" - and it suggested that Redemptoris Mater seminaries were examples worth following.

The Redemptoris Mater House of Formation sits in a leafy residential neighborhood in southeast Denver, on a Spanish mission-style campus called the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization. The campus is also home to a larger seminary - St. John Vianney, or SJV - which trains men mostly from Colorado and the Midwest for the Denver archdiocese.

Seminarians from the two institutions receive the same education in the same classes, grounded in reverence for traditional Catholic teaching. Neither is an institution for questioning the church on contraception or the merits of the celibate, male-only priesthood.

But SJV mirrors contemporary seminary life. The men take notes on laptops, carry BlackBerries, live in single rooms, gather for TV watching in a common room, maintain their own blogs and spread news about snow-canceled classes on Facebook. Basically, that's the rule when it comes to contemporary Catholic seminary life in the United States.

The men of Redemptoris Mater - the name is Latin for "Mother of the Redeemer" - take notes on steno pads, must seek permission before hanging anything on their residence hall walls and share everything, down to a single e-mail address on a second-floor computer.

Jose de Jesus Garcia arrived at Redemptoris Mater a decade ago from Veracruz, Mexico. Although he was used to living on his own, he says, he quickly came to appreciate the rules.

Traveling two-by-two gave him someone to depend on, like a brother. Being penniless and depending on others was a lesson in humility - God would provide. "If you see the rules as something that limits you from doing something, it becomes a heavy burden," Garcia said. "We see it as a way to help because our vocation, the same as marriage, is a daily fight."

As a teenager, Garcia drifted away from the church. He dated off and on. He went to college. Then his father persuaded him to attend Mass one Sunday, when someone from the Neocatechumenal Way was speaking. The message was standard - Jesus loves you as you are and doesn't care about your past - but it touched something in Garcia. He returned to the church and eventually heard what he believed was the call to the priesthood. But he didn't heed it immediately, instead going to work for a pharmaceutical company before answering the call.

"I think the Lord, he is always a gentleman," Garcia says. "He called me that time, but he knew I was new, in a way, rediscovering my faith. He didn't push me."

Like the others, Garcia received his seminary assignment by lottery. His name was plucked from a basket and matched to Denver. Here, he took up a life structured around prayer and school. Bells ring in the hallway at 6 a.m., and a half hour later the men gather in a small chapel for morning prayer. It's like a Mass set to a flamenco soundtrack. On one Wednesday, the men chanted psalms accompanied by Spanish guitar, gathered around an altar draped in white cloth and covered with fresh flowers.

"The Lord is passing by again," says the Rev. Federico Colautti, the vice rector. "He wants us to come with him. Are you ready to go? Are you ready to go with him? Because if you don't, you remain empty."

Most U.S. seminaries loosened their rules after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which brought a shift in how the Catholic Church perceived its place in the world, says the Rev. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence and adjunct professor of theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

"Before, secular life was looked at with great suspicion," says Cozzens, a former seminary rector. "With the Second Vatican Council, the world is God's creation. So our task then was to train seminarians to be in the world, to know it, but not to be of it any profound secular sense."

Some Catholics, particularly conservatives, believe vocations to the priesthood dropped drastically post-Vatican II, in part because seminaries allowed too much freedom, resulting in dissent and short-lived vocations. Others point to societal changes, including much smaller Catholic families that shrink the candidate pool.

The reasons for decline may be in dispute, but the numbers are not: The number of priests in the United States has dropped from 58,000, in 1965, to 40,000 today. The past decade has seen an uptick in ordinations; this year's class is 472, up from 442 in 2000. But it's still not enough to replenish the priesthood's aging ranks.

Colautti, the Redemptoris Mater vice rector, says the seminary's prohibitions on television, the off-campus buddy system and other rules are meant to foster communion, or togetherness - especially at an international seminary, where structure provides safe harbor for new arrivals, many of whom come from poor countries and suffer culture shock.

"Some people will say, 'You protect them too much,' " says Colautti, who is from Argentina. "It's important to have a time in your life in which you experience that it's possible to live without TV, that you don't need the Internet. It's possible to overcome temptation, to have a celibate life, a chaste life. The society presents you these things as impossible. So if they're impossible, you don't even fight it, you say, 'What the heck?' The culture is always pressing, pressing."

Some seminarians, like Garcia, follow a twisting path to the priesthood. Others seem preordained. Toledo, who arrived a few months after Garcia in 1999, started dressing like a priest for Halloween when he was 3, growing up in Bridgeport, Conn. He pretended to say Mass at a desk in his room.

Why the priesthood? "It's really hard to answer," Toledo says. "There is no one reason. When God calls, you know, why not? I'm definitely not in it for the money or because I want to become a bishop. I'm not in it for the popularity because it's not always popular to be a priest. The 'why' is that people are suffering. People need the church, the sacraments. People need to be baptized. The sick need to be visited. There is a need."

For Toledo, that call means teaching people that the faith is not just a matter of attending Mass each week; it means living Catholic tenets on a daily basis. "The world needs Christians," he says. "The world doesn't need half-baked Catholics. It's got plenty of those."

The rules and structure at Redemptoris Mater become as familiar as the motions of Mass. On a weekday last spring, Toledo was in charge of a team of seminarians assigned to kitchen duty. What most would view as a tedious chore is considered another step toward the priesthood, a lesson in humility and service.

When lunch was over, a seminarian stood to announce that he had a dentist appointment. "Find someone to go with you," advised the rector, the Rev. Florian Martin-Calama.

Cozzens says a rule-bound atmosphere doesn't always breed maturity. "There's a subtle message of 'We don't trust you,' " he said. "Especially now, seminarians are older. You're relating to adult men like you might boarding school students." But Redemptoris Mater seminaries aren't cloistered, either. When Cozzens studied for the priesthood, his main contact with the outside world was teaching at a Catholic elementary school one day a week.

Toledo, like the others, spent two years on missions. He was sent to Neocatechumenal Way communities in Gainsville, Ga., and the Minneapolis area. He knocked on doors seeking out Catholics, as the movement is premised on the belief that Catholics stop their religious education at an early age and need more.

Toledo befriended families at a suburban Denver parish, adhering to boundaries taught in seminary. When visiting a home, he'd play a game of Risk with the kids but wouldn't spend time alone with them. If a woman asked him to bless the family house, he would make sure her husband was home first.

On a Saturday morning in late May, Toledo gathered with classmates Garcia and Carlos Wilson Bello, a Colombian who had a career as a chemical engineer before he, too, heard the call.

The setting was the sacristy of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the equivalent of backstage at the city's towering white Catholic symbol. "Good morning," a priest told Garcia. "Congratulations, padre to be." In Toledo's right pocket is a cross he carries everywhere, the same kind carried by all the seminarians. In his left pocket is his mother's rosary. The handmade beads are his family's birthstones.

Like children peering around a curtain waiting for their father to home from work, every few minutes the men walk over and peek through a narrow slit of a window at friends, family and seminarians taking their places in the front.

A few weeks earlier, the three men sat in the back of an empty classroom and chose the Gospel reading for this, their ordination Mass. The unanimous pick was Matthew 9:35-38. It concludes with Jesus telling 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."

It was a fitting choice. Thirteen years into the existence of Redemptoris Mater Denver, this bright morning would usher in the seminary's 11th, 12th and 13th priests, all bound for parishes in Colorado. Midway through the Mass, the archbishop rested his hands on the men's heads and said a few words of prayer. And with that, these men of Redemptoris Mater were priests. . . . [more] San Francisco Chronicle

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