Dwindling vocations

The value and disappearance of minor seminaries
by Michael Goodstadt

St. Boswell?,1951-54; The Priory, 1954-57);
Blacklion, 1957-59; Broome Hall, 1959-60)

I have often wondered about the reasons for the closure, elimination, of minor (junior) seminaries. To what extent was this an inevitable consequence of inherent weaknesses in the underlying principles, and/or operation, of minor seminaries in the middle of the 20th century? It is instructive to examine the roots and evolution of minor seminaries: their formation, their operation and, latterly, their demise.

The establishment of seminaries was one of the most significant outcomes of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This single initiative addressed many of the core problems underlying the Protestant Reformation; establishment of seminaries, both minor and senior, reduced the prevalence of corruption among clergy, and led to the development of truly spiritual priests.

The Council of Trent? initiatives were reinforced by Vatican II. The relevant Vatican II document (Optatam Totius, 1965) is notable in three respects:
1 it said little about minor seminaries, in contrast to senior seminaries;
2 it opened the doors to greater exposure to social and cultural ?ealism?in so far as it recognised that seminarians should not be cut off from their families and society at large;
3 it stressed the need for educational preparation that went beyond the ?lassical?model which had been based on the humanities; the post-Vatican II world has demanded greater sophistication in the social and natural sciences. One could speculate that the removal of minor seminaries?isolationist barriers contributed to their disappearance by the end of the 1960s; however, one cannot overlook the influence of the socio-cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which coincided with the era of Vatican II.

However, Optatam Totius was perhaps ?oo little, too late?with regard to minor seminaries; it was unable to protect or preserve the better qualities of minor seminaries?ncluding the spiritual formation of an extensive cadre of laymen who have provided church leadership for generations. This is apparent when contrasting Optatam Totius with Pope Pius VI? Apostolic Letter Summi Dei Verbum (1963), which marked the 400th anniversary of the Establishment of Seminaries by the Council of Trent.

For me, the following extract from Summi Dei Verbum captures pre-Vatican II? focus on ?ocations? in particular, the ethos associated with minor seminaries in Catholic families and communities, and the negative moral assessment of the world beyond the protective enclave provided by seminaries:

?font color="#7A007B">But the duties of parents and pastors, and of all who are responsible for boys and young men are not confined to creating an atmosphere favorable to religious vocations and imploring the Lord to bestow His grace on new bands of levites. They must do all in their power to direct them to the seminary or religious institution as soon as they show clearly that they aspire to the priesthood and are suited to it. Only in this way will they be sheltered from the corruption of the world and enabled to cultivate the seed of the divine call in the most suitable surroundings.
?/font> (Summi Dei Verbum, 1963).

Where does this leave us? For some time, minor seminaries served the functions envisaged for them by the Council of Trent, in fostering the spiritual and educational development of future priests. In the process, they might have contributed to inadequate preparation of both priests, and former seminarians, in meeting their 20th century responsibilities?eminaries might also have resulted in psycho-social damage to some seminarians. By the mid-20th century, their underlying model was probably no longer able to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

Finally, for a specifiable but limited time, former White Father seminarians will continue to reminisce (fondly or not so fondly) about the years they devoted Ad Salvandos Afros.

A response from Jim Connolly

Further to the first article in the new OBSERVATIONS section, is it not significant that in the USA the two or three senior seminaries that are full and thriving belong to the priestly societies (in union with the Catholic Church) who espouse both the pre-Vatican 2 Latin Mass and seminary training ,where the seminarians wear the black cassock and clerical collar from the start of their training through to ordination (six to seven years)?

Contrast that with the disappearance of all but two Senior Dioscesan Seminaries in this Country and virtually all Seminaries that were run by Religious and Missionary Societies.

Is there a lesson to be learnt?

A further response from Michael Goodstadt

Many thanks for your response to my recent ?bservations? Jim.

I agree with you completely.

For some time, I (and others) have been concerned about the shift in orientation of recent seminarians and, hence, the newer generation of priests and hierarchy. In particular, I worry about their ability to provide the spiritual and pastoral support required by the faithful in our increasingly challenging world. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit continues to work in mysterious, unexpected and challenging ways?s recently manifested in the person of Pope Francis.

Among the lessons to be learned include the need to develop a ?ocation? model:

(1) that is not based on the rejection of an ?vil?world;

(2) that recognizes the legitimacy of a ?alling?at an early age;

(3) that recognizes that such callings can be explored and fostered in ways similar to the ways in which parents, schools, etc., encourage young peoples?walk through the maze of life? possibilities;

(4) that is not afraid to include an explicit spiritual dimension in young people? decision-making about their futures. The latter might seem idealistic and unreasonable in a society that appears to reject traditional religious organizations, structures and practices. However, I am constantly amazed by the close-to-the-surface acceptance of faith-based values and practices?t least in Canada.

My extensive experience in mentoring university students has led me to believe that most of my Masters students (in Public Health) are motivated by deeply held values that are in complete harmony with values traditionally underlying our religious societies, especially our missionary organizations (e.g., social justice; individual empowerment; community responsibility; physical, mental, social and spiritual health; environmental stewardship). A large proportion of our students (at the University of Toronto) want to work overseas; many want to work in Africa. Students have suggested that this international and altruistic orientation is understandable: young people have been brought up to be concerned about global issues?font color="#FF0000">?hink globally; act locally? Furthermore, many students are guided by strong faith-based principles associated with the South Asian background of many of our students, or their Christian/Catholic upbringing.

However, in the secular culture that dominates current public space in general, and universities in particular, it is difficult to address issues related to values, especially if these are perceived to be related to religious or spiritual beliefs. We need to find ways to support young people as they explore the four eternal questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? How do I get there?

Experience has shown that our youth and young adults continue to ask these questions as they prioritize their life-goals?ven when we, older adults, no longer act as if these questions are relevant in our lives. Finally, we need to provide the encouragement and resources required by young people in addressing their ?ocational?questions.

I look forward to your thoughts.


A useful link from Robbie Dempsey

Here is an "observation" from last week's IRISH TIMES that Pelicans may care to read: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/fate-of-all-hallows-college-mirrors-collapse-of-vocations-1.1807218

John Connelly responds to Michael Goodstadt
(Sent 10th June 2014)

Thanks Michael. If you look up the White Fathers' international site on the web and hit on their ?atest news?section you will see an article written by Father Marcel Boisin WF about the latter years of St Edwards College Totteridge.

I found it quite revealing, particularly the part about how far the Seminary ethos had deviated from that of the early days of St Edward's.

The old adage that the family that prays together stays together was at the heart of the seminaries right up to end of the 1960s where all the seminarians attended chapel every morning for meditation and the holy sacrifice of the Mass and again in the evening for Benediction, Vespers or Stations of the Cross And priests were expected to say mass every day of the year.

Father Boisin? observations indicate that in the last years of St Edward's the seminarians were expected to attend a minimum of three appointed daily masses a week and that the wearing of the habit was relaxed in favour of civilian clothing. Did St Edward's lose it? way!

Today, in my view, too many priests and religious walk about in casual clothing unrecognised for what they are yet they urge us to spread the gospel. What better way of helping to spread the gospel than being seen (visibly) for what they are - priests wearing the clerical collar and black suit and nuns their habit.

Return to Top

The impact and value of our junior seminary experiences
by Michael Goodstadt

St. Boswell?,1951-54; The Priory, 1954-57);
Blacklion, 1957-59; Broome Hall, 1959-60)

HI Everyone:

I've often wondered about the impact and value of our junior seminary experiences.

Some questions:
(1) how many seminarians were eventually ordained?

(2) How many ordained seminarians "remained ordained"?

(3) What have been the long-term effects of the junior seminaries? These days, no one would think of allowing or encouraging our 11 year old sons to leave home?

(4) How many ex-seminarians share what appear to be the positive experiences portrayed in and supported by The Pelican website--are we victims of romanticizing our childhood, especially our "missing" adolescence?

My assessment of my personal experience is that, while I had some positive experiences, most of my memories are of a relatively lonely life, devoid of social and emotional support, providing little preparation for the "real world" that so many of us re-entered when we left the seminary.

For me, the only positives have been a very strong sense of personal resilience and resourcefulness, combined with a strong commitment to contributing to God's work. I look forward to hearing from you. Take good care. Michael Goodstadt

A response from John Larkin

In response to Michael's posting about the effect of our seminarian experience on who we are now I would like to add my own observation.

Living in America for the past 30 years I have watched parenting here with interest. In Europe most families have living grandparents at the top of the pecking order....Not here. Babies pop out and go straight to the top. Parents will do ANYTHING for their children including daily adoration. Which got me thinking about me!!!

My Father took me to a vocations exhibition in Glasgow when I was about 11/12 yo. I saw the White Fathers and a ticket to Africa!!! That's for me.

Where was the parental guidance
? Second generation Irish parents of first-born son who wanted to be a missionary to Africa!!! God has blessed this family!!

When I was home for the holiday breaks I was treated like a Superstar....Give this up? No way. Then I started to notice I liked girls and my Celibacy made me more attractive.

I decided to leave the seminary and will not forget the exchange of letters when I told my parents..."Who made you do this? What bad people are you associating with? etc.

On reflection I was a dreamer; my parents should have been the regulators, but blinded by "the Irish honor of having my boy a priest" produced what I am today.

After fumbling through the change, I made one great decision. I became a Police Officer and boy did I grow up fast.

So my advice is do not let your children enter religious life until they are mature.

Michael Goodstadt replies

Many thanks for your response, John. On reading it, I was struck by the some of the differences in our experiences and, I suspect, the range of differences among all our experiences.

Two things struck me:
(1) for me the ?wakening?came when a Blacklion retreat Director(the Provincial, Jack Maguire) made it clear that a ?ocation?did not imply a divine ?alling?that I was obliged to follow (more or less under ?ain of sin??t took me another two years before I finally left (during the novitiate);

(2) when I left, my parents were wonderful: to this day, I remember phoning home on a Sunday evening to tell them that I was coming home on the following Wednesday; my father? response was, ?We?l see you tomorrow (Monday), son?

On returning home with absolutely no realistic understanding of how the world turned on its axis; my father was spectacularly loving and supportive in helping me identify my next steps. I owe everything to my parents; I owe nothing to my novice-master whose final admonition was, ?oin the army and get some discipline!?( I felt I knew something about both the army and discipline, given that my father spent 35 years of his life in the army).

Peter McMurray's experience

Nimmo (Scott) brought Michael Goodstadt and John Larkin's comments to my attention a couple of days ago. Unfortunately I was in the process of digging a suitable grave in dry rocky clay on a steep hillside for my wingman of sixteen years - a determined West Highland White terrier - so I cogitated before answering.

It is difficult to judge the actions of people working in the 1950's under the mores of today. The loneliness and lack of any meaningful support I fully agree with. In fact I sometimes wonder if I lived on another planet - for example I had no idea that any student smoked, yet I now discover there was a major trade in Woodbines :-) .

Pleasant events:
I remember helping Father Fitzgerald load and deliver a ton of dung on day and being rewarded with a trip to the cinema - Spencer Tracey in Bad Day At Black Rock.

Helping John Lyden with his cricket practise. Fr. Monaghan's attempts to teach us cricket. In fact I just went with the flow as I was destined to be a priest and belonged to Mother Church rather than my birth family; obedience was the be all and end all. I sustained much deeper hurt than I imagined from my own method of termination.

I went to see Father Superior to discuss doubts I had about my vocation. To my horror, instead of a sensible discussion, he sat back with a pompous air and said there are three reasons for leaving:

1 to get married (me, a 17 year old naive virgin)

2 to take up a career ( it would be another 10 years before I discovered what that was)

3 because you are acting like a BLOODY fool (his emphasis not mine)

"I think that you fall in the third category".

He apparently wrote to my mother and the next thing I knew was I was down at the youth employment bureau and being signed up to a modern slave contract i.e. articled to a chartered accountant. The full legal hit of which I did not discover until 2 years later when I went to swap my 2 pound ten a week tick it and hope audit job for a nine pound ten a week job driving a grocery van.

In fact when I found Paul West's site in 2003 I sobbed for 10 minutes as it all flooded back and finally I have forgotten that Superior's name. I then realised the diaspora that had hit my classmates - I was not alone.

Quite a few had joined the extreme forces - in fact I have a jazz pianist to thank for my not doing so as he told me he thought that that was just a cop out, which in my case it was. I was just looking for someone to tell me what to do. I have the greatest admiration for those that, like Commander Bill Nimmo-Scott RN OBE, made a great go of it. Others like Mick Mearns had travelled the globe making my perambulations a simple jaunt.

Did we turn out well because of the schooling or in spite of it? We will never know.

Michael is wrong about one thing ; boarding school is a perfectly normal thing today in places subject to the tyranny of distance such as Australia. However I think many parents would freak at the thought of an 11 year old boy, domiciled in central England, finding his own way to and from the borders of Scotland in the depths of a snowed in Winter as I did.

The religious experience is simply a matter of birthplace. in the UK you had the greatest salesman in history - St. Paul - for being Catholi or Protestant. In Russia Marx would have held sway. In China Confucious was over taken by Mao.In India Shiva holds sway although I prefer Ganesha. Middle East Mohammad is the man although Sunnii seem to hate Shia even more than anyone else.

In my darkest moments of deep blue despond I found considerable relief in Buddhism and Zen meditation. My preference is to be considered a Humanist and feel that any belief system based on fear is wrong. In fact I bought A.C. Grayling's "The God Argument" today and plan some thought along these lines. As the Irish humorist, Dave Allan, would say "May your God be with You".

Meanwhile I have just taken up the piano haven fallen under the spell of great Boogie-Woogie players such as Paterok and Zingg What a blessing You-Tube has turned out to be :-)