TO THE EDITOR: “The history of the church may depend on the course our seminaries take.” With this flag waving subtitle, a recent article in AMERICA, “Tomorrow’s Seminaries” (1/18), gave voice to the growing cry for improvement and modernization of seminary training. Critics both within and without the “clerical world” are especially unhappy with the physical and intellectual isolation imposed on the seminarian, which, it is claimed, dwarfs his psychological development and powers of initiative, robs him of significant contact with the intellectual currents of his times, and hinders practical acquaintance with the world and with the layman who dwells in this world.
I am now completing my sixth year in the long training of a Jesuit. (The intellectual and spiritual formation of religious-priests does not differ essentially from that of the diocesan clergy: both draw their vocations from the same sources and train their men to work within the same social milieu; both are subject to the prescriptions of the Holy See regarding seminaries.) My reflections on seminary training are necessarily conditioned by my experience during this time, especially the past two years of philosophy studies here at Loyola Seminary (Shrub Oak, N. Y.). I believe that I and those around me—superiors, faculty and students—are aware of the need for constructive change. What follows is a report on the accomplishments already made and one man’s opinion of where further corrective action is necessary.
Liturgical formation in my own training had been under way long before the Constitution on the Liturgy was promulgated, in fact since my entrance into religious life. I have read at the urging of spiritual fathers numerous books and articles on the Mass, the sacraments, and other aspects of the public worship of the Church. Periodic conferences, recent talks and special lectures (such as a recent one delivered by Fr. C. J. McNaspy on “Liturgy as a Bond of Union”) have afforded deeper appreciation of the liturgy and up-to-date information on the progress of the liturgical movement. The introduction of theology courses on the New Testament, prior to the four years allowed to theological studies, recognizes the emphasis in the Constitution that “Sacred Scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy.”
Nor has active participation in the liturgy lagged far behind theoretical instruction. Each morning our community comes together for daily Mass, and a lector reads the Epistle and Gospel in English. At least twice a week this Mass is said facing the people, and occasionally the congregation sings English or Latin hymns. On Sundays there is High Mass at which the community chants one of the Gregorian Masses and often the Proper as well; after the Gospel the celebrant delivers a brief homily on some text in the Mass. We chant Compline once a week, and during this year a Scripture Service was conducted each Sunday afternoon. Because of the current reform of the liturgy and the need to make constant changes, a liturgical commission, consisting of four priests and six seminarians, meets periodically to discuss and formulate recommendations for superiors on the liturgical life of the community.
Our training has also taken big strides in the area of communications. Last summer, Fr. Jacques Cousineau, a Jesuit film expert, presided over the First Annual Film Festival here at Loyola. On four consecutive evenings films selected for their artistic and technical excellence were viewed by the community: The Miracle Worker, Ikiru, Through a Glass Darkly and Diary of a Country Priest. On the following morning the community gathered, first in small groups, then in general session, to discuss the previous night’s film and to pool our individual observations and reflections on the use of audio-visual techniques in theme development. After this it was possible to re-view the film in order to appreciate its art more deeply in light of the discussions.
Late each afternoon Fr. Cousineau lectured on methods of conducting film seminars to assist our own future work in educating the critical abilities of others. Edward Fischer, film critic for Ave Maria magazine, succeeded Fr. Cousineau as chairman later in the series. Limited to only three lectures to a showing and discussion of Citizen Kane, Mr. Fischer did much to introduce an “unlettered” audience into the world of film grammar and esthetics.
During the school year we have several excellent films, including Bicycle Thief, Ballard of a Soldier, and 400 Blows. Our method of study this month follows the same general procedure of viewing, discussion and re-viewing.
Writing, of course, is an essential ingredient of our education; but it is limited to class work and assignments. A little over a year ago, several seminarians organized a writers’ agency to facilitate the typing and placement of manuscripts composed by their fellow students. To date, the agency reports that articles have been placed in such journals as Thought, The Journal of Higher Education, Trace, Modern Fiction Studies and Mundo Social. Seven poems have been published, and efforts are even under way to interest a publishing house in a collection of short stories.
The arts are not neglected in this house of philosophy. This year we put on full length productions of King Lear, Waiting for Godot and an original musical comedy, The Preternatural has a Grip on Me. During March some seminarians exhibited some of their paintings in the Fordham Art Center. Two others are directing and editing their own film-documentaries.
Daniel Callahan has charged in Commonweal (“Freedom of Priests,” 10/18) that “the seminarian is given a very scant education in those disciplines that loom so large in the modern world. Unless he makes special private efforts, it is more that likely that the graduate of a seminary will have only the barest acquaintance with literature, psychology, sociology, economics, history and political science. He will almost surely not have wrestled with the thought of Hegel, Marx, Freud, Darwin or Kant; or, for that matter, any of those men who have left their mark on this ‘secular’ age of ours.”
This description does not fit the “graduate” of Loyola Seminary, a man exposed for three years to a highly qualified faculty, excellent library facilities and good courses. At the conclusion of our first two years, which correspond roughly to junior and senior years at any Jesuit liberal arts college, the graduate receives his A.B. from Fordham University, of which Loyola is the college of philosophy and letters. The major field of concentration for everyone is philosophy; but philosophy as it is taught to us, receives a strong historical emphasis and is not restricted to the scholasticism of the manuals. We do “wrestle” with Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Kant’s Critiques; Hegel, Marx and Freud speak up frequently to challenge and illumine our own thought, as do Dewey, Heidegger, Whitehead and others.
Physics, experimental psychology, communications and one’s own specialty (anything from literature to political science) round out the curriculum. In third year, stress remains on philosophy to fulfill requirements for the Licentiate in Philosophy, a Church degree. Courses in Aristotle and medieval philosophy deepen appreciation for the Christian tradition, while those in ethics and contemporary philosophy together with sociology and anthropology focus in from different angles on the “modern mind.”
After first year, graduate studies occupy our studies and continue into the regular school year. One afternoon a week, each seminarian travels to New York City for class at Fordham in English, history, philosophy, physics, mathematics, political science, modern language, psychology or education; at Columbia, New York University or Saint John’s in music, fine arts, English, economics or sociology. Ideally, when the three years here are finished, each man has completed his course requirements for a Master’s and has only his comprehensive exam to pass for the awarding of the degree.
There are, besides, various activities at Loyola to help broaden the scope of our experience. Mention has already been made of graduate courses in New York City each week and the ensuing opportunity to consult with non-Jesuit professors, meet with fellow students, and make use of library and other campus facilities. There is also considerable freedom to attend lectures, seminars, workshops and similar academic meetings. Museums, art galleries and other cultural centers are not unknown to us, nor are public libraries or foreign consulates.
Teaching religion to released-time public school students is our major apostolic work. One hundred seminarians give up the major portion of their weekly holiday to provide more than two thousand Westchester boys and girls with what in many cases is their only formal religious training. Recently one priest and three seminarians organized a program for visiting and gaining practical experience at various centers set up in New York City slum areas to handle problems of juvenile delinquency. drug addiction and the like.
To complete the picture, however, let me list what in my opinion are certain failings in my own training and consider possible avenues for improvement. I shall take up only those problem areas that I gather—from conversations with non-Jesuit seminarians and scattered magazine articles (for example, in AMERICA, Commonweal and Life)—we share with other seminaries.
Perhaps the system of studies prescribed by Canon Law could learn something from modern educational experience in graduate schools and collegiate honors programs. Certainly the present set up requires too many class hours, too much passive attendance at tedious lectures. (Every student knows that not every teacher is brilliant every day.) Some of this time could be more profitably spent in guided private reading and weekly seminar sessions.
No subject, with the exception of theology, occupies a seminarian more than philosophy. The value of this discipline is indisputable, but not so clear is its right to absolute priority over other subjects. The modern world and layman, it would seem, require that philosophy studies in the education of a priest yield a certain amount of time and emphasis to more intense work in history, sociology, psychology, science, the arts. No doubt, too, seminary philosophy, while moving in the right direction, has not yet freed itself from the shackles of thesis-textbook methodology.
No one can deny that there are advantages in physical isolation both as regards the location of the seminary and the tenor of the seminarian’s life. The priest-to-be must learn not to rely on the distractions and diversions of the “outside world” for his personal fulfillment and happiness. He must face God and himself, acquire discipline and self-control, and root his vocation firmly in spiritual motivation.
At times, however, one gets the impression that the goal of seminary is good seminarians and not good priests. Many knowledgeable and zealous laymen complain, apparently with some justification, that the clergy, due to its training, too often lacks a realistic appreciation of their world and of their difficulties. Priests themselves question whether the protective character of seminaries blocks the normal psychological development of the candidate for the priesthood—a goal requiring the most mature of decisions and a profession demanding great balance and self-possession. Predictably, seminarians also feel that more freedom and opportunity for experience should be present in their lives. Some of this is definitely the result of imprudent activity and youthful energy bucking restiveness of any sort. Yet the seminarians of my acquaintance find no value in even casual contact with people and situations outside the cloister.
It is my conviction that the seminarian would benefit from more varied, more frequent apostolic experience: teaching Christian Doctrine, helping out with parish organizations, in general dealing with laymen at every level. More of his classes should be at Catholic or non-Catholic colleges, where he could reap the advantage of a broad intellectual environment and close contact with lay students of diverse backgrounds. The seminarian should be able to attend scholarly conventions and other significant meetings even when they involve trips of some distance and duration. I am thinking of such events as the annual meeting of the Catholic Historical Association, a Liturgical Conference or the Freedom March of last August. Undoubtedly, the seminaries of the future should be built in or close to cities, even on the campuses of universities.
Ultimately, what is behind the intellectual inbreeding and physical isolation of seminaries is too narrow a philosophy of education, too negative a concept of asceticism. The common outlook, implicitly, is this: the intellect and will must be developed; the rest of the man, disciplined and restrained in the face of an evil world. According to this view, the acquisition of knowledge is necessarily a very laborious, rarely enjoyable task. Learning is possible in lecture halls or in solitude over one's textbook, and nowhere else. At best, this approach condones visiting an art museum, seeing a current play or reading a novel as helpful “breaks,” but not genuine education. Similarly, the image of holiness for the seminarian is often presented in terms of external piety and strict observance of rules. The necessity of a gracious charity and energetic development of talents receives secondary importance.
The net result of all this is to identify the ideal seminarian with the man who memorizes and crams in his studies, who obeys all regulations to the letter and never causes trouble. No one appears to be too concerned whether this same seminarian will also turn out a good priest, prepared to carry out his assignments competently and have a real impact on the people of his charge.
These criticisms are possibly harsh and much too black, but they serve to make a point. It would be a serious mistake to interpret them as indicative of a spirit of rebellion out to undermine the accomplishments of the past or the place of authority in the Church. I think that a certain amount of unrest and discontent among seminarians is healthy and should always be present. One faculty member of our community has remarked that if a man is perfectly happy in a seminary that is a sure sign that he has no vocation.
Many of the seminarian's/problems, of course, are simply part of the human condition, part of living life in a “vale of tears.” He is not so different from his friends and contemporaries in their family and business lives. Other difficulties come into prominence precisely because he, a youth of the mid-20th century, has freely chosen to take on the burdens of a challenging way of life (including his training), rooted in a long Christian tradition. Solutions, if there are any, must be found in prayer and faith, and on a more mundane level, in the wise cliché “grin and bear it.” For often the situation cannot and should not change; it is the man who must adjust.
But one note on this. The seminarian looks to his superiors and elders for vision and encouragement, for a living example of the meaning of his vocation and a visible witness to the value of the structures and patterns that govern his life. Impersonal authority, content to do nothing save issue an occasional edict from an ivory tower, can reduce the vigor of a seminarian’s commitment or even nourish resentment and distaste for his vocation.
The seminarian of today desires fresh articulation and insight into the role of the priest of 1964 America. He longs for serious and systematic reappraisal of seminary training and for practical guidelines in living a life caught between polarities of obedience and freedom, authority and initiative, isolation and involvement. No seminarian can possibly have the breadth of vision necessary to achieve such theoretical syntheses, nor can he work out on his own, without great difficulty, a balanced modus agendi. He can only express the conflicts in his life and look to his predecessors for assistance. His needs are a real challenge to the brains and souls of theologians, spiritual writers and all experienced churchmen.
James N. Loughran, S. J.
Shrub Oak, N. Y.
America / May 23, 1964