a clear focus on priestly formation

The uniqueness of the priestly role in the Church calls for specialized programs of learning and formation. Because of the important emphasis placed upon personal and spiritual formation, diocesan seminarians are usually educated in a seminary community whose clear focus is priestly formation (PPF, 12).

Although this paragraph from the PPF may seem like stating the obvious, it drives home an important point: seminaries are primarily for training candidates for ordination.

Seminaries are, in many places in the U.S., combined with programs of formation for lay people. This can be a good and natural arrangement. Lay people who are catechists and who serve in other apostolates need a rigorous theological training just as much as priests do… so why not share the same resources? And there can be a healthy exchange between lay students and candidates for priesthood when they share the same classroom. If the seminary environment is one in which there is a solid understanding of the complementary and distinct roles of lay people and ordained ministers, a “mixed” educational environment could work very well. This is a big “if”.

a confusion of roles

If, instead, there is confusion about the role of the ordained priesthood vis-à-vis the role of the priesthood of all the baptized, things can get quite weird and political. That was my experience at the Saint Paul Seminary. A strident spirit of political correctness was evident among some of the staff; some bent over backwards to reassure lay people that they were “full members” of the community… and, by their continual reference to this fact, all but ensured that lay people would become self-conscious about their presence in the seminary. Take, for instance, the full name of the institution I attended: “The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of Saint Thomas” or SPSSODUST for short. The politically correct shorthand was not “Saint Paul Seminary” but “School of Divinity.” Lay students were commonly referred to as “commuter students”, as if to imply that the distinction to be made was between those who lived on the premises and those who lived off campus.

All of this may seem like splitting hairs, but they are small indicators of some pervasive attitudes in the seminary environment at the time. In the late fall of 1997, shortly after the Vatican released the instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, MA in Theology students in an elective course on ministry got an earful from an instructor about this document. I suppose the parenthetical in the following passage may have been fueling his fire:

In accordance with the norms of particular law, [laypeople] should perfect their knowledge particularly by attending, in so far as possible, those formation courses organized for them by the competent ecclesiastical Authority in the particular Churches, (in environments other than that of the Seminary, as this is reserved solely for those preparing for the priesthood).

One of my fellow seminarians who participated in the class reported that the document was treated with derision by the faculty member leading the session — a faculty member who played a key role in the lay formation program at the time. And later, when a priest on staff raised the topic of the document’s distinction between “ministry” and “lay apostolate” for discussion, he was treated with ridicule. Why? I can’t say for sure, but I think it was due to a fear that making such distinctions was divisive and petty. But Rome had some reason for publishing the document… dismissing it seems a little too easy.

a fear of distinctions

I think that this fear of making distinctions is connected to an atmosphere of unredeemed feminism that makes itself felt in certain quarters of the Archdiocese… and certainly was simmering in the administrative offices of the seminary, just below the surface. (If you have read Donna Stiechen’s Ungodly Rage, you get a sense of the flavor of feminism in the Upper Midwest.)I’m speaking about the way some wanted to blur the fundamental distinction between the male and female ways of being human. The only way to protect the dignity of women, according to this view, was to treat them not only as equal to men, but as identical to men. This is actually nothing more than another face of chauvinism. Similarly, some seemed to believe that the way to encourage the laity was to treat lay people like ordained ministers. But this is really just another face of clericalism.

For example, “commuter students” were encouraged to take more and more “active” roles as “liturgical ministers.” Lay people were always encouraged to serve as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, when clearly there was no need for such a thing with several priests in attendance and a congregation of, at most, several hundred people at the largest events. As if to make a political statement, in the fall of 1996, at the seminary’s Mass for the installation of acolytes, those who planned the liturgy made a point of arranging for several lay people to distribute the Eucharist, while several concelebrating priests stood by. It seemed to me like one of the efforts to push the buttons of the more conservative seminarians in the hopes of “flushing” a few into view.

On a related note, I always wondered if the program of lay formation clearly and positively presented the role of the ordained priest in the life of the Church. I think in particular of an alumnus of the MDiv program who was the DRE of my home parish. She went on record in a Minnesota Monthly article saying how painful it was for her to be visiting the sick in the hospital and not to be able to perform the anointing of the sick, simply because she was a woman. After all, she had the same degree as the priests of the archdiocese. This was the same woman who invited an ex-priest to give a four-week adult education series about “Refounding the Church” — including a “re-evaluation” of contraception, homosexuality and the ordination of women. When I confronted her about the program in the presence of the pastor, just months before entering the seminary, she condescendingly reassured me that once I had been through a couple years of the MDiv program, I’d understand where she was coming from theologically. Later on, she offered to write one of my letters of recommendation for admission to the seminary. Naturally, I declined the offer.

All by way of saying, if a clear focus on priestly formation is a goal, then a related goal in “mixed” seminaries like the Saint Paul Seminary ought to be a healthy, positive understanding of the complementary roles of laity and clergy in the Church.

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