How the Seminary has Changed

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

This fall marks a mini-milestone in my life in the Church, for it was forty years ago that I left my home in Pittsburgh, hopped on a boat and traveled to Rome to begin my major seminary experience. I’ve been reflecting on that experience a lot recently, and I’ve also been thinking about how much seminary life has changed in the last forty years.

When I first entered high school seminary in 1962, seminary life was still very conservative, strict and disciplined. The Seminary Rule was second in importance only to the Bible itself. “The Rule is the disciplinary means the seminary uses to mold all the individual characteristics and personal talents of seminarians into the likeness of Christ . . . The importance of strict observance of the Seminary Rule cannot be over-emphasized,” the Rule boasted. The Rule was enforced by a well-defined demerit system which “is similar to that used at West Point.”

Each hour of the day was programmed for us and was clearly announced by the omnipresent bell. And so for example, on weekdays, the rising bell rang at 5:50; at 6:05 the chapel bell sounded, and at 6:10 morning prayers and Holy Mass began. If a student wasn’t in his assigned place in the chapel at that moment, a demerit was issued. And so it went all day, until the bell sounded night prayer at 9:00 and “lights out” at 9:45.

Along with the daily routine, just about every other aspect of seminary life was tightly controlled: our vacation time, visiting days, free days, and where we could go and what we could do; our attire – cassocks and surplices in chapel, coats and ties in public areas of the building, and standard-issue gym shorts and shirts for recreation; our telephone calls were severely limited and our mail, both outgoing and incoming, was subject to inspection.

Some students chafed under the strict discipline of the seminary and hated the experience. Personally, it didn’t bother me. In fact, I enjoyed seminary life and thrived under its discipline and expectations.

But then the Second Vatican Council came along, the windows of the Church were thrown open, and by the time I arrived at the North American College in Rome, seminary life had changed dramatically. Most minor seminaries had disappeared and major seminaries were completely different.

In the major seminary of the 1970s and 80s, there were very few rules and expectations. The emphasis was on personal freedom and accountability. You were expected to attend Mass and class, but that was about it. Other hours of prayer – morning prayer and evening prayer for example, were said privately, if at all. Devotions were deemed old-fashioned, and the Rosary was relegated to little old ladies.

A seminarian could move about as he wished with few questions asked; he could go out every night, party till midnight, and travel at will. Because the house was comprised of adults, alcohol was free-flowing and certain rooms became party rooms. In some major seminaries, students were permitted to have part-time secular jobs, and there were few limitations on social relationships. Boundaries between faculty and students disappeared as everyone wanted to be part of the action. Spiritual direction was encouraged, but not supervised, and personal formation programs were just beginning.

Most of the baby-boomer priests, now in their fifties and sixties attended seminaries like this and, for the most part, believe that the more open experience was beneficial to their growth and maturity. And, in fact, lots of fine priests came through this liberal system.

But the story doesn’t end there, because now, in the last twenty years or so, the pendulum has swung again and seminaries have become more structured and conservative.

In a typical seminary today there are more rules and expectations; there’s a lot of structure and discipline. Masses and classes are mandatory and the public recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours is expected. Devotions have returned in force, the Rosary is part of the daily routine, and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is a litmus test for orthodoxy.

Seminarians are far more “conservative” than their immediate predecessors. They embrace ritual, love the Pope, willingly accept the teachings and disciplines of the Church, display the Roman Collar and even – gasp! – wear the traditional cassock. Seminarians today are expected to participate in a robust program of spiritual direction and human formation. Even getting into the seminary these days requires serious psychological testing – a requirement I’m not sure I would have passed in my day, or even now!

Some older priests are wary of the new breed of seminarians and young priests. The veterans think the young guys are regressing to a pre-conciliar Church. One senior priest told me recently that he’s not sure the young priests will be able to relate to the laity because they’re “too clerical.” Other priests encourage me to assign our seminarians to more “liberal seminaries.” Of course there are no “liberal seminaries” anymore, as seminaries today are either conservative or ultra-conservative.

From my personal perspective, however, I’m proud of and thrilled with our crop of seminarians and young priests. I find them to be intelligent, talented, balanced and personable. They’re in love with the Lord, generous with their gifts, and anxious to serve the Church. They’re not perfect, of course, and are sometimes a little eccentric. (Now there’s a new phenomenon in the Church – eccentric priests!) But, I’m really excited about where the Spirit is leading the Church and I just hope I’m around long enough to see these young guys in action.