The 'new breed' of orthodox seminarians

The 'new breed' of orthodox seminarians

Carter H. Griffin

While the number of vocations to the priesthood in western countries like Australia and the United States has fallen over the past 30 years, more recently, the proportion of those who are unashamedly orthodox has been rising. This is evident in the successes of several US seminaries run on avowedly orthodox lines, e.g., St Charles Borreomeo in Philadelphia, Mt St Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and the seminaries in Denver (Archbishop Chaput), Arlington, Virginia (Bishop Loverde), and Lincoln, Nebraska (Bishop Bruskewitz). A similar trend is evident in a few Australian seminaries.

In a recent article in the US religious monthly, 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review', a 27-year-old US seminarian, Carter H. Griffin, sought to explain this trend. Griffin, who was baptised a Presbyterian, converted to Roman Catholicism while attending Princeton University. After graduating in 1994, he attended the Naval Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, and served for four years on warships in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. In May 2000, he completed two years of formation for the priesthood at Mount St Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is due to continue his studies at the North American College in Rome. All being well, following ordination, he will serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.

Several months ago, while taking a course at a Protestant seminary, I had an interesting discussion over lunch. As I joined the table, I introduced myself as a Catholic seminarian at Mount St Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was greeted with polite interest - by everyone save one. Her head snapped up and she abruptly asked if I was "one of those self-styled conservatives" that she had read about in last Easter Sunday's New York Times Magazine (4 April), "The Last Counter-culture" by Jennifer Egan.

Perhaps in her late forties, she held my stare, mutely demanding a response to her impertinent question - any answer to which, it seemed to me, would only encourage her polemics. Perhaps I ought to have kept silent; instead I rejoined, "I don't think of myself as self-styled." It was a weak attempt at humour, and it failed to break the uncomfortable silence that followed the tactless question.

In hindsight, though, our exchange has become more meaningful to me. She was voicing, with refreshing honesty, a growing fear among many "baby-boomers" that young, reactionary zealots are out to reverse the social and religious progress made in recent years.

Much ink has been spilt on this phenomenon, and particularly on its emergence among seminarians who are purportedly too conservative, too intolerant, and too repressed. But the report usually ends there. It is evident that many critics simply have no idea why many young Catholic seminarians are so "conservative" and, indeed, that such an understanding might diminish their anxieties about the "new breed."

One attempt to address this question was made by Father Richard Marzheuser, the academic dean at Mount St Mary's Seminary of the West in Cincinnati, Ohio, in Seminary Journal ("A New Generation is on the Rise in Seminaries," Fall 1999), an article that is outstanding for its honesty and balance.

It is time, though, for the seminarians themselves to weigh in. I will attempt to represent a view widely held among these "self-styled conservatives," that they represent the rejection of a philosophy, prevalent in both the Church and society for several decades, that disregards legitimate authority and denies universal moral norms - and that has wrought devastating repercussions.

To be sure, much of this change in attitudes among seminarians is supernatural in origin, the work of the Holy Spirit, which "blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes" (John 3:8). Thus, while I am obliged to focus here on the identifiable data of cultural forces, this should not be viewed as an effort in sociology, or read as if the changes were merely psychological reactions. On the contrary, I think that these social forces intensify and, perhaps, manifest the work of the Holy Spirit, who alone disposes hearts to cooperate with him.

Traditional theology

Additionally, I do not presume to speak definitively for my seminarian contemporaries. Nonetheless, as a twenty-seven year old with an affinity for traditional theology, devotional practices, and liturgies, an adherence to objective norms of belief and morality, and a personal fidelity to the authority that explains and defends those norms, I am probably a fairly typical example of the young, "reactionary zealot" so frequently maligned. It is under this mantle that I loosely use the first-person plural when talking about us "self-styled conservatives," but my ideas - accurate or fallacious - remain mine alone.

It is worth noting the features of these seminarians, according to the prevailing opinion. We are commonly identified as rigid, narrow-minded, and legalistic. We are ridiculed as "sacristy priests" because of an "obsession" with liturgical rubrics. We are reproached for lemming-like obedience to our superiors and especially to the Pope, exchanging mind and conscience for prefabricated beliefs and stock answers. We allegedly pine for an age when priests were idolised and dream about legions of laymen eager to supply our every need. And we are suspected of fearing a world that might expose our simmering sexuality, repressed passions that are controlled only by rechanneling them into fanatical religious activity. So goes the judgment.

Some descriptions, naturally, are more reflective than this and usually contain fragments of truth, an important point that I shall explore below. On the whole, though, I have been astonished at the apparent malice in so many of these caricatures - judgments often made, regrettably, by the same people who once stood for tolerance and compassion in the early, heady days of the cultural revolution.

Coupled with this verdict, it is customary to dismiss us, usually with indulgent condescension, as pathetically naive.

Let us look at the evidence.

My brothers and I have been surgeons, school teachers, health care professionals, bartenders, musicians, marketing executives, retailers, farmers, lawyers, architects and military officers. Some of our older brothers are widowed with children; others have been in religious orders for some years. Well over half of new theologate seminarians have had a career.

World's condition

We have seen the world from the inside and have made an unsentimental assessment of its condition. We have seen family cohesion dissolve before our eyes, and have witnessed galloping violence, materialism, and radical individualism erode our culture. We have watched in dismay as an aggressive iconoclasm has replaced traditional notions of beauty, purity and nobility.

Even our cherished heroes of youth are systematically exposed to the mockery of an unrestrained media, thirsty for scandal and gossip. We have lived through the charged atmosphere of ideological hegemony on college campuses, where one's very words are monitored for violations of the politically- correct "speech code." Most of all, we have seen an uncontrolled plummet down the steep slope of moral decay. It is, quite simply, preposterous to accuse these seminarians of being naive.

While it is difficult to pinpoint causes of great cultural shifts, many date this decline to the "Movement" of the 1960s. The prevalent rejection of authority in those years frequently led to a repudiation of universal moral norms and, it is easy to argue, to inevitable moral and religious relativism. Relativism, in turn, has engendered a society that is fundamentally individualistic and in which truth extends as far as one's opinion, ethical boundaries are merely restraints against violating another's "rights," and sentiment overrides reason.

Such a decomposition of culture is perhaps the final consequence of an aggressive modernism that Fr George Rutler observes "is now a defunct artifact without quite yet seeming so, like an elephant that has died standing up." This, of course, is cultural generalisation writ large, and like any generalisation, sometimes fails in the particular. Indeed, the "Movement" also scored many laudable achievements, principally by raising awareness of economic and social injustices. Still and all, a great many contemporary problems seem to originate in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s; the burden of proof, in our estimate, is against it.

It is our conviction that the only serious response to the unraveling of our moral fabric is a committed hope in the person of Jesus Christ and the Church he founded.

Having taken a hard look at the world's spiritual malaise, these seminarians are preparing to battle the disease with their very lives. To suggest that they are in retreat from the world is like suggesting that Patton's Third Army fled Sicily. Indeed, many of us have ourselves suffered the illness, a malignant emptiness within us, the residue of a spiritually impoverished society. And we are unafraid to search the past for a cure, since the cultural maelstrom in which we grew up long ago stripped us of the emotional baggage once associated with traditional correctives.

Hence the focus on personal holiness and prayer, the love for the "tried and true," the sense of missionary zeal. The most frequently cited tendencies, however, are our insistence on objective norms of belief and morality; our loyalty to ecclesiastical authority and the traditions of the Church; and our thirst for liturgical transcendence and emphasis on the sacred rituals of the Faith. Let us examine each, briefly, in turn.

First, we have a deep distrust of anything that smacks of relativism. We have become suspicious of those who appear to arrogate to themselves the authority not to find truth, but to create truth. We want boundaries of right and wrong, and are tired of people telling us to do whatever we feel like. As Bishop Alien H. Vigneron of Sacred Heart Seminary said in a May 1999 interview in Crisis magazine, for most young seminarians, "assent to the whole range of Church doctrine is not a return or a move back; it's new, a novelty they find bracing. Integral Catholic faith is for them a fresh discovery."

Human nature, so the conventional wisdom goes, desires an unlimited scope of activity without restraint and without borders. We are living proof that the conventional wisdom is mistaken.

Magisterium

We are also living proof that correcting this error is seldom unopposed, a truth affirmed by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, when he declared that "only mediocrity survives. Those who call black, black and white, white are sentenced for intolerance. Only the grays live."

Second, we have lost our faith in an unreflective trust of one's own emotions and their unchecked authority over our activity. As sons of the Church, we look to the Magisterium and to the Church's historical and spiritual treasures to fill the void of authority left by those who tout self-affirmation at all costs. We are unashamed to proclaim our explicit and emphatic loyalty to the Pope and to the bishops in union with him and are more inclined to emphasise catechesis, vigorous spiritual direction, cultivation of "manly" virtues, and an appreciation for spiritual classics. We place little faith in an unswerving obedience to one's own conscience that, practically speaking, disregards Church teachings, and we exhibit a greater willingness to obey and to take radical steps to form our consciences according to the mind and heart of the Church and not according to any predetermined slant.

Father Marzheuser phrases it well in his Seminary Journal article; these seminarians "have a great love of the Church ... what they hunger for most is civility and equilibrium." This reverence extends also to ecclesiastical traditions. As Father Marzheuser also notes very insightfully, our commitment to wearing the Roman collar, for instance, is not - as it often was in his own seminary days - seen as a sign of "clericalism" grasping for the perks and comforts of office, but rather as a sign of contradiction in an ailing culture and evidence of our missionary impulses.

Finally, we place great importance on the rituals of the Church and on the mystical aspects of our Faith. This is not an exclusivist approach; we embrace the renewed sense of communio emphasised by the Second Vatican Council and in no way wish to detach the Mass from its impact on Catholic life. The Eucharist is the "sacramentum caritatis," the bedrock of our life of charity and remains, as the Catechism states, intrinsically linked to our concern for the poor (CCC 1397).

Indeed, one aspect of the "counter-culturalism" of these seminarians that is seldom highlighted is their witness of voluntary poverty against the virulent materialism of the age. Nonetheless, what was perhaps ritual legalism in the pre-Conciliar Church has often been replaced by a type of activist legalism, a "secular Gospel" whittled down to a movement for justice, freedom, and economic equality. Aside from its internal incoherence, such an imbalance has frequently produced slipshod liturgy, its meaning measured by the community of faith alone.

This liturgical sterility helps explain our yearning for the supernatural and the transcendent, a deep sense of the sacred and an intimate reverence for the ceremonies of the Church. Most of us would warmly agree with Cardinal Ratzinger's suggestion that presbyteral decline has historically begun when priests' "intercourse with the Holy had ceased to be the fascinating and perilous mystery it is, of coming close to the burning presence of the All-Holy One." We passionately want to be champions of mystery in a world that has lost its capacity to wonder.

To be sure, these reactions can, and are, taken to extremes. Some criticisms of the "new breed" are rooted in fact. Instead of teaching objective truth, men can become obsessed with rules and regulations and focus excessively on the nuances of ecclesiastical law. The rules exist to serve the Church and her people, not the other way around, and their proper application always requires a keen and sensitive eye for the human dimensions of ministry. Instead of grounding oneself in loyalty to the Magisterium, seminarians can slip into uncharitable talk and behavior, applying, for instance, puerile "litmus tests" to judge the orthodoxy of other seminarians and priests.

Instead of treasuring the beautiful rites of the Church, seminarians can chafe at the slightest departure from the rubrics of the sacramentary and lose their sense of proportion in gauging deviations from Church teaching. This unyielding approach sometimes begets a lack of respect for older priests who are not as regimented. Instead of responding to unjust accusations and persecution with love, seminarians can become jaded and instinctively defensive in a combative spirit that they take with them to the parish.

Clericalism

Instead of humbly fostering a renewed appreciation for the dignity of the sacred priesthood, seminarians can relapse into the officious clericalism of the past. It is important, however, to distinguish these few exceptions from, I emphatically believe, the great majority of seminarians, who are solid men of exceptional compassion, piety, and generosity.

Men and women of my generation are desperately searching for meaning in their lives. The explosion of interest in religious fundamentalism is significant; it reflects a demand for answers in an age that provides very few. More ominously, there has been an enormous surge of interest in New Age spirituality and even Wicca and the occult. The tired slogans of the 1960s and the 1970s simply do not rivet our attention, and indeed are blamed for many of our social woes today. We perceive that our generation has been robbed of its patrimony, the "wisdom of the ages" that our predecessors were obliged, but neglected, to hand on.

On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that the cultural revolution of the last three decades has produced a young generation with fewer misgivings about that very patrimony than their predecessors had. Traditional devotions and spirituality, evangelical zeal, universal moral norms, obedience, and liturgical transcendence do not carry, for us, the adverse connotations that they might have held thirty years ago. And - an important point frequently neglected - neither historical frame-work permits facile judgments about the good faith or intentions of either generation. I think if both "sides" would recognise this fact, much intergenerational tension would be relieved.

Our aim, though, is nothing new: to preach the Good News, to teach men and women how to live freely as children of God, and to cherish the collected wisdom of our fathers, especially our fathers in faith. We are not trying to turn back the clock, to stifle change, or to reverse the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, we invoke that very Vatican Council in our efforts to bring the Christian message back into the world, and we energetically support the great "new evangelisation" that will transform the twenty-first century. Our own optimism echoes Ovid, who advised his contemporaries to "let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these."

But the yawning generational gap cannot be erased with optimism alone; it must be bridged with sincere communication, mutual respect, and above all, prayer and a deep love for the Church. Society is falling apart at the seams and billions of people are wandering the earth "like sheep without a shepherd" while we draw lines in the sand. Our Holy Father has proclaimed a Great Jubilee, launching the Church into an age of reconciliation and mutual understanding. Let us resolve to begin with each other.

'Homiletic & Pastoral Review', an excellent US religious monthly journal, is obtainable through Ignatius Press in Brisbane, annual subscription $57.20 (including GST), tel (07) 3376 0105.

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