Few will have failed to notice the demise of our senior seminaries. All Hallows (Ireland) and Ushaw (England) are only recently casualties. Commonly such closures are attributed to a shortage of vocations to the priesthood; such that the operation of these institutions is no longer considered viable in financial terms.
Over the past months, the last remaining seminary in Ireland (Maynooth) has been bedeviled by a number of difficulties. Assertions of imposed confidentiality agreements upon students, followed by denials and counter accusations have received much media attention. The same can be said of allegations concerning the existence and scale of misconduct amongst certain seminarians. In recent days, the current Rector: Professor Michael Mullaney has made known his commitment to implement and adopt effective models of formation; with –potentially- greater reliance upon formation on pastoral placement.
We thus have two narratives: i) the seminaries are not viable because of lack of candidates; and ii) current formation models are not considered to be adequate. One is obliged to posit the question: could these two narratives share a common cause?
For many years, the quasi-monastic model was singled out for criticism for its alleged structure and so called rigidity. The difficulty for those advancing this perspective, however, was quite simple: the mass departures and decline in candidates began with and continued following the relaxation of discipline within these institutions. After all, were seminaries not intended – like religious formation – to provide an environment in which spiritual and devotional habits could be cultivated and maintained in preparation for ministry?
Is it really being suggested that the parish placement would provide such a model? A cursory examination of web based and more traditional forms of publication seemingly speak with one voice: the morale of serving diocesan priests is – it would appear – at an all time low. For many priests, the parish in which they live and work has become a place where they enjoy some degree of fragile autonomy; but the life they are called to live is increasingly in opposition to existing cultures and indeed, in many cases, contrary to the demands and expectations of those who attend mass and those who simply see the church as providing a vehicle for catechesis as a precondition for their child’s admission to the local school. Is this really the environment in which to form candidates for the priesthood?
I am not, of course, going so far as to suggest that seminarians should be insulated from these realities for the entirety of their formation training. However, it might be thought (as appears to be the position adopted by St Benedict) that the formation house was as much about discernment and personal preparation for the marketplace.
In this respect, the seminaries in the USA and elsewhere point to a potential solution:; one which is foreshadowed in Thessalonians 1: 5:21: “Hold fast what is good”. After all, as Archbishop Dolan has observed: “The priesthood is a call, not a career; not just a new ministry…“We are priests; yes, the doing, the ministry is mighty important, but it flows from the being…Being before acts!” (“Priests for the Third Millennium” (Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, 2000 at p227-228)