During the 1985-1986 academic term I was in a seminary, completing my third year of theological studies for the priesthood. Now, ten years later, I find I am still in a seminary! But now I am there not as a student, but as a spiritual director preparing other young men for the priesthood, at the St. John Fisher Seminary Residence in Stamford, Connecticut.
Over the last five years I have had the privilege of serving as spiritual director or occasional advisor to about 25 seminarians of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. I have seen many of these young men up close, while living with them at what is familiarly called the "Fisher House," a house of studies and spiritual formation for young men aged 18-39 who come to discern a vocation to the diocesan priesthood. I would like to share some of the observations that I have come to about seminarians today.
On the one hand, of course, these young men are not all that different from other young people of America in the nineties. Some like to wear Walkmans on their heads as they go about the seminary doing their assigned daily chores. Some, I have no doubt, say an extra prayer to their patron saint when they have to face the daily struggle of getting out of bed in time for 7 o'clock morning prayer and Mass. Many enjoy going out with one another on the weekends for a movie, a pizza, or a beer. And when the seminary cook makes her dessert specialty - a rich chocolate cream pudding - these guys can devour it in minutes!
But on the other hand, there are some characteristics about today's crop of seminarians which mark them as rather special members of the generation of those aged 18 to 39:
They are men of prayer. Early in the morning or late at night, one will often find a seminarian, or maybe several, kneeling silently in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. There is a grace that is palpable when one kneels silently in the dark, save for the flicker of the sanctuary lamp, with young persons who are seeking in honesty and love to answer the call of the Lord in their lives. The men don't all arrive at the seminary door as experts in prayer, of course. Some have to be taught how to pray (as the disciples had to be). But before they go on to major seminary, they are all, hopefully, on the path of prayers. I even dare to say that this happens almost by inner necessity. For without prayer, nothing having to do with priesthood makes any sense or holds any attraction for long.
These young men want to learn about the faith. Each year I teach the pre-theologians in the Fisher House (i.e., those who have completed undergraduate degrees and are preparing to go on to major seminary) a course called Introduction to Catholic Theology. I love doing it. They are the best students I ever encounter in a class: intelligent, extremely interested and inexorably inquisitive! After delivering a long lecture on Hans Urs von Balthasar's views on the messianic consciousness of Jesus, or Henri de Lubac's notion of the Catholic Church called to be the "totus Christus" (the universal, "total" Body of Christ), some of the students will stay sitting around the dining room table, debating and asking questions, for another full hour. Today's seminarians indeed have a great desire to learn about the faith!
These young men have a love for the Church. In the end, what has struck me the most about the seminarians of today whom I have met is their love and commitment to the Church, and their desire to be part of the Church's mission of bringing Christ to the contemporary world. It is not so easy choosing to be a priest these days. A young man going off to the seminary can no longer count on the approval and support of family, friends and colleagues as a young man fifty years ago might have. He can no longer count on society understanding and valuing the life he has chosen as a celibate Catholic priest. Perhaps for that reason, I sense that the young men who overcome the obstacles and make it to the seminary these days have already had their vocation tested and purified to a significant degree. They persevere in the struggle because they have made a personal commitment to stand by the Church in the face of a critical, unbelieving age. They are convinced, often from their own experience of living and working in the world, that the message which the Church preaches and the saving grace she bears are precisely what the men and women of this society need in order to be saved. . . .
I like to remind our seminarians that they are going to be the first priests of the third Christian millennium. Similar to those original missionaries and evangelists who spread out through Asia and the Mediterranean basin at the start of the first millennium, they will be the pioneers of the Gospel in our day, carrying the light of Christ into a new age whose opportunities and risks one can hardly imagine. I am confident that, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, these young men are going to make sure that that light continues to shine brightly!
Who appointed Your only-begotten Son
to be the Eternal High Priest
for the glory of Your Majesty
and the salvation of mankind,
grant that they whom He has chosen
to be His priests
and the stewards of His mysteries
may be found faithful
in the fulfillment of the priesthood
which they have received.
Through the same Christ