If you’re feeling a bit down about the future of Catholicism in the United States, ask yourself these questions: Why haven’t American seminaries emptied over the past 16 months, as Crisis 2.0 continues to roil the U.S. Church and an aggressive media regularly puts Catholicism in the worst possible public light? Why haven’t the McCarrick affair, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Bransfield affair, and other revelations of episcopal misgovernance (and worse) caused a mass exodus of young men from priestly formation? Can you name another profession, regularly subjected to media ridicule and popular caricature, to which young men are applying in greater numbers than 20 years ago?
I’ve been in and around seminaries and seminarians for 54 years now. I knew seminaries and seminarians during the Really Bad Patch of the post-conciliar years. And I have watched with admiration as seminary formators — not unlike the relatively junior officers who reformed the U.S. military after the debacle of Vietnam — have taken a set of severe problems in hand and put a venerable institution, essential to the Catholic future, on a much more solid foundation. Is there more to be done, in refining recruitment of students for the priesthood and reforming American seminaries? Undoubtedly (and a few suggestions will follow below). But a great deal has in fact been accomplished in the last 15 years, and it’s important that the people of the Church know it.
Last month, I had the pleasure of working with two seminarians in the 28th annual meeting of the seminar on Catholic social doctrine I am privileged to lead in Cracow. Like other future priests who have been part of the program over the past quarter-century, these men were impressive: intellectually alert and engaged; deeply pious without being cloyingly sentimental; able to interact with (and offer a real witness to) fellow-students in a multinational context of Catholic men and women; much more mature than I remember seminarians being four decades ago. If there has been a winnowing of candidates for the priesthood since Crisis 1.0 in 2002, and if that sifting has continued in the wake of Crisis 2.0, then what has remained, and what is coming through the pipeline, is very good news indeed.
I am not so naïve or romantic as to believe that the seminarians with whom I’ve worked in recent years are men immune to personal challenges: not least from a toxic culture that constantly tells them that their commitment to celibate love is at best a delusion and at worst pathological. What impresses me about the seminarians I interact with today is that they fully recognize those challenges and are facing them through an intensified life of prayer, fraternal solidarity, and a deeper commitment to the truths of Catholic faith. Other Catholics may deny that Crisis 1.0 and Crisis 2.0 are, at bottom, crises of fidelity, exacerbated by doctrinal and moral dissent. These guys know that’s the case; they live what they know; and they want to spend their lives helping others live the beauty of love as described by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 and modeled by Christ in Ephesians 5:1-2.
So what needs further fixing in 21st-century seminaries? Theology must be taught so that an immersion in this intellectual discipline produces pastors capable of inviting others into friendship with the Lord Jesus — and knowing what that friendship means. Biblical studies must focus on biblical theology far more than textual dissection, so that future homilists know how to invite their congregants to “see” the world through a Scriptural lens. Lay professionals should be further incorporated into priestly formation and seminarian evaluation — especially orthodox, joyful Catholic women (including wives and mothers) who may be able to spot problems, and help young men address them, that more traditional formators may miss. Bishops must invest more personal time with their seminarians (as they should invest more time with their priests), inviting them into a fraternity of mutual support — and, if necessary, correction.
The seminarians I work with know that, in seeking the priesthood of the Catholic Church under 21st-century cultural and political circumstances, they’re taking a great risk, including the risk of martyrdom (which comes in many forms). Their happy embrace of, and their determination to prepare well for a life of risk is perhaps the most impressive thing about them. They deserve our thanks, our support, and our solidarity in prayer.