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The apostolic visitation of American seminaries has found some problems in religious order houses of formation — as well as hope for the priests of tomorrow.
BY JACK SMITHREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
ROME — The Vatican’s Congregation
for Catholic Education released a general report Jan. 12 on the state of U.S.
priestly formation. It follows a historic apostolic visitation to U.S.
seminaries in 2005-06.
The reception to the visitation was
“overwhelmingly cooperative,” Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien told the
Register. “Some of the naysayers at the beginning were saying, ‘It’s all an
investigation to throw out homosexuals,’ or something, and it was not that at
all,” he said. “It was reviewing how our seminarians today are being prepared
for a lifelong commitment to celibacy.”
The report found “since the 1990s, a
greater sense of stability now prevails in the U.S. seminaries.” The general
conclusion was “positive,” it said, and “the diocesan seminaries are, in
The report distinguished between
seminaries owned and operated by dioceses or archdioceses and those owned and
operated by religious orders. Problems highlighted by the report, particularly
in moral theology and governance, were found most often in religious
institutes, according to the report.
Homosexual activity was a problem primarily in the religious, rather
than diocesan, seminaries.
The report also discusses the nature
of problems that persisted in many seminaries into the 1990s. A period of “flux”
in recent decades “led to a breakdown in structures, which had a negative
impact on priestly formation,” the report said. “A false sense of freedom was
sometimes cultivated, which led to the throwing off of centuries of acquired
wisdom in priestly formation.”
The decision to undertake an
apostolic visitation grew out of an April 2002 meeting between Pope John Paul
II, members of the Roman Curia, and a delegation of U.S. bishops held during
the height of the priestly sex abuse scandal. Various Roman congregations
drafted an Instrumentum laboris, instructions on how
to carry out the visitation, which included categories for study bearing
directly on priestly formation.
Archbishop O’Brien, then of the
Archdiocese for the Military Services, was “appointed to coordinate, from a
practical point of view, the individual apostolic visitations.” Archbishop
O’Brien had been rector of the North American College in Rome and the seminary
of the Archdiocese of New York.
Father James Steffes, an apostolic
visitor to four seminaries, told the Register, “Overall, what the Vatican
wanted was to make sure there was fidelity to the doctrine of the Church and to
formation in the character of the priesthood and the identity of the
Father Steffes, former rector of
Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Minnesota, directs the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Reasons for Improvement
Archbishop O’Brien said the “clear
idea and vision of the priesthood” put forth by Pope John Paul II in “his
letters at Holy Thursday, his writings, his talks to seminarians and priests
really clarified and solidified the traditional doctrine of the priesthood that
was kind of shaky after the Second Vatican Council. A lot of theories were out
there that were kind of distracting.”
The reception of that message has
had a major impact on the improvement of U.S. seminaries, Archbishop O’Brien
explained. “Seminarians have become much more traditional and receptive of the
tradition on priesthood,” he said. In addition, bishops have been “more careful
in choosing men to study for graduate degrees and place them in positions of
responsibility in seminaries.”
Father Steffes also credits the
promulgation of Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores
Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests), “which is a strong
document that the seminaries really follow closely.” The document “laid forth a
formation program that we had never had before ... where it is so clearly
defined,” he said.
Father Steffes also mentioned “the
attentiveness of bishops to their seminaries in the appointment of rectors and
faculty members” as a reason for improvement. “It was really the leadership
knowing the documentation and their efforts to adhere to it,” he said.
The Vatican report also says “the
appointment ... of rectors who are wise and faithful to the Church has meant a
gradual improvement, at least in diocesan seminaries.”
Visitors examined seminaries in 10
areas outlined by the Instrumentum laboris.
In most, the general report examines historical problems and the progress made
by U.S. seminaries and makes suggestions for improvement.
Calling “a proper and full
understanding of the priesthood ... the sine qua non of all
priestly formation,” the report found “that in the great majority of diocesan
seminaries, the doctrine of the priesthood is well taught.” The report recommended
that “proper safeguards” need to be in place to ensure “specifically priestly
formation” in centers where theological training is offered both to seminarians
With regard to governance of
seminaries, the report found that “most seminary superiors are good and holy
men ... who are genuinely doing all they can to prepare men well for the
priesthood.” It spoke of the need for harmony among faculty, saying a “lack of
harmony ... is almost always due to one or more educators being less than
faithful to the magisterium of the Church.”
It warned that in centers “with an
atmosphere of more widespread dissent — which is the case particularly in
centers run by religious — there can be no possibility of unity of direction.”
The report gave general praise for
the intellectual formation in most seminaries, but also noted certain “lacunae
in the programs,” including in Mariology
In some seminaries, individual
faculty were found who show reservations about moral theology or ordination
being restricted to men alone.
“In a few seminaries, and
particularly in some schools of theology run by religious, dissent is
widespread,” the report said.
The report found most seminaries
“cultivate an atmosphere of prayer” and that “in diocesan seminaries, the
liturgical norms are generally obeyed.” It nonetheless recommended that
spiritual formation of seminarians could include more frequent confession and
should include more traditional acts of piety.
The report recognized problems in
morality suffered by some seminaries in the past.
“Usually, but not exclusively, this
meant homosexual behavior. Nevertheless, in almost all the institutes where
such problems existed, at least in the diocesan seminaries, the appointment of
better superiors (especially rectors) has ensured that such difficulties have
been overcome,” the report said. “Nevertheless, there are still some places —
usually centers of formation for religious — where ambiguity vis-à-vis
Such activity was found to be
limited to “here and there,” the report said, and “what houses they were,”
Archbishop O’Brien said, “they certainly know it now and should be addressing
While not directly addressing the
apparent lopsided approval of diocesan seminaries in the report, Father Steffes
said that if a seminary is experiencing difficulty in formation, it is most
likely traceable to fidelity. “I think where there is not fidelity to the
Church’s teaching and doctrine, we’re going to have error and problems in
Many religious institutes did
receive strong commendation from the report. “Ours was so glowing that I’m
actually using it in our fundraising,” Dominican Father Michael Sweeney told
Father Sweeney is president of the
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif., which provides
intellectual formation to many religious orders.
“I noticed that overall the general
report for religious communities tended not to be as positive as for the
seminaries,” Father Sweeney said.
“The problem of presenting the faith
in the public square is something the religious orders, because of their
specialties, have to undertake,” Father Sweeney explained. “To think with the
Church on the one hand and to meet secular society where it is — that exercise
itself may be fraught with peril.”
“I don’t think this implies a
compromise. On the other hand, I do see that this is a very difficult task.
There might be perceived, or even sometimes, real compromise in what is
happening,” he said. “In which case, the visitation is a good tool.”
While the report was thorough in
detail about problems remaining in some seminaries, it was clear that “bishops,
major superiors and rectors” and all involved in formation could “take comfort
in the notable improvements that have taken place.”
“Generally speaking, every bishop
I’ve spoken to is very pleased with the reports,” Archbishop O’Brien said.
“It’s very often said it’s just what they were looking for so that they could
make some corrections that maybe up till then were maybe difficult to get by
the administration of the seminary.”
The report reserved its strongest
praise for today’s seminarians. “Almost universally, the candidates — both
diocesan and religious — received great praise from the apostolic visitors,”
the report said. “The candidates are generous, intelligent, full of zeal, pious
and faithful to prayer. They are demonstrably loyal to the Church’s
magisterium. They are signs of great hope for the Church in the U.S.”
“We’re getting a very solid group of
men these days,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “They’re not fighting the battles
that were up for grabs after the Council in the ’60s and ’70s. I think they’re
in a good sense traditional. They want to know what the Church teaches. They’ll
give their lives over to a mystery but not a question mark.”
Father Steffes also commended them
for “being very normal, easy to relate to, very approachable. Those are great
characteristics for the priesthood.”
Seminarians themselves may even play
a role in the improvement seen in seminaries, Father Steffes said. “Any of us
who are in teaching roles find out that we do learn from our students,” he
said. “I think the students being of higher caliber raises the faculty to a
greater accountability and responsibility. It works both ways.”
Smith writes from
Kansas City, Missouri.