NAC Rector: Abuse Scandal Hasn't Stopped Men From 'Divine Call'
ROME — Can the Church in North America be confident of the caliber of the priests leaving the seminary today?
That was the somewhat blunt question put to Msgr. Kevin McCoy, rector of the North American College in Rome — a seminary that serves all the dioceses in the United States.
The amiable monsignor was quick to answer with humor.
“I have nothing to do with the selection process!” he said. “But certainly among these men there are capable leaders.”
The North American College has been in existence since 1859, inaugurated by Blessed Pope Pius IX, and since the 1950s has had a home a mile from the Vatican on the Janiculum Hill that overlooks the Eternal City.
The college is sometimes dubbed the “bishop factory,” with many distinguished alumni of this alma mater going on to hold high positions in the American Church.
Most of the seminarians are in their mid- to late-20s and typically spend four to five years studying at Rome's Gregorian and Angelicum universities as well as being trained pastorally at the college.
According to Msgr. McCoy, the current period is one of exceptional “tranquility” for seminarians after 40 years of upheaval following the Second Vatican Council.
Msgr. McCoy, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, who was himself a student at the college, has held the position of rector since 2001, taking over from Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee. “I'm beginning to be an old hat,” he noted after three years on the job, which have had their fair share of challenges.
“Certainly, in the last couple of years when the Church has gone through so much turmoil, young men felt the pressure from society to ask themselves why they were pursuing this vocation,” Msgr. McCoy said. “When you ask them: ‘Why wouldn't you just turn away from this call in the midst of these scandals?’ they would say: ‘Because the call's divine — it's not me choosing, it's the Lord who's chosen me.’”
But that doesn't negate the importance of discernment and spiritual guidance, and Msgr. McCoy stresses that questions are asked concerning seminarians' “psychosexual development,” interior life, prayer life and intellectual formation.
“While that's mostly done at universities, we try to stress the importance of that here in the seminary as well,” he said. “So we're trying to provide a well-balanced environment where these men are exposed to the pastoral dimension as well as the human formational dimensions that they will carry back into the parish.”
Msgr. McCoy said an environment of “solid psychological testing” has been in place at the college for “some time.” In their first semester, individual candidates meet with a college counselor to interpret psychological examinations.
The counselor and the candidates' spiritual directors are both “proactive” in these areas, the rector said, with particular attention paid to ensuring that seminarians know how to deal with loneliness and to their need to develop healthy friendships with other priests and with lay people.
“Unfortunately, there's no test, as far as I'm aware of, that will say, ‘Oh! Ah-ah! Here's a man who's going to offend,’” Msgr. McCoy said. “If we could do that, we could apply it across society and we'd eliminate a problem that is not just limited to the Church but is probably a demonstrably larger problem within individual family units, other societal structures and educational institutions.”
“That's not to try and throw off an issue the Church has dealt with,” he continued, adding that “there can be a certain pride that the Church took a look at the issue and faced it head-on.”
Yet as highlighted by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board's research into abuse allegations against U.S. priests, more than 80% of such incidents involved homosexual misconduct with adolescent males. So is homosexuality in the clergy the central issue that needs to be addressed? Msgr. McCoy urges caution.
“I think one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions,” he said. “I am sure this is probably a hot topic and there are people who would say if a man is of a homosexual orientation then out he goes.”
The crucial factor, according to the seminary rector, is a full commitment to priestly chastity.
“We get them to answer the question: Have they received that charism of living the celibate life? If they haven't, then they need to discontinue,” Msgr. McCoy said. “If a man's active in the seminary, then quite frankly, whether he be heterosexual or homosexual, out he goes.”
For the last decade or so, sexual issues have been at the forefront of discussions on seminaries, giving rise to concerns that other key formation issues might have been neglected.
“You know, most people want really holy priests,” Msgr. McCoy commented with a chuckle. “Yes, you can overemphasize the sexual thing — I mean if you have someone who lives quite well as a celibate but is mean, doesn't have the heart of Christ and [is] not a compassionate soul, well then, dare I say it, you're going to find him doing more harm in terms of the witness that he leads.”
Nevertheless, Msgr. McCoy doesn't believe the psychosexual issue is eclipsing other elements in formation, and he is quick to counter any accusation that the North American College's formation programs and teaching are less than completely faithful to Church teachings.
“There's no question of the orthodoxy here,” Msgr. McCoy said. “I think those labels [conservative and progressive] can get very difficult because certainly there are those truths of the faith that we darn well better conserve.”
“If someone's going to call you conservative because you're respecting the truths of the faith,” he added, “well then so be it.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
- April 25-May 1, 2004