I have punctiliously strived to lead them to the ecclesiology of Vatican II, an ecclesiology informed by communion and by the interrelationship among all members of the people of God: women and men, clergy, religious, laywomen and laymen. My efforts have been consistently “sabotaged” – if you will allow me to use that term – in a way that leads my students to see themselves, and their future ministry, not as a collaborative service, but rather as a powerful mark of diversity and privilege.
I have seen many of them – though not all – attend theology courses only as a burdensome requirement, which is not comparable to the rules, the common prayer and formation meetings of their properly vocational training. Only these last experiences, not theological studies, have importance in preparing for the priestly ministry.
In fact, the ecclesiological model of powerful and hierarchical verticality and absoluteness, from which the Council freed us, is once again being proposed as the true face of the Church, as the authentic way of making understandable its mystery. I really do not know how to break the vicious cycle perpetuated by such an awful education. Frankly, I believe that it can only be done by abolishing the seminary system altogether.
This once commendable system was a result of Tridentine reform. It had a positive effect by giving back to the clergy a basic theological education that they had been deprived of for such a long time. Educating them in a communal setting also gave them secular knowledge which was denied to the majority of people. During the Middle Ages and early modernity, education was a privilege of the dominant social classes. And since becoming a priest involved acquiring a social status (as for religious men and women), the offer – in the absence of mass education – of basic information was entirely meritorious, and it no doubt had positive socio-political consequences. Moreover, the numbers were quite different. Despite the extremely high infant mortality rate, the lack of access to birth control resulted in a high number of men aspiring to clerical status.
This is no longer the situation today for our young Catholic people: there are fewer of them and they no longer enter the seminary during school age. Minor seminaries, which used to enrol boys from 10 to 14-15 years of age (i.e. still within compulsory school age) are now very few in number and without social importance. Today, in the vast majority of cases, men enter seminary when they became adults, after having already obtained a diploma of secondary education or a university degree, or at an age when others attend university.
In other words, nowadays candidates for ordination are generally fewer and older than in the past, and, at least it is to be hoped, they come with an education and even more with an ecclesial background – the latter being the likely source of their ministerial vocation. Now, all such candidates are put in the same basket, homologated, forced into a communal life, under the authority of the officials governing every seminary – rector, vice-rector, spiritual director, and so on – following a 500-year-old system that we stubbornly continue to deem necessary. Maybe, diocesan seminaries are closing down, but at the same time inter-diocesan or regional seminaries are open. The seminary system itself is left untouched.
In seminaries one often finds, on the one hand, a perverse effort to instill in candidates to the priesthood a visceral dislike of every form of intellectual deepening of the faith, and on the other, training for a way of life that will be unattainable to them. In effect, as priests, they will live lonely lives. At times, as newly ordained priests, they will have to endure the harassment of an elderly parish priest, who will not believe his luck in being able to mould in his own way the young curate placed under his authority. Situations like that cannot be described as “communal life.”
None of the routines and practices that give structure to seminary life (e.g. daily schedule, communal prayer, communal meals) will be there for them during the harsh loneliness of their future ministry. They will be alone in decision-making, alone in their living quarters, alone in eating, alone in personal prayer, and so on. On the other hand, they will be accompanied by the presumption that they chose the best kind of life for a Christian, a life superior to and different from the life common to the people of God who are entrusted to them.
Accordingly, they will act in a despotic and authoritarian fashion. What is more, they will regard their ministry as a career, because this is what has been suggested to them. They will thus strive to be assigned to the most important and wealthiest parish; they will aspire to climb up the hierarchical ladder: auxiliary vicar, parish priest, pastoral vicar, auxiliary bishop, ordinary bishop; or canon, monsignor, cardinal.
Pope Francis has frequently pointed to careerism as a wound of the Church. However, it is impossible to heal such a wound if what is prevalent is a despotic understanding of ministry. Such understanding is, paradoxically, more alive among young people today, who find in it a remedy to the sense of fragility and weakness that so often defines them. The “sacred” power that they regard as the essential element of ordained ministry makes them feel both strong and safe.
It must also be noted that a seminary is a male-only institution. To this day, women there fulfil only auxiliary tasks. Even granted the existence of a mixed commission of men and women tasked with the vocational discernment and accompaniment of seminarians, the requirement of celibacy makes the latter suspicious towards women, whose presence is perceived as that of a possible antagonist to their vocational choice.
The seminary can therefore be characterized as a “homophile” space, often ideologically homosexual. It goes without saying that it can and indeed does happen that those who enter it are homosexual, maybe unconsciously, and later openly. Without wanting to isolate and exclude anybody a priori from the ordained ministry, there is no doubt that such a separation results in an objective relational difficulty with and a distance from women, which easily becomes misogyny. Unfortunately, it can also become a form of violence that might find an outlet in pedophilia, the fruit of a delirium of omnipotence reinforced by an aura of sacredness which appears to place the priest above any law.
The Church of the future, the multi-faceted Church so dear to Pope Francis, must urgently ask herself questions about vocational discernment and accompaniment. Both processes must be anchored in the people of God, because ordained ministers will have to be at the service of those people.
I believe it is necessary to close seminaries. Candidates to ordained ministry should first obtain at the very least a BA in theology, not simply because it is obligatory for admission to ordination, but because they need the intellectual tools to give an account of the hope that they have. I also think it is necessary to create places of cohabitation, strong in what forms us as humans, between, on the one hand, candidates to ordained ministry and families; and on the other, candidates to ordained ministry and bishops. That way, admission into ministry will happen in a context of absolutely normal relationships. It is in any case evident that what will make a difference (and not just within the Church) will be the theological understanding of “being for others,” which is the true nature of service, of diakonia, which is not arrogance and arbitrariness, but rather the permanent service of helping all the people of God to exercise their common priesthood.