NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part VIII
A look at a complicated past, right out of the Middle Ages…
The word seminar gives us the clue to understanding what a seminarian is; the key is in the "nar", the latin root of the word meaning "growth" and "semina" (plural) for "seeds". The seminary is the seed plot and the seminarian is the male who is deep rooted in Roman Catholic practices and theology. Seminaries are the direct product of the Council of Trent (1542 ce), a control-system fixing an ailing church and ministry. I was 13 when I went down under; during my 12 years on the plantation I was fed a steady diet of medieval education, a carefully-guarded program that stunted personal growth. Only after Vatican Two did I know how to apply a mind-building fertilizer that nourished the seeds of my home-based Christian upbringing. I am pleased to read that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia has called for the closing of worldwide seminaries; the Middle Ages soil has become fallow and there is no growth within. Ours is the era of laity growth; the People of God are becoming fully alive.
A corporal's guard of the Menlo Men of '54 hope to meet at our seminary on April 3, 2008 to memorialize two of our recently deceased classmates; we will also celebrate our 66 years of friendship and brotherly love. As boys in '42 we numbered 55 seminarians, losing many along the way and gaining new brothers; I shall have the privilege of calling out the names of 15 deceased, while the corporal's guard responds PRESENTE (he is here), while another calls out the living with the response ADSUM (I am here — as each responded at ordination time) In essay #7 we took you through tonsure and the four minor orders; let me take you back to the main chapel of St. Patrick's Seminary Menlo Park, Ca., in early May, 1953…
We are in the last of our 12 years; the dream is coming true … "boyhood dreams of long ago, saw an altar fair, consecrated trembling hands lifted there in prayer" [Lacordaire died 1861]. Twenty-five, ceremonially vested in alb, cinture, and tunicle are ordained sub-deacons — no stole, no power, no officium, still not inside Holy Orders. After 11 years in the seminary system the Roman Institution was still cautious with us; one ordination more and we would be forever deacons, chained to a sacred officium … but before that step the invitation to living an unmarried life was ceremonially and silently offered and those who accepted took one well known step forward. I was now a reverend-mister, one foot into a privileged societal class. Ordination to priesthood was just around the corner.
I have deliberately used the word unmarried here as I cannot recall the word celibacy being used during my 12 years of seminary. We were so innocent and sheltered; we did not understand human nature and certainly not the gift of women. Deemed an ecclesial institution the sub-deaconate was abolished by Paul the 6th on August 15, 1972, the duties assigned to the laity. The sub-deaconate's origin is derived from the Greek Orthodox Church, their ceremony beyond which a man cannot marry if he is to become a bishop. I wonder today how the Roman seminary and bishop handle the issue of celibacy, surely non ceremonially and I wonder if obligatory celibacy might go the way of the sub-deaconate. Rome plays games with this political and church-founded football. The 1039 ce fatal blow to clerical marriage has become a boomerang whipping through the 21st century.
Pardon me if I slip in two stories here, perhaps a bit out of place and certainly not of the calibre usually carried on Catholica Australia…
Story #1: (In Essay #3 I promised a minor seminary story concerning our innocence.) Meals were usually in silence with a student reading from the Gospels, Lives of the Saints, a carefully chosen book, or a Martyrology; boys will be boys as perhaps a naughty one would hide in the reader's pulpit, tickling the reader and the faculty having no clue for the 225 student body's smiling co-dependency, or the day a wag read a five-minute made up lives of the saints, only to have the rector, reacting to commotion, ring the bell requesting the student to read the whole over again. (Some of the best tricksters eventually made it to ordination.) One reading I well remember, John 16, v23; Peter is about to deny Jesus and is warming himself at a fire. The text called for a "red hot brazier " and the student brought the all male house to an uproar when he said "Peter was warming his hands on a red hot brassiere" … perhaps not all students were so innocent … I'll bet a few who laughed included this in their weekly Saturday night confession. I still laugh 64 years later.
Story #2: Ten years ago The San Francisco Chronicle carried my article about the poor sexual education we got in seminary, I as a therapist questioning the possible connection to the then brewing sexual clerical scandals; I stated I had never heard about celibacy in any of my seminary courses. Now deceased Monsignor Cornelius Burns, then chancellor of the San Francisco archdiocese accused me in the newspaper's Letters to the Editor of falling asleep in moral class; the paper printed my response to Con in which I admitted the classes were so boring that I did sleep often. It was soon after that that Archbishop John Quinn had my name removed from the seminary roster … I was never there or ordained … (I'm back on now).
Back to the seminary chapel in 1953: "The chains were on" after we were ordained Deacons, chains referring to our commitment to the church and the church commitment to us by our receiving a portion of the sacrament of Holy Orders; everyone of us thought we were inside for good and that Peter would recognize us as priests on the day we entered the Pearly Gates. The Baltimore Catechism* had taught us "a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace". We would now be obliged, under pain of mortal sin, to read daily the Latin breviary and we would wear a stole across the chest as a sign of our officium. I performed my first baptism as a deacon and conducted Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament during our winter holidays at my home parish church; the 5th-grade altar boy of 1937 was four months from ordination, having survived the gauntlet of the Marine Corp of the Roman Catholic church. We were innocent sheltered boys who would be sitting in a confessional box within a few months. Richard Sipe speaks of our being "forever 14".
I have a friend who was recently ordained a deacon, he being a married man, bright theologian, and historian. Their class training was in justice, using papal encyclicals as the base of their ministry; the 6th chapter of Acts records seven men being chosen to see to the needs of widows and the poor, the early church's first deacon group. Much to their disappointment the bishop who ordained them focused on custody of the Eucharist, a sure sign of preparing them for future sacramental priesthood; if his wife were to die the married deacon is not allowed to remarry.
Religious order men were ordained along with the secular clergy; I often wondered why they were ordained by a diocesan bishop, not one of their own. I discovered the reason when the massive exodus of priests was underway; the ordaining bishop can call into parish service the priest he has ordained, the system's hoped for guarantee that the peoples' Sunday Mass is kept alive. Surveys show that the hierarchy is running out of both secular and religious order priests.
I served as ordained priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco for 26 years; of five assignments as associate pastor two or the pastors were alcoholics, two psychopaths, and one an aged multi-millionaire. I was never installed as a canonical pastor; I brought in lots of money for the church because the people recognizing service were generous and I stole tons of dough to keep parishes afloat and feed the poor. I was a servant Jesus priest and in my last ten years was a member of the Christian community along with being its educator. I also lay claim to being a married family man for the last four years of my institutional stay in Roman priesthood; the archbishop knew of my parenthood and my life-long contempt for the institution's attitude toward women. I look forward to reading THE DEATH OF THE PRIESTHOOD by George B. Wilson; the reviews are good and Wilson leads his readers forward to the new priesthood, the one we mentioned when we encouraged reading Luke's Emmaus account. You lay folk better get ready as us old timers ride off into the sunset. Some women and men are already well under way, called parish coordinators, pastoral counselors, and various titles while Rome jealously guards its ordained celibate male as the only one who represents Jesus. (Laity: please don't just take a title; get a good education. You want an instituional church? then prepare yourself to take it over; personally I prefer small home community as the parish is roman controlled territory.)
PS: *A word as we close about THE BALTIMORE CATECHISM, the infamous paper-back that was memorized by every child that wanted to receive first communion. Its history is worth knowing. When the French peasants stormed the Bastille, 232 Rue Saint Antoine, they began the overthrow of monarchy and dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in France. The peoples' government took over education as church hierarchy fled to fortress Rome; the government wrote religious texts and France was in religious turmoil. Rome with its usual reaction wrote a catechism, pointing out serious errors and positions of caution; the catechism was for PRIESTS ONLY, to be used and read only by those loyal to Rome and educated in 1800's seminary. Meanwhile Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, Maryland commissions an American priest to write a catechism for American Catholics; the priest neglects his duty and when pressed by Carroll he translates the forbidden French text into English and presents it to the Council of Baltimore, it becoming standard reading for every catholic in America, I memorized it by 8th grade in 1941; it was like Swiss cheese, full of holes of omission. If you have a copy hang onto it as it is now a relic of a doomed past.
PPS: A tidbit about Pallium (I said in #7 I knew nothing of its history): I have since found out the neck piece is made from the wool of two lambs under one year of age, suggesting Christ, the lamb of God and the Good Shepherd. It is blessed on June 28th and conferred by the Pope on Metropolitans (archbishops of large dioceses) since the 6th Century as a symbol of super-episcopal jurisdiction and signifying a certain participation in the Pontiff's supreme pastoral office. (Wikpedia) (nuffsaid)
Tom McMahon, San Jose, Ca., 10/03/08.
NEXT WEEK: A psychology of the past era of priesthood and what might be future priest.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part VIII
What are your thoughts on this commentary?