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Grant, we pray, almighty God, that no tempests may disturb us, for you have set us fast on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith. Through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

February 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, is a special day to be in Rome, for to mark the feast, the Altar of the Chair, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s sculptural masterpiece in the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, is lit with over one hundred tapers, some of them six feet tall. Impressive at any time, the Altar of the Chair, ablaze with candlelight, is simply extraordinary. (It’s even more striking very early in the morning, given the acrobatics of the Sanpietrini, the basilica’s workmen, whose installation and lighting of the tapers is reminiscent of the Flying Wallendas.)

The Collect for the day, quoted above, may strike some as plaintive, with overtones of a lament. For there are manifestly tempests disturbing the Church, whose leaders are in Rome precisely because of that undeniable fact. The Altar of the Chair reminds us that the Collect’s link between the peace of the Church and its adherence to “the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith” must be taken seriously in this week’s meeting on sexual abuse. To understand why means pondering the huge bronze sculpture carefully, reflecting on its meaning as well as admiring its beauty.

The centerpiece of Bernini’s composition is a bronze cathedra, or episcopal chair, which pious tradition claims to contain wooden relics of St. Peter’s “chair,” the sign of his apostolic authority. Be that as it may, what is especially noteworthy about the Altar of the Chair is its theological density. As Bernini designed it, the bronze cathedra is supported by four Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine from the West, St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom from the East. Their figures are, like the rest of the composition, quite enormous—and fair enough, for these were giants in the history of Christian orthodoxy. But it’s Bernini’s arrangement of them that makes the crucial theological point: for each of the Doctors “supports” the great cathedra, representing Christ’s promise to maintain and preserve the Church in truth through the Office of Peter and the College of Bishops, by a single finger. The great sculptor’s point?  Truth is not burdensome, but liberating. For as the Lord himself said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29–30).

This is a deeply countercultural claim today. Just as the Altar of the Chair poses a sharp stylistic challenge to a strange, modernist confection like Oliviero Rainaldi’s sculpture of St. John Paul II outside Rome’s Stazione Termini, Bernini’s message of liberating truth is a profound challenge to the postmodern culture of autonomy that is one factor in today’s Catholic abuse crisis. Yet on this Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, that is what the Church is reminding its leaders and its people: that the truth, freely embraced, is light. And truth’s illumination of the often-dark pathways of life liberates us to be the sons and daughters of God we were born to be.

Some of those charged with addressing this week’s abuse summit are, it must be said, in need of that reminder. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, for example, will address the summit on “Transparency in a community of believers.” Does that “transparency” include, one wonders, an openness to asking just what Cardinal Marx thought he was doing recently when he said that the Church had to rethink its entire sexual ethic in light of twenty-first-century culture and contemporary mores? Does the cardinal not understand that doctrinal dissent and the confusions resulting from it were factors in the breakdown of clerical discipline that helped facilitate clerical sexual abuse?

The liberating power of doctrine, including moral doctrine, has not been one of the leitmotifs of Pope Francis’s pontificate, as it was of his two predecessors. Proponents of the pope’s approach defend his skepticism about scholars and his oft-repeated critiques of “doctors of the law” and “Pharisees” by suggesting that the Holy Father is reminding the Church that behind everything to which Catholicism says “No” there is a “Yes” that the Church has not always been successful in communicating. True enough, and a good reminder: but not when that reminder helps facilitate a return to the moral-theological civil wars of the 1970s.       

And not when it is taken to underwrite or legitimate attempts by prominent theologians, in venues ranging from Boston College to the Pontifical Gregorian University, to deconstruct John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor by denying the reality of intrinsically evil acts—things that are wrong in and of themselves, and that no combination of putative intentions and anticipated consequences can make right. Yet if, as the otherwise inadequate, pre-abuse summit “statement” by the Unions of Superiors General (cited here yesterday) managed to affirm that “the abuse of children is wrong anywhere and anytime,” then there are intrinsically evil acts—and the denial of their reality is an obstacle to the deep Catholic reform necessary to alleviate the enormous suffering caused by sexually abusive clergy.

There seems to be an iron law built into the interaction of Christianity and modernity: Christian communities that have a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries can live and even flourish under the challenging social and cultural conditions of modern life; Christian communities that fudge those boundaries wither, and some die. That iron law applies within Catholicism today. The living parts of the Church are those that have embraced the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor; the dying parts of the Church are those that have surrendered to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

That is true of dioceses, parishes, religious communities, seminaries, and virtually every other institutional expression of Catholicism. And it is a truth—like the truth of doctrine’s liberating power expressed in Bernini’s Altar of the Chair—that this abuse summit must reaffirm, without hesitation or compromise.

                                                                                    - Xavier Rynne II


(Today’s commentaries both address seminary reform, which is crucial to the reform of clerical life and discipline in the Church. The first essay, from a seminary rector, describes important reforms that have been accomplished in the United States since Abuse Crisis 1.0 in 2002. The second essay, from five seminary professors, outlines a program of further reform in response to Abuse Crisis 2.0. XR II)

U.S. Seminaries Today: Not What They Used To Be

by the Rev. James Mason

I’m a seminary rector. And I welcome the scrutiny that America’s seminaries find themselves under today, as our Church strives to reform itself after another wave of abuse scandals. Now, as the international consultation on abuse called by Pope Francis meets in Rome, I hope that my reflections on priestly formation may be of interest to all those who work for a holier Catholic Church, pastored by holy priests.  

I was ordained at age thirty-four, in 2001. Since then, I’ve been a pastor for nine years, a diocesan vocation director for eight years, a seminary rector for four years, and the director of a retreat center for a decade. For thirteen years, I’ve also led seminarians in the thirty-day Ignatian spiritual exercises. In short, I’ve been involved in priestly formation in one way or another since my ordination, and what follows reflects that.  

My experience suggests to me that much of what’s being said about seminaries during the current abuse crisis is somewhat ill-informed: too many commentators seem unaware of the positive developments that have taken place in American seminaries over the past twenty-five years, and are therefore out of touch with what’s actually happening in priestly formation today. Visitors to the seminary I’m privileged to lead, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, will find something quite different from the anachronistic (and suspicious) portraits of contemporary American seminary life found these days in certain media outlets and ecclesial circles.

According to the study of clerical sexual abuse commissioned by the U.S. bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, almost 70 percent of the American priests involved in abuse cases were ordained between 1950 and 1979.  That by no means excuses the rest (21 percent were ordained before the 1950s, 11% percent after 1979) and it emphatically doesn’t mean that further reforms aren’t needed now. But it does suggest that something different has been taking place in seminaries in recent decades, contrary to what is often assumed.

My personal experience of seminary culture over the past twenty-some years  confirms the statistical data: There has been a gradual but noticeable reform in seminary formation programs and personnel. The seminal document for that development was Pope John Paul II’s 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds). Ideas form cultures, and John Paul’s vision of priestly formation in Pastores Dabo Vobis has been the most significant and decisive idea in shaping seminary culture over the past twenty-five years. That reshaping and reform has taken time, and it is far from complete. But without Pastores Dabo Vobis and its insistence that the intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation of priests must build upon a firm foundation of human formation, our American seminaries would still be suffering from the hangover of scattershot and confused priestly formation that characterized the immediate post-Vatican II years in the United States. Pastores Dabo Vobis gave the entire Church a template for priestly formation; seminaries in the United States have, in the main, adopted that template and accepted the challenge of reformed priestly formation. I hope our reform experience may be of some interest to others in the world Church.

One of the most important things we have learned since John Paul II issued Pastores Dabo Vobis is that while getting the idea of priestly formation right is essential, it is only the first step in the reform process. It also takes the right seminary team, and the right seminary program, to implement that idea. The development of personnel and programs takes time, but it is well worth the effort—and it has been happening.

As the rector of a large seminary, my first priority has been building a team of affectively mature, holy, and accessible priests. My faculty and I tell our seminarians that their number one responsibility is to make themselves known: to be transparent, honest, and generous in formation. If they’re going to do that, then we need faculty and formation advisers who have the capacity to receive their generous transparency, and who can lead these men to continued growth in healthiness and holiness. The authoritative Church document on seminaries that guides our work, the 2016 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (which is itself an extension of the vision of Pastores Dabo Vobis), makes this quite clear, noting that a seminarian is called to develop a balanced and mature capacity to enter into relationships, to have a basic human and spiritual serenity, to overcome every form of self-promotion or emotional dependency, and so on. That development is only possible when priestly formation is led by seminary formators who have those qualities and display them in their ministry.

Priests who are hesitant to leave parish life because they find pastoral work immensely rewarding, fruitful, and life-giving are among the most appropriate candidates to serve as the priest-formators of seminarians. These priests’ experience of investing in their parishioners bodes well for their capacity to invest in the lives of the seminarians as father and mentor. Seminary work for priests can never be again what it too often was in the past: an escape from pastoral life; or time off; or a self-improvement project; or, worst of all, a refuge for unassignable priests. When it’s been any of these, the results have been, predictably, disastrous.

Bringing the goods of family life into the formation process is another great aid in building a mature seminary culture. Many American seminaries are currently enriched by the more extensive involvement of lay men and women in the formation process, not only in the classroom but also in the administration of the seminary. The consistent observations and input of our laity have proven crucial in assessing a seminarian’s progress in formation. Bottom-line questions like “Would you want this man as your pastor?” or “Would you want this man to minister to your family?” lead to honest and invaluable insights from the lay members of our staff.

Pastors in the field typically want to know two things about a man in seminary formation: “Can he be with people? Is he a hard worker?” Bishops, typically beset by a personnel crunch, often have a very practical concern: “Is this man easily assignable, assignable, barely assignable, or unassignable?” As a seminary rector evaluating the men under my care, I am constantly asking myself, “What does this guy look like in a parish?” In all three cases, though, the questions being raised are those of basic human formation. And those questions are being raised with a bluntness, clarity, and urgency in seminaries today, in a way they weren’t before.

We have also learned that, in human formation, it’s not enough to encourage a man. Today, it’s equally essential that we’re able to challenge a man.  When men are appropriately but consistently challenged with respect to the qualities they need to become healthy, holy, joy-filled parish priests, they respond. They begin to challenge each other. They see the need for growth, and they come to want it. The seminary must become—and the best seminaries have increasingly become—“Coddle Free Zones.”

The spiritual life integrates all the other areas of formation—human, pastoral, and intellectual. My experience is that seminarians speak much more freely today about their spiritual lives than was possible, or even encouraged, a generation ago. One simple but telling episode may illustrate that point, and suggest what an integrated culture of formation looks like. We recently had a five-day, directed, silent retreat. At the end of the retreat, our academic dean, a layman, asked the men at the lunch table to share a specific grace from their retreat. I was heartened by how easily the seminarians spoke of the graces they had received from their solitude and silence with the Lord.  The dean then asked me about my own recent retreat, and I openly shared with the men a specific grace I had received.

Such sharing is an important skill for seminarians. And their formators need to be able to model it. Alas, during my seminary days, that was not the norm, and might have been considered an infringement of conscience, an invasion of what is technically known in spiritual direction and sacramental life as the “internal forum.” But as I often tell the seminarians at Kenrick-Glennon, “Jesus did not violate the internal forum when he spoke of the Father’s love.” By which I mean that, as priests, they need to be able to speak—appropriately, but authentically—of their own experience of God’s love. People need to know: this divine love is real; this man has experienced it; he wants to share it. Seminary formation a generation ago didn’t train men to do that. The best seminary formation today does.

In the past, too many priests “got through” seminary formation thanks to clear intellectual gifts, and perhaps even some notable pastoral skills.  But the Church’s experience with priestly attrition and dereliction over the past fifty years has underscored the imperative need to address immaturity in a man’s human and spiritual life during his priestly formation.  Animated by the vision of Pastores Dabo Vobis, deploying John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to describe a healthy, orthodox, and biblically-rooted understanding of human sexuality for seminarians, and working in cooperation with sound psychologists who truly love Christ and the Church, many American seminaries today have assembled the personnel and have begun to create the programs that address this immaturity and lead to real growth.

In an atmosphere in which the focus (understandably) tends to be on everything the Church has gotten wrong in dealing with the corruption within our own house, it is easy to miss something very encouraging: American seminaries today are as different from the seminaries of twenty or thirty years ago as today’s cell phones are from the communications technologies of 1990. There has been considerable and important reform in priestly formation, and that process has accelerated since the scandals of 2002.  As John Paul II’s Theology of the Body gave the Church a vision, and the intellectual tools, for a deeper and richer integration of the truth of human sexuality into both marriage and the celibate life, Pastores Dabo Vobis has given us the vision for a deeper and richer integration of human and spiritual maturation in seminary formation. The best seminaries in the United States have found the people and tools to bring that vision to life.

Real reform is underway—and has been underway for at least a decade and a half. What’s needed now, in our seminaries, is a deeper integration of that vision of an integrated spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and human formation of future priests, a deeper cultivation of the personnel who bring that vision to even more vibrant life, and further development of the tools that can help us accomplish what we describe as our mission at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary: Configuring men to the heart of Jesus Christ.

Father James Mason is the President-Rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After his ordination in 2001, Father Mason served as pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Garretson from 2001–2004 and as the director of vocations, vice-chancellor, and medical moral adviser for the Sioux Falls diocese from 2001–2009. In addition, Father Mason served as the director of Broom Tree Retreat Center from 2004–2014 and during that same period was pastor of St. Lambert Parish in Sioux Falls. He joined the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary community in 2014 as director of spiritual formation and dean of students. In 2015, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis appointed him President-Rector.

Sharing a Spirit of Discernment

by Susan Selner-Wright, Janet E. Smith, Deborah Savage, Shawn McCauley Welch, and Theresa Farnan  

In the face of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, a group of Catholic women who teach in U.S. seminaries have put what St. John Paul II called the “feminine genius” to work in the document Sharing a Spirit of Discernment, a set of suggestions for changes in seminary policies and formation practices.  We believe our recommendations could help bishops in the ongoing task of making seminaries places where young men can lay the groundwork for lives of service to the Lord and his people, lives of faithful chastity, free from clericalism, and oriented to seeking holiness.

This article is a condensed version of the document submitted to Fr. Hans Zollner, S. J., one of those charged with the preparation of the Vatican meeting now underway; the full version, which is available at the links at the end of this article, gives justification for our recommendations, more suggestions, and more details regarding the suggestions. (Numbers in parentheses below refer to paragraphs in the full document.)

Evaluation of Seminaries (Part I)

The recommendations call for immediate internal reviews of all seminaries to provide a report of the state of affairs in each seminary regarding any sexual activity by seminarians or that has occurred at the seminary, including the presence of pornography or use of dating apps.  Seminaries also should review files to identify the practices used in the past to address sexual misconduct (1.1). In addition, seminaries need a system to protect “whistleblowers” and enable reporting of past and present sexual misconduct (1.2).

Of great importance are regional gatherings where seminary leaders could share best practices and devise needed new ones for forming seminarians in chaste celibacy and for avoiding clericalism. Another task will be to set up criteria to evaluate whether and how each seminary has implemented best practices (1.3, 1.4, 1.5).

Seminaries should do longitudinal studies to test the effectiveness of formation practices. Priests should be surveyed at five-year intervals to provide feedback on how effective formation practices were and to make suggestions for improvement. When a priest leaves the priesthood, the seminary should formally document the specifics of the formation program in place during his seminary years and also ascertain the status of the rest of his cohort. Seminarians who decide to leave the seminary should be carefully interviewed before departure about seminary life and seminary culture. Taken together, these measures could reveal problematic patterns and allow for action to improve existing formation practice (1.6).

Formation in Celibacy (Part II. A)

Sharing a Spirit of Discernment provides a list of practical measures to assist seminarians in achieving the virtue of chaste celibacy, as well as justifications for those measures. Although we summarize some measures below, we strongly recommend reading this section in full.

General Measures:

 + The rector must be explicit with all formation faculty about what kind of sexual disclosures may remain in the internal forum of spiritual direction or confession and what should be directed toward disclosure in the external forum.

+ Seminaries should encourage seminarians to establish support and accountability groups while in seminary, encourage recently ordained priests to continue in these groups, and consider including lay men in them.

+ A propaedeutic spirituality year, regular opportunity for Eucharistic adoration and instruction in the value of saying the rosary, making retreats, devotions and pilgrimages—all of these will help form men in habits and attitudes that sustain chastity.

+ The curriculum should include reflection on the nature of masculinity itself, its complementary relationship to femininity, and the charisms that characterize and distinguish men and women. Such reflection is essential both for promoting chaste celibacy and for avoiding clericalism.

+ Laity, including lay women from the seminary faculty or seminarians’ pastoral assignments, should participate as non-voting members in meetings to evaluate seminarians’ progress in formation.

Practical Techniques

+ Specific “examinations of conscience” should be developed to promote self- awareness pertinent to celibate chastity.

+ Benchmarks for formation in chaste celibacy should be formulated concretely rather than abstractly. For example, the concrete benchmark “knows that he should not spend time alone with females who could be romantic partners” is much more useful than the abstract benchmark “has a good sense of boundary limitations.”  

+ Seminarians should learn to recognize when women or men are “pursuing” them, when problematic emotional attachments are developing, and how to extricate themselves from compromising situations.  

+ Seminarians should cultivate self-awareness so that they can identify what kinds of entertainment, reading, music, conversations, alcohol use, etc., trigger sexual responses. They should have awareness of what moods or feelings lead them to seek out sexual stimulation, such as feelings of loneliness, fear, fatigue, or inadequacy.

+ Seminarians should learn about the risks of pastoral counseling situations, where intimacy can develop that may lead to dependency and even a sense of being in love. Pastoral counseling should be done in a room with a window or with the door open.

Formation to Avoid Clericalism (Part II. B)

Clericalism is the sense that being a priest entitles one to a certain respect above that given to others, respect not just for the office but for the person of the priest and all his decisions and actions. It is the belief that because of a priest’s ordination, education, and sacrifices, he deserves special deference, even obedience. Laity can be at fault for nurturing clericalism, by fawning over and pampering their priests and bishops in the belief that because priests have renounced spouse, family, and career, they deserve to be compensated with nice residences, cars, and vacations.

 To combat clericalism, seminarians should

+ Regularly engage in Eucharistic adoration for it helps a person grow in virtue, especially humility—the sense that one belongs to God and is here to serve God through serving one's fellow man.

+ Be encouraged to pray the litany of humility and study the lives of priest-saints who led humble and modest lives.

+ Be made conscious of the “power differential” between priests and laity and reflect on their responsibility to guard against using that differential to pressure laity to take on unsuitable tasks or even to engage in immoral behavior.

+ Learn not only appropriate docility but also fatherly courage, since the priest’s call is to be an effective spiritual father, not a docile member of the presbyterate.  Within the seminary regular listening sessions should be held to allow seminarians to register their difficulties with practices of the seminary. Administrators should be receptive to such feedback and model for the seminarians how to take criticism well and how to make appropriate adjustments.

+ Be instructed on the importance of simplicity of life. They should be warned about fostering friendships with the wealthy for the “perks” they receive.

+ Get to know the dynamics of a strong Catholic family, perhaps especially those in families who care for children or other relatives with special needs.  Observing a strong Catholic father and discussing with him the challenges of fatherhood should help a seminarian develop his own sense of fatherhood.

+Experience the presence of confident, virtuous, and spiritually mature women in seminaries, as this is useful for discouraging clericalism and correcting “machismo” or misogynistic attitudes in seminarians, which exacerbate tendencies toward clericalism.

Bishops and Seminaries (Part III. A)

Bishops and leaders of seminaries should remember that their roles are complementary and maintain appropriate respect for the integrity of each role. While the bishop’s role is to make final decisions regarding a man’s ordination to the priesthood, bishops must take due cognizance of the assessments offered by the seminary rector, formators, faculty, and staff.

Seminary Rectors (Part III. B)

Invaluable in seminary formation is a rector with the characteristics required for the position: fidelity to the teachings of the Church; an earnest desire to form others for the priesthood; freedom from ambition for the episcopacy and from clericalism; experience as a pastor; respect for the mission of the laity; a healthy regard for women’s gifts and roles in the Church;  integrity and the ability to disagree respectfully with his own bishop and with sponsoring bishops; the virtue of prudence and the habit of “fatherliness.”  We recommend that rectors:

+ ensure that seminarians are not exposed to any cleric of whatever rank, active or retired, who has a history of credible allegations of sexual misconduct of any kind;

+ observe established norms regarding men who have been dismissed from formation;

+ refuse to admit any seminarian dismissed from another seminary for reasons which indicate unfitness for life as a pastor of souls.

Like so many of our fellow Catholics, we are heartbroken by the current crisis in our beloved Church. We recognize that it is not a crisis of “process and procedures” but stems from a lack of holiness that manifests itself in clericalism and sexual misconduct. Nevertheless we must strengthen procedures and policies in seminaries to ensure that seminarians are never subjected to sexual abuse or harassment. We offer these recommendations as a step toward the reform and healing of our wounded Church. (“Sharing a Spirit of Discernment can be found in full here.)

Dr. Susan Selner-Wright teaches at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver; Dr. Janet E. Smith teaches at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit; Dr. Deborah Savage teaches at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota; Dr. Shawn McCauley Welch teaches at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis; and Dr. Theresa Farnan teaches at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Christer Gundersen via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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