Page 4, 23rd October 1964

23rd October 1964
Page 4
Page 4, 23rd October 1964 — TOWARDS A NEW LOOK FOR THE SEMINARY

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Locations: Cambridge


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IT could be that the priest is

loath to allow laymen any participation in the apostolate because the apostolate is a business and he can't let a tea-party atmosphere invade such a serious concern. He is a professional and it would be unwise to devise a system for part-time amateurs or for squabbling and repressed women.

Even when he tries to organise a parochial team, before long he finds that of the most reliable members Mr. X leaves the district or is up to his neck in his own business commitments, Miss Y discovers in herself a deep desire to get married, and Mrs, Z has another baby,

The parish priest may well feel he is using up Less vital energy by tackling parochial affairs on his own than by filling up the gaps in a team always threatening to fall to pieces. He may he an autocrat but at least he knows what he wants done and he normally does it.

These reasons for the breakdown of the clergy-laity laision, however, are superficial, because, though I believe that there is much truth in them. they only reveal symptoms of a much deeper maladjustment in our Catholic life.

The real source of our difficulties, I suggest, is that our priests are simply not fitted by reason of their training to cope with the organisational problems and the new methods of the apostolate which a twentieth century world demands.

If we were living in the thirteenth century there might not he much to complain about, and that is an indicator of the magnitude of our complaint today.

Modern world

In the mediaeval world philosophy with theology (and its attendant subjects like scripture) comprised almost the whole of leaving, certainly the major part of what was of intellectual interest to those who could read. There were no physical sciences, of course, no physics, chemistry, biology and the like.

But neither were there the social sciences, or sociology, or psychology, or psychiatry, or the arts of communication and advertising.

The problem is : In this madly moving, terribly exciting, exquisitely organised, scientific society in which we live how much of modern knowledge could and should be imparted to our clerical students?

I shall begin by giving some account of present seminary training. I shall, indeed, put the emphasis on certain deficiencies in the system: such is the purpose of this article. Yet 1 am not unmindful of the high moral quality of the men this system has produced, men of courage and devotion, men who have produced long-lasting results.

It is to be regretted. too, that I am not able to depict here the joy and fraternity of life in common, the painstaking efforts of staff and students, the deep and enduring friendships which are the most prized acquisition of seminary days.


But, let us examine the facts. Our students are taught mostly by means of multitudes of lectures. (I cannot remember in all my years of training having had the benefit of a single seminar or informal discussion nor a single hour of personal tuition.) There are two years of philosophy followed by four of theology. dogmatic and moral, with scripture, canon law and a smattering of minor subjects like Church history.

Throughout his course it is not unusual for the student-priest to have to work his way with the lecturer's assistance through dryas-dust manuals claiming to give immediate, dogmatic answers to a host of irrelevant, largely mediaeval questions.

An example of this doctrinaire approach is as follows: a student who had specialised in Marsilio of Padua at Cambridge was horrified to find that this influential figure was relegated to a footnote in a manual where his views were summarily dismissed in a syllogism. Such an attitude is hardly calculated to create a flexibility and openness to the truth in the mind of the seminarist.

The first two years of philosophy are particularly frustrating. Pedagogically it is a pity that young men. many of them not having had anything remotely likely a grammar school education should have a start with the most difficult subjects they are ever likely to encounter, subjects like metaphysics and natural theology.


I have talked with dozens of priests of all ages on this matter and have yet to find a single one who found those first two years of any ostensible use to his intellectual formation or his later priestly life..

Rather, the sense of inferiority and mental confusion then engendered sometimes gives a distaste for personal study which endures throughout a life-time.

The lecturers are normally kindly men and justifiably make every possible allowance for their students not comprehending the intricacies of Aristotle and Aquinas. Suarez and Duns Scotus. But they are not, therefore, insisting on the mastery of a skill such as is demanded of every other professional man as the necessary condition of his qualifying.

And this is demoralising for the student who not only feels but knows his incompetence in subjects to which he has devoted six golden years to the exclusion of more immediately practical pursuits.

I would say that the imposition upon our future priests of unmitigated medievalism both as to the content and mode of thought of their studies is a brake on their cultural development and takes away from them all confidence in their powers to learn. It follows that after ordination they cease completely to read subjects which never interested them in the first place.

New thinkers

Looking back on my own seminary years with no bitterness and with considerable gratitude to my teachers I never cease to wonder at the anomalies of the training system.

I find it most curious in retrospect that although. I read philosophy for two years in England 1 never heard the lecturers name such famous contemporary F.nglish philosophers as G. E. Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Ryle and Ayer, Last year I asked a student from a seminary, not the one in which i studied, and he claimed never to have heard their names mentioned either.

1 give this as an example of the closed mentality of our seminaries in their barrack-like confinement and how even the theoretical disciplines do not even begin to measure up to contemporary problems.

In those seminary years we heard far more about Plato and Plotinus than about pastoral theology. Confessional theory did not envisage the art of purifying, teaching, consoling. encouraging, but simply the ability to catalogue and number mortal sins. Beyond a few incidental criticisms levelled at us after the occasional practices we were not taught how to construct or deliver a sermon, nor how to use a microphone in public speaking.


Catechetics was also a closed hook to us : we were not made to realise that children of different age groups respond better to different methods of teaching. We heard nothing about the art of presentation nor about child psychology.

If we had known just a little about psychiatry we would have realised so much sooner how dependent a child is on his family especially his mother, and how useless it is trying to cure the overt failings of some children in -mato when those failings are probably only symptoms of something wrong with his parental relationships or his family environment.

We were not taught how to teach, nor, I would say. with all respect, were our teachers; but it would have helped us if they had only pointed out that teaching was a well-developed science about which a great number of useful books had been written.

No hints were given to us about how to tackle the extremely difficult tasks of visiting the parish, making a census, keeping a file on all parishioners for our own and our successor's benefit. We never saw an account hook. We were taught nothing about hospitals, how they function, how to address the members of the staff, how to interrogate the patients.

We were given no information about local government or the W elf a re services information which would have helped us immensely in our pastoral charge.

Social problems

We were not told as part of our course the structure of the Trades Union Movement nor ways of encouraging the laity to accept their responsibilities in it : we only studied abstract considerations such as the justice of strike action and the like which were of no practical use in that we had no insight into the mechanics of the working movement.

We had no training in youth work. I remember a fellow curate complaining after being one week in his first parish that he had been given the youth club to run "to keep the kids off the street".

He said, "1 was never a member of a youth club myself. In fact, until the other day I had never been inside one. How am I expected to make much of a go at it?"

How, indeed? Totally unaware of the conclusions of social surveys, of all the methods of training youth which experts have devised over the last twenty years, the poor, purblind, unprepared curate finds himself groping after many months for the The author of this study is a priest who has thought deeply for many years about the quality of seminary training and studies. His experience has given him special opportunities for forming a constructive judgment.

He prefers to remain anonymous because, he says, it would be an injustice to impute the whole of his criticism to any particular one of the people or places he has been associated with.

elementary principles of such work which he should have known before his ordination.

In my day, we did not receive a single lesson on how to form or run a committee, how to act as chairman, how to get people interested and involved in the works of the apostolate. Everything was left to the grace of God. More surprising still, I heard not a single talk on liturgy in those six years whether in the class room or in retreat or in any spiritual conference!

Private prayer was discussed in great detail but public prayer which constitutes so large a part of the priestly minority was totally neglected. Hence we were taught how to celebrate Mass privately but not how to preside at liturgical celebrations. We were not taught the basic principles of how to lead the people at dialogue Mass or the Rosary or at Benediction, principles such as audibility, clarity. evenness of diction and so on.

The result is to be seen in many parishes today where so many priests simply do not realise that they are celebrating Mass in a fashion that makes layparticipation impossible however much good-will is shown.

Bane or boon?

In such circumstances the dialogue Mass, instead of being an intensely rewarding spiritual experience, becomes quite painful to everybody, convincing the laity that liturgy is a bane not a boon, and allowing the parish priest to have a clear conscience when he discontinues his efforts since he tried and "the people didn't like it".

We never heard anything about sociology or public administration or how to make use of the present fantastic means of communication. The Catholics were meant to be (and are) catechised solely on Sunday mornings in a heterogeneous mass of adults and adolescents and crying infants. And few priests have any idea at all how to interest non-Catholics in the faith, nor even how best to contact them.

True, priests meet non-Catholies for the pre-marriage instructions demanded by diocesan law. but they have probably received themselves no instruction on how to approach these delicate interviews. No wonder that so many of these interviews turn out to he a disaster,


The non-Catholic who understandably resents any interference with his "private life" is bluntly (I do not mean unkindly) told what activities are labelled "sins" by the Catholic Church such as divorce, abortion and birth control and that any children must be brought up as Catholics.

The beautiful ideal of Christian marriage and Christian love and Christian conscience is most likely not touched upon.

The subject of sex is obviously too large to comment on here. It

is enough to say that in a world which has probably never seen so much neurosis caused by sexual deviations and sexual incompetence nor so much ignorance of the true and sacred meaning of sex the amount of truly helpful suggestions on this topic offered to seminarists is minimal.

The educationalist would find it difficult to understand why there is no "streaming" in our seminaries so that university graduates sit side by side with those who were educated in secondary modern schools. An expert would also smile ruefully at the negligible amounts of money spent on the libraries, since in the twentieth century books are hardly to be looked on as an unexampled luxury.


So far we have spoken about faulty training methods. However, the very ideal of the priestly life offered the students is in many casts defective. Obedience can be ballooned until it becomes the prime virtue; and the emphasis on the trivial enactments of authority, enactments which have nothing to do with priestly preparation as such, can reach an unreasonable proportion.

The seminarist should surely be treated as a prospective leader of men, as an officercadet, and not as an adolescent. There is a tendency to give him a scale of values which bears no relation to the task he will be called upon to do in the real world after ordination. Individual initiative has less place than it should, so have personal thought, decision and originality.

An interesting example of mistaken method is the prohibition of smoking outside certain periods of communal recreation. The time allotted is about two hours per day. Breakage of this rule is the sign that the student has no respect for authority, i.e. doesn't love God enough.

As a consequence, seminarists not being allowed to form their own habits in an adult fashion nor to smake when alone in their rooms find their private studytime. almost intolerable. Many left to themselves would either give up smoking or moderate the habit as disciplined people are accustomed to do.

Real world

Instead, most become compulsive chain-smokers in their public recreation periods which is not conducive to their good health and very injurious to their self-respect.

Recent investigations have shown that long-overdue changes are being made and that subjects like liturgy and catechetics are creeping into the curriculum. Our seminaries are certainly not like one in Italy which came to my notice recently, where the students have no radio and are only allowed to read the local Catholic newspaper. all the articles of which are personally censored by the bishop.

What I have maintained is this. In general we have failed to look at things as they really are, providing a mediaeval type of education for a twentieth century world. Our teaching methods are a hit and miss affair in an era of specialisation. Our training is entirely dedicated to people as isolated individuals and not as members of family and social units.

In time. the presbytery be comes a little island where the priest says his prayers, administers the sacraments, gives advice to people who arc courageous enough to ask for it; the parish is but a district which he dutifully visits. But the clergy have no knowledge of the tremendous forces that cement and torment our highly organised and technical civilisation.

They are unqualified to tackle the social problems which beset them from the outset of their ministry. Their incompetence sometimes leads them to deny that such problems exist. This is why so little use is made of highly-skilled convert clergymen in the work of the apostolate which is conceived on the narrowest lines imaginable.


The lives of the clergy having been planned for so long down to the last detail of their smoking time they are quite satisfied merely to continue with the old strategies and the old institutions which passed for parochial "life" in the epoch before the motor car.

They are devoted nien wanting desperately to make people good but unable to avail themselves of the techniques which would make their efforts and their charity blossom a hundredfold and which would tap the professional resources of their parishioners.

The latter are expected to obey the clergy as once they themselves were expected to obey the voice of their superior as the voice of God. The clergy have long ceased to speak the language of the people. Having grappled for years with mountain-cold abstractions out of all relation to present-day life they are unable to communicate the theology they possess.

Finally, since no provision has yet been made for post-ordination studies many priests. particularly at this time of the aggiornaniento are quite bewildered at the pace of the changes going on around them and prefer to cling to the ways they have always known, exasperating beyond measure those educated to better things.


This account of the status qua indicates the lines on which reform could be initiated. The syllabus of seminaries should contain those subjects which make the students aware of the forces at work in our society and give them the competence to utilise them in God's services. It would be of immense value and not too difficult for them to learn the dements of child psychology, sociology, psychiatry, mass-communication. Their theology would not suffer but become more interesting by becoming relevant.

Whether much of this can be done with the present geographical isolation of our seminaries is to he doubted. 'There is an impressive need (it has been obvious for years) for a central seminary for the better deployment of our resources or perhaps a link-up with university life at least for the more capable students. Certainly our future priests must be trained by men who are experts in their own field, I wonder, for example, how much and how soon a qualified journalist could raise the standard of preaching from its present low level.


This article is not made up of sour reflections on the unhappy years spent in a seminary long ago. Rather it is an attempt to pinpoint in tranquillity exactly where our monumental efforts are being wasted. And it might at least make the progressive laity a little more sympathetic towards those of the clergy whom they regard as incompetent in that no training for such a complex world as ours can ever he totally adequate,

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