Seminaries and Seminarians: A Profile

In Gift and Mystery, John Paul II’s poignant autobiographical meditations on his own vocation on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination, the pope described his formation in Krakow during the darkest days of World War II:

In the autumn of 1942 I made my final decision to enter the Krakow seminary, which was operating clandestinely. I was accepted by the Rector, Father Jan Piwowarczyck. The matter had to be kept strictly secret, even from those dear to me. I began my studies at the Theology Faculty of the Jagiellonian University, which was also clandestine. . . . During the time of the occupation the Metropolitan Archbishop set up the seminary, clandestinely, at his residence. This could have led at any moment to severe repression directed against the superiors and the seminarians by the German authorities. I took up my lodging in this unusual seminary, with the much-loved Prince Metropolitan in September 1944 and was able to stay there with my fellow students until 18 January 1945, the day—or rather the night—of the liberation.

While the circumstances of priestly formation in most seminaries in the world today are nowhere near as secretive and dramatic as those of German-occupied Poland, they are nonetheless, at least for most members of the faithful, cloaked in a certain mystery. Most Catholics know that their priests are trained in institutions called seminaries, but know little or nothing about the origins, nature, or status of these institutions which they, as members of the faithful, support and upon whom they depend for the continuous line of priests who will, in the words of the old clerical adage, “hatch, match, and dispatch” them—as well as imparting a bit of God’s grace in between.

The Seminary Through Time

While the origin of the seminary can be traced back to the patristic period—an 1,800-page manual of seminaries published on the eve of the Second Vatican Council described St. Augustine as “primus seminariorum adumbrator” for having gathered candidates to holy orders around him in his household—the true beginnings of theological education in seminaries is found in the Council of Trent’s 1563 decree Cum Adulescentium Aetas, which commanded that specialized institutions of formation for those aspiring to the priesthood be established in every diocese. The fathers of Trent limited admission to these “seminaries” to young men who were “at least twelve years of age, were born of lawful wedlock, who know how to read and write competently, and whose character and inclination justify the hope that they will dedicate themselves forever to the ecclesiastical ministry.” These aspirants were to “study grammar, singing, ecclesiastical computation, and other useful arts” and would be instructed in “Sacred Scripture, ecclesiastical books, the homilies of the saints, the manner of administering the sacraments, especially those things that seem adapted to the hearing of confessions, and the rites and ceremonies.”

In the United States, the oldest seminary is St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, founded by John Carroll, first bishop of the newly independent United States, in 1791, and entrusted to the priests of the Society of St. Sulpice. The newest seminary, St. Gregory the Great Seminary, was just inaugurated this fall by Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska. For most of the period in between—at least until Vatican II—U.S. seminaries were regulated by the norms laid down by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, which stipulated their levels (high school, college, and graduate theologate), programs, and admissions requirements. In general, during this early period the seminaries in the New World adhered closely to the guidelines laid down by Trent, although in an eccentric gesture that may have been a foreboding of future defiance of Roman norms, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul opposed the study of music, as required by the Tridentine legislation, on the grounds that no mandate could make men sing.

As their bishops entered the halls of the Second Vatican Council thirty years ago, the Catholics of the United States were supporting some 4,955 seminarians in theologates, 3,304 seminarians in philosophical studies, and more than 16,572 “minor seminarians” in high school and junior college seminary programs. These numbers seemed to bode well for the continued growth of a church where every 711 Catholics were served by a priest, whether diocesan or religious, and certainly every 1,269 Catholics were served by a diocesan priest.

Vatican II recognized the importance of the seminary as an institution in the life of the Church. The council’s decree on the training of priests, Optatam Totius, noted that the council Fathers were “fully aware that the desired renewal of the whole Church depends in great part upon a priestly ministry animated by the spirit of Christ” and reaffirmed the “critical importance of priestly training.” Thus, the council explicitly “reaffirmed regulations already tested by the experience of centuries” and called for a moderate renewal of seminary studies, as needed, in line with the “changed conditions of our times.” In 1969, the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education published the Ratio Fundamentalis, a basic plan for priestly formation, and invited each conference of bishops to enact its own program for priestly formation in the light of the particular pastoral needs of its respective regions. Various specific directives followed. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) of the United States first approved its Program of Priestly Formation in 1971, a series of guidelines “according to which seminaries at every level should be conducted” and whose most recent, revised fourth edition, was promulgated in 1992, following Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis.

The Seminary Crack-up

Even before the Council closed, however, the bottom had seemingly fallen out from under the triumphal parade of the Catholic Church in the United States. By 1998, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, enrollments in the theologates, the graduate-level seminaries leading directly to ordination, were down to 3,158 students, of whom 2,359 were seminarians aspiring to the diocesan priesthood and 799 were candidates for religious communities. Declines in enrollment levels at college and high school seminaries are even more dramatic. In 1967-68, the first year for which national statistics were systematically kept, there were 13,401 college and 15,823 high school seminarians in the United States. The corresponding figures for 1997-98 were 1,516 and 853. While part of the decline is attributable to the development of new trends and models in priestly formation, such as the pre-theology program for students who have undergraduate degrees in other academic areas but need additional philosophy and theology work before commencing formal theologate programs, the collapse is nonetheless significant.

And the decline in enrollment numbers has not been the only change in these years. Whereas the Council of Trent envisioned twelve year olds enrolling at the diocesan seminary and felt necessary to mandate a minimum age of fourteen for the holding of ecclesiastical benefices, today such a notion is beyond absurd. In fact, while the minimum canonical age for priestly ordination is 25, fewer than 13 percent of theology seminarians are younger that 25, while 30 percent are between 25 and 29, 25 percent between 30 and 34, 15 percent between 35 and 39, and an unprecedented 17 percent over the age of 40. Just barely a decade ago, in a 1986 study conducted by the Office of Research of the United States Catholic Conference found that 70 percent of theologate students were under the age of 30.

Racially and ethnically, the 1998 CARA study reported a diverse pool of candidates for the priesthood: Whites accounted for 74 percent of theology seminarians, 14 percent were classified as Hispanic, three percent were black, and nine percent were Asian, drawn mainly from recent immigrant groups such as the Vietnamese. These figures compare with 78 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, three percent black, and three percent Asian or Native American for American Catholics in general. Those numbers also represent an increased diversity from the one percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, and almost no Asian enrollments found in one 1984 study.

Perhaps the most significant development of recent years, however, has been the increasing number of older seminarians who have been educated outside of the traditional high school and college seminary tracks and enter theology studies via the various pre-theology programs. Estimates vary, but there have been suggestions that these candidates represent almost all the theology seminarians in some programs. As Msgr. Robert J. Wister of Seton Hall University, former executive director of the Seminary Department of the National Catholic Education Association, has lamented: “The general academic and personal background of contemporary seminarians is increasingly removed from the traditional background of candidates for the priesthood. Some students come now with little or no personal experience of Catholic culture or with only a very limited education in the Catholic faith.”

On the other hand, as other astute observers such as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus have noticed, there are signs of an increased and often passionate fidelity in many of these men, one which needs to be channeled appropriately and not decried, as one harried seminary administrator did in a 1995 special issue of Seminary Journal, in which he described them as “rigid, closed, defensive, and theologically fundamentalistic.” Of course, whether “fundamentalistic” is a pejorative or not depends on one’s perspective. A 1994 report for the National Federation of Priests’ Councils found that although in 1970 a total of 85 percent of diocesan priests under 35 said priestly celibacy should be optional, by 1993, fewer than 38 percent said so. As Msgr. Timothy M. Dolan, rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome commented in The New York Times recently: “These kids are reacting against the ’60s and ’70s, the psychedelic vestments, the Coke and pretzels at Mass. Now the bias is only in favor of tradition and authority.”

As for seminaries, the number of seminaries, the number of theology seminaries dedicated principally to the formation of diocesan priests for the United States, has fallen to just to just 35 in 1998, of which four are abroad. The top eight diocesan theologates with the highest enrollments in 1997-98 account for 1,245 seminarians, or 58 percent of the 2,359 total diocesan theology seminarians. These seminaries include: Mundelein Seminary (Chicago), Mount St. Mary’s Seminary (Emmitsburg, Maryland), the Pontifical North American College (Rome), Notre Dame Seminary (New Orleans), Immaculate Conception Seminary (Newark), St. John’s Seminary School of Theology (Boston), Sacred Heart School of Theology (Hales Corner, Wisconsin), and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (Philadelphia).

The dubious distinction of being the smallest theological seminary in the United States belongs to St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, where 13 were enrolled in 1997-98 and two were ordained last year.

Of course the purpose of a seminary is the formation of priests. Interestingly enough, although not surprising to astute observers, some dioceses, by no means the largest U.S. ecclesiastical jurisdictions, have been blessed with a relative abundance of priestly vocations while other dioceses have seemingly languished. Arlington, Virginia, Lansing, Michigan, and Peoria, Illinois, for example, have Catholic populations of less than 300,000, while Lincoln, Nebraska, has barely 85,000 Catholics. And yet, those dioceses have produced more ordinations than many dioceses with significantly greater numbers of Catholics.

Changing Times, Unchanging Needs

In Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II noted that while the concrete circumstances of priestly vocations and formation in the contemporary world have changed, the Church’s task remains the same and “the spirit which must inspire and sustain her remains the same: that of bringing to the priesthood only those who have been called, and to bring them adequately trained.” The Holy Father then proceeded to specify the areas of formation that were of particular concern:

Human Formation. The pope noted that “the whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked suitable human formation” in personal maturity of the candidate and his commitment to the charism of celibacy, among other areas.

Spiritual Formation is necessary as well if, as the Holy Father notes, the future priest is to be a priest, and not merely act as a priest. Without a solid spiritual life, grounded in the perennial tradition of the Church, “pastoral formation would be left without foundation.”

Intellectual Formation. Philosophy, according to the pope, lays the foundation of a future priest’s intellectual formation by inculcating a “loving veneration of the truth.” On this foundation, a “complex and demanding” education should lead the candidate for the priesthood to “a complete and unified vision of the truths God has revealed in Jesus Christ” and entrusted to the Church.

Pastoral Formation. Contrary to the formation schemes of many seminaries, John Paul II suggested that pastoral formation is built upon the human, spiritual, and intellectual education of future priests, and not vice versa.

The pope concluded that not only should the different areas of formation be looked at, but also the settings and the persons responsible for the formation of candidates to the priesthood. Consequently, in future articles in this ongoing series, Ralph Mclnerny and John Haas will join this author in examining how the different areas of formation as well as their settings and those charged with this important work measure up in America today. As the Holy Father noted, “God promised the Church not just any sort of shepherds, but shepherds ‘after his own heart.”‘ The question to be asked is: How are America’s seminaries doing in preparing such shepherds for the new millennium?


  • Rev. John Peter Pham

    Rev. John Peter Pham, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is a fellow of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He holds advanced degrees in economics, theology, and canon law.

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