The NCR series and other journalistic investigations got me to thinking about what we as seminarians on Aroma Hill (and elsewhere) thought about our place at St. Joe’s, as in why we were there, what was expected of us, what we hoped for and dreamed about ourselves, and perhaps most intriguingly, the manner and degree to which we talked to each other about our future as priests.
In the 1984 film “The Right Stuff” about the first seven American astronauts, the first to fly into space in solitary rockets, there is a scene at a rural desert clinic where medical clinics are administering an array of bizarre medical tests to about 50 test pilots for a secret mission to launch a man into space. The future astronaut Malcolm “Scott” Carpenter meets the future astronaut John Glenn for the first time and attempts to strike up small talk. Carpenter fumbles around a bit and finally says to Glenn, “Well, I guess we’re here for the same thing.” To which Glenn nods assent, though neither astronaut, nor their competitors, ever elaborates on screen what it is exactly they are doing. This is the theme of Tom Wolfe’s book by the same name—that the astronauts were motivated men on a mission who kept their feelings very much to themselves. To the world, the astronauts possessed the right stuff, but even Wolfe could not
When I ascended Aroma Hill in September 1962, I could have had a similar conversation with every new classmate I encountered, i.e., “I guess we’re here for the same thing.” Elaboration of the question was not really tolerated, and on the few occasions when something of religious identity might come up, there was some discomfort—even annoyance—over questions of piety. Nobody ever said out loud, “Boy, I can’t wait to be a priest.” The prevailing wisdom was “cool your jets” and survive day by day. On a few occasions I expressed to an upper classman or perhaps even to a seminary professor my impatience to learn more about religion—I had superior religious education in elementary school from the Christian Brothers—I always got the same answer: you’ll get religion later. That was a big disappointment.
As adolescents, we had been indoctrinated by parents and/or enthusiastic recruiters that the sooner we separated from the world, the better were our chances to achieve the goal of priesthood. As the NCR series reports, in the 2000’s there is a hot debate over the advantages of secluded seminary experience [many college-graduate seminaries reverting to sheltered study settings, wearing cassock and collar always, etc.] versus the advantages of seminarians studying with lay persons in major theological universities, which would eventually be the model I assumed in my last five years of seminary training.
But in 1962 the typical bishop or religious superior would opt for the model of Aroma Hill and its isolation. The obvious concern was girls, though shielding us from contact with our female cohort did not solve problems as much as it postponed them. The one-dimensional nature of our seminarian training—its seemingly sheer purpose of producing priests—had more serious effects upon those of us who stayed and those of us who left. A long way back one of our readers regretted that our seminary had not prepared him for “the real world” as he left the hill after his high school senior year. Some of the respondents on the St. Joe’s Reunion Facebook page suggested that this might be expecting too much from the seminary.
And yet, the seminarians who stayed through ordination, including me and my class, would eventually be expected to minister and serve “the real world,” and more to the point, come to understand our personal interactions with normal adults of both sexes. As I have written before, our mail in Callicoon was censored, in part to keep us on the straight and narrow. In my sophomore year, 1964 I think, two of my classmates were expelled: one of them had a girlfriend on the outside and the other was smuggling letters for him in his mailed laundry case. The middleman’s mother sent the correspondence to the seminary rector, and that was that, two less plates for dinner.
It did not occur to anyone in my memory that there might be some profit in group interactions among seminarian classmates, the kind that the mental health community uses profitably in human development contexts. In fairness, anything smacking of psychiatry was viewed suspiciously in the 1960’s. But looking back, there were several issues that might have been appropriately addressed and some template for community support established. In my own case, I was very homesick and possibly depressed; I gained over 50 pounds during my freshman year. Others in my class—some excellent future priests in my view--were very frustrated over academic pressures. Many of us missed the healthy female influence appropriate for our age. [I had my first girlfriend in the seventh grade.] And, I strongly suspect that at least some of my classmates came to the hill against their wishes, either because their parents viewed the seminary as a benign reform school or recognized the financial bargain that it was. In short, we lost opportunities to learn how adults talk to adults with a healthy transparency.
It is unfortunate that we could not commiserate in safe formats, except possibly with a very trusted friend or priest. Everything I listed in the preceding paragraph would make a candidate suspect in the eyes of superiors, and I hate to admit this, but the popular wisdom within my formation years was to reveal as little of one’s vulnerabilities as possible, right up through ordination. At the end of my novitiate year, the novice master—and I was his personal secretary—told me on the last day that he knew I had played the year cautiously. From what I have heard and read, this was a common feature of most seminaries. And beyond studies for the priesthood, playing one’s card close to the vest appears to be the smart move for upward mobility in any corporate setting.
Little wonder that the world of seminaries continues to fascinate the Church a half-century after my class left the hill for the last time.