Like many in my generation, I am downsizing, a process that includes a thorough review of every book and every piece of paper I once thought would be vital once I passed the age of 70. It is surprising how many of those “treasures” have ended up in the shredder. But yesterday, in emptying a box of papers concerning my building of a house in 1996, I discovered a small cache of a quarterly magazine published by the students of St. Joseph’s Seminary called Cord and Cowl. I had a few unmemorable entries printed over the years, but in rooting through several issues from 1966 through 1968 I came to the realization that there were many insightful thinkers up on the hill whose speculations and observations about the Church immediately after Vatican II were either immediately insightful or thoughtfully predictive [or both.]
The Spring 1967 issue focused upon vocations to the priesthood and religious life in an open discussion format, and I'd like to open it up for your memories and discussion here or at the St. Joe's Reunion site on Facebook. The participants included John O’Connor, college sophomore, who years later would be named Provincial of Holy Name Province; John’s classmates John Hickey [R.I.P.] and Anthony Shattuck [lost track]; from my class of college freshmen Dick Fleshren, my old roomie and choir director who entered St. Joe’s in his later 20’s; and a few classes behind me the high school student Andy Hess [lost track]. I will interject a few italicized thoughts as we proceed.
John H. begins the conversation on the “problem of vocations,” already much in evidence in 1967. He puts forth two possible reasons for the decline: fewer candidates were applying, and “more religious are apparently leaving their orders and vows now than ever before.” Later statistical studies confirm his impressions. In response, Dick points to “the availability of the many fields of service now, such as the Peace Corps…if they join the Peace Corps [founded by President Kennedy a few years earlier] they can get right into active work and the rewards.” Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research about those who left the seminary. Anecdotally, my impression is that many of the Aroma Hill gang who departed moved toward finishing their college degrees and/or serving in the military, as the nation was in the midst of the Viet Nam War.
Andy, the youngest of the participants and the only one from the high school division, replies that “kids seem to be growing up faster all the time. Even in the seventh grade they’re going to big dances and almost even steady dating. So even by the end of eighth grade, there’s a lot to give up and it seems to be almost too lofty a goal to expect it all to just stop.” I still mourn the day that my seventh-grade sweetheart moved from Buffalo to the suburbs. More seriously, hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written to this day on variations of Andy’s point about the challenge of celibacy.
John O’C. picks up on the fear of commitment: “Everyone today wants to be committed, but they are afraid to make a decision for their whole lives. By joining the Peace Corps, they can feel they are fulfilling their commitment without being bound forever.” The numbers of young Catholics serving the poor in church-based establishments for a determined period is one of the more encouraging signs of life in the Church in 2019. But Dick wonders aloud “if a vocation [to the priesthood] may be lost during the two years in the Peace Corps because a decision was delayed.”
Tony turns to the Callicoon scene and high school vocations. “I wonder how much influence the parents have. It’s a hard decision for anyone, but especially for an eighth grader. Many articles have appeared in the last ten years that haven’t presented a very good picture of the priesthood. I think parents reading these, discourage their sons. They don’t really know any more about the seminary than their son does. And his idea, in eighth grade, is usually very vague and not very developed. I thought, from the catalogue, that St. Joe’s would have bowling leagues. Seriously, though, I have heard the old saying many times, then and now, that seminarians don’t have vocations, but their mothers do.
The conversation turns toward recruiting. John H. observes that “The priest’s image is an important consideration. If young people don’t find the image of the priest attractive, what do they look for in a priest?” Andy replies, “Friendliness, the ability to come down to their own level. They see the priest at a CYO dance on Friday night, in the pulpit Sunday morning. And there are many priests who just don’t reach the young people; they’re aiming for the adults and shooting too high. Most kids don’t see the rectory or the seminary. They don’t know what life is all about. You can’t ask a boy if he wants to be a priest or come to the seminary if he hardly knows any priests and has never seen a seminary.”
Tony argues—correctly—about recruiting. “There is a shortage of secular [diocesan] priests, too, and the diocese wants any possible vocations directed toward itself.” John H. replies, “Don’t you think that attitude of approach forces the vocation talk to become a ‘sales pitch?’ If a student gets the impression that the vocation director is out to corral as many as he can, even if he has to take them away from someone else, that only confuses him, creating a poor image and certainly not increasing the attraction to the priesthood.” Andy draws from personal experience: “A boy in a parish school only gets confused when a half dozen priests in different habits tell him why their seminary is better, show colorful slides, and unload stacks of literature.”
Tony shares his experience: “You mentioned ‘the sales pitch.’ I remember one vocation fair, where I gave my name to a Sacred Heart brother. He had a sales pitch, for sure, but he got me interested and eventually I visited their juniorate, where I was impressed by the spirit and fraternal love. Just to get someone to consider the religious life requires a big push, not always too subtle. There was a pitch, but the message came through and it interested me in religious life.” The recruiting discussion goes on for several pages without a clear resolution. Most agree that outsiders have little understanding of what the seminary is like. John points out the pitfall of vocation directors’ portrayal of the seminary as too much like normal life while several others wonder if too much emphasis upon the “ascetics” of the seminary scares people off. Dick, about 26 at this time, said that his friends didn’t like the idea of his entering the seminary, and that for a young teenager the peer pressure might be quite difficult to manage.
The conversation turns back to the influences of adults, notably parents. Tony recalls “that my parents left the decision entirely to me and said, ‘Go straight ahead’…but I don’t think an eighth grader is capable of making that decision on his own. It’s inevitable that the parents influence their son whether he is a freshman in high school or a senior. But some have their son’s life planned for him. If they have their sights set on his being a doctor or a lawyer they won’t react favorably when he says he wants to be a priest, they’ll say, ‘but we always thought you wanted to be a doctor.’”
The group splits on the issue of an eighth-grade decision. John O’C. observes that some believe “you don’t know what life is like, that your social life isn’t formed naturally, and as a result your character is lacking.” Tony replies, “I agree with that. In a high school seminary, you don’t really realize what the world is like.” John O’C. strongly disagrees with Tony, and John H. steps in: “But both of you are basing it on your own experience, as we all do. When I decided in the eighth grade to enter the seminary, the decision was my own and I think I was capable of it….I don’t think you can say thirteen years old is an age at which a person is incapable of making decisions about his life….Some may be more capable of making their decisions than a twenty-five year old.”
John O’C.: “Today everybody is so security conscious, concerned about being a success, that they put off their decision of what to do until they can be sure it is the right choice. People with this attitude, when they see an article about 10,000 ex-priests, shy right away. ‘There must be something wrong with it—look at all those guys.’ They want to be sure, a success, committed but without risk. There is a real fear of failure.” Tony raises the question of leaving the seminary; “it could make an impression; he [the ex-seminarian] might feel he has failed and fears failure again if he tries something else.”
John H. decides to raise the pot. “I’ll ask you the dreaded question. Because of our different backgrounds it might be interesting and throw some light on the things we talked about. If you can pin it down, why did you want to be a Franciscan and a priest? What interested you, Dick? Dick was an obvious first choice. A college graduate who taught high school and drove the Athens-Atlanta run for Greyhound Bus, he embodied outside experience as much as anyone. Dick: “I thought about the priesthood for a long time, but it seemed as if there was something missing to complete the picture. When I went to Atlanta, the Franciscans there seemed to fill that something. Perhaps it was their complete dedication. The men I met impressed me with their willingness and eagerness to give themselves completely to everyone.”
Andy, who entered in eighth grade from one of our Jersey Franciscan parishes, explained his decision: “Well, I’m from a Franciscan parish but there was one priest in particular who influenced me. I guess when I thought of the priesthood, I thought of the Franciscan parish.” John O’C., who also entered after eighth grade: “I guess I was most influenced by one priest in my case, too. I hadn’t had much contact with religious, and this man so impressed me with his attitude and spirit that I wanted to share it. The man was an excellent representative of Franciscanism and it was such a contrast from what I had known before. The Franciscans had something that I wanted.”
Tony, who entered St. Joe’s at the college level, had a considerably different route: “I never saw a Franciscan before I came here. I had seen the spirit of religious orders and wanted it. I guess the attraction to the Franciscans came through St. Anthony’s Messenger. I was impressed with all the good works the order had done and was doing. In a sense I gambled since I knew little about Francis or Franciscanism, but the little I knew appealed to me. …Once I saw the place itself and the life lived here, I knew I made a good decision.”
John H.: “Somehow God got us here. While we’re here, we become more and more aware of the implications of the life which we’re headed for. The same is true of any situation. A couple before their marriage are not aware of a fraction of the implications of living their lives together will have, but they grow and learn together. The greater awareness that comes doesn’t negate the initial motivation, but it makes it more meaningful.” Andy concludes thusly: “Somehow, through a lot of maneuvers you’re not even fully aware of, it comes and one day you’re driving to the seminary. Then some February morning, when you’re complaining about the weather and the food and the discipline, it dawns on you that you kind of like the place.”
An intriguing window on the minds of thoughtful guys sorting out their experience of Church in 1967, just two years after Vatican II.
On My Mind