It was 56 years ago this Christmas that I was starting to get my stomach in a knot with the reality that a few days after New Year’s Day I would be riding the Erie Lackawanna Railroad back to my new permanent home in the Catskill Mountains, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, “Aroma Hill.” Many years later, as a psychotherapist, I would hear adult school teachers relay the same kinds of symptoms starting in late July every summer as they anticipated a return to the classroom, which quite literally filled them with dread. As a psychotherapist I would sit back and ask with enough naivete, “So why don’t you try another setting or another line of work?” Just as you might ask why a 14-year-old goes back to a seminary and a lifestyle he was very unhappy with.
One piece of mail to the Cafe recently came from a thoughtful man who was about six years my junior in Callicoon. He said that when his own son turned 14, he had to wonder what in the world had possessed his parents to send him off to boarding school at that age. It is a very good question, not simply for us old timers trying to make sense of our life narrative, but as a slice of recent church history that gives insight to our catechetical ventures today. How many times do we ask today “how can we reach the young?” The minor seminary—particularly the isolated minor seminary—was a special piece of the catechetical pie for well over a hundred years till the radical shifts in practice after Vatican II, as well as dwindling applications and resources, led to an almost total disappearance of “minor” or high school seminaries in the 1970’s.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the summit or precious jewel of the Catholic educational process was the development of vocations to the priesthood (and for women to cloistered monasteries or open parochial education and health care ventures.) I was born in 1948, making me a “boomer” at a time when returning GI’s were attending college paid for by their veterans’ benefits. The Catholic demographic in the United States was thriving. Catholic families tended to be larger because the predominant confessional morality of the time followed the lead of Pope Pius XI and his insistence in 1930 that artificial birth control was mortally sinful.
The need for Catholic priests and religious throughout my youth swelled. Parish life, with regular confessions (every two weeks in my household and probably close to the norm), marriages, and particularly schools, devoured every able-bodied cleric and religious who could report for duty. I have read that the goal of some of the metropolitan archbishops was an annual ordination class of 100! At one point after World War II the diocese of Buffalo, according to a retired priest I met on retreat last month, contained 700 incardinated priests and another 700 religious order priests. I have seen recruiting correspondence from around 1949 from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to religious sisters in Ireland, with data that Los Angeles was opening a new parish every 90 days.
It is interesting, though, that many future priests chose not to seek training and career in their home dioceses, but rather with religious orders. There are multiple reasons, not least of which was the influence of the many Catholic colleges that were established or expanded after the war by religious orders for veterans attending night school. (The Franciscan-established Siena College, my first ordained assignment in the 1970’s, was forced to erect Quonset huts after WWII for classroom and operational space.)
Another factor was the variety of spiritual and vocational paths available to a man seeking the priesthood. Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain” was published in 1949 and influenced a good number of men (and women) to entertain thoughts of a vocation to the simple, contemplative life of monks dating to St. Benedict. The writings of the lay medical missionary Dr. Tom Dooley, notably his “Deliver Us From Evil” (1959), sparked interest in clerical and lay interests alike to combine humanitarian and religious purpose in ministry to third world sites. Religious orders varied in their devotional emphases, lifestyles, and career priorities. The Sulpicians, for example, devoted themselves to seminary teaching, spiritual direction, and scholarship. The Jesuit pursuit of academic excellence is well known, and several orders and communities were the product of devotion to Mary.
This, then, was the atmosphere of the 1950’s Church in the U.S. when the 1962 edition of the Hill Gang began to discern high school and vocational choices. I doubt that any of us were consciously aware of the influences that shaped our—and especially our parents’—choices, but this does not mean there was no critical assessment of choices. Pastors, as a rule, were not overly fond to see young men opt for a religious community over the diocese’s own seminary. Parents, I noticed, did not always think a secluded seminary atmosphere was a good idea for 14-year-olds and preferred that their sons have some “real world” experience and maturity before signing any dotted lines.
Even my own mother, whose life’s ambition was to see her oldest son ordained a priest, also showed some discretion in her decision-making process. From about the time I was four the master plan for me was to attend a day school/high school minor seminary for the Diocese of Buffalo that, coincidentally, was located all of six blocks from my home. (For Buffalo readers, this was the “Little Seminary” on Dodge Street on Buffalo’s east side; we know now in 2018 that the clerical abuse problem did not leave “the Little Seminary” unscathed.) The idea of going somewhere else did not appear on the family radar until rather late in the game.
My mother was in the custom of making an annual retreat, and somewhere around 1960 she mentioned to a Franciscan retreat master that she had a son planning to enter the seminary in Buffalo. This friar turned out to be a good salesman, because the next evening I had an interview with him. From what I can recall, the “pitch” to me was that being a Franciscan priest was better than being a diocesan priest because “you can do any kind of work you want.” However, I think he was more analytical in discussing the matter with my mother, and by the lights of the day he raised some good issues for a parent, pointing out the community life of the Franciscans was a more wholesome lifestyle than the isolation of diocesan life and that I would be well cared for in my old age. In my mother’s youth, her pastor had wandered the street in his pajamas, fenced in the rectory, and raised a herd of deer in the middle of Buffalo. No Lyme Disease for this boy.
Somewhere in all this the issue of living away from home must have been brought up, because my mother began to extol the virtues and advantages of boarding school life with all the enthusiasm of someone who did not have to go herself. She had heard “horror stories” of the sort that the Little Seminary was very hard, and that the boys had so much homework that they were exhausted all the time. Closer to the truth was the deterioration of Buffalo’s East Side; this was the time of “white flight” and, to recoup some of their investment, and to protect me from street assaults, my parents sold our Buffalo house and moved about 15 miles out of the city. And I would be safe up on Aroma Hill.
Today, when kids say, “It’s complicated,” I can resonate.