The question of why 13 and 14-year-olds would leave the comfort of kith and kin to live in a distant boarding school is a question that differs from man to man. I had the good luck, however, to finally trace down something of an official explanation. In the same year (1962) my class entered St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., a description of the life of my province was released for sale to the general public. The title is The Franciscans: Love at Work, and the authors were Franciscan Fathers Boniface Hanley and Salvator Fink. “Sal” Fink was one of the two traveling vocations directors of our province whose own residence between trips was the Callicoon seminary. From there he would come up to Buffalo very early in 1962 to interview me and see my family prior to final approval and acceptance. We would remain friends for almost thirty years, but he did not take well to my leaving the order.
If Sal were alive today, I think he would chuckle at some of what he wrote, particularly his chapter, “Future Franciscans,” (pp. 225-244) There is little doubt here that protecting us from feminine wiles was a major raison d’etre for minor seminaries. “[The seminarian] found it a strictly masculine world. No feminine frills or frippery trifled with its monastic order. Nor were there curtains, rugs, or soft chairs…But above all, it was for him a world of joy. Joined with lads sharing his interests, goals and enthusiasms, he touched here the wellsprings of youthful charity and Christ-like love. The priests of the faculty nourished his mind with their teachings and his soul with their example.”
The authors continue: “It was just for him that the seminary was founded, [the seminarian] felt…Authorities see the seminary not as a mere institution to protect a boy from worldly evil and example, but rather as a blessed opportunity of early and effective preparation for the life he wishes to lead.” [pp. 225-226] Whether every seminarian of my time perceived the experience of the seminary as an early and effective spiritual preparation is at the least a matter of some debate. As I have written on this stream earlier, at our school reunion in September 2018 several of the Aroma Hill Gang expressed openly at the group Mass and other formats what we would call today conversion experiences in Callicoon.
On the other hand, the development of an early adolescent spirituality was an elusive challenge, doubly so because at least some of us had left home with the expectation that we would find more “church devotion” for want of a better word than what we already had in our home parishes and schools. As one of my close seminary classmates wrote this week, “The other topic I’ve thought about for years is how poorly we were exposed to intimate spirituality at Callicoon. I’m not sure if our teachers lacked a sense of the true presence of God in our community or if by lack of experience didn’t have the spiritual vocabulary to invite us there. Our shared reluctance, to this day, of sharing the details of our spiritual journey intrigues me. What’s lacking? We certainly have love for each other formed by our shared experiences …. but have no apparent desire/ability to communicate what grace is doing within each of us.”
I might have worded this a little differently, but I agree in principle that development of an age-appropriate spirituality in the seminary was sorely lacking. I came from Christian Brothers’ background, and I found the Callicoon spirituality similar in the sense that in the early 1960’s the spiritual formation of young men was duty bound. Aristotle and Aquinas agreed that the soul of virtue was habit, doing good things and engaging in religious exercises over and over, for example, until the disposition [virtue] was second nature. The Christian Brothers in my middle school year would post a daily tally on the blackboard of students carrying rosaries [“the beads” as they put it] and wearing scapulars under our shirts.
The seminary was much like that except that there were more spiritual exercises throughout the day, many more, in fact. Devotion to St. Anthony, readings in the dining room, weekly confession, rosary after supper, monthly days of recollection, Sunday Compline in Latin, etc. I should probably add here that the kneelers in our chapel were wooden, without cushioning, apparently for some measure of asceticism that I guess was intended to convey a “tough it out with Christ” motif. Curiously, the one devotion that brought me any measure of personal consolation was reading a chapter of The Imitation of Christ after receiving communion, something I learned from my own initiative that was not part of my seminary training.
I can only offer mitigating circumstances as to why some of us remember the minor seminary with less than warm spiritual fuzzies. My friend-correspondent above raised the issue of seminary personnel, i.e., the example of the priests. The friars who staffed the seminary were themselves products of the same system of priestly training introduced at the Council of Trent [1545-1563], which introduced the concept of stand-alone seminaries. [Whether Trent envisioned minor seminaries is uncertain; Wikipedia writes that minor seminaries “emerged in cultures and societies where literacy was not universal, and the minor seminary was seen as a means to prepare younger boys in literacy for later entry into the major seminary.”]
To be honest, I think of my seminary professors as hard-working men—for the most part—who approached the seminary institution something the same as we came to accept, a necessary assignment for a higher good. A good parallel is an assessment of our academic program. The seminary faculty had one true scientist and one true—if eccentric—mathematician, God love him, but many of our teachers were self-taught, so to speak. I recall several as returning from arduous missionary work. The seminary staff was assigned under canonical obedience, and in candor a fair number did not want to be there. I say that without rancor, because I took a few assignments like that myself after ordination, including teaching in a Catholic high school.
There are other critical factors which each deserve a hearing, but I will summarize them here and pick them up in future posts. One of the most surprising things about the seminary for me was the poverty of the religion courses. They were mostly train wrecks. There was an attitude throughout my high school years that “you’ll get plenty of that later” and the coursework provided us was filler at best. Ironically, the one captivating academic religion course of my time there was taught in my high school senior year by a priest who himself had just completed coursework in the renewed theology of the Vatican II era which had just ended that year. Unfortunately, we had no preparation for this agenda, which I recognize today as the historical/critical method of Biblical analysis…and I got a 60 on one exam, a low water mark for someone with my career ambition.
Were seminarians of our time capable of sharing our “spiritual journeys” as my good friend asks? I checked Erik Erikson’s classic “stages of development” to see what one might expect from high schoolers: “ … development now depends primarily upon what a person does. An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in” and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.” There was a very noticeable reticence about discussing personal piety, even some subtle pressure not to go there. Erikson’s stage of “fitting in” describes the seminary to a tee. We were never at a loss to discuss sports, given that most of us played varsity or, in my case, random pick-up games of anything in season. I recall some religious discussions that were “safe” such as whether it is better to be an easy confessor or a hard confessor when we were eventually ordained years down the road. But “touchy feely” matters of the here and now were avoided, including spiritual doubts or experiences. [Later in novitiate and the major seminary we were careful not to show vulnerability lest our superiors hold up our ordinations.]
Another point worth mentioning is that the religious routine of the seminary followed a liturgical style that was being dismantled at Vatican II, in the declaration Sacrosanctum Concilium of 1963. My memory is that the Latin Tridentine Mass was still in use throughout my high school years, and a daily exposure to a 6 AM low Mass in Latin on wooden kneelers was not, shall we say, reinforcing. The Fathers of the Council recognized this in effecting an overall form of the liturgy. Vatican II would call for a communal experience of faith in the Mass, but our seminary liturgy was markedly individual and passive until my college years.
That said, it is a remarkable thing that so many of my classmates and colleagues at Callicoon went on to careers of value and service, married well, served in the military, and still carry a divine spark even outside the Roman Catholic umbrella. So, it must be assumed that with all its faults, Callicoon was a time and a place where many of us found something of our adult identities, which is the cornerstone of a personal and communal spirituality.
On My Mind