"Preordained: Boys As 'Future Priests' During Catholicism's Minor Seminary Boom and Bust"--Part 2
I went back and reread significant portions of Preordained to continue the discussion here, and I found on second reading some significant considerations I had glossed over the first time around. One of the author’s important contributions is insight into when and how the decision to enter a minor seminary at age 13-14 was made. To arrive at some answers, Sheley divides young seminary candidates into three clusters:  the anointed boys;  parental offerings; and  runaways.
“The anointed boys” [pp. 102-110] refers to a young man who expresses an interest in the priesthood at an early age and who becomes something of a community project. In my own case, I remember wanting to be a priest at age four [though my profile better fits the “parental offering” category.] Once a boy announces his interest, his Catholic community congeals around him to make this happen. Parish priests, the Catholic school, neighbors, and extended family identify the boy as chosen or “anointed,” and as several of Sheley’s interviewees admitted, a lot of doors open in the elementary school life of a boy slated for the seminary. The intensity of Catholic identity in the 1950’s and 1960’s is probably foreign to the world of the 2020’s, though even now, when a member of my parish goes off to the major seminary, there is still corporate pride among some parishioners, and a touch of sadness if he leaves priestly study.
Creeping adolescence was an issue, however. “The only bump in the journey forward came in the seventh and eighth grades as young adolescents began to have parties and to pair off in early romances. It was then that the seminary-bound boy felt distanced a bit from the social scene because ‘he was going to be a priest.’” [p. 106] I can recall very clearly in the springtime of 1961, my seventh grade, when my classmate of all those years, Margaret, suddenly turned into a woman and my hormones went into high gear. And, as it turned out, the girl’s mother asked me over to their home on weekday evenings so I could help Margaret with her math. Oh, I was extremely glad to help. My mother was very angry about this, and I regret that what was a memorable part of my growing up was tainted by tension at home.
I should interject here that my infatuation with Margaret [and other girls when she moved to the suburbs] did not give me pause to reflect upon what I was giving up becoming a priest by moving to Callicoon. I developed a narrative in my head that the seminary and the priesthood would be such an all-consuming and exhilarating life that the absence of feminine companionship and intimacy would not become a longing that I could not ignore. This mental construct did nor dissolve after entrance into the seminary; it endured till well after ordination and was not seriously confronted until I was well into my 30’s and 40’s.
Parental offerings. [pp. 111-119] “Parental offerings were boys or young men who were deliberately steered toward the priesthood by one of their parents, usually the mother.” [p. 111] I think that if Sheley writes a second edition of this book, he will merge “anointed boys” with “parental offerings,” because if seminary intentions won kudos for a boy, they raised the status of his mother to the envy of most every other woman in the parish. “The mother of a priest syndrome” probably deserves a place in the psychiatric bible, the DSM-V. The image appeared in so much religious and fictional literature that I am surprised more professional literature has not addressed the dynamic of mother and son-priest.
Mothers of seminarians and priests were the biggest lay victims of clericalism during my lifetime, because they bought so heavily into the mystique of holy orders that they could not objectively look at the major adult challenges of priesthood down the road. For example, my mother was sold on the idea of my going to Callicoon by a retreat master she met in Buffalo. [He later appeared on the list of substantively accused perpetrators of child abuse in Holy Name Province.] What he told me mother back in 1960 would make any parent give the order and the seminary a closer look. He said that if I joined the Franciscans, I would never go into old age alone, but with a community of fun-loving guys. The irony, of course, is that our senior friars today are dying in a network of private nursing homes as our infirmaries are closing. But I must respect my mom for thinking so far ahead.
There are no minor seminaries today, though some would like to restore them. And parents of my acquaintance today have more caution about the trials of the priestly ministry—the abuse crisis has taken some of the glitter off the rose—and the passion for grandparenting seems much higher than in my youth. But in the 1950’s the devotional language that surrounded the priesthood was unbounded, and the spiritually exalted role of the mother was a very heady wine. [For a flavor of this 1950’s maternal/priestly connection, see here.] When I was in middle school I went out for baseball and tried out as a catcher, and my mother was upset that I might damage my “priestly fingers.” [In seminary, our priest-baseball coach never harbored such worries; he dropped me during tryouts—five years running--for the simple reason that I was lousy at it.] When mumps ran through my neighborhood when I was about eleven, I complained that I would hate to contract the infection. My mother replied, “Would you prefer to get the mumps on the day before your ordination?” A mother’s preoccupation with her son’s ordination could well exceed her son’s.
Interestingly, Sheley suggests that fathers were more reserved about the seminary decision [pp. 114-119]. He believes that Catholic men had a better eye for the weaknesses of the priests they knew, such as alcoholism. In a typical family, married men knew their priests through parish societies, sports, the Knights of Columbus, the Holy Name Society, etc. and were not on the same enthusiasm bandwagon as their wives. In the next post in this stream, I will look more closely at the relationship of the boarding school seminarian to his family, a subject which is complex. Sheley describes the stresses of seminarians leaving the minor seminary. Again, I will return to these in later discussions, but if I had to guess, the pressure of disappointing mom [or on occasion, dad] increased significantly with the length of time in the seminary. That said, the family dynamic was significantly altered in many cases whether a seminarian left the seminary or persevered.
Curiously, this was an issue we did not discuss among ourselves as seminarians at St. Joe’s. Sheley observes that most of us of high school age perceived our seminary tenures as our own choice and could not have recognized the power imbalance in our parental relationships, and to a bigger degree than I realized, with siblings. Teenagers know everything: that has not changed from the 1950’s to the 2020’s.
Runaways. “Many of the boys and young men with whom I attended the seminary were running away from something bigger than they could handle. Often it was conflict within the family, even physical threat. Sometimes, it was a sense of drift, perhaps of hitting a wall, the feeling of having no appealing options in life…” [p. 119] Sheley’s term “Runaway” is a bit confusing and restraining. For one thing, it was common advice of the day that if a young boy were on the fence about a vocation, he could use the seminary to try out the life. He was not drifting; he was experimenting. For another, it was always my understanding in my younger years that a screening process took stock of a candidate’s family circumstances—through a home visit, recommendation of pastor, and review of school grades. How thorough this vetting was is anyone’s guess, as well as how it was weighed by the admissions board. Anyone of my era will remember the dean of recruitment, Father Salvator “Doc” Fink, who in later years would regale us with hilarious tales from his home visits and descriptions of characters he weeded from the application files.
Several of my friends have shared with me their sentiments that unhappy home life made the seminary a better alternative. Since I began blogging on this theme several years ago, a few have confided that they were victims of abuse before they entered the seminary. [I have been told of abuse that occurred in the seminary, too, which I will address in a later post on the author’s discussion of that subject in seminaries. [See Sheley, pp. 185-233] I do believe that there were other factors that brought us to the seminary that the author may have overlooked.
In my major seminary school years in Washington, D.C., [1969-1974] I got to know several Capuchin Franciscans with whom I attended classes. The Capuchin minor seminary bore some similarities to St. Joe’s. Like Aroma Hill, St. Fidelis was in a rural setting, distant from Pittsburgh, PA, as we were from New York City. My Cap friends observed that their seminary was the only Catholic high school for miles around, the only private school, for that matter. [St. Fidelis was located about fifteen miles from my father’s homestead in Butler County, PA, and one of my uncles attended briefly.] They contended that the economics and the quality education was a significant attraction for some families in the region. Their view makes sense, and it would not have been an abuse of the system if a Catholic family had enlisted a son into a minor seminary; my own friars were then operating two private high schools in Buffalo and Olean, NY.
The tuition at St. Joe’s was set at $430/year; my parents paid $43/month over the ten-month school year. [The college rate was $530/year; for New York Staters like me the Board of Regents paid all but $30 of our college tuition.] Comparing the Callicoon tuition rate to a local Catholic high school is an apples and oranges comparison; the seminary rate included room and board. We were required to keep about $20 on deposit with the school store, primarily for Rite Guard spray deodorant and Vicks-44 Super D with codeine. and paying the ladies in town to do our laundry. As I was the oldest in my family, I think my parents came to appreciate just what a bargain the St. Joe’s package really was when my siblings passed into adolescence.
One question has haunted me even back to my first year in Callicoon. I had classmates who clearly did not want to be there and who acted out their discontent in troublesome and aggressive ways. In some ways the openly unhappy students were one of my biggest headaches in my early years at St. Joe’s, because much of the dysfunctional behavior was directed toward other students who were trying to maintain academic achievement, follow the rules, or were simply “unconventional”—artistic, eccentric, ethnic, etc. Sheley comments on something I perceived as well—these troubled students generally lasted two years at most. Such was the tale of Tom Cruise. [p. 174] I can remember returning to St. Joe’s in the fall of 1964, entering third year, with a comforting sense that all the disruptive members of my class had left or been asked to leave, and that socially I could truly relax with my peers for the first time.
Looking back, I have wondered over the years if some candidates were referred to Callicoon from the feeder Franciscan institutions—parishes, in particular [i.e., the “Jersey Parishes”] and our high schools—as reclamation projects. In my years as a priest, I lived with Ligouri Mueller at Siena College for four years; I wish that I had asked him more questions about the behind-the-scenes operations of the seminary in the years he was rector. [He certainly shared his opinions with me about the faculty.] But there were more than a few of my classmates who made me scratch my head, as in “exactly why are you here?” When I obtained my master’s degree in counseling in the 1980’s, I did come to understand that disruptive and aggressive behavior in adolescents can be a symptom of depression. Unfortunately, neither the Church nor the mental health community possessed more insight into adolescent development and spirituality in the 1960’s.
This entire post has addressed the influences that encouraged boys of my generation to enter the seminary. I have yet to consider the mindsets that we ourselves brought into play; what was our “agency,” given the cards we were dealt? I can only speak for myself, of course. I do not remember any conversations with classmates like “why did you decide to be a priest?” or “why did you pick St. Joe’s?” So much of Catholic life in that era was built upon assumptions that few people, particularly teenagers, ever parsed to any great depth except to say “well, it would be cool to go to the missions.” But it is safe to say that everyone who went into a minor seminary did so for his own set of reasons, and even the best set of theories does not do justice to the subjective experiences of all involved.
There are several more posts on Sheley’s book to follow. I would say that the best autobiographical treatment of a six-year seminary stint may be Seminary: A Search  by Paul Hendrickson; I admit I did not write one of my better reviews for Hendrickson’s book on Amazon a few years ago [it is dated], but Hendrickson’s first-person experience is an informative read to accompany the Sheley text.
I should add a postscript. My first love of my life was a classmate named Margaret back in 1961. In 1989 I first met another Margaret, and we are coming up on our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. I always tell my wife that my first and my last loves are both named Margaret.
The Boys of Aroma Hill