In research for my blog The Catechist Café, I came across a timely essay by an Australian Dominican friar and theologian, Father Michael Baxter, on the subject of “the priesthood of the faithful.” * The gist of his topic is the relationship of the priesthood conferred in Baptism vis-à-vis the priesthood conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The concept of a “priesthood of the faithful” was not much discussed in the years we attended Saint Joe’s, in my case at least not till our college years in the later 1960’s, even if then. In our years together we were discerning the possibility of or grinding our way toward the priesthood of Orders. Those Baptismal certificates we submitted for admission with our medical records and letters of recommendation were affidavits assuring the faculty that  we had been washed clean of original sin, and  that we were indeed Roman Catholics, since extra ecclesia nulla salus. Theophane Larkin and Myron McCormick would shudder at the thought that any St. Joe’s alumnus cannot translate that, even today.
I know that many of the Aroma Hill Gang went on to marry and raise beautiful families. By the time you were presenting your infant children for baptism, the Vatican II Catholic baptismal rite was in use and pronounced your children “priests, prophets, kings.” The idea of the Priesthood of the [lay] Faithful is now a backbone of catechetics, though as Father Baxter points out, the meaning of the term is still rather nebulous and lacking the precision of the priesthood conferred by Holy Orders. Over the time I have been posting our St. Joe’s memories, we have talked from time to time about the ratio of Callicoon student numbers to the ordination numbers of each class. The ratio is indeed small: of my starting class of 75, only a few were ultimately ordained priests—myself, Bobby O’Keefe, Larry DeCoste, Kevin Cronin, and Bob Hudak. Joe Czapla and Vinny Laviano joined later in high school and were ordained, as well as John Hogan and Dick Fleshren who entered in fifth year. Several in my ordination class joined in novitiate or in Washington, such as Jack Monsour and Eric Carpine.
[Just for the fun of it, I do need to mention that in sixth year I was the senior of one of the refectory clean-up crews; my buddy Gene Joyce had the other. I had an abundance of high school freshmen working for me who became “long haulers” including Kevin Mullen, now the Provincial of Holy Name Province; Bobby Gonzalez, now the Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Tommy Walters, who has had a distinguished city ministry in New York. Think where they would be today without me! And in 2018 at a Callicoon reunion I found myself having breakfast with another underclassman, Dennis Littlefield, who today is Father Philaret Littlefield with a long career of pastoral leadership in the Greek Melkite Rite.]
For all the young souls who passed through Sullivan County on the way to St. Joe’s, though, very few were ordained to the Church’s institutional priesthood—and in cases like mine, even a fair number of the ordained did not remain in the active ministry. [I was laicized and married in the Church in 1998.] Having spent twelve years in formation—six in Callicoon—I have wondered how to process those years when I worked toward a goal that ultimately, I was not suited for. I am hardly alone in that regard, as a good number of young men invested years into the seminary process, “long haulers” or not. There is much to be grateful for in the experience however long it was. We ate well, received private school education and board at a bargain price, made long time friends, received exposure to religious practices in the distinguished Franciscan tradition and probably, in unique ways, experienced the opportunity to assess ourselves and make decisions about faith and life appropriate to our ages. I do agree with those who have posted on the St. Joe’s site that career guidance and religious discernment was not uniformly attended to in Callicoon.
The seminary experience did not come without cost. One of the most significant sacrifices was uprooting. We left home, family, friends, and neighborhoods. [In my own case, my family moved to another town on the day before I entered Callicoon in 1962.] During my sophomore year my youngest brother was born, and as a long hauler who was assigned to Florida’s southern missions soon after ordination, I was no longer an active player in my family interactions, a factor that is noticeably clear to me today in my 70’s. There were other challenges to be sure: bullying was certainly not unheard of in Callicoon, and no one would deny that the life was regimented to a degree that probably chafed everybody at some point or other. I chuckle as I look back on 1968 when I asked the prefect on duty for an adjustment in our Sunday schedule so we could watch Superbowl II. I was informed, curtly, that “the seminary schedule would not be held hostage to the NBC Sports Department.” Unfortunately, Father Brennan was away that weekend.
From my private conversations and the public posts with St. Joe’s alums I have never heard anyone say that they outright wasted their years in Callicoon. Some speak of their time with greater enthusiasm than others, and it is no secret that I was not the happiest camper in the settlement, due to a restlessness that remained my cross to bear for many years after. I gained over 50 pounds in my freshman year. On the other hand, I have talked with guys who were broken-hearted to leave when released by the faculty. As I get older and reflect upon the course of my life in a spiritual vein, I do attempt to integrate my formation years into the mix, and when I filed my laicization papers with the Vatican in 1998, I was asked to describe those formation years in considerable detail. Interestingly, the Vatican assessment took only three months to render a judgment [usually the process is several years], and I was granted the laicization on the grounds of deficiencies in my formation, primarily in the later years of the process in novitiate and in Washington, and the fact that I was a square peg in a round clerical hole.
Curiously, this ecclesiastical analysis highlights one of the few pivotal decisions of the Callicoon years for me, or more correctly, a decision I fought and dodged. I had the opportunity to discuss at great length my Callicoon years with a psychotherapist when I left the active priestly ministry in the mid-1990’s. I still have the autobiography I wrote for my therapist, Lois, in 1992, and I narrated for her in considerable detail the controversy surrounding my Callicoon class in the 1967-68 academic year. That was the year of the institution of the “Siena Program” when my class was told we would be finishing our college years at Siena instead of proceeding to Novitiate in 1968. After several weeks of angry lobbying, my class was assured that we would be going to Novitiate in the summer of 1968, the original plan we had lived with for years. In 1992 I wondered on paper how my life would have been different had I gone to a regular college, chosen my major, dated, and the like. Would I have gone on to priesthood? I never much reflected on the positives of the Siena plan at the time it was proposed, as I was too busy complaining about the unfairness of having put in six years at Callicoon only to postpone novitiate and the taking of the habit.
As it turned out, the Siena option was probably the healthier one, in that at least we might have had better life experience to undertake vows and orders later in the formative process. Later, as an ordained friar, I served briefly on the formation team at Siena, and I can say that the candidates were processing many developmental issues that were postponed in my development. But as Dandy Don Meredith used to say on Monday Night Football, “If all our ifs and buts were candy and nuts, what a Merry Christmas we would have.”
It is with this history that I read this month Father Baxter’s essay on the term “priesthood of the faithful” vis-à-vis the “priesthood of ordination.” Is seminary experience a “detour of life” if one does not progress to the reception of Holy Orders, lost years in multiple senses of the term? In our hearts we have long known that this is probably not true; the years devoted to St. Joe’s, or any other seminary have been profitable even if they induced tough decisions and arduous discernments in our growth. But I have long sought a kind of theological lingo for the seminary experience, which Father Baxter has generously provided.
The author begins from the reality of Baptism, that sacrament we all share. As I indicated at the beginning, the understanding of Baptism in, say, 1962, was limited and judicial. Baptism was said to wash away original sin and legally incorporate one into the Roman Catholic Church. The old law that “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation” or extra ecclesia nulla salus was still on the books until the last decade of our seminary’s existence. Thankfully, in the 1960’s Vatican II restored pastoral emphasis to the Biblical concept of Baptism, the vivid description of St. Paul that we are “born again” and designated as new persons in Christ, a “royal priesthood” as 1 Peter 2:9 puts it. It does not matter that we do not recall the moment of our infant baptisms, for our parents and our local church made the profession of faith in our name until we could grasp and own the desire in our consciousness, a process that we continue for ourselves to this day. Nor does it matter that the idea of a baptismal priesthood was not in our consciousness or dimly grasped in our formative years in school, though the concept that all our sacrifices and good works in Callicoon were constitutive of a baptismal priesthood might have been a helpful insight in making sense of the seminary lifestyle.
The Council also taught that Baptism is the true universal sacrament of Christ. Even in Callicoon days, the Church taught that anyone could baptize in an emergency so long as the Trinitarian formula—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—was used and water poured. [This is still the case.] The Council correctly recognized, too, that churches not in full communion with Rome celebrate the same true saving Baptism as Catholics do, and that ministers of these churches exercise a true ministerial office of preaching the Gospel. During the 1967-68 academic year in Callicoon, several ministers from Sullivan County were invited up the hill to explain their traditions to the student body; I remember well that the Pentecostal minister was a woman. I mention this aspect of baptism because several of my classmates answered calls to minister in other Christian traditions; it is a surprising fact, though unknown at the time, that Callicoon was subtly exercising preparation for a broader definition of church, the universal body of Christ, the reality of Ecumenism.
It is also true that many of my classmates and other St. Joe’s friends have sought the solace and purpose of their lives in Christian churches other than the Roman Catholic communion. I know of old friends who are Quakers and Episcopalians, high church and low church. And there are a good number seeking communion with God outside of “structured religion.” Solid research from PEW Research indicates that less than 50% of Americans identify with any structured church. That a good number of my confreres would fall into this cohort would not be surprising, particularly given that idealistic persons would likely be alienated by the imperfections of church life. I understand the need to unplug, so to speak. Thomas Merton once wrote that there is a great temptation of many thoughtful people to go into the woods and build one’s own chapel. [Merton, incidentally, lived his later years in a hermitage on the grounds of his Kentucky monastery.] I remain a practicing Catholic today, but the stress in the Church at large does make “the chapel in the woods” awfully tempting; if you see my car outside the Home Depot construction pickup dock…
But the fact remains that we all took the baptismal bath and have gone about working at an inner priesthood that manifests itself in myriad ways over the past half century. To that priesthood, I lift my glass and give thanks. In mysterious ways St. Joe’s delivered something for everyone.
* Ecclesiology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium (Theology at the Beginning of the Third Millennium): Wagner, Kevin, Naumann, M. Isabell, McGregor, Peter John: 9781532665332: Amazon.com: Books