His seminary life tracks with a typical St. Joe’s lifer; he was one year ahead of me as I entered the Callicoon seminary in 1962 and graduated in 1968. We both attended “minor” seminaries, schools for young boys who had completed the eighth grade and believed they had a vocation or calling to the priesthood. Both Sheley and I attended boarding school minor seminaries, leaving home to live in a tightly controlled facility. For readers who were not seminarians, a typical boarding school seminary of the time included four years of high school and two years of college. After the sixth year, a seminarian progressed to a “major seminary” to complete college and graduate studies for ordination to the priesthood. The completion of the minor seminary years was also an opportune time to leave priestly study and assume another career venture altogether, as many did. Sheley departed the seminary at this juncture. I continued all twelve years through ordination in 1974 but left the active ministry in 1994 and was laicized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 to marry.
I have to say that this is an exceptionally informative book. It checks a lot of boxes. Sheley does his best to engage the general reading public and the seminarians of that era. He provides a history of minor seminaries, their raison d’etre dating back to the Council of Trent [1545-1563], and particularly the boom in seminary construction and admissions after World War II, a boom that crashed to a halt in the late 1960’s. He interviews dozens of former seminarians from across the United States. He draws on many books and clinical studies about seminarians; I had no idea that the research was this broad, or that it is continuing at this late date. My minor seminary closed 50 years ago and there are next to no boarding school seminaries currently operating in the United States, which makes the continuing interest in the minor seminary era even more surprising.
A substantial number of seminarians of my era are still working to make sense of their years of youthful, formalized training for the priesthood. I suspect that one reason for continuing interest in the structure of earlier seminaries and student experiences by researchers may be related to the revelations of clerical abuse that became known at the turn of this century. The question of predatory clerical sexual assaults on minors involves seminaries in two ways. First, there is the question of whether and how many seminarians may have been victims of sexual abuse by priests and religious brothers in the confines of a typical 1960’s seminary. Idealistic teenagers living away from their families in secluded locations in a life of systematic obedience certainly constitute a “vulnerable population.” On the other hand, did the isolation and indoctrination style of a post-World War II seminary produce graduates with significant psychological immaturity, to the degree that some of its products would engage in pathological behaviors as priests?
Sheley examines the question at length in Chapter 9, “Betrayal” [pp. 207-233]. Even a few years ago I was inclined to think that my own seminary had been generally immune to this problem, in part because the hothouse environment of a secluded minor seminary fostered endless gossip, and it has been hard for me to imagine that a predatory friar could operate with impunity or exposure in my time there [or that I didn’t hear about it in six years there.] But several months ago , my province released its list of friars “with substantiated allegations” of abuse of minors. The names include two friars of my minor seminary during my time there, one from my major seminary while I was there, and the friar who recruited me to the Franciscan Order in the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the list includes only names; unlike most dioceses, my province did not release the career assignments of these friars, so whether these reports of abuse in my province involved my seminary or in other institutions of my province is not publicly known.
Moreover, I am not certain that my province’s list is complete. I was recently stunned to discover that a student friar several years behind me in our major seminary published an account of a sexual assault he suffered at the hands of his spiritual director. This account appeared in the June 17, 2004, edition of Commonweal, a Catholic publication. [Subscription may be required for access.] The author/victim did complete his studies for ordination, and eventually succeeded me as chaplain at one of our province’s colleges. I suppose I have lived most of my life with a certain naivete about what might or might not have happened during my seminary years. Reading the author’s compilation of research, court records, and personal interviews, my take is that abuse in seminaries ran from the occasional misfit perpetrator to institutional corruption of the sort that has made national news, such as St. Lawrence Capuchin Seminary in Wisconsin and St. Anthony Franciscan Seminary in California [pp. 213-215]. I suspect outright sexual abuse was rare in my minor seminary, but even one is too many.
If the boarding school seminary of the post-World War II era is simply another extinct trinket of a long-lost past, consider the surprising popularity of this book and the substantial number of favorable reviews written by readers [54 at last count]. Many of the reviews run something like this one:
“Fifty years after graduating from high school at a Catholic minor seminary, Joseph Sheley's book Preordained helped me understand for myself why I went, why I stayed, and why I left. More importantly, this book helped me understand how that four-year high school experience shaped the family life and career that followed. As I read and re-read "Preordained" the research and observations were so relevant that I felt as though I had been interviewed by the author myself. The book challenges those who shared that experience to take that "box of memories" from the back of the top shelf of our mental closet, examine it, and most importantly discuss it with others. The book has been life changing for me. I hope it is for you as well.” [Amazon purchaser review]
Sheley, who like me is in his mid-70’s, is still sorting out the meaning of his six years of seminary life, to the degree that he devoted considerable time in his seniority to research a 400-page work that will probably enjoy a long shelf life. The author is not a bitter man, and this is not an accusatory book. The author’s style is reflective, with a need to address again the motivations that led to his spending his entire adolescence in a structured setting away from his family, his local church, and his youthful domestic support system. As a contemporary, I too find myself reflecting backward as part of my spiritual autobiography, a journey that always reveals surprises, new insights, and grace.
A brief overview of Sheley’s work will point us in the direction of the next Aroma Hill posts.
First, what was the Church’s intention in creating the minor seminary structure?
Second, what was the role of parents and facilitators such as teachers, pastors, etc. in the journey to the minor seminary?
Third, what were we like? What did we hope to accomplish?
Fourth, what were the common experiences of seminarians of that era?
How did minor seminary life impact the life experiences of major seminary students, particularly in the late 1960’s-1970’s era that the John Jay Study referred to as “the Woodstock experience?”
Finally, why did minor seminaries die out, and would it be wise to revive them today?
This will be an ongoing series of posts. If you would like to submit materials or experiences anonymously, you can reach me at email@example.com. Confidentiality will be respected.