This is a crossover post, appearing in both the Morality Stream and The Boys from Aroma Hill Seminary Stream of the Catechist Café.
I vividly remember my first confession at Callicoon. I had arrived on a Saturday [September 8, 1962] as a high school freshman, and I found the regimentation very difficult. I was homesick and feeling out of place as the lifestyle, atmosphere, and routine were becoming clearer to me. After several days of a variety of orientations we were to begin school on Wednesday, and I had sincere hopes that after the academic routine took over, the seminary experience might make more sense to me.
On the Tuesday night before classes started, as I was coming out of the refectory after dinner, I got flagged by the assistant prefect of discipline, Father Cyprian Burke. He asked me my name, and then he said: “I was watching you eat. Your table manners are poor. You swallowed an entire tomato slice without cutting it. You need to improve your manners. I’ll be looking for an improvement, Thomas.” Then he dismissed me. This was the proverbial last straw of my initial St. Joe’s introduction. Four days and I had already messed up. I was learning a lot about the word “discouragement.”
In that evening gloom I wandered thoughtlessly down the long corridor to the chapel, where I discovered that Tuesday night confessions were taking place. [There were eight regularly assigned confessors—four on Tuesday night, four on Thursday night.] The first names of the friar confessors were posted on the confessional doors. To my surprise, I saw that Father Cyprian was one of the confessors. Aha! Here was a chance to make peace with the assistant prefect and assure him that I could obey the rules. So, I entered the box and confessed that I had been neglectful in my dining habits and that I would always cut my tomatoes like a gentleman, and that I thanked him for his corrective intervention.
Just as I was wrapping up my first St. Joe’s confession, I realized that I was not confessing to Father Cyprian Burke, the assistant prefect of discipline, but rather, I was confessing to Father Cyprian Lynch, the professor of history and civics. My distant recollection is that Father Cyprian Lynch took this odd confession in stride, told me to keep trying, and gave me absolution. As it turned out, I continued going to Father Cyprian Lynch throughout my high school years. I cannot remember how often we were required to go to confession, to tell the truth. It was either weekly or biweekly. [There was, of course, no way for the faculty to really know how often we seminarians went to confession, given the seal of the confessional.] I went to confession partly out of duty and partly out of the belief that the sacrament must be doing some good in an invisible way. I was generally faithful about going to confession at least every two weeks. Unfortunately, I cannot remember any advice that was proffered in those four years, or indeed, if any was proffered at all. And this is no reflection on the goodness of Father Cyprian, whom I later enjoyed as a history teacher and fellow priest-friar down the road.
We had Mass every morning at 6 AM, and during that Mass the seminary’s spiritual director, Father Eric Kyle—or occasionally a substitute—always entered the confessional and remained there until the distribution of communion. One morning, in a rare gush of devotion, I decided to confess during the Mass, and as it happened to Father Roman Pfeiffer, who was substituting for Father Eric. I served up my routine and shopworn list of venial offenses, and when I finished Father Roman gave me a scolding. “Don’t you know this time is reserved for emergencies?” I accepted the admonition though I was puzzled about what constituted “an emergency.”
I swear, I was well past 50 years old, a catechetical instructor for my diocese, thinking about old Roman Pfeiffer, and one day I slapped myself on the side of the head and exclaimed, “So that’s why there was always a confessor available every morning!” Since the Middle Ages—and up to the present day in the Catechism of the Catholic Church--official Church teaching holds that any violation of the sixth commandment is grave matter, i.e., mortally sinful. Cardinal McElroy of San Diego touched off a firestorm in recent weeks when he observed in the public media that the sixth and ninth commandments, which deal with sexuality, are the only commandments of the entire ten in which every offense is mortal. No venial sins where sex is concerned. All the other commandments break down into either grave [mortal] or venial matter. McElroy wondered aloud why this is, and whether the Church needs to revisit its official moral reasoning on human sexuality.
Of course, now having discovered that [e=mc2] and better understanding the sacramental rules of the game in our day—and, I guess, still today on the books--my mind rolled on to some curious subsets about life on the Hill. I thought about our library. In my early years at St. Joe’s Father Pascal Marie, our French teacher, was also the librarian. He exercised prudery like an art form, to the degree that he cut out of Time and Newsweek any photo of a woman except Eleanor Roosevelt, and you never knew when she might disappear, too. You might be reading a serious article about the Federal Reserve and discover that the critical 25% of the essay had been excised because a photo of John Profumo’s mistress, Christine Keeler, was printed on the reverse side. Which is why I never understood the extraordinarily long shelf life of a library book called The 87th Precinct.
There are over fifty books in this series of police novels about a New York City detective Steve Carella and his deaf-mute wife, Teddy. [There was a brief TV series based on the characters, too.] But there was a considerable number of us who were, at the least, aware that one volume of the Naked City series had somehow gotten into the stacks alongside of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Pop Warner’s Football for Boys. It got to a point where page 157 became notorious for what the old morality manuals would have called ‘salacious” and “lascivious” subject matter. Not that you had to search much—if you stood the book on its spine, it opened to that page instantly. I don’t recall that anyone ever signed the book out of the library. It had unofficial “reference book” status among freshmen and sophomores.
For all of that, there wasn’t much of a black market for naughty pictures or other “grave matter” in my minor seminary experience. Possession of such material would have been cause for immediate seminary expulsion, let alone an eternity in hell. One of my best friends today used to get the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated [How? Our mail was censored!] and show it off to anyone who would give him an extra dessert at supper. I do recall in my junior or senior year of high school an episode where a new high school freshman brought a trunk full of hard core “literature.” Ironically, I was assigned to meet him and his family, give them the tour of the seminary campus, and carry his trunk to the storage room with no idea of its contents. At some point that year his armory of pulp magazines was discovered, and he was quickly dispatched. When I heard about it from a friend I asked, “Did they dust the trunk for prints?”
We were not saints in the seminary, by any measure. There was bullying, physical assault, cheating, and vicious reputation destruction in which I had varying degrees of guilt over my six years there. I can also safely say that there was depression, anxiety, family stress, loneliness, grief, low self-esteem, academic frustration, gender confusion, and vocational searching among many of us. [I gained fifty pounds during my freshman year.] Of course, I can only vouch for my own experience in the confessional back then, but my understanding of the Sacrament of Penance in my years at St. Joe’s precluded any consideration that the things truly troubling me might be matters for the box, and evidently none of my confessors back then were conditioned to think spontaneously or preemptively in those terms, either. This is sad, considering the amount of time we invested on Tuesday and Thursday nights which led, in my case at any rate, to a diminishment of confidence in the sacramental confession as a vehicle of growth for many years.
In reviewing Maria Morrow’s Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975 [published, 2016] I have a better understanding that seminarians of our time, the 1960’s, might not have been different from the general Catholic public in finding its spiritual/personal needs unmet in this sacrament. As an ordained priest I worked very hard at the Sacrament of Penance—to invite individuals to unburden themselves of their troubles, and to embrace new types of spirituality and behavior, i.e., to help them grow. Some penitents, I discovered, were creatures of routine and did not express much energy in breaking the mold. I had obtained a master’s degree in counseling, and in one instance I had a weekly penitent who confessed a compulsive sexual act at every confession. The sin was troubling, to the point that the individual wept every week during the confession. Finally, I offered this thought: “Perhaps the sin has a clinical compulsive base. [OCD] You know, I have read in my journals that tricyclic antidepressants can be very helpful in reducing the stress you are attempting to relieve in your behavior.” The penitent fired back: “I don’t come here for psychological bullshit.” Which leaves the question—why was this individual coming each week? Was the absolution part of the pathology?
In Morrow’s book she quotes a parish priest: “Quite often adult Catholics prepare for confession with the same examination of conscience they used as children, with the one exception of their expanded appreciation of the sixth commandment. As a result, their self-knowledge is often little more than preadolescent. The rarity with which sins of racial injustice are confessed and the almost utter oblivion of Catholics to their unchristian lack of involvement with the needs and problems of their environment point to a deficiency in their appreciation of sin and those responsibilities that go beyond the commandments. These are problems that obviously the mere frequency of penance will not solve. Indeed, habitual mechanical confessions serve only to perpetuate them.” [p. 223]
Even my father, a devout Catholic who confessed every two weeks, admitted that “I don’t get much from confession.” My mother, who made him go frequently, wasn’t too happy to hear that, and I thought it wise not to tell them that I agreed with my old man and that I only went to confession when I was able to confess to a skilled spiritual master of the sacrament, such as on retreat or visiting a religious house or friary. Morrow researched church documents from the 1950’s and discovered that Pope Pius XII felt compelled to admonish priest confessors for their complaints about having to hear routine or repetitious confessions where there was no evident change or growth taking place in the sacramental encounter. The priests, evidently, were as burned out as the penitents! If one thing becomes clear, it is that Penance as a sacrament needed a rethinking and a reform. What happened after the Council was that the format was changed but the philosophy did not.
“A change in philosophy” would include a return to the earliest roots of confession where the goal of the sacrament was growth in virtue, not the periodic juridical expulsion of evil. The ideal confessor would become a spiritual director, cognizant of such factors as human development. Teenagers in my day, and teenagers today need the subtle openness of wise adults to journey with them as they pass from childhood to adulthood, to cite one example. I believe there is hunger for this kind of sacramental approach today. I could have used that help sixty years ago. In the present day there are many laity and clergy seeking to develop their spirituality in self-study groups, personal spiritual direction, spiritual reading, and retreats. My own diocese is seeking to train new lay spiritual directors precisely because of a demand for such services. Spiritual guidance and direction in the following of Jesus appears to be the origin of personal confession as it evolved from the monasteries of Ireland. There is nothing to keep us from exploring reform of the penitential sacrament in this direction.
Looking For...And Finding...The Dude
One of my St. Joe’s classmates I remember with pleasure is the late Dick Fleshren. He joined my class in fifth year, the college freshman year, in the fall of 1966, and we were roommates that year. Dick was older than the rest of us by at least eight years; he had been recruited in Atlanta by the friars at Immaculate Conception Church, a downtown parish near the gateway to the ‘Atlanta Underground,” staffed by my Franciscan province for some years. I quickly learned—as did the whole Callicoon student body--that Dick was an excellent organist, but he had also been a driver for Greyhound, covering the route between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, before entering the formation program at St. Joe’s, making him also a “senior transportation engineer” through our future years in formation together.
I look back with better wisdom about how difficult it must have been for those “belated vocation” candidates who had to endure one or two years of boarding school with younger and less mature characters like me. But Dick took it in stride, even the nickname we gave him, “The Dude.” [I cannot remember the etymology of that name tag.] Dick had a pleasant southern drawl and mannerisms; I think the best way to curry up an image today is to think of the Leslie Howard/Ashley Wilkes character in “Gone with the Wind.” He could even tell a rare dirty joke with class. At Sunday cocktail hours later in our Washington formation, I would be finished guzzling my second Manhattan in the time it took Dick to surgically prepare his cocktail du jour. I cannot swear that he concocted mint julips, but it would not surprise me if he had. When I confided this week to Johnny Burke that I was writing about the Dude, John correctly observed that “he showed us how to be gentlemen.”
Despite our age differences, he was a good friend to me and took me very seriously. We were quite different in temperament, but he and I had many conversations on a variety of things. Frequently we talked about liturgy and music, given our interests in that area which was changing dramatically in the immediate years after Vatican II. One Sunday evening in the spring of 1967 when we were conversing on a walk, Father Florian Walczyk, the music director, approached us and asked if we would lead the Latin singing of the outdoor Litany of the Saints Procession over the next three mornings, the “Rogation Days” observance leading up to Ascension Thursday. It was quite an honor to do it, and to do it with Dick, and it is one of my fondest memories of Callicoon. [Truth be told, the Dude did most of the heavy lifting in that duo and he covered for my lapses.]
We continued together through the formation program, to novitiate and the major seminary program in Washington, D.C. We remained friends and worked on musical ministry together. However, with the considerable number of older students in formation at the major seminary level, I think he found more social support in the classes ahead of us and I gravitated toward my own peers. My memory is a little fuzzy: it is possible he was ordained a year ahead of me, in 1973, [I was ordained in 1974] because of his age. The final years of priestly formation inevitably create new pressures on old friendships as our apostolic field assignments took us in different directions; in my case, I was heavily involved in our teenagers’ weekend retreat programs and planning for my post-ordination future, my goal to become a retreat master. It was my understanding that Dick was heading to parish ministry.
My province was quite large in numbers and geographic expanse half a century ago, and it was hard to keep track of what and how old friends were doing once we broke camp from formation. Dick did pursue parish ministry in New Jersey. I was shanghaied by the New York superiors into a college chaplaincy, a parish of two thousand college kids! It turned out to be a terrific experience, and it afforded me the opportunity to give retreats to sisters’ communities throughout New England when the students were away. I became wrapped up in my world, particularly when I moved to Florida four years later to become a young pastor outside of Orlando in the shadow of Disneyworld. At some point in my parish work I heard second or third hand that Dick had left the friars and the priesthood. I had no idea why, and truthfully it was not my business. I hoped he was happy, for I could not imagine him as anything else than a priest. He was one of those friars who must have brought great consolation and compassion in the confessional. But my young life was full and successful in the Orlando suburbs, and I did not think much about my confreres who were laboring or leaving through the 1980’s. As for Dick, I just assumed our paths would never cross again. So I thought...
Some years later, like Dick, the priesthood and the fraternal life were too much a burden to bear for me, too. I too formally left the friars [exclaustration in 1989] and the active priestly ministry [through laicization in 1998] and received Vatican permission to marry. My future wife Margaret and I were sitting in the parish office with our pastor, the legendary Monsignor Patrick J. Caverly, to do our marriage paperwork and plan our October wedding. When we finished the legalities, our pastor said: “Look, you are both fifty years old. You have both been in religious life. [My fiancé was a Dominican sister for seven years during my formation years.] I am not going to make you attend the diocesan pre-Cana classes. But I might suggest that you both make a retreat with the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey.” The abbey is located on the Cooper River about thirty miles outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Monsignor was in the custom of making retreat there for many years.
We agreed and spent four days there that July. I was wondering how the monks were going to house an unmarried couple. As it turned out, we were assigned adjacent rooms in a cottage-like outbuilding for retreatants. We still laugh about that. The land for Mepkin Abbey had been donated to the Trappists by Henry Luce and Clare Booth Luce, one of America’s “power couples” who are buried in one of the Abbey’s several cemeteries. The abbey itself was established in 1949. In his diary, when the Trappist Thomas Merton in Kentucky learned of the foundation of the new abbey in South Carolina, he wrote that he did not want to be reassigned there, fearing he would run afoul of snakes and alligators. There are a few gators in the ponds on the grounds of Mepkin, but they seem pretty domesticated. I have never seen a snake in 23 years.
I fell in love with Mepkin Abbey and Trappist spirituality for too many reasons to enumerate here, and Margaret and I made regular retreats over the years till the Covid pandemic curtailed the retreat program. I feel truly fortunate that during Margaret and my early years of making annual retreats there, the community’s abbot was an extraordinary churchman, Father Francis Kline, OCSO. Father Francis was a Julliard graduate who, after entering the Trappists, studied theology in Rome. I was lucky enough to have several conversations with him during our early stays, despite the tremendous pressures on his time. It was during one such conversation we discovered we both knew Dick Fleshren! I never expected that. I wish I could remember the whole contexts of the conversations, but it seems that Father Francis recorded CDs of organ music for purchase at the Abbey’s gift store. The recordings were made at the Atlanta cathedral, which contains the finest pipe organ in the region. The work had to be completed in the dead of night to avoid interference from traffic noise. Father Francis explained that Dick turned the pages of his music during recording sessions. Unfortunately, I did not think to inquire much about Dick’s life at that time; I was always hesitant to eat up the abbot’s precious time, and as often happens, I figured I would have more time down the road to connect with the Dude.
But a reunion was not to be. On June 29, 2001, Dick died after a prolonged illness. I did not take notice of his death because three months earlier, on March 30, Margaret’s son/my stepson Danny was killed by a drunk driver on his way to work outside of Orlando, just down the road from a Catholic school where my wife had been principal. Danny was twenty-six; Margaret and I had a difficult year. During that time, I wrote to Holy Name Province after a 12-year silence to ask for prayers, and my old Order graciously posted my email address in the weekly newsletter. As a result, several old Callicoon classmates reached out and reconnected with me, all of whom had been classmates with Dick at St. Joe’s.
The next spring, 2002, I was establishing a private mental practice and my wife was principal of the academy of our parish here in Central Florida—our new church was dedicated. Monsignor Caverly, a major donor to Mepkin Abbey, invited the abbot, Father Francis, to come down to Florida for the celebration. At the banquet in the evening, I had a chance to have a longer talk with Father Francis about Dick. As Dick’s illness had progressed and he needed care and assistance, Father Francis discovered that Dick had never canonically left the Order by exclaustration. Technically, according to the abbot, Dick was still a member of Holy Name Province. It seems that Father Francis functioned as an emissary between Dick and the friars in his last days to establish reunion of some kind.
Sadly, the abbot Father Francis himself died five years later in 2006 in the prime of his life, struck down by a form of cancer that required periodic treatment in New York City. My wife visited him during a business trip to New York, and they shared a lengthy lunch at a nearby restaurant. Margaret told me about a remarkable insight from the dying Trappist: “I believe I have been given this illness so that I may teach my monks how to die.” This is the kind of leadership Father Francis provided to all his charges, and why we remember him with love.
Margaret and I continued our relationship with Mepkin and made our most recent retreat in the fall of 2019, just before Covid curtailed on-site retreats for several years. [I should add, though, that the Abbey has developed creative on-line services, including monthly Zoom group meetings in which clusters of six Mepkin “alumni” meet to discuss an assigned spiritual text. Margaret and I joined this program at its inception.] During our 2019 retreat, I had time to visit the abbey’s extensive library of monastic literature, a large research center and part of Father Francis’ vision for the monks. It is located near the abbey’s chapel and burial grounds. I stopped to read the monument list of major donors of the library, arranged in groups or circles. I discovered that one of the donor circles was named after “Richard L. Fleshren.” Evidently, he had been remembered fondly by the monks and their supporters.
And more to the point, I deduced that Mepkin had been a significant spiritual home to him. I was happy for him and, having been changed myself by years of association with Mepkin and the Trappist blessings, I can easily see why The Dude would have felt at home here. Located in the deep South, near Charleston, Mepkin’s scenery and silence would have allowed him the reflection and quiet that, even in our formation years, he seemed to hunger for. Moreover, the monks—for all the strict observance to routine—are the most warm and hospitable hosts to folks of all faiths and all kinds of suffering. Their table is simple and vegetarian; their chapels blissfully austere; their prayerful interaction—as I have encountered it in my hour-long annual general confessions, for example—have fed my soul to overflowing. It was good to know that Dick’s feet trod this sacred ground.
This year, 2022, for the first time Margaret and I were invited to the Abbey’s Founders Day observance. We drove up to South Carolina for the Sunday [November 13] event last weekend. We attended Mass in the abbey and the annual blessing of the monks’ graves, and then had time to kill before the evening concert and dinner. We spent part of it “doing our Zoom homework” for our next on-line meeting with our Mepkin lay support group, reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation in the retreatants’ chapel named after the late abbot, Father Francis. Then, on a beautiful fall afternoon, we proceeded to visit the abbey’s columbarium where our ashes will be interred at our death. We continued our walk past the Henry Luce Family cemetery garden to a small cemetery I had never noticed before. It contained a modest collection of flat grave markers, most of them from the early 2000’s or thereabouts.
And then I happened to look down, and at my feet was a marker which read “Richard L. Fleshren OFM.” How fitting that he came to final rest in a site where the monks would pray for him every day. What struck me, too, was the “OFM.” I have no idea whether this symbolized a legal/personal reunion with the friars or whether, in his soul, this is how Dick wished to be remembered. I like to think both.
As I made communion thanksgiving last night at Saturday Mass, I prayed for Dick, and for all the guys I had the privilege of knowing in Callicoon who have gone on to eternal rest. I also had to smile at the fact that in death I would be interred just down the path from the gentleman I first met on Aroma Hill in the college dorm. I hope that at our next meeting The Dude finds me a quieter, more settled man, no pun intended.
A Final Farewell to my Friars
“Your upper lip is covered with sweat.” My wife Margaret was right. And it was an honest sweat—not related to our ten-block walk from Grand Central Station to West 31st Street in Manhattan, nor to the coat and tie I was unaccustomed to wearing after years of “Florida casual.” No, I was breaking a bit of a nervous sweat because we were the first to arrive at one of the most unusual social gatherings or reunions of my life. And while I was surprised and delighted to be invited to this rather exclusive event, I was also reliving years of my life that were directed from the very building I was now seated with my wife.
* * * *
Back in 1961, as an eighth grader in Buffalo, I applied for entrance to the Franciscan Order’s minor seminary in Callicoon, New York, about three hundred miles from my home. I would never return home as a resident again, and the implications of that relocation for my relationship with my family in my old age are something I still mull over from time to time. Specifically, I was enrolling in Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor, which embraced the East Coast of the United States at that time as well as missions in Brazil, Bolivia, Jamaica, and Japan, to name several. When I showed up on the doorstep of the minor seminary, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary [or, to the old locals, “Aroma Hill”], Holy Name Province had something about one thousand friars. My freshman class in September 1962 was certain we would add significantly to that number. However, of the 75 of us who entered in ‘62, about half a dozen would survive ten years to solemn profession and two more years to ordination.
All told, I was associated with Holy Name Province for 27 years, from 1962 as a high school freshman to 1989 when I withdrew from the Order after serving four years as a college chaplain and eleven as a parish pastor in locations staffed by Holy Name Province. In those years I met and interacted with some amazing men—some with significant burdens of public responsibility, and others who served out of the limelight in caring for the poor and enriching the internal life of friaries. And while I would eventually come to question my vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood, I never for a moment regretted that I had chosen to become a priest in the Franciscan tradition.
The decision to leave the Order was complicated. I had just turned 40 and running out of religious, personal, and idealistic steam, complicated by alcohol and, as I learned later, depression. I was not an easy man to deal with then. But the direction of my Province was struggling too; the provincial at the time was taking no prisoners, either, when the matter of my future circumstances came up for discussion. I flew up on an early morning flight to talk about my future, fortified by several little bottles of Pan-Am scotch. By 2 PM I had left the provincial’s office heading back to Newark Airport. That was that—no invitation to make a retreat, get help, etc. I cried on the flight back to Orlando. It was not the way one wants to leave, nor to remember the institution that had shaped my life for over a quarter century.
A year or two later, after I had been in AA for a while, a classmate by ordination left the order and looked me up in Florida. We agreed to meet in the parking lot of the Tampa Bay Bucs stadium, of all places, and proceeded to a four-hour lunch where we compared notes on our departures and discovered that he, too, was pretty much told to hit the bricks. [I have forgotten his reasons for leaving, but he had the brains to ask for some money to get on his feet.] Then, twenty years later, when my blog “The Catechist Café” had been running for a while, I was contacted by a third former friar—younger than myself--whose departure around the same time had been troubling for him, too.
I decided to write to a succeeding provincial and talk about what had happened years before. I knew him from my days in Callicoon and remembered him with considerable respect. Within a few days I received a handwritten letter of condolence with an admission that “those had not been the best of times.” It was enough for me; I was happily married by then and established in my mental health practice. I was happy that my old community had righted itself as it faced the challenge in the face of declining vocations, age, and the general drift of Catholics away from the Church.
It has crossed my mind from time to time, though, that those of us who left the Order in the late 1980’s and beyond were going forth at a time when the province truly needed us. Perhaps this is why my provincial was so angry with me. Were I still a friar today, at age 75, my good health and experience would still be in high demand in any number of ways had I tended to sobriety mental health care, and a “reset” of my relationship with all the friars in my province. Had I stayed, I could have helped with the transition to the new alignment of American Franciscan provinces. On the other hand, I probably needed to leave the Order to respond to forces that were exceptionally healing, specifically my marriage, my new line of work as a therapist and a college instructor, and my work with the Diocese of Orlando which welcomed me into catechetical diocesan teacher training after I was granted laicization. [My laicization, by the way, took only three months—an unheard-of brevity. My Canon Lawyer told me that all the friars in my formation program had left the Order and the Vatican drew the conclusion that I was inadequately formed or trained for vows and orders.]
Flawed friar that I was, I still pray and meditate on the friars’ experience every day. I reflect long and hard on my life with the friars and pray for them. I need to add one piece of history as Holy Name Province is shredding its documents for the national consolidation. There are minutes from the 1985 Congressus, the post-chapter meeting with the Vatican visitor, to assign new superiors, that state I was selected to become the guardian of our provincial flagship at 31st Street in Manhattan. I was 37 years old and currently building a church outside of Orlando. When Father Dave McBriar gave me the news on the phone, I started to cry, and I wailed, “David, I’ve never been to 31st Street. I don’t even know where the bathrooms are!” Mercifully, the offer was rescinded with the proviso that I fly to 31st Street every month as a member of the personnel board. I did eventually learn where the toilets were, too.
* * * * *
I have been following the negotiations over the past few years to consolidate all the United States Franciscan provinces into one national body, the Province of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. I can only imagine the disruption for the friars. Most of them, I would guess, are around my age, a time of life when you would like some peace and quiet and predictability. Oddly, when I was a seventh grader, my mother pushed me toward the friars for, among other reasons, her belief that the friars take good care of their elderly members and that I would not go into old age alone. Unfortunately, circumstances over the last generation or so have put enormous strain on my old province to maintain the quality of life of the senior friars. The province used to operate several nursing care facilities, but the cost of such ventures became prohibitive, and some friars have been relocated to private care facilities to meet special needs.
I am not privy to the negotiations between the six provinces on such matters as what ministries and friaries will stay open and which will be closed. If I were living in my old province today, I suspect I would wonder about what my future life might look like, particularly if I have been settled in a city or community for many years and enjoyed a fruitful ministry there. In short, my old province has a lot on its mind. For that reason, I was totally surprised to receive an invitation to a Mass and Dinner scheduled for September 17, 2022, at St. Francis Friary in Manhattan. The event was called “The Final Farewell” and invitations went out to as many formerly solemnly professed friars as possible who had left the order.
The invitation stated that we could bring “spouses or partners,” a remarkably graceful way to go about this. My first reaction was one of surprise—how can the province, with so much on its mind, find the time to reach out to its former confreres. My second reaction was a touch of anxiety—I had left the Order in 1989, a long time ago and, as I noted, under strained circumstances. What brought me some comfort was learning that one of my best friends from seminary days, Bobby Hudak—we go back to that opening day in September 1962—would be attending with his wife, so I would not be alone, so to speak. [Many of my closest Callicoon friends today left the formation program before solemn vows, so the invited group was small.]
Margaret and I were greeted at the street door by two friars I did remember from years past. One of them escorted us to the chapel where the 4 PM Mass would be celebrated. Margaret and I sat alone in the chapel—me with my sweating lip—until the rest of the guests and the resident friars at St. Francis began drifting in. Bob and I and our wives were the only guests from my class, but we started to mingle, and I remembered about half of the fourteen former friars. I am guessing that many of you have found yourselves in gatherings where you are torn between attempting to be inclusive with some of the guests who know few people and catching up with folks you knew many years back.
The liturgy was celebrated by Father Kevin Mullen, O.F.M., the Provincial of Holy Name Province. Father Kevin and I go way back; he was a freshman in high school when I was a college sophomore at Callicoon. Later, he was a senior at Siena when I was a newly ordained chaplain there. [I reminded him that he worked on my clean-up detail after meals at the seminary, and that I made him everything he is today.] He strikes me today as the kind of leader who will get the friars over the hump into their new consortium. As long as I have known him, he combines religious idealism with humor and practicality. If I may borrow a quote applied to a bishop in the northeast, “he does not die with every death.”
There were about thirty of us in attendance seated in a circle around the altar. There was no singing, but there was a devotional spirit that lifted my soul. Kevin gave a brief but heartfelt homily in which he acknowledged that people in the province have been hurt in the past. But he smiled later and said to us, “we [the friars] are not dying.” He spoke a message of hope about the men under his care. At that moment I realized how invested in my province I still am. The thought occurred to me that in my own situation as a friar, my province got the lesser half of my life, and my wife got the healthier me. In fact, twenty-five years of marriage has taught me how I should have lived with my brother friars.
Kevin suggested that we close the Mass by singing “Salve Regina.” It has been a lot of years since I sang that, and I was amazed at how easily it rolled off everyone’s tongue. After Mass the bar was opened, and I had an opportunity to chat with Father Tom Walters. He and Kevin are seminary classmates, and he, too, was on my dining room crew. Later I had a moment with Joe Silvoy. When I went to Washington, my order’s major seminary, Joe introduced me to high school retreat work, a ministry I thoroughly enjoyed during my five years in D.C. We spent a minute trying to name all the schools and parishes that contracted with us for retreats.
When we sat for dinner, we found a table for Bob and me and Margaret and Louise, where we could catch up at least to some degree on the past forty years or thereabouts. The last time I had seen Bob to talk to was at an IHOP near the campus of the University of Georgia; in 1987, I believe. We were attending a regional meeting of friars in the South. I would be remiss if I did not highlight the food and hospitality provided by the resident friars at 31st Street. The guardian of the friary is Father David Convertino, yet another young Callicoon lad several classes behind me.
We said our goodbyes around 7:30 and Margaret and I caught a train at Grand Central Station for the hour commute to Croton-on-Hudson, where we were staying with my in laws. When the train rolled out of New York, all I could say to Margaret was how overcome I was with the whole thing. I don’t think I said ten words on the train home. I was so glad that Margaret was invited; it gave her a slice of the first half of my life.
God bless the friars!
I had a very peculiar anniversary two weeks ago on June 24. On that day in 1972 I made my final, solemn vows in the Franciscan Order to Father Venard “Jerry” Carr, O.F.M., representing my Provincial in a ceremony at Timon High School in South Buffalo. Most of my class made final profession at St. Francis Church on 31st Street in New York City, the Provincial hub, but the province allowed my classmate Joe Czapla and I to make final profession around our families. It was the last step in a journey that had begun in September 1962 when I entered St. Joe’s. Of course, when I entered the seminary, we all thought of our formation as the stairway to priesthood. In the late 1960’s the Order turned the formation program in the direction of unity between priest and brother candidates. My novitiate year at St. Raphael’s in Lafayette NJ [1968-69] was my first formative year of inclusion with young men preparing to become lifelong brothers in a common vowed life.
Anyone who attended St. Joe’s long enough to endure one reading of the rule book from the dark ages will remember that we were admonished “to respect the brothers, but unnecessary conversation with them is forbidden.” Today, mercifully, we understand vows—and the formative quest for vows—to be the glue that holds us all together in our joint history. Just today I had a delightful Zoom call with a novitiate classmate I had not seen in 53 years. We were together only in novitiate as he pursued his specialized college studies in another part of the country, but it was amazing how we could fill in the blanks of our memory banks. He and I are both “alumni” of the Order, a safe word for those who left after profession.
To varying degrees, a lot of us who studied together on Aroma Hill and later in other formation houses as priest or brother candidates still carry an affection for the Franciscan brotherhood known corporately as Holy Name Province. This is not universally true; some of you have privately revealed to me your painful experiences with the Provincial administration that contributed to your parting ways. In fact, my own departure in 1989 was an acrimonious episode that scarred my relationship with the province for a time. However, in my own case I like to think I have sorted out the wheat from the weeds. For that reason, I was surprised that the 50th anniversary of my solemn vows was a more spiritual/psychological event than I anticipated, proof to me that the life of the brotherhood overall had more impact on my lifespan than I realized.
To understand my mixed feelings on this anniversary, I think back to March 2001, when my stepson Danny was killed by a drunk driver at the age of twenty-six. I was living in central Florida where I had previously worked as a priest-friar and later as a diocesan priest. At Danny’s funeral I was moved that several my diocesan priest colleagues, including the bishop, attended the funeral. One of them whispered to me, “we sure miss you.” Another said, “boy, we could sure use you now.” It has occurred to me gradually over the years that my absence from the priesthood and the Franciscan brotherhood is a loss to them as well as to me, but particularly so on this anniversary of solemn vows.
Do not get me wrong. I will be seventy-five next time around, and very happily married. Our silver anniversary will be in October 2023, as we married at the age of fifty. To quote Matthew 7:20 “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them;” I can say that sacramental marriage has brought out the best in me and focused me into Gospel living more intensely than any other community experience of my life. As we sit on our back porch after the cooling afternoon thunderstorms of Central Florida, Margaret and I talk with each other about the need to cultivate a spirituality around the loneliness of aging. For unless we are both blown away in the same Florida hurricane, one of us will survive the other, and as our only son has passed away, we know that one of us will tread the deeper regions of seniority alone. My spiritual reading of recent weeks has taken me down the road to Thomas Merton’s hermitage where he lived out his last years at a distance from the monastery, as a monk-hermit. That Merton thrived and found God alone in the quiet of wooded contemplation--and a most interesting array of letters from young people in the 1960’s who were discovering him for the first time--is very comforting. [See Merton’s The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, 1989].
I can remember, as I was preparing to enter Callicoon, my mother’s strong belief that joining the Franciscans would insure me a happy and healthy retirement and old age. She had seen or known many diocesan priests who died lonely, or broke, or alcoholic, or senile. She would talk about an old priest in our parish rectory before I was born who was routinely scouted up by the Buffalo police for wandering the streets at night in his pajamas. She had the idea that the Franciscans took care of their own and for the most part she was not wrong about this. In fairness, this was not her main reason for putting me on the Erie-Lackawanna train for Callicoon, but the expectation was there, and I respect her concern for my well-being in the long-distant future.
When I was solemnly professed in 1972, I wasn’t thinking much about retirement. I was two years away from ordination to the priesthood, the end game. My best recollection of those days was the thought that I would always be a Franciscan priest, an identity that I associated with kind confessors and a variety of person-oriented ministries. I should have reflected on the interpersonal significance of the vows more intensely. Many of my classmates—some of us together for ten years—left the brotherhood on the eve of the 30-day solemn vow retreat in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. On the Saturday night before the trip to New Hampshire, I was packing to go when my longtime friend David Lingelbach stopped by my room to talk. He looked at my suitcase and said, “Are you really going to go through with this?” To this day I am not certain if he was asking about my disposition or his. Or both, most likely. I believe he knew me better than anyone else in my class—he was extraordinarily insightful--and perhaps he saw my vulnerabilities—a headstrong independence, insecurity, and a deep-seated need for marital intimacy--that I would not see for another two decades.
There is the thought that runs through my mind of how challenging the present times are for the friars I left behind when I left Holy Name Province in 1988, when the chickens came home to roost. I read the obituaries as they come out and note that more friars are dying in nursing homes contracted to the Order; the cost of maintaining modern quality senior care facilities is becoming prohibitive for organizations of modest membership, as Holy Name has become over the years. I can imagine that as the number of friars continues to decrease, even the older flagship communities are becoming quiet enclaves instead of the boisterous friary rec rooms I recall as a cleric studying summers at St. Bonaventure University in the early 1970’s.
The friars my age and older are facing the normal uncertainties of seniority, but on top of that Holy Name Province is consolidating with a half dozen other Franciscan provinces in the United States. Change is always hard, and not only for seniors. I remember coming to Washington from Florida in 1982 or thereabouts for a moral theology workshop at Catholic University, and I stopped at Holy Name College to pay respects to old friends. I first encountered Cassian Corcoran in the foyer, and Corky immediately pulled me into a parlor. “Oh Tommy, this move [the sale of Holy Name College to Howard University] is a big mistake, I’m afraid. What do you think?” Today I looked up Corky’s obituary in the Provincial site. It runs to only 326 words. Give me a day or two and I could write five thousand words about this dedicated and colorful friar who tore up his lecture notes each year so he could begin fresh with his next classes. Or on my ordination day, during the reception in the Holy Name College courtyard, when he came up to me, very distraught. “They are putting out their cigars in my elephants’ ears plants.”
[Another story, lost now to history: Thomas Merton and I both applied to St. Joe’s in Callicoon. I got in, and he did not.]
Reading through the friar obituaries left me with the impression that many precious memories and accomplishments of Holy Name friars and candidates are receding in the rearview mirror. In one of his last letters, to a graduate student drafting a paper on his poetry, Merton himself admitted an ambivalence about aging. After explaining to the student that he had become a monk and a hermit to become a “nobody” for Christ, he nonetheless expressed his pleasure that his poems would be remembered. “Maybe they’ll do some good.” As the friars of Holy Name Province continue to withdraw from the ministries where “they did some good,” there are fewer opportunities to celebrate or commemorate their triumphs, particularly as the corporate province enfolds with a half-dozen others. This process is hardly unique to Franciscans; men’s and particularly women’s communities have been divesting and rearranging for years. But each community must absorb the challenge from its own experiences.
Last Saturday night my wife and I attended Mass in the former Franciscan church that I built 35 years ago. Today it is staffed by the Vocationist Fathers for the Diocese of Orlando. I told her later in the car that “all the good things I did in my lifetime as a pastor will be forgotten, if they haven’t been already. But my mistakes will live on for centuries because they are set in concrete.” I was being flip, of course, but it is true that watching the pieces of a long-life dissolve into the mists of history can be unnerving without the redeeming feature of divine wisdom. One thing about the friars: that vow of poverty, when lived well, has focused the energies of the best of my old brethren into eschewing the accomplishments of brick and mortar for the mending of hearts and the building of hope among the poor in body and spirit. “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” [Matthew 6:4] For all the things that were done for me in secret by the friars I have known, I am most grateful. I just wish I had been a better brother and told you while I was with you. But I can pass on your goodness in my remaining time.
Eating Our Way to the Priesthood
I calculated that over my six years at St. Joe’s [1962-1968], factoring in an estimate of 300 days per year on campus, I consumed 1800 breakfasts. One of those breakfasts, in the spring of 1968, consisted of bacon and eggs. The other 1799 breakfasts all featured the same menu. I barely remember my first breakfast on September 9, 1962. I was just in survival mode moving with the herd of 250 as a newbie, and I have no recall of whether I was pleased or disappointed in the breakfast menu. I just had no idea that this would be it for the next 1800 mornings.
Half the fun was getting to breakfast. We rose at 5:40 AM with a twenty-minute window to faire une toilette and show up, in jacket and tie, across campus at the chapel for the 6 AM hour of Morning Prayer and Mass on wooden kneelers. Looking back, that was a minor organizational achievement, if you toss in the uncertainties of a Catskill climate. It is true that from time to time in Anthony McGuire’s regime we would get a little lax about the 6 AM deadline, and he would move the waking bell back to 5:30 for a spell. Cue Cool Hand Luke: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
The mind is a funny thing. My most intense memories of eating come from my first year [1962-1963] when we were crowded into what later became known as “the old refectory.” Groundbreaking for the new refectory was held just a week or so after my class arrived. The old facility is the last thing I will remember when I die. It was the ultimate culture shock of leaving home unless you grew up with fifteen siblings in an apartment over a sailors’ greasy spoon joint. The artist Eric Enstrom must have passed through Aroma Hill around 1918, and his famous “Grace” painting was something of a cosmic protest.
“Eating in peace” was a foreign concept. For an introvert, the entire boarding school experience was very trying, but for the first year or so I found meals to be the hardest adjustment, as we were assigned to the same table and the same seat, at four-month intervals. If, by chance, you were assigned to a table of guys who were working through anger issues, it could be grueling, particularly when mixed with the typical adolescent tendency of herding and piling on. For example, if you received a regular stream of mail from home—which was distributed at lunch or supper—you could be tagged “a mama’s boy.” Looking back, I realize now that a fair number got no mail, which may have been painful for them. I told my family not to send birthday cards. In the absence of privacy, mine, and theirs, we were all kind of raw with each other. I found the new refectory to be considerably more congenial where there seemed to be more “psychological space.” [Smaller table groups, more space, etc.]
Breakfast is not hard to recall because, as I noted, there was only the one menu. The positives: the bread was fresh baked, the butter was butter, there were several options of cold cereal, and the coffee was hot. The negatives: rinse and repeat 1800 times, and an absence of warm food. The cereal was always Kellogg’s, in the little boxes. I don’t remember any of the “kiddie” brands like Frosted Flakes or Sugar Pops. I ate Rice Krispies for six years. We did get Shredded Wheat; in my notorious fourth year dorm room, which started the 1965 Northeast Blackout, one of my classmates would have a midnight snack of shredded wheat and Tang in bed after lights out. At breakfast, guys went to considerable extremes to replicate the experience of toast by buttering their bread and placing the table coffee pot on it. For us caffeine addicts—and I became one in my second week—the pot was so greasy that it slid down the long table in our direction like a meteor in the atmosphere. It does surprise me, looking back, that caffeine ingestion by minors was never an issue. I can recall drinking three or four cups at breakfast and walking out with a true high that sustained me for several hours.
All meals depended on the politics between a table and its waiter. There were two waiter crews that rotated weekly, and your table’s regular two waiters were all that stood between you and second helpings—and sometimes, first helpings. In the old refectory, it was not always possible to get all the food out on one platter, and there was a “gentleman’s agreement” to start the food at the opposite end of the table every other week. My table in freshman year was served by Aubrey McNeill from fifth year, a man of extraordinary patience who faced the cries of Aubrey! Aubrey! Aubrey! with considerable magnanimity. In 2017 my wife and I visited Aubrey, then a pastor in Anderson, SC, and I had a chance to thank him and apologize for my classmate John Burke.
Lunch and dinner were more unpredictable meals in that the appeal of the various offerings differed widely. But first they were preceded by some of the worst spiritual reading in Western Civilization. For my entire freshman year, we were subjected to Luke Delmege  by P.A. Sheehan, all 592 pages. I wondered if that book was still available today: as of 8 AM March 17, 2022, it is rated Amazon’s 10,920,482nd best seller. Amazon had this to say: Luke had thought his vocation lay in converting the English to Catholicism, but instead he was taken in by the lure of fine manners and polish. Although it was sometimes hard to wade through the preachiness and nationalism typical of a Canon Sheehan novel, I am glad for the glimpse it provided of the time--ca. 1900--and the place--Co. Tipperary, Ireland--when nation and faith were viewed as intrinsically bound. That time, of course, is over, but it can be hoped that the gentle spirit of the Irish people lives on. How nice on St. Patrick’s Day.
The mood of the student body alternately rose and fell with the entrees du jour. In truth, looking back at the seminary from a culinary vantage point, we did OK. We certainly never went hungry, and the sheer amount of food preparations—three full meals a day—for a population of students ranging in age from high school freshmen to army veterans must have been quite a challenge. However, there were “eccentricities” in our food service—as there are in any institution—that we immortalize over the years. Just the other day someone mentioned to me how he hated the liver meals. We never had liver in Callicoon, but there was on occasion some mystery about what we were eating—a sliced offering we called “mutton” and a fish fillet we called “shark steaks.” [Just yesterday I was reminded by a classmate that “green jelly” was served with one of our meat dishes, probably the mutton?]
The grand-daddy of despised kitchen offerings was a tureen filled with a grey sauce and chunks of Spam-like meat. This offering was called “L.P.” and in good taste—no pun intended--I will not spell it out. David Lingelbach told me once that he mentioned this meal by its student name to one of the friars, and he replied, “We had L.P. on our side of the house, too.” [Anybody that spells this out online is cut off from all future posts. Facebook might beat me to it.] I’ve been asked to mention the meatballs: “belly bombs,” were small individual meatloaves requiring a serrated knife. Personally, I was never much for the canned peaches in vanilla pudding tureen when it came by.
What kept a lot of guys alive, in their telling, was peanut butter. In my recollection a jar or two of peanut butter was always available at lunch. I have heard the legend that a student in the class ahead of me screwed the lid of a jar permanently into and under the table and changed out a fresh new jar every few days in case he didn’t like dinner. That would have been possible with the old refectory tables. The oil separated from the peanuts in storage, and the first guy who opened a new jar had to churn things up a bit before passing it along. In my first week at St. Joe’s, I was told that the oil separated because we bought our PB from the New York City Welfare Department. I was lied to a lot in my early days. I asked an upper classman if they were going to pad the kneelers in the chapel, and he said, “they’re being ordered.”
The desserts were generally good; fresh cake and frosting was not unheard of. Desserts were the gambling coinage of the land—our jump on bitcoins—as we were not supposed to have “walking around money” as Lyndon Johnson once put it. As in Vegas, gambling had hidden trap doors. If you bet a dessert and lost a bet, inevitably the kitchen served up spice cake with frosting. When you won, it was a prepackaged Moon pie. The fall season brought cider to the table in place of milk, and with it some dining room “cider bouts,” as in who could [or would dare] drink the most cups of cider. Some guys consumed as much as 25 cups of cider during a meal. More detail could be provided but I doubt it is necessary.
At lunch on Friday, the rule book was read in its entirety as we ate in silence. Naïve young student that I was, I took the precept “particular friendships are strictly forbidden” to mean I had to like all the other seminarians equally. I had an idea that this would be quite a challenge, judging from a week or two of sizing up the place. Soon I adopted the general wisdom that it was an unenforceable rule. Later I came to learn that there were sexual overtones implied. All I can say is that in 2022 I still have particular friendships with about a half dozen classmates that I met sixty years ago. We talk frequently on the phone to this day, and we are still waiting for something terrible to happen…and so are our wives.
My own table manners were nothing to write home about, and on my fourth night in Callicoon, feeling depressed and homesick, I got flagged after dinner by Father Cyprian Burke. “You did not cut your tomato slices. You put them in your mouth whole. I will be looking for an improvement.” Now I felt worse, and I wandered into the chapel and discovered the Tuesday night confessions in progress. To my surprise, Father Cyprian’s name was on one of the confessional doors, so I went in, and I apologized for my poor eating habits. This confession came as quite a surprise to Father Cyprian Lynch, the history teacher, who said, “I don’t think I’ve heard that before.” He would be my confessor for the next several years.
Some of the sidebars to meals: after supper on Wednesdays and Saturdays the prefect on duty would read a list of the house jobs that were imperfectly executed. On a rare occasion I recall the list being read before the meal and the guilty were sent out immediately…disciplinary infractions during the meal were punished by forced kneeling in front of the prefect’s table…occasionally there was a midmeal expulsion from the room, as when one of my classmates pretended to throw up in a tureen of lunch.
After dinner each night the seven-decade Franciscan Crown rosary was prayed as the students who participated walked around the lake. I still chuckle at how we would plan our mischief for “after the Crown.” I would ask my friend who had a contraband copy of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue if I could see it for a minute, for a dessert, of course, and he would say, “sure, meet me after the Crown.” Or two guys would get into a fight during dinner, and one would say, “Let’s settle this after the Crown.”
I was never formally assigned to the waiter’s crew in six years, but in college I subbed several times a week. I was working my first breakfast shift with a table of freshmen. I hadn’t had my coffee and I was grouchy. I called for their empty cereal boxes and held out my apron, and they fired them through the air to me in a cascade. Suddenly the prefect’s bell rang, the room went silent, and Ed Flanagan red in the face, called out “Mr. Burns!” I did the “dead man walking” procession to the head table with an apron full of empty Kellogg’s boxes. “What in the world are you doing?” He proceeded to lecture me on how I should be setting better example for the younger men, how they looked up to us for example. He went on and on. And then he stopped. He looked at me. He looked at the student body watching us. Finally, he sighed and muttered, “This sure isn’t the Ritz.”
Amen to that.
Chapter 6 of Preordained, Joseph F. Sheley’s study of minor seminaries, is titled “Protective Custody.” That is as good a phrase as any to describe seminary life. The question of “protection” always involves what you are keeping in, and what are you keeping out. Sheley’s analysis of his 1960’s experience is so pertinent to St. Joe’s life that I almost wondered if there was a national template somewhere for the minor seminary model, right down to the doing of house jobs on Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. In writing about our free Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the author observes that “some of that precious time was poached by the institution because seminarians were also responsible for a portion of the upkeep of the campus; we were assigned work duties such as building maintenance, and these could occur only when we were not in class, chapel, or dining hall.” [pp. 148-149] I would have gladly cleaned toilets with a toothbrush to escape some of the courses over the years, if only school time could have been poached.
I received several messages from St. Joe’s alumni asking about seminary life vis-à-vis families. Sheley talks about the specific issues of separation from one’s family in Chapter 6, beginning with sad farewells on opening day of the first year. I had the strangest farewell I can imagine: I had been hospitalized for a week just before entering, my parents sold our house on a Thursday, we moved to another town on Friday, and on Saturday at 8 AM I was boarded on the Erie-Lackawanna in Buffalo all by myself. As we were saying goodbyes, there was one other little kid in a black suit, and my mother said to his mother, “Tommy will look out for him on the trip.” It turned out this kid was a graduate of Canisius College. In a way, entering that September 8, 1962, as I did was smart because by the time I got to the campus late that afternoon I was all cried out. That night, the first three guys I hang out with on the Scotus Hall patio are Tom Trots, Don Lee, and a colorful fifth year fellow. [Amazingly, 25 years later, when I am a pastor in Orlando, I get a fax from my bishop warning me that someone by that same fifth year name was passing himself off as a priest in Florida. I faxed back, “Where is he? We’re old friends. I’ll take him to lunch.”]
Sheley pinpoints a true division along us in Callicoon: those whose families were closer, and those who came from a distance. Buffalo was an eight-hour train ride—or about 7 hours of driving; N.Y. 17 had just been converted to an expressway. But Boston was far, too. I need to get my classmate John Burke to describe his first day; he spent the Friday night alone in a boarding house in Callicoon. [We were in Callicoon together in 2018 for a reunion but forgot to look it up.] In my class Allen Asselin arrived from West Palm Beach, Jimmy Longo from Fayetteville, NC, and Davy Bourque from Maine. Mostly I recall a sea of new classmates from the Jersey/New York area. Sheley said that in his seminary there was a monthly “Visiting Sunday” which I think was also our policy. My family came down for the October 1962 visiting day, and assuring themselves that Callicoon met the standards of the Geneva Convention, that was their last visit as a family for my whole six years. They did come for reception and first vows later in my life. But I was the oldest of five, and my little brother was born in my sophomore year; Anthony McGuire threw a crinkled piece of paper on my study hall desk alerting me to his birth in October 1963. It was hard and expensive for the distant families to visit. My parents did come for my high school and college graduation. My very last supper in Callicoon included our parents; it was a standard Callicoon supper. When the tureen of peaches in vanilla pudding came around, my mother grumbled about the food. “A little late for that one, ma,” I muttered under my breath.
I got used to the idea that I would not have visitors when that third Sunday of the month rolled around, although several classmates’ families took me out to lunch, which I still appreciate. I was sometimes envious that I did not have a convenient pipeline for such things as replacement clothes or other needs from home. The first few years I sent my laundry home in those memorable aluminum laundry cases but consider that the speed of your fresh clothes depended upon both the U.S. postal service and the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. There were many close calls. Things improved considerably when I started using the local laundry service. [Laundromats in town became accessible in 1967, I believe.]
Looking back at the process of the boarding experience philosophically and emotionally, I have very mixed feeling about the pain of leaving kith and kin and striking out into a bigger new world that was a major overhaul for me. Callicoon marked the beginning of a slow but steady disaffiliation from my family, in terms of being a meaningful interactor in their lives. Sheley writes that “our families had surrendered us such that we never again could or wanted to recapture the traditional parent-child relationship. We were not going to high school; we were pursuing a holy career. We felt it the very first time we returned home. Our parents would ask for details about our life away, and we would hold back or answer vaguely, as if they could not understand and appreciate our world fully. They seemed to accept this and to trust us out of their sight to an extent not granted to our siblings. When we were with family, we were “on leave,” independent, just passing through.” [[. 163]
In my recent years [I will be seventy-four in two weeks] I have come to appreciate two aspects of a “Callicoon launch.” The first was a bonding with a group of guys in later high school and college who—by being themselves—gradually broadened my outlook on life. With age my interaction with them had a natural formative impact that expanded through novitiate and the major seminary years in Washington. I arrived in Callicoon in 1962 as a parochial kid from a town which itself could be and remains parochial. In the seminary I interacted with some very solid citizens—I hesitate to name names because I know I will miss many, but I think back to as much as a decade of rubbing elbows with David Lingelbach, Joe Michaels, Marty Neilan, Buddy Ward, Matt Seymour, Tony Callahan, Wayne Ward, Billy O’Donnell, John Hayes, Bobby Hudak, Johnny Burke, Dick Fleshren, Gene Joyce, Jim Cosgrove, Mike McCarthy, and a lot of others.
All these guys have done outstanding things with their lives. About forty years later I was a speaker at the National Catholic Educators Association Convention in Philadelphia, I believe, and after my presentation on mental health I grabbed a Starbuck’s, loosened my tie, and wandered into another conference, a high-power presentation to school superintendents and bishops on Catholic school financing by a Wall Street firm executive. I sat down, looked at my program, and realized I was listening to “J.V. Lee” Brennan, my colorful high school neighbor across the corridor in Scotus Hall. We introduced our wives later and bored them to death with nostalgia.
As a group we passed through the 1960’s and the cultural and church revolutions taking place. For me, all of this took place, not in Buffalo, but in the broader atmosphere of the more cosmopolitan setting of an East Coast establishment, including our years in Washington in many cases. I have doubt that my parents—and my broader family—had any idea of the man I was becoming in those settings. In a Zoom meeting with my family a few weeks ago, I mentioned that as a musician in the seminary I belonged to a group that provided the music for the Saturday night Mass at Fort Myer, VA, Arlington National Cemetery. [1969-1974] No one had the slightest memory of that. I don’t remember anyone back home with much curiosity about my life as it unfolded, even after ordination. I guess it was a different world at the time and we were on different tracks, and that has not changed.
The true shock of disengagement came recently when President Trump was elected, the Capital was stormed, the Q-Anon Conspiracy spread, and the Covid and anti-vaxxer upheavals took root. Unfortunately, that still is my old home and much of my family in Buffalo. I am grateful that I had an opportunity in my life to strike out and taste more of what was happening, including these last 44 years in Florida. Callicoon—problematic as it could be—was the ticket out.
Sheley writes: “There was a closeness especially among those boys who persevered into third year and beyond. By that time, the herd had been thinned dramatically—more than half of the boys in my freshman class were gone by junior year…for many seminarians, this meant that the ones that had given me trouble were gone as well. For the most part, the remaining students liked or respected each other or at least appreciated the fact of their shared circumstances.” [p. 165] That was certainly true in my reading of things.
But Sheley notes, too, as close as we were as friends, it was still hard for us to talk about God. [p. 166] That is a loss. I hope to pick up this thread in the book in two weeks, from his chapter, “Survival Skills.”
"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.
Preordained: Boys As "Future Priests" During Catholicism's Minor-Seminary Boom and Bust  Part 1
I thought that all the “seminarian books” of my generation had been written by now, but along came Preordained: Boys As “Future Priests” During Catholicism’s Minor-Seminary Boom and Bust  by Joseph Sheley. The author, a published professor of sociology and college president in the California State University system, as well as an expert in criminology, was also a seminarian [1961-1967] at St. Pius X Seminary in Galt, California studying for the Diocese of Sacramento.
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.
He Was, truly, FATHER Brennan
I was going through my computer storage files today when I came across this eulogy I wrote on the death of Father Brennan Connelly, the longtime Prefect of Discipline at St. Joe's. A portion of this was printed in the Holy Name Province Newsletter with his official obituary. I don't believe I ever posted this piece here on the Aroma Hill page.
He was truly “Father” Brennan
I received the sad news Friday afternoon that the man who had so much influence upon all of us in our formative years at Callicoon had passed away. I share the sentiments of so many of my own classmates that Brennan was wonderfully suited for his years in Callicoon. Despite the fact that he would live on and minister fully forty years after the closing of the seminary, it seemed very fitting that Holy Name Province’s Facebook announcement of his death would observe that he is remembered by so many, in and out of the Province today, for his formative work.
Everyone who passed through Callicoon during his years will naturally have very personal recollections and impressions. In my own case, I was not particularly close to Brennan in Callicoon; it was in later years as a priest friar that I developed a warm and profitable association with him as an adult. And yet I am very grateful to him for his influence upon me and my generation in my formative years.
He was for me an exemplary priest. He was not charismatic, his sermons did not rival Fulton Sheen’s, and he was not much of one for gimmicks, trends, and junk. He was a man rooted in a deep faith whose example was that of rigorous faithfulness, personal discipline, loyalty to duty, physical fitness, scholarship, and wholesomeness. It is no mystery that he was a successful disciplinarian; he himself was disciplined. He led by example and enjoyed credibility among the students because he never told us to do what he himself was not already doing.
Over the years what has remained with me is his healthy masculinity, a virtue of his that I appreciate more and more as I observe the American Church over time. Healthy men are not much found in the priesthood today. I still smile when I think of Brennan conducting Marian devotions; he was one of few individuals who could rise above the smarminess of Marian excesses. I really miss him on the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
His great gift to Callicoon as an institution [and I use that word in multiple senses] was his steadiness at the helm. We all know what a wacky place the hill could be, and that some of the friars and students were ill suited for that kind of common life. One did not have to be particularly close to Brennan to profit from the stability and even handedness he brought to the seminary. In all six years of Callicoon I can never remember exerting emotional energy worrying about my interactions with him. He was level headed and constant, day in and day out. If you screwed up, it was your doing; the punishment was administered, the time done, and the slate wiped clean. I cannot recall him ever playing head games. By sixth year he trusted me with a lot of responsibility for different things. One unfortunate day just before college graduation, I forgot to clean the sixth year class room. Brennan, always a man of duty, summoned me to his office after dinner. You guys know the drill. Anyway, I stood before his desk. I was embarrassed, to say the least. But so was he. It was awkward. But he knew he had to say something, and finally he said softly, “I’m disappointed.” One of my most painful moments in Callicoon; I would have preferred ten outbursts from his predecessor, but I brought it on myself, and he paid me the ultimate compliment of being honest, not easy for either of us.
On a lighter note, I told him one day in sixth year that I had a female pen-pal in London. This puzzled him; he was still coming to grasp the new “liberality” of the times, and I really hadn’t broken any rules, but I thought I better tell him. He had to sit quietly and think for a moment, and finally he said, “Well, just don’t let this turn your head.”
If Brennan played a critical role as Prefect of Discipline from 1964 on, consider his pivotal role in earlier years when he served under his predecessor. Not to speak ill of the dead, but you-know-who was not suited for his position. He could be moody, carry grudges, unpredictable, and in my view generally counterproductive in the formation of young men toward the life of Francis of Assisi. I have no way of knowing precisely, but I have wondered over the years if Brennan’s presence on the scene kept a bad situation from getting worse. At any rate, it was a good day when he assumed the reins.
I have several funny memories of Brennan. I went out for the baseball team all six years and finally “won” a spot in sixth year as a catcher when Matt Seymour went on to join the service. Mike McCarthy also made the squad as a catcher. I took my new responsibilities very seriously, going down into town to buy the prerequisite protection for the family jewels, etc., on Brennan’s recommendation. When the first regular season game came along, Brennan said to Mike and me, “This is going to be a tough game. How about letting Buddy Ward catch this one?” It turned out that all the games were tough games, and Mike and I passed the season talking election politics at the end of the bench. Brennan approached coaching sports as Hippocrates approached medicine, his first principle being: “Do no harm.”
But over the next two decades, when our paths would cross, we always talked hockey; many discussions about the relative merits of the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres. In 1985 he and I participated in a dreadful Provincial Chapter of elected delegates in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was the kind of Chapter that violated the Geneva Conventions. Neither Brennan nor I were exactly “the meeting type.” One morning, though, he made a point to walk over to my discussion table and whisper in my ear, “Barrasso pitched a shut-out last night.” [This was a reference to Buffalo Sabres’ goalie Tom Barrasso denying the Boston Bruins a hockey goal.] First things first.
Brennan preached a mission in my mother’s parish in Hamburg, New York, some years ago. My mother’s primary recollection was that he was in great physical pain and suffered with dignity. It is my understanding that he had significant back difficulties after we had him in Callicoon. Whatever his precise ailments, it is good to know that he has passed to a new life where every tear will be wiped away.
I have spoken of my gratitude for his “predictability” as our daily leader, but I have heard first-hand accounts of his extraordinary interventions and compassion for students with personal difficulties and crosses. His was probably more complex that I ever knew, but ever the Franciscan, he probably had a little of Ernie Banks in him, “always a great day to play two” as Mr. Cub used to say.
A great part of my history has passed away. I hope I have imbibed enough of his faith to meet him again in a better place. And I pray for the Church that more of our new candidates for priesthood in the US might be cut from his cloth.
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
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