When I tell people I was in the seminary for 3 years studying to be a priest. I get a wide range of responses. People that know me already know and if they know me well enough they are not surprised. It’s the people that only know me professionally or are only acquaintances that seem surprised. I don’t hide the fact that I went to seminary and I don’t hide the fact or reasons that I left. My wife and kids are evidence that I left and I believe further evidence that it was always the right reason. I know that God called me in and I believe that God called me out of the seminary and it had a profound effect on my life. In future blogs I will explain in more depth the ways that affects shows up in my life, even out of religious settings.
For this post I wanted to address a question I get about everyday life of at a seminary. Future blog post may deal with specifics of discernment, why I went to seminary and why i left but for now i want to talk about life in seminary itself. There is also thoughts churning about an e-book of my whole story of in and out as a whole.
Let start with a typical conversation
Acquaintance: What were you doing before you this?
Me: Before this I was in the seminary for three years studying to be a Catholic priest
Acquaintance: *short pause* What was that like? Was it difficult to live like that?
Having gotten this question in various forms from various people, I can see where the person asking the questions stands based on how they ask. A tone of “that’s interesting” verse a tone of “that’s awful, how did you ever survive”. Ninety eight percent of the people asking have never been to or seen a seminary, they have a vague concept of what it is or what happens there.
So I’m going to unveil the mystery behind what happens in a seminary. These are only my personal experiences at a specific time and place. Others who have been in formation will have had vastly different experiences. So with that disclaimer I will tell about my everyday life in seminary.
As far as everyday life it is very similar to a college experience with a few extra things added in. Most of the students have some “real world” experience in academics or in the working force so for vast majority of us this was not our first time out on our own, most of us were many years removed from under our parents roof. The diversity within a seminary is one the the most amazing things. We had some guys that went into college seminary after high school but they were the minority. Most of us had been in jobs ranging from mortuary technician, to burger king manager, some computer guys, teachers and the guy that was an anesthesiologist who still had his license and was planning to drop it when he got ordained. The rumor around seminary was that the doctor frequently received job offers with six figure salary attached to leave seminary. If that isn’t more pressure then i don’t know what is. Last i heard the doctor was a faithful priest in New Jersey.
I went to seminary in 2005 the church scandal had already broke and the church was in repair mode. I was in seminary during the Vatican visitation to all seminaries. I was in my first year so they didn’t ask me much because we had only been there four months, some of my upper classmate got more questions in their interview with the panel.
The schedule during the week typically went like this (though I know other seminaries have mass in the morning)
8:00 - Morning prayer in chapel
8:30- 11:00 class periods
1:15 - 4:30 class periods
5:15 evening prayer
After dinner was study/free time
The seminary treated us as the adults we were, but also monitored us to make sure we were fulfilling our obligations. So you were responsible for getting to chapel on time, but if you frequently overslept you would get called in to find out why.
The coursework was college/graduate level course work in the areas of theology(moral, systematic, scripture, history and liturgy) students coming without a philosophy background had to take two years of philosophy before getting to theology.
Like college you live with each other in a dorm. Everyone has there own room with a bed, desk, dresser and sink in the corner. We also had a telephone and a basic cable hookup. The toilets, showers and washing machines are at the end of the hall.
Bonds are formed among the groups you see most often usually by class year, diocese and sometimes nationality.
They do not call it formation for nothing. The administration is taking what arrives at the door and trying to mold it into a priest that can be everything to everybody. Not everyone is cut out for that responsibility. It is the job of the formators to make sure they are doing there job. They assess the students in classes and social situations(meal times etc.) to see how they are doing. The student is also discerning the responsibility of priesthood as well. Each student is assigned a faculty mentor to help guide him and keep him aware of any concerns that the faculty have about him. The mentor's role is that of advocate for the student.
Each student also has a spiritual director with whom he is working out his discernment. The spiritual director is a confidont and cannot share the topics that are covered in spiritual direction. Some students choose an outside spiritual director just for a greater wall of privacy. The mentor and the spiritual director cannot be the same person.
Though the faculty meet throughout the year, once a year they have a vote, usually by class, on who should progress to the next level or who should be released. This is no easy task for anyone. They want everyone to progress by they also have an obligation to the people of God and to the bishop of the diocese that they are not just sailing people through.
Coming in everyone has been through screenings by their own diocese as well as psychological evaluations so that takes out some of the people. And if you get to the seminary you are obviously serious about it and are starting a deeper discernment. Which was one of my problems with the A & E mini series “God or the Girl” which aired five or six years ago but that another story.
Being a small community everyone knows when “vote” day is, if a person get asked to leave it should not come as a surprise to him as he has should have been discussing it with his mentor for months. But when someone is asked to leave especially if it unexpected it can be jarring and sad. The seminary will only say “Joe Smith is no longer in formation” so sometimes you don’t know if Joe Smith left on his own or was asked to leave. That is part of seminary as they try and give the people the best priest that they can.
Seminary life is college life with added pressure of formation and more prayer. It is not for everyone except those called to it. It is one of the best fraternities I have ever seen with bonds formed that will last a lifetime. Even after leaving I had many of my priest friends concelebrate my wedding. The homilist remarked “you usually only see this many priest at an ordination not a wedding”. My time in seminary wasn’t without trials but overall formation works and i am a better person for having done it.