Monday, September 21, 2009

Catholic seminarians embrace very strict rules

Published: September 19, 2009

DENVER -- The seminarians' wallets are empty, except for driver's licenses and insurance cards. To buy clothes or anything else, they must ask their superiors for money -- an exercise in obedience and a reminder that material things aren't important.

They have virtually no time alone, on or off campus, and are required to travel in pairs, like Jesus' disciples. They live in a world without cell phones or personal computers, and their evenings end promptly at 10.

No Roman Catholic seminary is a resort, but few men who study for the priesthood endure the sort of rules that govern life at the Redemptoris Mater House of Formation, which is in a leafy residential neighborhood in southeast Denver.

Redemptoris Mater is a new experiment in molding Catholic priests who are faithful to church teaching and authority, and zealous in their desire to lead other Catholics down that same road.

On one hand, the rules are a throwback to 50 years ago, when would-be priests led regimented existences apart from the rest of the world. But Redemptoris Mater men also teach the faith at parishes and spend two years on mission trips, knocking on doors looking for Catholics in Bronx housing projects or Minneapolis suburbs.

The rules "are difficult to get used to, but it's because we come from this very individualistic society, where it's just me," says seminarian Joseph Toledo. "Those things have to be torn down. But it isn't like we're living in a bubble, either."

Toledo, the 29-year-old son of a Puerto Rican cab driver, was one of the few American-born seminarians on the rolls in 2008-09. There were 33 students from 14 countries.

In this, they reflect the changing face of the U.S. priesthood. Their greater ethnic diversity and hunger to show fidelity to the church are hallmarks of the coming generation of priests, according to a study released last month by the National Religious Vocation Conference, an organization of Catholic vocation directors. In other ways, seminarians of Redemptoris Mater -- the name is Latin for "Mother of the Redeemer" -- stand apart from their peers.

The seminary is not the province of a religious order or a diocese headed by priests and bishops. Instead, Redemptoris Mater seminarians and the priests who oversee them come from Neocatechumenal Way communities, groups of 20 to 50 who bond over intense study and an evangelism foreign to most Catholics.

The Way, an international movement largely run by Catholic lay people, is controversial; some critics say it is separatist and causes division in parishes, though its defenders deny it.

The group's approach to discipline at the seminaries it operates in the United States -- besides Denver, seminaries have opened in Boston, Dallas, Newark, N.J., and the Maryland suburbs of Washington -- has attracted notice in important places.

When a Vatican office summarized a 2005-06 study of U.S. seminaries seeking answers to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, it recommended that seminaries make their rules more demanding so men shed a "worldly style of life" -- and it suggested that Redemptoris Mater seminaries were examples worth following.

Most U.S. seminaries loosened their rules after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, says the Rev. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence and adjunct professor of theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland. "Our task then was to train seminarians to be in the world, to know it, but not to be of it any profound secular sense."

Some Catholics, particularly conservatives, believe vocations to the priesthood dropped drastically post-Vatican II in part because seminaries allowed too much freedom, resulting in dissent and short-lived vocations. Others point to societal changes, including much smaller Catholic families that shrink the candidate pool.

The reasons for decline may be in dispute, but the numbers are not: The number of priests in the U.S. has dropped from 58,000 in 1965 to 40,000 today. The last decade has seen an uptick in ordinations; this year's class is 472, up from 442 in 2000. But it's still not enough to replenish the priesthood's aging ranks.

The Rev. Federico Colautti, vice rector of the Redemptoris Mater, says the seminary's prohibitions on television, the off-campus buddy system and other rules are meant to foster communion, or togetherness -- especially at an international seminary, where structure provides safe harbor for new arrivals, many of whom come from poor countries and suffer culture shock.

"It's important to have a time in your life in which you experience that it's possible to live without TV, that you don't need the Internet. It's possible to overcome temptation, to have a celibate life, a chaste life. The society presents you these things as impossible. So if they're impossible, you don't even fight it, you say, 'What the heck?' The culture is always pressing, pressing." Some seminarians follow a twisting path to the priesthood. Others seem preordained.

Toledo, who arrived in 1999, started dressing like a priest for Halloween when he was 3 growing up in Bridgeport, Conn. He pretended to say Mass at a desk in his room.

Why the priesthood?

"It's really hard to answer," Toledo says. "There is no one reason. When God calls, you know, why not? . . . The 'why' is that people are suffering. People need the church, the sacraments. People need to be baptized. The sick need to be visited. There is a need."

On a Saturday morning in late May, Toledo gathered with two classmates. The setting was the sacristy of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the equivalent of backstage at the city's towering white Catholic symbol.

A few weeks earlier, the three men sat in the back of an empty classroom and chose the Gospel reading for this, their ordination Mass.

The unanimous pick was Matthew 9:35-38. It concludes with Jesus telling his disciples: "The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest."

It was a fitting choice. Thirteen years into the existence of Redemptoris Mater Denver, this bright morning would usher in the seminary's 11th, 12th and 13th priests, all bound for parishes in Colorado.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I too am a lay faithful walking the way and truly find the spirit of Jesus alive in our midst despite our unworthiness. The Neocatechumenal way is an answer to our present generation.