9/27/2012 11:42:00 AM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY Why does seminary take so long?
BY DEACON SCOTT VANDERVEER
Like a bunch of backpack-wearing youngsters running to the bus stop, every September seminarians return to school after a summer of hands-on work in parishes around the Diocese of Albany.
For many of us, this is not our favorite time of year. Summer parish assignments are full of meaningful interactions with parishioners and a chance to experience the ins and outs of parish life. It reminds us why we are becoming priests: to serve and love God by serving and loving people.
Many guys find the pressure of studies, combined with the scrutiny of being under a microscope as our suitability to become spiritual leaders is assessed, to be grueling. Seminary life can be enriching and enjoyable, but usually it's not. For many, it is a grind that must be endured while the goal looms in the misty distance.
A seminarian can expect to make this annual September return to the seminary seven or more times during the formation process. I am often asked why, if the shortage of priests is so critical, does it take so long to become one? Shouldn't the Vatican expedite this process so we can have more priests?
Cutting some years out of seminary may sound appealing (just ask any seminarian and watch his face light up), but as I look over the curriculum over the past almost four years of my time in the "major" seminary (the theology studies that make up last four years before ordination to the priesthood), I'm hard-pressed to figure out what to cut out in order to save time.
Every semester we take five courses, which gives us the number credits of we need in order to earn a Master of Divinity degree (a prerequisite for priesthood) in four years. To take a year away would mean that we would need to cut 10 courses.
What could be cut? Church history? That doesn't seem wise, considering that ignoring our past will doom us to repeat the same mistakes and ignore the wisdom of our ancestors.
Should we cut out the classes on pastoral counseling? Clearly, a priest needs to be present for too many critical moments of life and death to omit those.
We cannot get by without the three classes on public speaking and homilies. We have all known the pain of sitting through a lousy sermon. Without good preaching, people's faith shrivels.
The importance of having a love for Scripture in order to have a meaningful prayer life and to preach God's Word makes it clear that the Scripture classes can't be cut. The list goes on.
Every professor gives us a class evaluation to fill out at the end of the semester. One question asks, "How essential to the mission of our seminary is this class?" It says something that, for all but two of my classes, I wrote, "absolutely essential."
It seems that there is simply not much fat to cut off the meat. Many people have seen the bumper sticker that says, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
Further, seminary is meant to be about more than just academics. In 1992, Blessed Pope John Paul II reorganized the requirements for seminaries worldwide under a system now often referred to as the "four pillars." One of those pillars is academics, but the others are spirituality, pastoral training and human formation.
The pope had the insight that a seminarian who is lost in his own personal life cannot begin to be expected to lead and nurture others in faith as a priest without healing and growth.
Seminary is meant to be a time to work through our own human dysfunctions and tend to our brokenness, our blocks in prayer and our interpersonal weaknesses. It is as much about personal growth as it is a time to memorize the names of the popes in order.
Cutting a year out would take time away from the attention to developing a future priest as a whole person - spiritually, emotionally, physically and psychologically. The fruit that can result from spending that time well makes it worth the investment.
In our Church history course we learned that seminary formation in the Catholic Church has changed wildly over the past 2,000 years. There have been times that the training was so loose, there was practically no structure at all. At other times, seminary was so rigid, the candidates could barely breathe.
While what we have today is far from perfect and needs constructive critique to improve, we must acknowledge the complexity of the task and recognize that, if the solutions were simple, it would have taken us a lot less time to find them.
(Transitional Deacon Scott VanDerveer is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass. He formerly taught at St. Pius X School in Loudonville.)