Seminarians and Priests: To be… or not to be…


+Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, accompanied by the first traditionally-formed seminarians of the canonically-founded Priestly Society of St. Pius X, at Écône, Switzerland (1970)

{Nota prævia: This article was first published, in its substantial form, in the Catholic blog, OnePeterFive. It is now being published here on Harvesting the Fruit, somewhat modified}.

First of all, let us begin with this certitude of our holy Catholic Faith: anything—and I do mean anything at all—that harms the priesthood in any way, shape or form, starting with the seminary life, most definitely comes straight from the Evil One. Of this we can be quite sure. Why? Because the Catholic Priesthood is the sublime, sacramental participation of those men who are called to this vocation, in the eternal High Priesthood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, by which we are redeemed of our sins.

It is precisely through the faithful exercise of the priesthood, that Our Lord makes himself present in his Holy Catholic Church, particularly in his mysteries, that is, his sacraments, which He himself instituted for us and for our salvation.

So, it should not be surprising that anything that serves as a stumbling block to the priesthood, smacks of a malignant nature, because it thus attacks the means of our redemption. In the Traditional Divine Office, each night at the prayer of Compline, the Apostle St. Peter (1 Peter 5: 8-9) warns us: Fratres: Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte: quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, quærens quem dévoret: cui resístite fortes in fide / Brethren: Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist ye, strong in faith.

So yes indeed, we must be wary and vigilant. This means therefore, that we must be alert when we witness, hear, or read something that seems to somehow go against the traditional conception of the priesthood. The all too-typical liturgical upheaval that has beset the Church after the Second Vatican Council, sadly, has made a rather shocking mess of things.

Let us not be ingenuous: obviously, we are not talking here about mere changes in the rubrics, but rather profound changes in the Church’s sacred liturgy, under the clever guise of “liturgical reform,” allegedly mandated by the Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (04-XII-1963), which exert a correspondingly profound change in the exercise of the Catholic priesthood, directly—and negatively—affected.

One such “bad fruit” is one of the underlying problems of our postconciliar liturgical woes: the present condition of the celibate priesthood following the expansive absorption of many sacred functions by the laity that were formerly reserved to the ordained.

There are obvious derived consequences of a “reformed” postconciliar liturgy, which usurps the sacred functions by the laity that were traditionally reserved to ordained men… and still are reserved to the ordained in the Traditional Roman Rite.

In the Traditional conception, these sacred functions are not conceived as clerical “privileges”, in detriment to the “unworthy laity,” first and foremost because the clerical state is not a privilege at all—it’s a vocation, that is, it’s a call from God, not a personal decision that originates from within—and secondly, though certainly not less important, because all clerics are just as unworthy as any laity.

Furthermore, the continual and intense disaccord between the Traditional Roman liturgy and the so-called “reformed” postconciliar liturgy, serves as conclusive proof—for those who are open-minded enough and willing to see it—that something is rather seriously amiss, for… how can there possibly be such a heated fight between, essentially, two rites of the same Church?, or if you will, in Benedict XVI’s very unconvincing expression, between two forms of the same Roman Rite? In principle, there can be no opposition, but we all know well enough, there most certainly is a staunch opposition.

But it has been made rather clear why this antagonism between the Usus Antiquior and the Novus Ordo: The late Cardinal Giovanni Benelli said it best. When asked if the traditional Mass would ever return {this was long before the indult was granted by Pope John Paul II in 1984}, he answered negatively in rather emphatic tones. The reason: ‘the traditional Mass represented an ecclesiology at variance with the one articulated at Vatican II.’

And so, there we have it! The logical conclusion is readily apparent. We are at the heart of the problem, a problem which can only be corrected from the head, from the top, from Rome. And things will not get any better—indeed, cannot— get any better, until such time Rome acknowledges publicly (not merely certain prelates privately) and at the highest level of apostolic authority, that the liturgical reform of Vatican II has not been a reform in the traditional sense of organic liturgical development, but rather it supposes a break with Catholic liturgical Tradition. Authentic liturgical reform requires organic development.

Thus, in these past fifty-odd years after Vatican II, we cannot speak about authentic “liturgical reform,” precisely because there are more than sufficient reasons to question and reject that it has been undertaken with organic development: it simply has not. And in particular, when the ordained priesthood is deprived of many of its sacred functions, supposedly in favor of more participation by the laity, we are affecting—make no mistake—not just what the priest does, but also what a priest is, and who he is. A genuine Catholic conception of the nature of the Church is not just a functional one, it’s not a mere functionality, but of being; therefore it’s an essentially sacramental comprehension.

That is to say, persons and things are, before they do, or to put in another way: before doing, we are. In the Catholic Church, one does not merely do things, one is, first and foremost. In the Catholic Church, we do not do into order to become; we are and therefore we do accordingly to who we are. Thus, the laity cannot do certain things a priest does, because one would need to be a priest. So no, more than liturgical reform, we are talking about a liturgical revolution which has brought about a change, with certain alterations in the Traditional conception of the liturgy and the priesthood, that can reasonably be deemed to be major and substantial, not secondary or minor.

Take, for instance, the Catholic ordained priesthood, and the participation in the common priesthood of the lay faithful. I purposefully have said Traditional conception—yes, with a capital “T”—because I am not referring here now to mere human traditional conventions throughout the centuries, which are legitimately subject to change, but rather the conception of the Church’s sacred liturgy, ordained priesthood, and common priesthood of the laity through Baptism, founded in Catholic Tradition.

That is, founded on divine Revelation and Apostolic Tradition, which pertains to the immutable sacred deposit of faith, and thus is of perennial value, not subject to change at the whim of the passing age. This is absolutely crucial to grasp and understand. And so, when everyone and anyone gets the chance to do everything, the immediate loss of sacred exclusiveness sets in, whereby nothing is sacred anymore, not even the Catholic priesthood.

On one occasion, a woman faithful told me how she believed that things were much better now in the Church’s liturgy (sic), whereas as before Vatican II, they had been taught never to touch the Lord with the hands nor even the sacred vessels, because they were to understand how unworthy they were to have done so… Well, said I, do you think that Vatican II—which mentions nothing regarding this—has actually made anybody more worthy now to handle the Lord with his or her hands, and the sacred vessels, than before? Really? Can a Council of the Church, by some “letter” or “spirit,” really change our sinful being, just like that!, and make us more worthy of the sacred mysteries of our Redemption?

Does that not sound a bit presumptuous and even palagian? All of us—and yes, including us priests—are still as unworthy of the Lord as ever before, for in the Traditional Roman Rite, the priest says the Confíteor before the faithful do, and later on says for himself at receiving the Lord in Communion, and before distributing Holy Communion to the faithful, each saying no less than three times: Dómine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea / Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

During my diocesan seminary days (1989-1996) in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, there is something about those years that I wish to discuss: a way of thinking that was always repeated to us seminarians, a custom that I personally never understood in the way it was presented, for I sincerely believed it to be seriously inaccurate, and indeed utterly wrong, and thus not at all helpful in the pastoral care of vocations and conducive to seminary life. I’m referring specifically to what were formerly known as Minor Orders that seminarians gradually received on their way to the priesthood.

Pope Paul VI substantially changed the discipline regarding Minor Orders (Ordines Minores) with his Motu Proprio, Ministeria Quædam (15-VIII-1972). Only God knows how the Pope had envisioned this change in liturgical discipline, which he certainly undertook with legitimate apostolic authority, though I daresay—given the utter liturgical disaster this has produced afterwards—with unsound prudential judgement.

In hindsight, though, one cannot but respectfully wonder at the great imprudence of having done so, given the enormous confusion these changes have wrought, in addition to having contributed in no small way to the calamitous results in vocations to the priesthood… after Vatican II, beginning with seminary life.

In his Motu Proprio, Paul VI abolished the ancient rite of Tonsure, that was conferred to first or second-year seminarians, thereby admitting them to the clerical state—if not yet properly “clerics” until the Diaconate—and henceforth those seminarians were to wear the cassock as a visible sign of their priestly vocation.

They had been admitted by the bishop, successor of the apostles, and set apart for their sublimely sacred vocation. In its place came into being the very simple Rite of Admission, whereby the local bishop would publicly admit seminarians as candidates for Holy Orders, typically near the end of the fourth academic year, in a six-year formation plan.

Also abolished was the former Minor Order of the Subdiaconate (which in the time of Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) passed to one of the Major Orders, though not pertaining to the substance of the sacrament of Holy Orders)—perhaps the most surprising change made by Paul VI—as well as abolishing the Minor Orders of Ostiary, Exorcist, Lector, and Acolyte.

The last two—Lector and Acolyte—were retained but were no longer to be considered—nor referred to anymore—as Minor Orders, but rather Ministries. Ministries, furthermore, that were no longer exclusively reserved for seminarians on their vocational path to sacred Holy Orders of Deacon and Priest, but susceptible to also being conferred to idoneous male laity, excluding women.

To my knowledge, however, nowhere in his Motu Proprio does the Pope actually mention that these Ministries of Lector and Acolyte are to be considered and referred to as Lay Ministries, but this has been the norm, in practice, since 1972. And this is not merely seriously inaccurate; it wreaks utter havoc in the conception of the Catholic priesthood and in the heart and mind of seminarians.

And so, here is one perfect example of things that have been seriously damaging to the Catholic priesthood. Throughout all of my seminary days, it was insisted that we “students” were not properly “seminarians” until the celebration of the Rite of Admission, which in my home diocese didn’t take place until the Thursday of the third week of Eastertide—late April, early May—near the end of the fourth year. So we entered the seminary because we thought we had a calling, a vocation, to the priesthood, but we are continually told that we are not really seminarians until the end of the fourth year

How can that possibly be? Who or what were we supposed to be up until then, mere young university students, just like the rest of our lay friends in the world? Except that they studied other subjects while we studied philosophy and theology? Was that the only difference? Pretty much, it would seem. Well, except that they could meet girlfriends and a certain secular social life that we couldn’t have… or could we?

Was this a backdoor invitation to meet girls, just like the rest of any normal lay university students? After all, we were only “students”, not properly “seminarians,” right? But was this perhaps a subtle attempt to foment an implicit dislike of celibacy? Wasn’t the progressive cry for “optional celibacy” at its height after Vatican II? Ironically though, as if celibacy were not already “optional,” that is, nobody forces one to be a celibate!

Many who clamor for “optional celibacy” for priests, confuse the fact that celibacy is never imposed on anyone—thus, it’s always “optional” as it were—with the Church’s legitimate preference to choose among those men that God has given the gift of celibacy, for her priests. And of course, other details helped this state of things for us “students” of philosophy and theology: we dressed like normal young people, that is, no clerical shirt, no collar, no cassock (Heaven forbid!)—lest we think we weren’t ordinary laymen, just like our friends in the world.

At the Rite of Admission, one of seminary rectors at the time had the custom of handing out to the “students” who, after four years of ecclesiastical studies, mind you, were finally “seminarians,” a jacket pin of the Ichthys, that is, the symbol of the fish, that in the early centuries, during the Roman persecutions, was a secret identification of Christians. He said that this was now a symbol of the “catechist,” as a token for the seminarians who now were—finally!—candidates for Holy Orders. A symbol of the catechist? Really? Wow…

Why yes, of course, after having been only “students” of ecclesiastical studies for four years, and now becoming “seminarians,” supposedly for the first time in our lives, and thus now candidates for Holy Orders, we were given a token of the catechist—catechist who is normally a member of… you guessed it—the laity! We were always being reminded of our status as laymen, even now after four years of ecclesiastical studies, even now that we were properly admitted as seminarians and furthermore, candidates for Holy Orders.

Then in the Advent of the fifth year and in the Lent of the sixth year of ecclesiastical studies, we would be conferred the so-called “Lay Ministries” of Lector and Acolyte, respectively. But, how could these formerly called Minor Orders be possibly called “Lay Ministries” when even Pope Paul VI did not designate them as such in Ministeria Quædam, and when hardly any real laymen—that is, those who did not enter a seminary because they did not have a vocation to the priesthood, but rather a lay vocation in the world—have been conferred such ministries?

Since the dispositions of Paul VI in 1972, the only males who have been conferred these so-called “Lay Ministries” of Lector and Acolyte are… seminarians, after having been admitted as such in the Rite of Admission. Seminarians who by that time—finally!—were also considered formal candidates for Holy Orders!

But, alas, we were constantly reminded in the seminary, that these “Lay Ministries” were not previous steps in our way to Holy Orders—like the Minor Orders were traditionally—but rather “ministries” for “laymen.” Is that so? Really? But what in God’s name does that have to do with seminarians, since they will be ordained within two years?

Why aren’t ordinary laymen normally conferred such “Lay Ministries,” if indeed these ministries are for laymen? Why confer these “Lay Ministries” to seminarians at all, especially since these ministries were supposedly not gradual phases in our path to receiving Holy Orders? Or… was this not yet another reminder that we, now formally seminarians and candidates for the diaconate and the priesthood, were actually laymen all along? But… after ordination, too?

The sheer absurdity of this obsession for the laity, instilled in the daily lives of seminarians, has done untold harm to countless young men who entered the seminary, thinking that they had a calling to the priesthood… and being constantly hounded into believing that they were only laymen enrolled in ecclesiastical academics. That they must dress like laymen, that they should pretty much lead the life of a secular university student, insofar as possible. Of course, this was possible but obviously not always.

And then after ordination, realize that the laity would again practically invade all areas of pastoral care, from female and male lectors and acolytes—the latter, ironically, without being conferred the alleged “Lay Ministries,“ female and male Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, etc.

And to discover that a priest was no more than a “presider“ over the Eucharist, not a “celebrant“ who was unique since only he, a priest, can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I mean really… Is it any wonder at all how this has caused an unprecedented identity crisis in the priesthood after Vatican II? Is it any wonder that this sad state of affairs has not contributed to promoting vocations to the priesthood?

And yet for many, this priestly identity crisis and shortage of priestly vocations, are actually considered “blessings,” (sic!) since it was, after all, the promotion of the laity, apparently so long overdue: it was “the hour of the laity;“ moreover, it was their finest hour. But is it really? And even more so the question deserves to be asked, since it never occurs to those who avidly follow this seriously misdirected orientation, to “promote“ certain male laity… to the priesthood.

While it is true that in the Traditional Roman Rite, seminarians were such from day one, and upon receiving the Tonsure at some time during the first or second year, began to dress the cassock, and were considered to have entered into the clerical state, from a strictly theological point of view, a baptized male is, sacramentally speaking, a laymen until he is ordained deacon, by which he properly enters the clerical state, is it not also just as true that the laity have their own particular place in the Church, vocation, even? Lay vocation that the seminarian—be that in the Traditional Roman liturgy or in the Novus Ordo liturgy—simply does not have?

Is this not even what Vatican II teaches about the laity, their singular role in the Church, distinct from the clergy, and we may add, distinct from those who in principle are destined to be members of the clergy? So, as young men who, after some time of discernment, finally decide to enter a seminary, is it not more than reasonable to presume that such men thought that they had a calling from God, a vocation—not to the lay state, but rather to the priesthood?

After all, they did enter a seminary, you know… A seminary. Yes, you know, a place where—you would think—that men are formed to be… priests. But alas, things were the way they were, when they were. So yes, hence the title of this article: seminarians and priests… to be or not to be… That is the question. And this very serious question deserves a no-less serious answer. God forbid (!) that we “students” of ecclesiastical studies, and, after four years of preparation, “seminarians” finally! and candidates for Holy Orders, should ever have forgotten our lay state in life, and even begin to have entertained the sublime idea that we may, just may, perhaps… become and actually be priests one day, and forever, sacerdos in æternum, and even look the part!

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