Thursday, 17 February 2011

How to prepare young men for the priesthood

Much has been written recently about the qualities and characteristics of seminary training. This much I know. What is being dished out today is a watery gruel compared with the programme of fifty years ago. We do know, do we not? That any candidates that show any sign of having any form of spiritual rigour about them are ditched at interview stage. Any vestiges of depth or orthodoxy are sniffed out and the hapless candidate sent off with a flea in his ear.
This is, of course, a complete reversal of how it used to be. We know the great priests that are among us but, in numbers they are few. In my youth just about every priest was a hero, and that's not mawdling nostalgia, it's a fact.

Life in a West London parish kept a priest very busy; he, among many other things, had a watching brief over the following:-
Choir, Legion of Mary, St Stephen's Guild, Knights of St Columbus, Squires of St Columbus, Scouts, Cubs, Guides and Brownies, Union of Catholic Mothers,
Sunday School, Benediction, Secondary School, Convent, Hospital, House visits (2 per year), Confessions, plus, of course, daily Masses with four on a Sunday.

There were, undoubtedly, more duties that I cannot recall. But all of those clubs and societies were intensely active; it was not a case of putting in an appearance once or twice a year, it was more like every other meeting and most meetings were weekly.
The seminary grounding obviously prepared them well for such an ordeal and it's interesting to see a sample programme from a Junior Seminary. This programme was in existence up until 1967 (what happened then?) and it served to provide both Brothers and Priests for the White Fathers - another order that went into decline after Vatican II.


"The Priory, Bishop’s Waltham, Hampshire, served the Missionaries of Africa, called 'White Fathers’ because of their Arab-styled habit, as a junior seminary from 1912 to 1967. Some 1,000 boys passed through it in that time, of whom 163 became White Father priests or brothers, three of them bishops in Africa. Another 36 became priests or brothers elsewhere, of whom Abboy Cuthbert Johnson, a Benedictine from Bede’s home town of Jarrow, is a world authority on the Church's liturgy and Michael Fitzgerald became Archbishop. A front-bench Labour MP, England’s first doctor in Adult Religious education,  and many professional men among the old boys, indicates that the school provided a good secondary education, especially in the years when this could not have been guaranteed to every boy".


Now, I am no academic but I do appreciate that this is not the greatest of educational timetables but it is one that is rigorous with a very heavy bias on the spiritual life. That is what 14 year old boys who aspired to a vocation needed then. A more adult version is what young seminarians of 21 or so require today!
There are no social care elements, no weaving the web type theology just good, solid prayer, manual labour and Maths, English and Latin.
The end result for those boys that went on to Senior Seminary and eventually became brothers or priests were men that could hack life in Senegal, Mozambique, Angola and the rest. They could also, by default, manage British parishes very well and with a great deal of holiness and humour.

Teaching staff from a White Father's Seminary in Ireland


  1. Thanks for a fascinating post.

    I do wonder, though, how deep the kind of formation received by seminarians fifty years ago really went?

    After all, these would have been the same seminarians who, as young or youngish priests in the early 1970s, were enthusiastically embracing all the various liturgical and theological fads which spread throughout the Church like wildfire in that decade.

    What happened to them in the intervening years? What made so many men formed in one kind of Catholicism embrace a very different kind?

    I must admit I have no clear answers to these questions...

  2. Mark, it's a very good point. Having been around in the course of the changes I can tell you that no one appreciated how far they would go. It was a bit like the plot in Animal Farm. Changes happened one week and were announced, the next month, more major changes took place without any explanation. Prists and religious were both confused on the one hand and enthused on the other (because we were being told that this was a chance for the laity to join with the priesthood in a new evangelisation). I believe something like 5,000 religious left the church from c. 1969-1979 in the UK alone!