Restoring a Shattered Trust

Seminarians deeply dissapointed by clergy-abuse crisis but look forward to ordination and service to the church

The headlines have settled down, but for a few months last spring and summer, it wasn’t an especially easy time to be a Catholic. Even on the good days, feelings ranging from bewilderment to disgust to betrayal surfaced as the media feasted on excruciating details surrounding clergy sexual-abuse scandals.

If you felt bad, think what it must have been like for the men who are preparing to commit their lives to the priesthood. How has the crisis affected seminarians at the undergraduate-level St. John Vianney Seminary and the graduate-level St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, both located at the University of St. Thomas?

It hasn’t been easy for them, either. But from interviews with the seminarians and their rectors, it is clear that the seminarians are pursuing their vocations with open eyes and a solid resolve to be effective, well balanced, happy and holy priests and church leaders.   

The clergy crisis “didn’t shake my motivation at all,” explained Thomas Gehrz, a sophomore at St. John Vianney. “I hope God is calling me even more, and offering me the opportunity to be a good priest and serve the church.

“This has made me realize even more clearly the importance of the decision I am in the process of making.”

Bennet Tran, a 30-year-old who is enrolled at the St. Paul Seminary, keeps in mind the “many good, dedicated and holy priests I know, and that is one of the things I hold onto in these difficult times.

“This is a time of trial for the church,” Tran said, “but my heart really goes out to the victims and that is where our focus needs to be, and it is.”

Has seminary enrollment suffered as a result of the crisis?

The Rev. William Baer, rector of the archdiocese-owned St. John Vianney, said that while this fall’s enrollment of 72 is down a few students from last year, the number of new seminarians is 26, compared to 20 new students a year ago. The seminarians come from 25 U.S. dioceses, a record-high for St. John Vianney.

At the St. Paul Seminary, enrollment has seen small but steady declines since 1998. This fall enrollment is 56, compared to 65 a year ago, 71 in 2000, 80 in 1999 and 85 in 1998.

“The typical college seminarian comes from a family of deep faith,” Baer said. “The families and the seminarians share great concern as a result of the clergy-abuse crisis, but their faith is not shaken. Rather, the seminarians have fresh resolve to become good priests who will help restore a trust that has been shattered.”

Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., a member of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity faculty and widely regarded as a leading expert on U.S. Catholic seminaries, said that there are indications that seminary enrollment has dropped nationally this fall.

“It’s too early to know for sure, but I’m starting to think that the clergy crisis is having at least some impact on seminary enrollment,” she said. “This issue is on their minds, and it gives them pause.”

Schuth, author of two books and many magazine and journal articles on seminary life, echoes Baer’s comments. “I think resolve and resilience are two good words to describe today’s seminarians,” she said. “They share a deep resolve to be the best priests they can be, and they see the need and value of the priesthood.”

“There was nothing good about the clergy crisis, nothing,” added Bishop Frederick Campbell, who recently became rector of the St. Paul Seminary. “But good things came come from it. It is a very painful process, but if we respond authentically and wisely, we can restore trust and confidence.”

Campbell noted that while the crisis was in the news nationally earlier this year, it had surfaced in Minnesota years earlier. As a result, the archdiocese reacted very carefully, he said, in part by developing a new curriculum for seminarians. The curriculum, he said, has proven to be effective and it continues to be refined.

The curriculum, Campbell explained, focuses on four areas of formation: the first is human, which deals with general psychological health; the second is spiritual, which involves an understanding of the work of God in their lives, devotion to liturgy, and prayer life; the third is academic, which provides an intellectual foundation in theology and an understanding of the Scriptures; and the fourth is pastoral, which involves service to a congregation and understanding the life of a parish.

“Ordination is not the end of this process,” Campbell said. “We begin this formation process in the seminary, but it continues throughout the life of the priest.”

A surprisingly rigorous screening process now is required before a man is invited to enter the seminary. While the process has been in place for some time at the graduate-level St. Paul Seminary, it was decided about a year ago to also require the same level of screening for those interested in enrolling at St. John Vianney.

The Rev. Thomas Wilson, director of vocations for the archdiocese, said the tests won’t necessarily say if a young man will become a good priest or not, but it can help detect if he might have a difficult time living the life of a priest.

Candidates start by taking a battery of tests that examine character and personality. They are asked to write a personal history and participate in lengthy interviews with Wilson and a professional psychologist. Background information is gathered on the candidate’s family history, spiritual life, psychological and sexual history, relationships, character and reasons why he wants to become a priest.

“We ask them to do a lot,” Wilson said. “The screening process could be described as both grueling and in-depth. I personally spend 10 to 20 hours with each candidate. In addition there is the time spent taking the tests and being interviewed by the psychologist.”

In the end, Wilson estimates, only about a third of those who inquire are accepted. “If we don’t feel there is a good chance for them, we don’t encourage men to enter the seminary. Human beings are complicated creatures, so there are no guarantees.” Wilson said. The screening process results in more candidates who are likely to be ordained, he explained.

“When we present a candidate to the seminary, it is like presenting a snapshot of that person at that time in his life,” Wilson said. “The formation process that takes place during the years that the seminarian is here, however, is more like a video; it is an ongoing process.”

The Rev. David Kohner is director of spiritual formation at the St. Paul Seminary, and works on both the human and spiritual formation of seminarians.

While the formation process covers many fronts, the theme of celibacy is woven throughout the four to six years that a seminarian spends at the St. Paul Seminary. “This is a time of both formation and discernment,” Kohner said. “Discernment is the process of reaching a decision.

“Some men here discover through this process that they are called to marriage and not to the priesthood,” Kohner said. “We feel that’s a success, too. They have discovered what God has in mind for their lives.

“Because of the clergy crisis, we at the seminary feel a heightened sense of responsibility regarding the formation of future priests so they live healthy and holy lives. Each year we refine the process. The stories we’ve read (about the clergy crisis) point out what can happen when things go awry. Many of these cases go back 20 years ago or more, when seminary formation programs were nothing compared to what we have in place today.”

Schuth, who holds St. Thomas’ Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion, feels there would be fewer clergy-abuse cases today if the screening and formation programs now in place in most seminaries had been in place years ago.

“There have been very few offenders among priests who have been ordained in more recent years,” Schuth said. “I saw a major shift in seminary formation programs in the early 1990s, following some of those earlier abuse cases.”

From his work with the seminarians, Kohner feels that the clergy crisis has strengthened their resolve to be good priests. “They say, OK, some priests have had difficulties, but I’m resolved to live my life as a priest in a way that is healthy and holy.”

At St. John Vianney, Baer said he has discussed the clergy crisis with seminarians individually as well as in open forums. “They read the news like everyone else,” he said. “They have a sincere interest in the issues, but they are eager to move forward, too.

“I have seen anger and tremendous dismay and disappointment in how these matters were dealt with by some church leaders over past decades,” Baer said. “But I also see a very robust spirit here. The seminarians are bucking up under adversity, rather than being discouraged by it.”

“I describe our seminarians as realistic and hopeful,” he added.

Both Kohner and Baer agree the clergy crisis has brought attention to seminary formation programs. “We’ve never had so much scrutiny,” Baer said, “not just from the church, but also from the broader community. Seminary formation was never before what you might describe as a hot news topic.”

“It sometimes feels like we are under a microscope,” was the way Kohner put it.

Baer and Kohner also agree a lasting effect will be an increased emphasis on the importance of a strong support system for priests.

“We no longer live in the ‘Lone Ranger’ era where priests go off alone to work in a parish,” Baer said. “We will see a greater emphasis on the priestly fraternity. They are ordained into a community … a fraternity … and they must keep that as part of their support system.”

As Kohner put it, “You don’t live celibacy alone.”

Another change noted by Baer is what he called a return “to old-fashioned holiness. Congregations want their priests to be genuinely holy, in an authentic and integrated way,” he said.

If the clergy crisis brought anguish to American Catholics, it apparently has prompted many of them to offer words of encouragement to the church’s future priests.

Tran, like all the seminarians interviewed for this story, has felt a strong sense of support from the community. “People will say things like, ‘The church needs you more than ever,’ ” he said.

Alex Carlson, who attended a public university for a year before enrolling this semester at St. John Vianney, said some people he encountered had a mistaken view of the extent of the crisis.

“I’d explain that it was only a very small percentage of priests (who were involved in the abuse),” he recalled. “But still, it wasn’t an easy thing. I felt no matter what, though, I’ll get strong support from my family, and from those who know me.

“This is a good place for me,” he said of St. John Vianney. “This is a good place for me to make my decision (about the priesthood) … or rather for God to help me make that decision.”

“I’ve had many people offer me some extra words of support,” recalled Paul Tracy, 36, of the St. Paul Seminary. “There was an additional meaning in their words; it was like ‘don’t be discouraged.’

“Overall, I think people have been very gracious,” he said.

Tracy entered the seminary after a career in business; he is looking forward to ordination in 2006 and hopes to serve in a parish. “My sense of vocation is strong, and I’m hopeful for the future,” he concluded. “This has been a painful process, but the church will be stronger, and that is a good thing.”