This article was originally published in September 2018. It was updated to be printed in a special edition accompanying the release of the list of names of clergy with substantiated accusations of sexual abuse of a minor.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” protagonist Frodo Baggins shares his worry with Gandalf of the evil that follows him as he continues on the destined path with the coveted ring:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
In the scene, Gandalf reminds Frodo that even with the pain that comes in tumultuous times, it’s important to remain focused on the choices we have.
With the 2018 revelations of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, seminarians discerning the priesthood must similarly remain focused on how Christ is calling them to this vocation, amid the anger and sorrow that the faithful might be feeling in the Church right now.
“We are placed in a particular time and we are called by our Lord Jesus Christ to serve Him at a particular time and in a certain way,” said Kenrick-Glennon seminarian Charlie Archer, as he reflected on the quote from Tolkien’s work.
Sparked by a grand jury report released in Pennsylvania in August, the news of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and how it was handled by Church leaders has led to a response locally from Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, including an invitation to the Missouri Attorney General’s office to investigate archdiocesan files on allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. A Mass of Reparation also was offered in September 2018 to pray for victims of abuse and forgiveness for the sins of clergy who have committed sins of sexual abuse of minors.
A second-year theologian from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Archer and several other seminarians shared their experiences of formation for the priesthood.
These seminarians were children in 2002 when an investigation by The Boston Globe led to widespread media coverage of the issue in the United States. So, for them, the 2018 revelations have been the first time they’ve contemplated this as adults. While each had their own feelings about the abuse scandal, they agreed that their focus remains on moving forward in their formation to become priests and through that, bringing healing to the Church.
“Seeing first-hand how damaging it is when shepherds are not good shepherds, it makes it clear how important the role (of clergy) is and how destructive it is when (the vocation) is not lived well,” said seminarian Dan Mauro.
In his “Before the Cross” column in the Sept. 3-9, 2018, issue in the St. Louis Review, Archbishop Carlson noted that seminarians today “will spend their entire priesthood helping the Church to recover from sins that they did not commit.”
Seminarian Michael Trummer said he anticipates he will spend a lot of his priesthood working toward restoring the reputation of the priesthood, as well as the Church. He’s reminded of his call to model Christ, who took on the sins of humanity when He died on the cross.
“He took on the punishment and dealt with the consequences of sins that He did not commit,” Trummer said.
Kenrick-Glennon president-rector Father James Mason said the Church is going through a time of purification, and within that, seminarians must respond with a call to holiness. “They’re being called to the priesthood at a time that it’s not popular,” said Father Mason, who was appointed to lead the seminary in 2015. “In that, there’s a grace — they’re doing it to care for souls and because they’re called by Jesus Christ.”
To support the call to holiness means fostering a healthy seminary environment in which men undergo a proper formation in response to their vocational calling. The news of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who renounced his position in the College of Cardinals after allegations he harassed and abused seminarians, has raised questions about seminary life, including unchaste situations among clergy and seminarians, protections for young men studying for the priesthood against abuse of power and how they are being prepared to minister to the people of God. McCarrick was later removed from the priesthood.
Father Mason in 2006 published a paper in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review about the vice of a “culture of effeminacy.” At the time it was published, it was received as controversial, he said, but it’s a necessary topic that needs addressing within seminary life. “It’s about fostering a healthy masculinity,” he said. “It’s not a machismo or hardness, but also not an effeminacy or softness. We want to instill a healthy masculinity, which is being attacked in our society today, and it’s something that we have to address.”
Prior to a seminarian’s admittance into Kenrick-Glennon, he undergoes a psychological evaluation, which includes details of his mental and psychological health. The seminary has two full-time lay psychologists to assist in human development, and each man meets regularly with an in-house spiritual director and formation advisor. Additionally, the faculty, administration, formation advisors and psychologists meet several times a year to discuss the progress of each seminarian in every dimension of his formation, so that potential challenges can be identified and addressed.
Seminarians said that they have several ways to report to seminary leadership if they see something that doesn’t foster a healthy learning environment. Formation advisors, including the psychological and counseling services director and vice-rector, were several people they cited to whom they could bring any concerns.
Building alliances with the people of God
As a regular part of their formation, seminarians take specific classes to develop pastoral skills. In a recent pastoral counseling class, Theology I and II students learned from Suzanne Harvath, director of psychological and counseling services and professor of pastoral counseling, about “building alliances” with the people of God by developing an environment in which safety and confidentiality of the priest and those to whom he is ministering are both respected.
“The good thing in your work is that you’re never alone,” Harvath told them. “You have many advisors. Look at the parameters and discern.”
Harvath, who has been at the seminary for almost 29 years, said “there are many people involved in their formation, so they have the opportunity to seek out someone who is helpful to them. We have a really trusting environment there where they feel safe and can bring up things like these.
“When they’re delivering ministerial services, they have to be assertive about setting appropriate boundaries, to keep the people of God safe but also to keep their own ministry safe,” she said. “We are trying to train them to think first of the people of God and realize that doing so must provide mutually safe environments for those ministered to and those ministering.”