A Frat House with a Chapel: My Time in the College Seminary

Let’s return for a moment to my time in the college seminary…

I’m going to talk about those three years (I finished early so I could get the hell out) because of who the boss was – Uncle Ted.  When I talked about the fish rotting from the head down; this is another example of that.

The college seminary was located about six blocks off the main campus of Seton Hall University in a building that had once served as the parish hall of an Episcopal church.  There was an expansive front lawn owing to the fact that the church building itself had burned to the ground in the early 1980’s before the Archdiocese acquired the property.  It is my understanding that, prior to that time, the college seminary was in fact merely a discernment “program” where young men who were college students would participate in communal prayer a few times a day but other than that there wasn’t much difference between them and other students.  In fact there was no residency requirement until the later 1980’s.  Many men I know had actually bypassed the college seminary even though they knew they had priestly vocations simply because they wanted to study at a different college or didn’t want the hassle of living in the residence.  After three years there myself I can’t say I blame them.

In years past many men might begin priestly formation at the high school level.  Cathedral Prep in New York was one such example.  We could argue the merits of accepting into formation a young man of 14 but that’s not my point.  Very few high school seminaries exist anywhere in the world these days.  And I’m not convinced that college seminaries should exist either.  Under canon law a seminarian is a man studying theology.  The benefit of a college seminary program is to discern a little more deeply while also completing courses in philosophy.  This way, if upon graduation the man still feels called to priesthood he can transition into a major seminary with ease.  Yet, the men I knew who did not go through college seminary had no problem adjusting to major seminary life.  At best they may have had to do an additional year of studies to cover the philosophy.

My college seminary was rather like a frat house with a chapel.

The first year and a half I was there our rector was actually a very capable administrator.  Between him and the spiritual director (a wonderful man and a truly good priest) they kept the appearance of order and everyone seemed at peace.  There was an incident that stands out involving another seminarian who had used computers in the common area to access and download porn.  That was dealt with.  Otherwise, nothing major comes to mind.

The other year and a half we were given a new rector who really didn’t seem to know how to control the crowd.  There were two guys in particular who literally hated each other.  Unfortunately they had been assigned to room together.  What was really unfortunate was that they were the only two who had to share a room.  Believe it or not there were seventeen guys and sixteen rooms that year.  They were constantly at each other’s throats, even fist-fighting on occasion.  At the end of the year one of the two decided to check out in grand style.  He moved every piece of furniture to the middle of the room, incorporating booby traps (comical in nature, not deadly), and erecting a mock altar at the entrance to the room complete with burning candles and a sign that read “La commedia e finite.”  Fun times.

hbg

Mary Washes Jesus’ Feet, stained glass St. Patrick’s Cathedral Harrisburg, PA

One other bizarre incident that stands out to me happened a few months into my first year.  That year everyone had to share rooms because we were full.  My roommate never spoke more than three words together.  One night I walked into the room around 11, switched on the TV to watch the news, and got into bed.  We had two closets on either side of the bedroom door – the kind with bi-fold panel doors on them.  After the news ended I went to turn off the TV.  The closet door opened.  My roommate stepped out without saying a word, walked past me, and climbed up into his bunk.  He had been in there for 35 minutes at least.  It was perhaps the weirdest thing I have ever witnessed.  On a side note, a few years later I share that story with a classmate in the major seminary who had apparently known this guy.  “Who was your roommate?” he asked.  I told him the name.  “Oh!  That makes perfect sense…  The mad masturbator.”

Do you wonder how any sane man could make it through such a place?  So many didn’t.  My best friend and I met the first day I was there.  We’re both married with beautiful families.  We laugh about those days now but they were pretty harrowing.  Imagine you’re a young guy.  You feel that God has called you to give up everything so that His people have someone to offer sacrifice and forgive their sins.  You know full well how much you’d really enjoy family life and all that entails and yet you’re willing to discern and give this thing a shot.  Then you’re met with lunatics and predators.  After a while you begin to wonder if you’re not the crazy one.  And at the top of the ticket is perhaps the worst criminal in the history of the Catholic Church and you didn’t even know it.

Reading recent published reports recounting the experiences of other men in various seminaries around the country now I certainly feel a connection.  Was there rampant drinking?  Sure, although I didn’t perceive too many guys had a “problem” with it.  There appeared to be at least a handful of gay men.  I didn’t have my eyes open that far back then but looking back I realize that some of them were actually couples.  There were the guys saw it for what it was – a house of discernment.  They had made no commitments and were also discerning other callings.  More than a few of my friends were spotted a local bars with their girlfriends.  Again, I don’t really have a problem with this in the discernment process.  What made me uneasy was the secrecy.  No one was really quite sure what the rules were.  McCarrick would brag about the place that he had “not one seminary but three!”  But it really wasn’t that.  Of course, he also had the mission seminary I mentioned in a recent post.  I really think he kept the place open for the appearance of having another seminary because I only know a small handful of priests who survived that place with a vocation.

One man in particular I’d like to mention, who didn’t survive, was a guy named Steve.  Steve was in his late 30’s.  He was from another diocese.  He was in his last year when I was in my first.  We had a few classes together.  He was a fun guy to talk to; although I must admit I didn’t know him well.  The summer after his graduation I got a call from another friend that Steve had taken his life.  We never talked much about it.  I tried to ask around but no one ever really had an answer.  As near as I could tell he had overdosed on heroin.  We had a mass for his repose sometime that fall.  I don’t know what demons tortured his soul but I still get a chill when I think about it – how it was never spoken of.

Pray for his soul.

Pray for the Church.

PS: I have another story I need to tell and it will probably be the hardest to write for me.  Thanks to all of you who have been reading and sharing.  I do appreciate it.

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