The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (5) — The Church, Part 3: Seminary Again

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The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 5 of 12)

The Church, Part 3: Seminary Again

Since leaving the Carmelite Junior Seminary, I’d been in communication with the vocation director of the Discalced Carmelite Order, a more contemplative offshoot of the Carmelites.10 I’d become interested in the Discalced Carmelites when I read a book about their 16th-century cofounder, St. John of the Cross, while a seminarian in Hamilton. (Memorably, the book’s author referred to John as being, from the established Carmelite Order’s point of view, “recalcitrant.” The Carmelites imprisoned and frequently flogged the reformer for nine months.) The Discalced Carmelite Order seemed to take seriously the Carmelite Rule’s subordination of active ministerial work to community and prayer. It offered a meditative, prayerful lifestyle unencumbered by either the severe asceticism of fully monastic institutes or “the more active work of the Catholic priesthood (teaching, parishes, etc.),” as the order put it in The Guidepost. Their vocation director, Father Simon, had given me the best-selling recruiting book Men in Sandals,11 which idealized the friars’ life, as Merton’s books did that of monks, and included drawings such as one of a friar comparing his peaceful existence to that of a married man holding a squirmy toddler while beset by whining girls, sparring boys, and nagging wife — an image that played to my fear of a working-class fate.

Father Simon had visited me at home several times. A wise director, he had discouraged me from entering the Discalced Carmelites’ minor seminary, and we had agreed that I would finish high school at Archbishop Curley before entering the order. It seemed the perfect plan — until my absolution by Father X* created a sense of urgency. Soon after that, but without revealing my reasoning lest he find me unworthy, I told Father Simon that I no longer felt that I should wait.

In response, he arranged for me to visit their minor seminary. He booked a seat on a flight to Boston for me; it was my first flight, and traveling alone made me feel like an adult. Meeting me at the airport, he took me first to the Discalced Carmelite house in Brookline, Massachusetts, an impressive place that had formerly been part of a wealthy person’s estate. The friars there seemed happy and at peace. After a meal made no less — and perhaps more — enjoyable by the human skull displayed on the table, Father Simon and I set off for the minor seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, the seminary was very different from the house in Brookline. While most of the friars in Peterborough lived in a historic mansion atop a hill, the few high school seminarians and their prefect lived in an old frame building below. Their residence was situated in a clearing amid trees and undergrowth, graced by none of the landscaping or gardening that I’d expected. “This will take some getting used to,” I thought.

During my first morning there, I met with the seminary prefect, whose disposition seemed to match his dismal surroundings. In his small office in the seminary residence, we spoke across an old wooden desk on which was a large ashtray piled with cigarette butts. The priest smoked constantly, lighting one from another. I don’t recall much of what we talked about; the powerful negative impression dominates my memory of the meeting. I do remember, however, that he mentioned the possibility of parish and missionary work, which The Guidepost had ruled out. Even in the Discalced Carmelite Order, I saw, the promise of a communal, contemplative lifestyle may not be honored. And how could a religious institute require routine asceticism — meatless meals, a thin mattress on a bed of boards — yet not only permit but facilitate the vice of chain-smoking? (Friars were vowed to poverty; cigarettes were supplied by the order.) Given my need for institutional support in resisting a vice, that was concerning.

I decided, however, that those concerns need not deter me. I could tell myself that an assignment was years ahead and that the odds of my getting a poor one were small. I could see the prefect’s chain-smoking as an anomaly, perhaps a concession to his relative isolation from the community of friars. And I could keep in mind that I’d be living in that dreary residence for less than a year. If I could maintain that attitude, I thought, I would still benefit from the fraternity and moral support of the seminary community.

But I soon learned that even that would not be available. In addition to being surrounded by bleakness and supervised by an uninspiring and scandalizing priest, I’d be living with young men who were not committed to the order and could not offer the companionship and encouragement I would need.

Although there was little to see other than partially-cleared woods, the prefect assigned two potential housemates to show me around. When we were safely out of his hearing, they asked if I had any cigarettes. Smoking was forbidden for them, but the place was so desolate, and their prefect’s smoking so conspicuous, that I couldn’t refuse their request. I fetched a pack from the bag in my room, and we went into the woods and smoked. Although they knew what was expected of them, the boys had little positive to say about the seminary. Neither of them planned to continue in the order after high school. Seeing the nicotine-hunger in their eyes, I gave them the pack as we walked back to the weathered residence. By then, I had decided that I could not live there.

Father Simon may have thought that the Peterborough visit would encourage me to stay at Curley until graduation, but he wasn’t aware of my belief that immediate return to seminary was a matter of spiritual life and death. Needing to find another order quickly, I turned to the Conventual Franciscans, to whom I was already known. The Franciscan orders were noted for their communal spirit. And Father Claude, a priest at Curley who had promised my parents that he’d “look out for” me after my transfer from the Carmelite Junior Seminary, had recently introduced me to the Franciscans’ contemplative tradition. With that, I was able to convince myself that God was guiding me to become a Franciscan.

I was, therefore, disappointed when the Conventual vocation director said that the order would welcome me after graduation from Curley. Not to be defeated, I returned to The Guidepost. There I located a similar institute, not far from home, that would accept me into its minor seminary: the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance, the “TOR Franciscans.” Penance, I thought, was just what I needed. And the TORs operated colleges, offering the appealing possibility of teaching on that level after ordination. Even the seminary’s geographical proximity seemed providential, not only because I’d been homesick in Massachusetts but also because my father had complained that his one trip there had ruined his car. God’s will seemed clear.

In August, I went off to the TOR seminary without informing Father Simon. He would appear at my family’s home a few weeks after I’d left, learn where I’d gone, and scold my parents: “This shows that he’s unstable. You shouldn’t have let him go.” Although Father Simon would himself leave the priesthood four years later, one of the thousands who did so in those times, he was right about me.

I was quite hopeful when I arrived at the seminary. But as the weeks and months passed, that hope was not fulfilled. In that small and close-knit community, my more secular perspective, developed during my two years at Curley, seemed intrusive; although housemates tried to include me, I felt like an outsider. Worse, I found that, despite the daily prayer and sacrament, seminary life was not entirely freeing me from my “habitual sin.” It was, however, reducing the frequency of the act, which, I feared, lessened the strength of habit; bizarrely, it would have been safer to leave the habit unchecked. Because we received communion every morning, I felt compelled to seek out a priest for confession after every failure, lest I risk desecrating the Eucharist again. My shame about that more or less secret fault closed the circle of isolation.

School wasn’t going well for me, either. The seminary was attached to a boarding institution called St. Francis Preparatory School.12 I found the Prep’s atmosphere disheartening, not least because some staff members were sometimes verbally and even, rumor had it, physically abusive. (The natural atmosphere could be unpleasant, too: the beautiful campus was often bathed in toxic stink from the nearby paper mill, a phenomenon that would become for me a metaphor of religious life.) Much more discouraging, though, was my academic difficulty. Although I was doing well in my other courses, I had been placed, despite my pleas, in a math course that was more advanced than I was prepared for, and I was failing miserably. The teacher, who took my looks of frustration as commentary on his skills, was angry with me, once making me stand in class while he berated me: if I was so smart as to be a National Merit Scholar (a reporter and photographer had recently come from a Baltimore newspaper), then I must be intentionally refusing to accept his instruction. I would, he said, regret my insolence. When my midterm exam came back with a grade of 29%, I felt that the situation was hopeless.

Maybe, I thought, my academic and moral failures were God’s way of humbling me: maybe God wanted to break my pride in order to lead me into grace. He seemed to be showing me that I’d followed my own will, not his, in entering the TOR seminary. In any case, the stress, isolation, and depression were intolerable for me. In February, our prefect, Father Ronan — who, when I’d asked to be excused from watching a Bela Lugosi movie in order to study for that midterm exam, had said, “learning to follow orders is more important than getting good grades” — told me that I could not be taken out of the math class. Not long after that, I decided to withdraw from St. Francis.

When I told Father Ronan of my decision, he asked me to wait until he could speak with the vocation director. The director must have been anxious about the precipitous decline, reflecting a new trend across the U.S., in seminary enrollment: there were only 18 seminarians at St. Francis when I entered in 1966, compared to 39 just two years earlier.13 Not knowing about that decline, I was surprised when, a few days later, Father Ronan said that he’d been authorized to remove me from the math class after all. He also told me in confidence that a certain teacher, about whose verbal abuse of other seminarians I had complained, would not be returning in the fall, and he apologized that I could not be removed from the man’s classes. But it was too late: I had struggled through a disheartening semester and a painful decision process, and my course was set. He contacted my parents, and we chose a date for my departure. In the meantime, my parents arranged for my admission to the local public high school, their only option given that the final semester was underway.

Following the custom of the time, Father Ronan forbade me to tell any of my housemates that I would be leaving (an order that I discreetly disobeyed), and he arranged for my parents to come to the residence to pick me up one morning while the others were at breakfast in the main building. In the back seat of the car, with my unhappy parents in the front, I wept as we headed home. “Why are you crying?” my father asked irritably; “You chose to leave.” I couldn’t explain. My parents were quite disappointed. If I had stayed for only three more months, my mother pointed out, I would have graduated from a private prep school. Now, after they had sacrificed to give me a Catholic education, I would receive a diploma from the public school system. In my self-absorption, I had unwittingly broken a tacit contract with them. It was the beginning of a painful process of alienation.

Link to 1967 Baltimore Sun article on the brothers’ monastery

Back in Baltimore, I found the public school to be much less exacting. I continued, however, to lack confidence: I took no math there and did not explore course material much beyond the requirements. Thinking that God might be directing me to a less academically-demanding form of religious life, I spent a few days in a Capuchin Franciscan monastery of non-ordained brothers, but I found their work unappealing. What was God trying to tell me?

Next: The Church, Part 4: Taking Flight, & The Draft, Part 1: The Question of War
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[10]. The Discalced (unshod) Carmelite reform was initiated by Teresa of Avila. She was later joined by John of the Cross. Both were mystical writers who would be named “Doctor of the Church.” They stressed silent prayer, self-abnegation, and extreme detachment. Discalced Carmelite friars spend at least two hours each day in silent prayer/meditation.

[11]. In later years, the author, Fr. Richard Madden, would be dismissed by the Discalced Carmelite Order for violating a vow that he had extolled in the book: obedience. See http://www.boardmannews.net/article.php?article=0000000142.

[12]. St. Francis Prep closed in 1989. The campus, in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, was eventually sold to a right-wing Catholic organization.

[13]. Enrollment in U.S. seminaries peaked in 1963, the year I entered the Carmelite Junior Seminary. It held steady for another year, but then it began a precipitous decline that would culminate in the closing of almost all minor seminaries. The Carmelite seminary, where I had been one of more than a hundred students — and there was a significant overflow of students to a facility in Niagara Falls for the first two years of high school — closed in 1970. The campus was sold to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which still occupies it. St. Francis Preparatory School yearbooks illustrate a rapid decline in the number of TOR seminarians there: the 1964 book pictures 39; the 1967 book shows 19 (including me, so the count was 18 at year end); the 1970 book, the last to list any seminarians at all, shows only six. For statistics and analysis of the trends, see (Fr.) Robert L. Anello’s 2011 dissertation, “Minor Setback or Major Disaster: The Rise and Demise of Minor Seminaries in the United States, 1958-1983” (published as a book in 2018), p. 20.

*. “My absolution by Father X”: see installment #3.

 

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