success stories

At Seminary, New Ways for a New Generation

in the New York Times

MUNDELEIN. III.. In the next three months, 43 men who have trained here at the nation's largest Roman Catholic seminary are to be ordained as priests. They include a former soybean farmer, an astronomer, a former minor league baseball player and a Vietnamese-American who feels a debt to the church that saved his refugee family.

This class of seminarians has been selected and shaped in radically different ways than the generations before it. The seminarians have been subjected to Rorschach tests and criminal background checks, and interviewed about their dating history and sexual orientation.

Throughout their training, they have had to worry not only about their grades, but also about surviving regular evaluations from fellow students, psychologists and laypeople, each of whom, with enough critical comments, could have derailed their march to the priesthood.

Seminaries now offer courses on topics once considered taboo sexuality, addiction and the struggle to be celibate. Seminarians study the history and theology of celibacy in the Catholic tradition, talk about it in confidential sessions with their spiritual directors, and listen to priests share their own struggles to keep their vows.

The talk at Catholic seminaries today is about the need to produce a new breed of priest: spiritually prepared and psychologically and emotionally mature. After nearly two decades of scandals involving sexual abuse by priests in some cases priests who preyed upon their seminary students some Catholic leaders concluded that seminaries themselves were part of the problem. Now they are trying to make seminaries the solution.

Among those in the forefront has been this school about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, the University of St. Mary of the Lake, also known as Mundelein Seminary, which agreed to grant a reporter access to its seminarians and administrators for wide-ranging discussions.

In more than two dozen interviews here, students and faculty members said they were grief-stricken over the church's latest sexual abuse scandals, and also angry. Not at the bishops who protected the abusers, but at the priests who, as one student put it, "have brought us all down."

They said they expected that wherever they went in their Roman collars, they would be suspect. Yet the students expressed a confident idealism that they would be the priests who restore the trust broken by the previous generation.

"I think we're going to see a whole different priesthood in this next generation," said Deacon Burke Masters, 35, the former baseball player, who will be ordained in June in the Diocese of Joliet. "The guys here are solid, we're talking openly about these issues, and we've been prepared well."

It used to be that the road to the priesthood was a straight march beginning in parochial school, through a high school seminary, a college seminary and finally a graduate-level institution like Mundelein, which is run by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Unless he displayed some egregious academic or behavioral failing, a candidate was promoted from one institution to the next, and had become a priest by the time he turned 24 or so. He may not have known himself very well, but he and his family were usually known by the bishop or priests in the diocese.

"When I was in college, we just moved up," said the Rev. August Belauskas, Mundelein's vice rector and dean of admissions. "No one asked me personal questions about relationships or my family or even why I wanted to become a priest."

These days, many of the men who show up at bishops' offices saying they want to be priests are unfamiliar faces. They have already had careers and life experiences, and on average they are in their early 30's.

Take the first-year seminarians at Mundelein, 48 of them sitting in the Rev. Robert Barron's introductory course "Doctrine of God." They included a 911 operator, an obstetrician-gynecologist, an actor and two prison guards. Only a few had come to seminary the old way straight from college seminaries. Seven were from other countries. Two were Catholic converts.

Given this diversity, the screening starts in the chancery office. A candidate must first be vetted in his diocese, which is expected to pay his tuition, and then go through a second admissions process in the seminary. Forty-six bishops from around the country send their candidates to Mundelein, one of 51 American seminaries. From then on, the road to the priesthood is full of false starts, obstacles and scrutiny.

"We ask them things nobody ever asked me," Father Belauskas said.

Among the questions: Are you sexually attracted to young people? Have you fathered a child out of wedlock? Do you frequent gay bars or singles bars?

A yes to any of these questions automatically disqualifies a candidate, as does a positive result on the mandatory H.I.V. test, Father Belauskas said.

Homosexual orientation is not grounds for rejection, but participation in a gay lifestyle or gay sex is. Catholic teaching holds that homosexual orientation is not a sin, but homosexual behavior is. All priest candidates, no matter their sexual orientation, must convince the admissions interviewers that they have remained celibate for two years before they applied to seminary.

"What we look for is a person who is generally healthy," Father Belauskas said. "There's no pathology, their motivations are good, they're capable of growing spiritually and they display qualities of generosity, compassion, dedication and love of other people."

John Fain, a sharp 28-year-old, must have been a strong candidate when he applied in the Diocese of Lansing. He was already working as a director of religious education in a parish there. He is also a military officer an ensign in a Navy program that trains military chaplains.

Nevertheless, like all other applicants, he had to sit for three interviews with seminary administrators and faculty, write an autobiography and submit letters of recommendation. He also spent a day taking a barrage of common psychological tests: the Minnesota Multi-Phased Inventory, the Thematic Apperception Test, the Rorschach.

"I went through more screening to get into the seminary than to get a security clearance in the military," Mr. Fain said over lunch in the dining hall with four other students, who laughed in agreement.

But none of these tests, psychologists say, can identify a potential pedophile or sexual abuser. Experts say that such problems often do not emerge until later, when someone is under stress, struggling with substance abuse or has access to children. Mundelein administrators acknowledge that their screening is not foolproof.

"We're not infallible," said the Rev. Thomas Baima, Mundelein's vice president and provost. "We can't know, and I pray to God every day that we don't miss something. But it's not going to be for want of trying."

Catholic leaders say they are well aware that they have had to become more selective just when the church is most desperate for new priests. The shortage has built over 40 years, while the Catholic population in the United States grew with an influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. In 1960, there were 54,682 priests serving 42 million Catholics, one for every 768 Catholics. By 2000, there were 46,603 priests serving 62 million Catholics, one for every 1,330 of the faithful.

Despite the shortage, diocesan vocation directors are not opening the door to every Catholic male who knocks. The Archdiocese of Chicago, which as one of the more successful recruiters can afford to be more selective, received 130 applications for seminary students last year and forwarded only 30 to Mundelein, Father Baima said. But even with its rigorous admissions process, Mundelein accepts almost everyone. In all, the bishops sent 80 candidates to Mundelein last year, and the seminary admitted 75. Sometimes those who are rejected apply to other seminaries, and sometimes they get in, Catholic officials said in interviews.

But being admitted to seminary is only the first hurdle. Seminary training lasts four years, and many students take a remedial year of "pre-theology." Many do not last. Mundelein has 224 students, and every year an average of 10 percent leave, Father Baima said either on their own or because they are dismissed.

John Boucher, 37, was among the students who in interviews openly admitted that they were using their time at Mundelein to decide whether the priesthood was their calling. A mechanical engineer who left his job making Velcro products in New Hampshire, he is a first-year pre-theology student.

"I've always wanted to get married and have a family, and I still do," Mr. Boucher said. "This may sound overly dramatic, but I feel like I'm Abraham and I'm bringing Isaac up the mountain. Isaac is my future wife and children, and I'm asking God whether they should be sacrificed."

He said he had come to the seminary because "I was feeling I was living the wrong life." He said he wanted to devote himself to something more meaningful than making Velcro.

But still, he said, he was uncertain about celibacy. He talks it over in regular sessions with a counselor, a married layman provided by Mundelein. He acknowledged that in the Bible, God ultimately told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac.

"If I leave this, I may go into education," he said.

In the past, most seminaries treated doubts about celibacy as a matter for private prayer and confession. Now it is openly discussed from Day 1 of orientation, and in courses and seminars every year.

Students and faculty members alike refuted the notion that more than half of today's seminarians are gay, an idea that gained credibility with the publication in 2000 of the book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection of the Priest's Crisis of the Soul" (Liturgical Press), by the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a former rector at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland.

Father Cozzens pointed out that many of the priests accused of abuse targeted not prepubescent children but adolescent boys. His book furthered the discussion of whether a preponderance of immature homosexual men in the priesthood helped give rise to the sexual abuse scandals.

In an interview in the rector's office, a trio of Mundelein's top officials said they believed that the root cause was not homosexual priests, but a seminary system that was once closed and unaccountable to the outside world.

They have set out to change that, said Mundelein's president and rector, the Very Rev. John F. Canary, who has thought about the issue more than most. Ten years ago, as vicar for priests, Father Canary was responsible for rooting out sexual abusers in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The cure, he said, is openness and accountability. His seminarians serve internships in parishes and hospitals. Afterward the staff and parishioners send evaluations to the seminary. Seminarians have cars and are free to come and go. They are counseled by psychologists who are laypeople. And if they should experience or detect abuse on the part of their peers or faculty, they know they should report it to their advisers.

"Where systems are turned in on themselves, like in orphanages, problems can occur. When you have open systems, it's a healthier environment," Father Canary said. "These seminarians understand much better than we understood when we were ordained the professional responsibilities that are entrusted to them."

At the request of his students, Father Canary appeared in the dining room last Thursday night to talk about the scandal gripping the church. For over an hour he responded to their anguished questions about pedophilia, whether bishops covered it up, and how they can be certain it won't happen again. At the end, he passed out copies of the Chicago Archdiocese's policy on sexual abuse, a document he helped write and a model used across the country.

The session helped comfort the students, who this week return to their home dioceses for Holy Week anticipating that parishioners will put the same questions to them.

"We are confident and unafraid," said Jerry Arano-Ponce, a third-year seminarian from the Diocese of Kansas City, "because we know we are being better formed than priests were 30 or 40 years ago."