Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 17

Having considered issues of liturgical studies curriculum in seminaries and their equivalents, the Constitution now turns its attention to formation acquired by enacting the liturgy.

Vatican Website translation:

17. In seminaries and houses of religious, clerics shall be given a liturgical formation in their spiritual life. For this they will need proper direction, so that they may be able to understand the sacred rites and take part in them wholeheartedly; and they will also need personally to celebrate the sacred mysteries, as well as popular devotions which are imbued with the spirit of the liturgy. In addition they must learn how to observe the liturgical laws, so that life in seminaries and houses of religious may be thoroughly influenced by the spirit of the liturgy.

Latin text:

17. Clerici, in seminariis domibusque religiosis, formationem vitae spiritualis liturgicam adquirant, cum apta manuductione qua sacros ritus intellegere et toto animo participare queant, tum ipsa sacrorum mysteriorum celebratione, necnon aliis pietatis exercitiis spiritu sacrae Liturgiae imbutis; pariter observantiam legum liturgicarum addiscant, ita ut vita in seminariis et religiosorum institutis liturgico spiritu penitus informetur.

Slavishly literal translation:

17. Clerics, in seminaries and religious houses, should acquire liturgical formation of their spiritual life, both through proper direction by which they would seek to understand the sacred rites and to participate [in them] with their entire spirit, and by the celebration of those sacred mysteries, as well as other pious exercises imbued with the spirit of the sacred Liturgy; equally they should learn in addition the observance of liturgical laws so that life in seminaries and institutes of religious may be completely shaped by the liturgical spirit.

In article 17 the Council Fathers teach that more is required for the liturgical formation of seminarians and their equivalents than simply hiring instructors who are qualified to teach liturgical studies as graduates from reputable programs and by promoting classroom instruction in liturgical studies at a par with the other major theological disciplines. Celebrating liturgy in the seminary and equivalent houses of formation has its own part to play; intellectual study of the liturgy without integration with proper celebration of the liturgy misforms seminarians and their equivalents. A limping parallel might be the relative uselessness of an acting program in which the students only hear lectures about the history of the theater, read scripts, and evaluate theories of theater criticism without ever attending a play, acting a role, sewing costumes, constructing sets, or working the lights.

Questions that Pray Tell readers may want to consider include: 1) What is the quality and character of the liturgical formation today’s seminarians (and their equivalents) BRING to their seminary education and how does it influence their ability to receive formation while in the seminary? 2) Is there a danger of presenting seminary liturgical patterns and customs as normative for other worshiping communities? 3) What happens when there is a disconnect between what the students learn about liturgy in the classroom and what they enact in chapel?


  1. The answers to your questions, Mike, are

    (1) My experience tells me that you can teach seminarians any amount of philosophy, scriptural studies, moral/dogmatic/systematic theology, canon law, church history, etc, etc, because they are willing to learn in areas of which they know little or nothing, but that it is far more difficult to teach seminarians anything about liturgy because they know it all: after all, they’ve been to Mass in their parish ! These days another complicating factor is that they think they know it all because they’ve read about it on blogs, often blogs that do not give any kind of balanced input.

    (2) The danger is indeed that of assuming that seminary patterns are normative for other worshipping communities. In my experience, seminaries are not preparing their students liturgically for what they will encounter in the raw reality of parish life in all its different manifestations. A seminary is par excellence the place where in fact a wide variety of styles of liturgy could be possible, and yet it doesn’t happen. Often only one style rules the roost, and there seems to be no will to open the mind to others.

    The result of this can be that seminarians, on encountering parish liturgy, react by resenting what they find and comparing it unfavourably with what they had in seminary. Some even take it out on the parishioners, musicians, etc.

    (3) The disconnect between classroom and chapel can lead to a kind of unhealthy cynicism. Seminarians will troop into chapel each day, sit down, fold their arms, and ask themselves “Let’s see what they are serving up for us today!” This is related to (2) above, since the connections are not only not being made between classroom and the prayer life of the seminary community, but between both of those and the prayer life of the wider Church

  2. Agree, Paul (we seem to be the only ones contributing to the SC article posts).

    From the prior SC article – my comment was: “The little liturgy taught today is also taught in a *bubble* – seminary profs who may have never had pastoral assignments or know only weekend warrior duty.”

    Can still remember returning to grad seminary half way through my fourth year and after a 9 month internship. Suddenly, was looking at the usual seminary liturgies with *new* eyes and found the experience to be disappointing. Anything remotely different (but permissible) was met with derision, dismissal, etc. Attitudes were that seminary liturgies were vastly superior to anything experienced in parishes, etc. (your *cynicism* comment)
    Thus, chanting the propers or singing the EPs were *verboten*….trying to do a bilingual liturgy was frowned upon. The liturgies, for the most part, were very esoteric, very wordy, philosophical, and filled with ideas (not communal emotion, feelings, etc.)

    Classmates who still teach in grad seminaries talk about the past few years and tensions between a small group that is fixated on the EF (even when many of these guys have had one or two years of latin, at best) and have little to no interest in learning or doing ars celebrandi classes to prepare them for what Paul Inwood is talking about – it is clearly a personal choice rather than a commitment to serving the parish community (currently or in the future). They talk about pastors complaining to the bishop/rectors about first year priests who have caused significant parish tensions because of their *superior* attitudes.

    To Paul’s last point (3) – one of the most difficult roles in seminary teaching/formation was to *preach* to seminarians. They truly live in a *bubble* and thus can be cruelly judgmental when they *judge* a homily does not meet their standards. (and yet, can remember all too often listening a few years later to these same guys trying to preach themselves).

    If anything, seminary education today reflects a *certification* in a trade or skill rather than a graduate education that is built upon years of formal study and the ability to think for themselves rigorously and carefully. Too often today, the rush to ordain has shortened preparation and some experiments such as the Redemptoris Maris seminaries, spend most of their time enculturating and finishing a BA degree with little time left over for higher education, experiences, etc.

  3. We have tried, in our Seminary to make the liturgical life of the community more central. The calendar is adjusted so that Solemnities can be properly observed and the weekly timetable has been revised to make Sunday more of a focus to the week. Most significantly we have been singing the liturgy of the hours for some 10 years, and I would identify this as helping to form the liturgical assembly and a liturgical spirituality. It has also enabled both the ordinary and the propers to be sung more regularly.

    We don’t have extensive musical resources (even though colleagues and students are very generous with their time and talents), which means that we do have to cut our liturgy to fit our cloth, so to speak, and value silence also as integral to the liturgy. To that extent ours probably is a good preparation for liturgy in the parish. It also means that we are more likely to use chant settings (English and Latin), though we also make use of guitar and piano accompanyment for some other modern settings.

    We expect, and prepare, our students to be able to sing the diaconal and presidential chants, and their use is well accepted here, according to the solemnity of the occasion.

    Perhaps the biggest difference between liturgy in seminary and liturgy in a parish are the human experiences that are brought to the liturgy. Seminarians are rightly concerned with their discipleship and the discernment of and formation for a ministerial vocation. The parish assembly, in my experience, is rightly and more regularly concerned with a wider range of human experience, of death, sickness, poverty, worry for the future, new life, hope and joy. What I would hope for all those who lead liturgy is the ability to draw those present in that time and place into the paschal mystery, and that has to begin by bringing one’s own life to the Lord for his transformation. The experience of having one’s own life formed by the liturgy is, I believe, the best basis for making that same invitation to others.

  4. In response to Bill, it’s hard for those of us who have no seminary experience to comment on paragraphs related to the seminary preparation of priests. Just wait!

    But, having said that, Jonathan’s last paragraph strikes a chord with me. Not as contrasting seminary liturgy to parish, but in reflecting on liturgies when I’m on retreat. I always wish I could bring back the attentiveness and participation of the congregation in a retreat house to my parish. But of course, these assemblies have very different backgrounds and concerns. It takes me a few days when I get home, but I am eventually able to take to heart Jonathan’s last sentence. Being in seminary for years, with that intense liturgical experience, it must take a new priest more than a few days, and probably a good mentor, to make that adjustment.

    I have had two experiences with seminarians at the parish (where I work as director of liturgy) that make me question the attitude that may be taught toward lay parish ministers. Though I have been doing my job at least well enough to hold on to it for over 12 years, the two seminarians — at different times — both, practically on stepping foot into the sacristy, proceeded to lecture to me about how we were doing things wrong. One had to do with whether the deacon stands the Book of Gospels on the altar or lays it down. The other involved how we set the sanctuary for the concelebrating priests at a confirmation Mass. Small things but pointing to two issues:
    – Mass at the seminary is seen as the model and any variation, legitimate or not, is suspect and should be “fixed”
    – How often do seminarians experience the leadership of lay people in liturgical roles, and what attitudes toward lay ministry are fostered?

  5. I hope that priests, having been profoundly formed through beautiful liturgical celebrations at seminary, desire to pass along that experience to the people they serve. Rather than the imposition of personal preference, this requires a serious evaluation of the needs of the particular community, applying all those possibilities/options/methods learned in the classroom to best allow the fruits of the liturgy to show forth and form the people in their faith.

  6. Terri is quite right about those who did not go to seminary being able to give only second hand comments. Of course most clergy have only the experience of one seminary and so may not be well placed to comment genarally.
    Terri’s point about lay leadership in liturgy suggests that the training in liturgy should include those lay people.
    One can readily see how tension might arise when clergy arrive in a parish and disapprove of the practice they find there. I wonder how many bishops try to provide leadsership here.

  7. Seminaries are meant to be seed-beds, protected places where seeds can become shoots and young plants. I am appalled at the thought that graduates might feel fully grown and come out rigid and hard.

    I am not sure why this is relevant here, but it is what I kept thinking as I read the comments. Liturgy is not just a subject, but something that transforms. Rigidity at the seminary may be needed to start the transformation, but those props should be discarded eventually or they will hinder growth.

    In a parish, a new priest is a sapling growing in a grove of trees. Some gnarled, some towering. Those should be his props, the people who pray with him. As the young tree sways in the wind, those around sway too despite thei own rigidity.

    Now, trees swaying seems like too much of a liturgical dance so I’d better hurry off. Forgive me if this is too off track.

  8. I nearly live in the shadow of the bell tower of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, so I encounter seminarians fairly regularly in the neighboring parishes. I’ve observed, and been told, that a sizable minority of our seminarians have a strong preference for the EF, some turning their noses up at the reformed liturgy or dismissing it as something that merely has to be tolerated in the parishes.

    I also understand that there is a “liturgical choir” at the seminary and a “chant choir” and never the twain shall meet. Curious.

  9. I also understand that there is a “liturgical choir” at the seminary and a “chant choir” and never the twain shall meet. Curious.

    Wow, Scott, it sure doesn’t sound like Heloise and Abelard for sure! The implications of “chant” not equal to “liturgical” confound.

  10. Excellent comments – btw; have not been in a seminary liturgy in over 20 years; my experience and comments come from current lived experience. (and had multiple seminary experiences – taught in three seminaries; attended three seminaries, and visited many others doing committee work, visitations, workshops, retreats, etc.

    Scott – your comment is correct and this came about because a few years ago the seminary liturgy was dictated by a director who fostered EF (think Burke). The issues have continued despite a very good liturgy director in charge of worship (the current rector has his own *different* ideas on spirituality and thus liturgy).

    It would, IMO, be very helpful if seminary staffs not only included but required students to learn, interact, and receive feedback about how they work with parish staffs. What you also see here is a lack of training around organizational theory and management – can they lead, motivate, inspire?

  11. Damage to the liturgy is like nuclear waste with a very long half-life; we should make our voices heard to forestall lasting damage to the young, says Massimo. “Jesus Christ was killed by Latin-speaking people.”

  12. “I always wish I could bring back the attentiveness and participation of the congregation in a retreat house to my parish.”

    I struggle to bring back my own attentiveness.

    As for seminaries, the institutional theme seems to be “protection.” In the real world there is no “protection” when one struggles to balance a parish budget, and when a large number of parishioners have effects, subtle and significant, on the parish liturgy. Seminary is a good training ground for life in community, but how many clergy in the US actually have that in real life?

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #13:
      I struggle to bring back my own attentiveness.
      As would be expected, my brother, my attentiveness has been awakened (anew), particularly when our 80 year old retired resident monsignor recites these orations with such care, love and joy. (His fourth missal change, btw.)
      But aren’t both our perspectives informed by our own attentiveness to the importance of “performance practice?”

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