Student liturgies at a Seminary

I like to flag a good practice when I see one. Here’s one from my time in Germany.

The week I arrived in Würzburg, there was a liturgy held in the seminary chapel for students from the university, followed by a simple supper with time to socialize. The event happens three times a year. The place was packed. Students were sitting on steps and standing in the back. A music group made up of students also worked hard to prepare, and they did a good job leading the music. The intercessions were read by different voices “planted” in the assembly. (How do I know they were plants? Each voice was crystal clear, they spoke without hesitation, and the number was right!) Singing of hymns was good overall, but it was really excellent on the chanted responses, which everyone knew by heart. Seminarians and the seminary leadership were also in attendance and mingled informally with the students.

During the third week of Advent there was also a “roraten Mass” hosted for students at 6:00 AM. This is an Advent custom I was not familiar with — an early morning Mass of the day in Advent, by candlelight.  (True confessions: I forgot and slept through it! But when I went to the chapel later in the morning, there were candles everywhere… Clearly, the students came. ) Incidentally, nobody is afraid of fire there. The Sunday evening Mass at the cathedral is also held by candlelight, and people take lighted candles to their pews to read by.

Here’s the point. In today’s church, when there is so much anxiety about “aging populations” and a “dying church,” I must say it was lovely to see the students participate in liturgy without it being some sort of a “crusade” or an “agenda” or some other extraordinary thing.  If there was a Big Hook out for vocations, I didn’t notice it.  Nobody had to cajole them to come (the meal was nice, but they could have eaten at the cafeteria). They certainly didn’t look like they were doing it as part of a “movement” or as a statement that they belong to an ecclesial clique.

They just came. It was normal. How refreshing.

Back home, seminaries don’t easily open their doors, even for prayer. Seminary and university are separate worlds. This event would not have happened. I mentioned this to the rector at dinner, and he was genuinely surprised. “Why not?” he asked. “Of course they are welcome.”

Bravo, Würzburg!

As a bonus, here are some pictures of the chapel:

The chapel is very modern, a long rectangular room arranged as a series of triangles, a motif echoed by slats in the ceiling. Seating is choir style with each side angled in. I was a little dubious at first about the triangular altar, but the design seemed chosen to emphasize the Trinity which is of course an interesting thought. My patience with it was rewarded. In the celebration of Eucharist it worked quite well.

Balancing the vectors of force created by the angled pews and wooden slats in the ceiling, there is a massive, black, stone artwork set as a backdrop to the altar, out of which juts a gold cubic tabernacle, adorned with colored (precious?) stones. The bold design reminded me of Merovingian jewelry, but in a distinctly modern mode. The cross is glass, inlaid with relics.


  1. “Back home, seminaries don’t easily open their doors, even for prayer. ”

    I was a freshly minted MA and recently moved to Chicago. Mundelein had no interest in granting me library privileges, even for a donation. Not the friendliest of places. And they wonder about vocations. I wonder about them.

    If the church abolished seminaries as such and sent their priesthood candidates off to grad school, I think all would be getting the better of the bargain.

  2. Surprised that you guys have forgotten recent history:

    Some lowlights that link to your observations:
    – “The report also observed that the formation of laity “really ought to take place elsewhere” than at a seminary, which exists for the formation of candidates to the priesthood. If lay formation must take place there, laity should not “routinely be admitted” to certain areas” (examples in the past ten years of numerous seminaries that have been renovated so that open access is restricted, limited, or eliminated)
    – “While praising the intellectual formation seminaries offer in philosophy and theology– with some seminaries being “truly remarkable”– the report condemned the practice of sending students to community colleges for their philosophy classes. Criticizing widespread weaknesses in the study of Mariology, patristics, and Latin, the report noted that “even in the best seminaries,” some faculty members dissent from Catholic teaching….”
    – “….the report nonetheless noted in some seminaries, students have an “insufficient grasp” of Catholic teaching and the distinction between the common priesthood of the faithful and the hierarchal priesthood is blurred. Some religious institutes speak primarily of “ministry” rather than the priesthood in a “mistaken attempt” not to offend opponents of Catholic teaching on women’s ordination.”
    – “….the report noted that in some places, bishops ordain men against the advice of rectors, while in “a few places,” the evaluation process was suspect– with the non-ordained, and even non-Catholics, voting whether candidates should be ordained. “Such practices are to cease.”

    It really is an amazing study and document – the bias and negativity against religious order seminaries is glaring and, then, after citing numerous areas of deficiencies, it ends by saying: “at least in diocesan seminaries”– because of the appointment of “wise and faithful rectors” – – they are, in general, healthy.

    Todd – Chicago archdiocese just completed a college seminary at Loyola University (at the cost of millions). Previously, they had been housed on a couple of floors in one of the older dorms….but, this was deemed as too open; not allowing for their own private chapel, meeting rooms, space, etc. Note, Loyola administrators required that the seminary building follow the university architecture so that, if necessary in the future, Loyola can exercise an option to buy this building for its campus.

  3. Among other things universities are for teaching criticism, including self-criticism, and when necessary, for encouraging toleration of dissent. Seminaries are for forming unanimity of world view, and conformity is valued in the extreme. Combining the two sorts of education seems impossible.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #4:
      Hi Ann,

      I think it would be at least one-sided if not altogether false to say that the purpose of seminaries is to form unanimity of world view. Seminaries exist to educate for ministry. Part of this education certainly must cultivate and cherish a common commitment to unity in essential matters, but this necessitates toleration of dissent on matters not essential. And of course this means learning how to discern what is and is not essential.

      Seminarians are supposed to be taught to be self-critical in service to the gospel.

      I should note however that this interesting discussion is something of a tangent, due to Bill’s excellent comment above in which he reminds us of the directives that encourage a separate world altogether. (Thanks, Bill — yes, this was precisely what I had in mind.) I was not writing to advocate shared study, although I don’t think this is a bad idea, but rather about having an open door to some shared liturgical and social time, which seems healthy to me.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #7:
        My sense is that some modern seminaries (post-1990) talk the talk, and maybe that’s it. Ann’s comment may be one-sided, but let’s concede that it’s the strong side. Too many young clergy return inculcated and confirmed in personal ideology. If there’s a sense of ministry, they probably found it on their own or had it before they entered. And it’s no guarantee a freshly ordained priest is ready for ministry.

        The seminary system is seriously flawed, and what we’ve received from the investigation is heartless gossip. Just as I think the Church would be better off with a 100% clean sweep of bishops, I think a 100% switch-off of diocesan seminaries would be an improvement overall.

        Ministry can’t be taught in a classroom; it must be part of an apprenticeship. Catechesis is no substitute for theology. And a separate world might suit women and men entering a cloister. But not people ordained to serve in the real world. American seminaries that persist in this closed practice do great (if not grave) harm to their students and to the Church.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #8:

        Just as I think the Church would be better off with a 100% clean sweep of bishops, I think a 100% switch-off of diocesan seminaries would be an improvement overall.

        The JOY OF THE GOSPEL would seem to require these, although Francis style is more like full deliberate speed ahead rather than 100% clean sweeps.

        Control of seminaries had been transferred to the Congregation for the Clergy from the Congregation for Catholic Education by a B!6 MP

        However one of Francis first major moves was to send the Prefect Cardinal Piacenza to the be Apostolic Penitentiary

        Cardinal Piacenza was appointed only three years ago by Pope Benedict XVI. He was a staunch defender of the traditional image of the priest. He saw the solution to the shortage of priests not in relaxations, but rather as a result of too many accommodations.Cardinal Piacenza had initiated visitations of the seminaries immediately, especially the numerous Roman seminaries.

        Francis installed as the new Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy a person who had been President of the Diplomatic Academy of the Holy See since 2007 and thus responsible for the training of diplomats of the Church. Francis has also revamped the Congregation for Catholic Education reducing the influence of Europeans and increasing that of Latin America and Asia.

        So wherever seminaries ends up under Curia reform it looks like Francis minded people are going to be in charge.

      3. @Jack Rakosky – comment #9:
        Jack – this is such a complex issue across the world. Would suggest that every episcopal conference has to be involved and make decisions because the *seminary* approach, structure, etc. can be so different by region.
        To Rita’s original point, the USCCB has been working and tabling a plan for regional seminaries (rather than each diocese or large diocese staffing, supporting their own seminaries). This would also support an effort to have the *best faculty*; *classes*; and programs (it is no secret that some diocesan/religious order seminaries lack quality programs, staff, etc.). This would also potentially create better formation approaches with well qualified formation staff (vs. what we have today). Obviously, there is push back – some for good reasons; some for poor reasons. You also have the issue of religious communities (Neo-Cats’ seminaries for 1st generation students; for an example).
        Need to make a distinction between college seminaries (fewer and fewer are stand alone – most would be houses of formation and attending local universities) and theologates (which is what Rita is describing). Have seen the pendulum swing from one side to the other over the last 40 years – some say a free standing and more isolated theologate is necessary; others want a more open setting – living in a common building with seminary structure but attending classes with lay and doing ministry assignments. These are usually much more open environments (to Rita’s point and ti appears closer to the comments of Francis to religious order superiors last month and then today at the Gesu).

  4. In Rome, of course, seminarians go to the local Roman Universities for their academic courses and are with other students. Their formation is in their house of studies where they live in community.
    What I truly liked about my 1970’s seminary experience in Baltimore, at the time, was that we did have other students with us, many of whom were taking day classes with us, but were enrolled in the Ecumenical Institute night school, so some of those in class with us were not Roman Catholic. This was a good thing. As well at the time, we did open the seminary chapel to visitors, especially our Wednesday Night Eucharist which at the time was the most solemn celebration of Mass we had during the week as so many of us left the seminary on the weekends to live in our parish placements and be at Mass on Sunday there. I liked that too and we were also allowed to visit the different parishes in Baltimore on Sunday to get a taste of the liturgical diversity at the time. I have no idea if this is continued at this seminary today.

  5. From Francis today at the Gesu and talking about formation:

    “Formation is a work of art, not a police action. We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the People Of God. This really gives me goose bumps”

  6. Rita —

    Maybe mine was an over-statement. But in my experience in teaching seminarians philosophy in the past, I found that there are indeed orders that want unanimity not only in theology but in philosophy. Plus, given how little public dissent we get nowadays from priests, whether diocesan or order ones, I infer that uniformity is still the goal. Of course, there must be some uniformity about the basics and about settled issues. But otherwise unanimity is not necessarily a virtue.

    Yes, as Roger Evans says, it is ironic that, given the founding of universities by the medieval Church, the Church now is so restrictive in its official thinking. It was much freer in the Middle Ages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *