What Catholic Parents Need to Know Before a Son Enters Seminary

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This is Part 2 of a series on solving the vocations crisis and preparing our sons to answer the call. It was written with parents in mind but maybe helpful for all Catholics. Read Part 1 here: Solving the Vocations Crisis Crisis: Serviam


When my son was 5-years old, he rushed into our room in the middle of the night and announced that God wanted him to be a priest.

How do you know?
Because he told me!

And we moved on with life, doing what we had always done, living a life centered around the liturgy, learning, playing, and living life fully together…knowing that the true test of vocation doesn’t generally come like a flash in the night but through a steady relationship with Christ.

His interest in the faith continued to grow alongside his athletic and academic interests. He loved to serve at the altar and studied about the liturgy during his free time (and also when he was supposed to be doing his Math). We homeschooled, which allowed more flexibility in allowing Thomistic and liturgical passions to grow; and his interest in life, the fairer sex, and the priesthood grew together in a natural progression to manhood.

Eventually, he decided to give the Church the “first fruits” of his discernment and take a step towards the priesthood. He attended several discernment events, one of which was a weekend at a college seminary. He enjoyed the weekend but decided he was not a good fit for the community.

The seminarians hosting him didn’t display much interest in the faith or liturgy outside of the fact that they were, in fact, in seminary. They wanted to play video games and talk about secular music and movies. And the one thing that was a driving passion in his life, the Catholic faith, seemed a taboo topic among young men who should have been most excited to engage. Some were openly irritated that he wanted to hear their thoughts about God.

He came home with the understanding that many young men (at that seminary anyway) were entering those doors as a blank page, with a sincere but vague idea that the priesthood was somehow just about bachelors helping people. They may make wonderful priests someday, but this is not an ideal scenario for a young man going into seminary — any seminary.

When a man enters the seminary doors, he walks onto a battlefield. He is giving his assent to be fitted with the future crown of martyrdom. Like the Apostles before Him. Like Christ.

Before entering, he should already be a man, with a healthy spiritual, mental, and physical formation. He must be open to learning while, at the same time, prepared for the possibility of having to navigate wrong teaching and complicated peer and formator relationships.

While God can work through any situation to bring about transformation and holiness, the reality is that American seminaries are not generally a green house for orthodoxy, where young shoots can grow under the loving hand of a St. Charles Borromeo and a community of holy, intelligent, and manly saints. Perhaps a great saint could run such an enclosed institution successfully without allowing a platform for abusers. However, St. Charles is gone and the seminary crisis in the United States is a horror story of institutionalized dysfunction that continues to be protected and perpetuated by corrupt and weak prelates ensconced in powerful positions.

In Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s autobiography, she tells the story of one of her public college students, an angry and depressed young man who was raised in a devout Catholic family but lost his faith in seminary. He was accepted into the Maryknolls who “torpedoed his faith with their ‘new theology’ and modern Biblical scholarship.” He fell into despair and into a wild life. He eventually returned by the grace of God via von Hildebrand’s classes. But the story of his fall is not uncommon. And it doesn’t always end on a happy note.

Nestled solidly among the many good priests, a legion of bad ones have been placed in positions of power and have manipulated the system to perpetuate their corrupt ends. They are not in love with Christ. Some are liars and thieves. Some are abusers and violent criminals. Some are satanists. Some are mentally ill. Some are political and ideological activists who deliberately feast off the Church while working to destroy it. Some are simply badly formed and weak. And they have been in charge of forming, destroying, and confusing generation after generation... and putting up obstacles for the army of good men the Lord has raised up.

This is not new. This is the diabolical thread woven through Salvation History.

GAMING THE CATHOLIC SYSTEM

One of the most striking examples of how this happens is the Legionaries of Christ, whose perverse and narcissistic founder (Marciel Maciel) created the appearance of almost perfect institutional and personal piety while abusing so many and protecting other abusers.

He gamed the system and masterfully designed his own structure within the broader institution. He was so effective a manipulator that he fooled millions of Catholics and even a saintly pope, and became one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most damaging men of the modern Church. The ripple effect will touch generations of souls.

We see similar methods of manipulation (to varying degrees) employed within some major religious orders (both men and women) and diocesan seminaries. The evidence rolls out daily as we clean up the bloody mess created by people who don’t love Christ or His Church…or those who are ill-equipped to lead through the confusion. In certain religious and priestly communities, there has been a deliberate network of deviancy that perpetuates and feeds disordered desires. These men and women know how to appear pious enough (like Maciel did with alarming perfection) and how to repeatedly fool the faithful who are so quick to love and to trust.

It is not that Christ has left His Church…but that evil has done what it always sets out to do. It is a liar, a thief, and a destroyer.

As a mom with several sons and a public Catholic platform, I am often asked where I would send my sons to seminary if they feel called. My current answer is: I’m not sure. It’s complicated. Am I willing to give my sons in service to the Church? Absolutely. But I will not quickly hand an inexperienced young man over to a seminary that is marked by tepidity, confusion, sexual immorality, leftist ideology, or externally pious but narcissistic clericalism.

WHAT SHOULD A CATHOLIC PARENT DO?

It is difficult to be constantly immersed bad news and it isn’t always the best use of our time. But we are living in a time of great sorrow and witnessing the collapse of an institutional house eaten through by the termites of the enemy.

We live in a time when one of the most powerful cardinals in the world — close to popes, an influencer of domestic and international policy on sex abuse, education, liturgy, politics, etc. — was discovered to be a vile and faithless pedophile fraud. McCarrick was surrounded by men who knew him and his lifestyle and who are still in positions of power in the Church.

These are not times for the tepid priest. It is a time for martyrs.

In the last few decades, the faithful have been able to live in the relative peace of ignorance, largely oblivious to the evil behind closed doors. If you think I’m extreme or negative, then you have either been protected from it or haven’t recognized it yet. But if you desire to help your sons be open to God’s call to the priestly vocation…

It’s time to wake up.

It is not within our power to fight the monster on our own. We must turn first build a foundation of personal holiness and raise our children to respond to the call of holiness (which I discussed in Part I). Then, we must prepare for battle.


DEFINING THE BATTLE

I know a man who, after decades, finally approached his diocese about the horrific things that happened to him while at seminary. To name those in authority who knew what was happening, covered it up, and are still in respected positions today. For decades, men who knew that seminarians were being abused continued to be given responsibility over the formation of the priests of a diocese. Unconscionable.

His is only one story of many. The physical, mental, and spiritual damage to young men leaving or graduating from seminary is Catholicism’s special trail of tears.

The crisis isn’t over. It is actually escalating. The enraging truth is that the enemy has been identified and very little is being done. Not in local dioceses or religious orders. Not in Rome. For every one abuser or heretic removed from office, a dozen more remain in place, going unpunished or permitted to defy the disciplinary actions assigned to them.

In order for our sons to answer the call, they must become warriors before they ever approach a seminary door. Or they may become casualties against an enemy that does not love, does not believe, does not care about your son, and continues to shout with the enemies of Christ: Non Serviam! I will not serve.

TAKING ACTION AS THE PRIMARY EDUCATORS OF OUR CHILDREN

I obviously don’t have all the answers and this article is not definitive; rather, it is what I would tell parents who approach me with questions about seminary for their son. If you’re open to entering into this discussion, consider printing this out, praying over the ideas brought forth, talking about them, doing battle with them. You are certainly not bound to accept my perspective but what I am begging you to do for the sake of your sons and the Church, is to at least be willing to wrestle with it.

Our rosaries and the hours on our knees on behalf of our children may be enough in the end but then again, they may not. Prayer moves mountains but bad formation is not undone simply by a mother’s fervent desire. If we throw our kids into a den of hungry wolves and then pray a rosary for their safety…well…we shouldn’t be surprised to see their bodies torn to shreds.

How can we prepare our sons to answer the call BEFORE they get to seminary? The following ideas and suggestions are a good place to start the conversation in your family and community. I explain each of them following the list below:

  • Seminary is not a good place for the weak man

  • Vocation formation should happen long before seminary

  • Reconsider college seminary

  • Teach your son to read well

  • A strong prayer life is essential

  • Serve at the altar and love the liturgy

  • Teach your son to recognize grooming

  • Stay close to your son

  • Teach your son his civil rights

  • Help him understand his canonical rights

  • Enter the battle.

  • RISE UP


SEMINARY IS NOT A GOOD PLACE FOR THE WEAK MAN

The strength of a man’s character is not necessarily evident in his outward demeanor. A man may be quiet and studious with great humility but still have the lion-heart of a St. Thomas Aquinas. That is not weakness but gentle strength. The weakness I am talking about is the kind which predisposes a man to be dominated, bullied, or too easily led by others. A warrior can be magnanimous, open-minded, and deferential, but he must not be easily overcome by the strength of another.

If you know this about your son, then please know that the seminary system is full of predators and narcissists who will seek to dominate him. He will become a target by bad men even in a relatively good institution. With this weakness, he odds of leaving most seminaries without significant wounds is unlikely.

If your son has known addictions (from drugs to porn to video games), these should be addressed prior to entrance. Seminary is not a treatment center! Addictions will not disappear simply because they walk through the doors of a seminary.

We all have weakness in our characters and having a submissive personality does not mean that a man cannot be a great saint or that he cannot grow to be a person of strength. This point is a practical one. Do not send a 120 pound athlete into an NFL football game…even if he has a big heart. He will be crushed.

This weakness may simply be the natural immaturity of youth. Even a mature 18-year old will not be equipped as well for battle as someone who has a few more years of experience. The solution may be simply waiting longer before applying to seminary, to gain some healthy life experience and develop stronger interpersonal and physical skills. (See “Reconsidering College Seminary” below).


VOCATION FORMATION SHOULD HAPPEN LONG BEFORE SEMINARY

Your sons should know what vocation means before they hit high school. The practice of holy discernment should be common well before seminary becomes an option. Enter into the liturgical rhythm of the Church year and model examples of faith in the workplace, at home, and among community.

Freely express the fire of your own love for Christ and make opportunities for ongoing formation as individuals and family. Make sure that there is silence built into each day. Teach him to pray. Teach him to serve. Teach him to read (more about that below). Provide him with exceptional role models in multiple vocations. And when you think he is mature enough, have discussions about clerical sexual abuse and homosexuality to help him wade through the increasingly porn-distorted culture.


RECONSIDER COLLEGE SEMINARY

I used to think that college seminary was a good idea. I’ve changed my mind in light of the current challenges in our seminary culture. It seems to me now that a young man should be a little older before he has to face the specific challenges of a seminary system. Greater life experiences may help him to navigate potentially complicated relationships and situations. Greater maturity may help him to understand if he is being manipulated by authority or through his education.

Catholic moms are sometimes afraid that if we allow our sons to go out into the world, that the young men will lose their vocations. We know that a hundred pretty girls lie in wait for a good Catholic man to come along and that seminary hardly stands a chance! Or we might be worried that the spirit of the world will overtake his desire for holiness.

Do not be afraid. If God wants your son to be a priest, He will pursue him. And if your son is inclined to be swept along by the attractions of the secular world, he will also face those challenges in the priesthood.

It is not a greenhouse. It is a battlefield.

Greater maturity will not harm him and may protect him. Even some secular professionals are now encouraging parents to give their students a gap year or more to mature before facing the dangers of college. The same case can easily be made for seminary for similar reasons.

To reiterate, these are my current thoughts - just opinions - open to change as new information and individual discernment enter the equation. I am not pronouncing judgment on your sons who are in college seminary nor on you. My own son went to college seminary with my blessing. But I would do things differently now.


TEACH YOUR SON TO READ

Teach him to read difficult material that includes great works of literature, history, philosophy, and the doctors of the Church. He should already have a grasp of Salvation History and the Scriptures. He should be familiar with the Catechism and the writings of the saints and the great encyclicals. His knowledge (and library) should include the documents of Vatican II and preceding councils, and he should have spent some hours familiarizing himself with St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, the works of Chesterton, the spiritual writings of the saints, and have a solid grasp of the moral teachings of the Church. He should be encouraged as often as possible to refer to original sources and not simply to accept without question the opinions presented in popular textbooks and by modern Catholic authors.

I highly recommend having your teenage sons read Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen to begin to see the through eyes of a holy and happy priest.

If he cannot do this, he will not be intellectually prepared to engage in the academic battle being waged in seminaries everywhere. In this cultural climate, he must be able to intellectually engage or he may be easily swept away by a persuasive and kind (or bullying) professor who has authority and respect within a closed diocesan or religious system. He will be an empty bucket into which his professors will be able to pour their ideas…for better or worse.


A STRONG PRAYER LIFE IS ESSENTIAL

A strong prayer life should be established before going to seminary. It is the height of foolishness to expect to be strong without this element. As parents, we cannot control this in our children. They may be outwardly praying the rosary while inwardly thinking about football. We cannot know. It is not your responsibility to control his interior life and you cannot do it anyway. What is within our control is our own example of piety, creating a peaceful home environment conducive to prayer, opportunities for true silence, and frequent access to good spiritual leadership.


ENCOURAGE SERVICE AT THE ALTAR AND LOVE OF THE LITURGY

A surprisingly large number of seminarians and priests have only very shallow knowledge about serving at the altar and liturgy in general. Depending on the seminary, liturgy is not always prioritized and may only make it into one semester of study. That limited study may be led by a professor who is ideologically driven to change the liturgy to reflect a distorted theological or moral perspective.

Encourage your boys to serve whenever possible and also study the liturgy on their own before seminary (I will try to put some helpful resources on this in the near future and link here). Encourage them to become at least somewhat familiar with the Latin as well as the English — it is, after all, part of their heritage and will help them develop an appreciation and understanding of the liturgy as a whole. This will also help them know when the liturgy is being abused, taught incorrectly, or is invalid. As a priest, there will be no higher good than celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Their heart must begin there in the Eucharist and return there.


TEACH YOUR SON TO RECOGNIZE GROOMING

Our boys must know how to recognize the signs of grooming and defend themselves and others. Not all grooming leads to sexual abuse but it can lead to an abuse of power in other ways, especially in a system designed with a hierarchy of authority where those in power have control over your daily life and vocation. Hierarchy isn’t bad…SIN is bad. The grooming behaviors of a non-sexual narcissist can be extremely damaging, especially when combined with spiritual formation.

I wrote an article called A Catholic Girls’ Guide to Unmasking a Predator and I think that the general guidelines can be helpful for a young man in seminary as well. The details will vary but the basic guidelines are the same. I have adapted the list (only slightly) here.

Red flags to watch out for in superiors or peers:

  • He is a bad Catholic (faithful in externals but does not privately live the Gospel).

  • He is a liar.

  • He is secretive.

  • He isolates you physically and emotionally.

  • He is vulgar.

  • He is divisive.

  • He is mean.

  • He pressures you to abandon your morals.

  • He is immersed in foul music and media (or porn).

  • He doesn't want to talk to your parents (or let you talk to your parents)

Some examples of grooming behaviors are emotional or physical isolation; creating a barrier between healthy relationships and the seminarian. All help is cut off and the formator has complete control of the most important aspects of the seminarians life.

Another example is breaking down boundaries and rules by degree. Sharing alcohol under forbidden circumstances and laughing it off. Watching a movie or listening to music together which breaches the boundaries of purity. Making off color jokes or using crude language regularly and generally pushing the boundaries until the seminarian is comfortable with a degree of “naughty.” This not only allows a truly evil formator to push boundaries further but to also have leverage against the seminarian in the future. Blackmail.

This grooming process is one reason why the culture of silence is the norm and why the laity are ignorant. If an evil man can draw a good (but weak) man into an indiscretion, he holds then power over the most important things in the weak man’s life. If a good man can get through the seminary in one piece, he still has to contend with the authority of corrupt power.

Teach your son to be a wall of strength against such predatory behaviors…and to think through ahead of time (like a war strategist) what he would do in different circumstances.

  • What will he do if he is threatened with expulsion?

  • What will he do if someone lies about him?

  • What will he do if a formation or spiritual director crosses a physical or emotional boundary?

  • What will he do if he is told not to tell the Bishop?

  • What will he do if his fellow seminarians are engaging in immoral behavior (with men, women, or media)?

These are not questions to think about as they are happening but well ahead of time. If you are starting to feel panicky…pray for the spirit of a warrior and to have the courage to walk through your fear. "O blood and water, which gushed forth from the heart of Jesus as a fountain of mercy for us, I trust in you"


STAY CLOSE TO YOUR SON

When all is said and done, the system which promises to be mother, father, teacher, and spiritual director to your kid may abandon him or deeply wound him. You may not even know. Be there. Be the constant thread in his life that doesn’t waiver and doesn’t harm. Be the constant offering of sacrificial love in prayer and action. Build a home of peace to which he can safely visit or return. Also, be the eyes and ears of wisdom which can help identify the dysfunctional behaviors in those in power over your seminarian.


TEACH YOUR SON HIS CIVIL RIGHTS

In an institutional system where obedience, humility, and authority carry meanings and applications different than the secular understating, it is vital that a man understand precisely what his rights are.

He should understand his American civil rights which are built upon natural law. These are not abrogated simply because he enters seminary, regardless of what a formation director says! The seminary staff should respect the natural rights of each seminarian which include the right to privacy, safe environment and health needs, freedom from whistle blower retaliation, freedom from harassment. If your son finds his rights violated and chooses to object, he may find himself out of the seminary one way or another, but that is a decision he must be able to make clearly.

Even a generally good seminary experience can include strain between one person in power and a seminarian who has no power at all. It can become a no-win situation in which the seminarian knows that there really is no one to turn to since the ones he would be reporting are also the ones responsible with recommending him for another year in seminary.

In a dysfunctional situation, righteous anger has no legitimate expression. The virtues of obedience and humility are used as weapons by a director to gaslight and manipulate a seminarian into submission and dependency. It is an injustice which cannot be corrected, an injury which can only be turned inward, and one element which ends up creating the next generation of narcissistic priests.


HELP YOUR SON LEARN HIS CANONICAL RIGHTS

Knowing canonical rights is equally important in these situations in which the external and internal forums are so closely intertwined. In the case of one seminary (known for its orthodoxy), it was a regular practice of one spiritual director to share seminarian details with the formation director. This is a grave violation of seminarian rights but the directors simply thought they were above that important rule. The end result was that the seminarian ended up leaving because he was not permitted to express himself against the injustice in a way that satisfied all parties.

The seminary handbook should lay out both civil and canonical rights and any points of concern should be clarified. The seminarian should know them and also have thought through what he will do if they are violated.

  • What will he do if his spiritual director reveals protected information to his rector?

  • What will he do if his physician shares private medical information with his rector?

  • What will he do if his rector demands obedience in areas which violate natural and canonical rights or face expulsion?

  • What will he do if he discovers that his formation director regularly lies to him and to others?


ENTER THE BATTLE

We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of Salvation History as the antiquated version of Marvel comics. Excitement, adventure, horror, romance! All wrapped up neatly in a collection of literature for our convenient perusal, entertainment, and edification.

We have to root that tendency out and come alive again to the reality of the Incarnation. Salvation History isn’t a thing that happened to people living long ago. It is happening now. We are in it. We are in the middle of the battle and it rages around us and even in our homes.

The enemy still prowls and attacks. Still destroys souls and nations and commits unspeakable atrocities. And I think because we have been granted a brief historical period of comfort and wealth, we forget…

Evil doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t care if you forgive. It doesn’t care if you are compassionate. It doesn’t care if people suffer or die or weep in agony. It isn’t sorry. It doesn’t repent. It doesn’t care if you lose your faith. It doesn’t care if your son loses his faith in seminary or is molested or humiliated or lied about by a superior prelate. It doesn’t care if he is bullied out of seminary.

Evil delights in those things and boasts and dances in broad daylight in its perverse pride. It mocks us openly. We cannot afford to be naive.

As Christians, we believe that good will triumph. We’re not wrong in this. But we have a wrong understanding of what the battle looks like and have been protected from the worst by the blinding comfort of our American lifestyle and also by certain corrupt institutional systems designed to hide it.

We think the best of people, even the evil-doers. We look at sinful actions as “mistakes” and we are quick to forgive, but we are naive. When faced with the reality that the smoke of satan has not only entered the Church but is also wearing bishops’ mitres and Roman collars…well, that’s just very difficult to process. But it’s certainly nothing new.

Famous Catholic convert, Bella Dodd, worked with the Communists in the 1930’s to infiltrate the Catholic Church. She sought Confession and counsel from Venerable (soon to be Blessed) Fulton Sheen and described to him (and subsequently to the US government) how the she had followed the order of Stalin to “infiltrate Catholic seminaries and religious orders.” She personally placed over a 1000 false men into seminaries and worked with at least 4 cardinals who were active Communists.

Dodd’s close friend, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand writes about the infiltration:

“What I am writing on infiltration is not meant to deny that some bishops, some heads of religious orders, some priests have not fallen into the very grave sin of either closing their eyes to the horrible sins committed by people under their authority – but to make aware of the fact that a key factor hardly ever mentioned or mentioned at all, is that many of the worst culprits were not Catholic priests who had fallen prey to “unbridled lust” but infiltrators who had obtained false baptismal certificates and were plainly agents of communism. I heard from Bella Dodd that these evil men had even infiltrated the Vatican – for the Catholic Church is the arch enemy of Communism: and they know it.”

We are living the drama of Salvation History.

We cannot be afraid of hearing the negative. We must permit ourselves to experience the sorrow so that we can grieve and then gear up for battle. We now know that the Vatican knew about the sordid character of the Legionary founder, Maciel, as long ago as 1943 and did nothing. He was suspended as superior general and expelled from Rome for four years in the 1950’s for suspected pedophilia before being reinstated.

We must know.
We must make it our business.
We must decide to fight.
And if no one in authority will listen or act, then we must do it ourselves.

That there are good, holy priests fighting the good fight is absolutely true and I give thanks to God for these men who lay down their lives for us daily. In the midst of the chaos (although sometimes scattered and isolated) there is army of these good men! They know more than anyone of the danger within their own ranks and our failure to engage in the battle only harms them. It isolates them. It pierces them.

Let us stop our pearl clutching over harsh or negative news. We cannot escape the battle. And that means that we must choose which role we take in the fight.

IT COULD BE YOUR SON

When a lay person, priest, religious, bishop, or cardinal is being mistreated, abused, manipulated, silenced, or harassed by someone in authority over them, they often have nowhere to turn in the Church. Abuses are often ignored unless a civil court demands restitution for a proven crime or the laity yell loud enough. Groomed and abused seminarians are left to struggle with severe depression and loss of faith and identity. Priests are punished for their orthodoxy and  threatened with removal of faculties or even mental institutions. Good bishops are ignored by Rome. It is a painful thing but there is often no higher authority to which we can turn…and no outlet to which an abused or bullied member of the Church can use without increasing the abuse. Except…

Except for those in the Church who have been willing to look evil in the eye and call it out. And build again starting with the family.

As a parent of a young man discerning the priesthood, you must understand that those abused, harassed, alienated, and silenced priests could be your son…especially if your son is a particularly faithful Catholic. Start listening. Start speaking.

It’s time to level up.

Once you have begun to understand the true gravity of what is happening in the Church, you will have no choice but to cling to Jesus Christ, His promises, and His call to holiness. You will go through the grief and the doubt and then turn your heart back to Him with renewed fire and desire to serve and love and raise your sons to His Sacred Heart.

You will be able to stand in confidence and say “Enough! I’ve had enough.” And you will commit yourself to defending Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. It’s a battle with a known outcome. Now we just need to stand up and take our place in it.

Rise up, Church!
If God is calling men to become priests, then let Him call ours… and let us be prepared.

To again quote Dr. Alice von Hildebrand:

“What are faithful Catholics – aware of the gravity of the situation – to do? The answer is the one the Church has given us from the beginning: prayer, sacrifice, and the glorious conviction that the Forces of Evil shall not prevail.”