Culture, like agriculture, is the cultivation of the earth in which man grows. The present “earth” has produced its fruit by forming, as C.S. Lewis once said, men without chests. The Church’s mission is cultivation. Centuries of Benedictines cultivated the land because they had as their task the cultivation of the man. A fallow field will still produce fruit. The mission of St. Joseph Seminary is to put the hand to the plow.
A holy priesthood engenders the cultus and thus, the culture. But the building of a holy priesthood begins with the building of a man. We are not beasts. We are not angels. We are men. The strength (virtus) of a man is won at the price of discipline, and virtue is its reward. Virtue is a habitus from which one acts, rendering acts capable of having facility of movement, genuine creativity, and delight in activity (CCC 1804).
The philosophy of St Joseph Seminary, the principles by which decisions are made and executed, is simple. The theological virtues are the perfection of man. They grow in the seedbed of grace. Yet grace builds on and perfects nature. Thus, while we beseech Him for grace, we also act as dispositive causes in the cultivation of the nature. The only manner by which we win the intellectual and moral virtues necessary for the Sacred Priesthood is by discipline, education, and sacrifice in the context of Christian friendship. What follows is an explication of this philosophy, the method to be employed, and finally the basic guidelines which form the skeletal structure of daily life.
It is worth recalling what the Church states about a minor seminary and how she commends you who are answering Christ’s call in your youth:
As long experience shows, a priestly vocation tends to show itself in the preadolescent years or in the earliest years of youth. Even in people who decide to enter the seminary later on, it is not infrequent to find that God’s call had been perceived much earlier. The Church’s history gives constant witness of calls which the Lord directs to people of tender age. St. Thomas, for example, explains Jesus’ special love for St. John the Apostle “because of his tender age” and draws the following conclusion: “This explains that God loves in a special way those who give themselves to his service from their earliest youth” (198).
The Church looks after these seeds of vocations sown in the hearts of children by means of the institution of minor seminaries, providing a careful though preliminary discernment and accompaniment. In a number of parts of the world, these seminaries continue to carry out a valuable educational work, the aim of which is to protect and develop the seeds of a priestly vocation so that the students may more easily recognize it and be in a better position to respond to it.
The educational goal of such seminaries tends to favor in a timely and gradual way the human, cultural and spiritual formation which will lead the young person to embark on the path of the major seminary with an adequate and solid foundation. “To be prepared to follow Christ the Redeemer with generous souls and pure hearts”: This is the purpose of the minor seminary as indicated by the Council in the decree Optatam Totius, which thus outlines its educational aspect: The students “under the fatherly supervision of the superiors – the parents too playing their appropriate part – should lead lives suited to the age, mentality and development of young people. Their way of life should be fully in keeping with the standards of sound psychology and should include suitable experience of the ordinary affairs of daily life and contact with their own families” Pastores Dabo Vobis, 63.
The task of the seminary, as stated above, is thus the cultivation of these seeds, seeds of His call, so that the seminarians will have the capacity to follow Christ the Redeemer with generous and pure hearts.
Developing the Habitus of Prayer
Cultivating the seeds of a priestly vocation begins with rich soil. The soil of seminary life is fundamentally prayer. Such soil, however, needs various nutrients-most fundamental of which is silence, sacred silence. This is the atmosphere critically necessary to hear that “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12) of the Lord who gently invites the soul to “come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19). This sacred silence is permeated with authentic Christian prayer. Since “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” (Romans 8:26), we enter daily into the school of the liturgical life of the Church.
Above all, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as the source and summit of our spiritual life, nourishes the soul with the Body and Blood of Christ, thereby uniting the seminarian to the Lord, fortifying him against the temptations of the evil one, and animating the seminarian in the life of charity. Flowing from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office extends the sacrifice of praise throughout the day, immersing the seminarian in the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles” (Ephesians 5:19) that have formed the saints throughout Church history.
The seeds of vocation will collect the dew of the Holy Spirit by engaging daily in mental prayer on the Sacred Scriptures, enlightening the intellect with the Truth, and igniting the will in Divine Love. These seeds will further develop and mature through daily devotions, above all, with fostering a love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, seeking her motherly intercession through the Holy Rosary. The seminarian is also encouraged to follow the example of our patron St. Joseph, the silent saint, who obediently “did not fear to take Mary as [his] wife” (Matthew 1:20).
All the work of cultivating the seeds of vocation in the rich soil of prayer has one goal: to teach the heart to pray; for the saying is true, that “if the heart doesn’t pray, the lips labor in vain.” Thus, the habitus of prayer is intended to bring the seeds of vocation to root deeply in the heart of the Church and, following St. Joseph, the seminarian will learn to surrender self-will in obedience to the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit, forming him into a man of prayer, a man of God.
Developing Intellectual Virtue
Intellectual virtue must be seen as an integral part of discipleship. We must love God with our whole being, and that supreme good we love is attained first by the mind. Seminarians are to apply themselves with diligence and patience in forging the intellectual tools necessary for apprenticeship in sacra doctrina, a science that St. Thomas dares to call a foretaste of that same beatitude.
The principle of grace building upon nature applies in a particular way to a student’s entry into theological science, which makes use of all the lesser disciplines – logic as the right use of reason and basis of sound methodology, rhetoric as the art of persuasive communication, philosophy as the understanding and ordering of the principles of nature, history as discerning the interplay of free will and Providence, and the liberal arts as certain fundamental habits of mind needed to pursue higher subjects.
During their four years in minor seminary, seminarians devote themselves to the study of philosophy both as a worthy pursuit in itself, as well as the handmaid of theology, the Queen of the Sciences. The pursuit of natural wisdom in philosophy is complemented by the study and experience of beautiful things and profound truths in poetry and the fine arts, which cultivate and perfect the powers of imagination and memory, and refine the affections, thus greatly assisting and stabilizing the development of intellectual virtue, and giving the seminarian a sympathetic understanding of the elemental human experiences in all their heighth, depth, and breadth.
To grow in wisdom and intellectual virtue requires great concentration and dedication to the life of reason; thus, the seminarian should make every effort to commit himself wholly to the task of his own intellectual cultivation. He should seek to think deeply and carefully about the most important questions in life and to foster his own sense of wonder and desire for knowledge. Great emphasis is to be placed on integration such that the seminarian may bring his intellectual tools to bear not only in an academic context, but also in humble self-examination, fraternal conversation, recreation, and evangelization. Seminarians are highly encouraged to share their adventure of discovery as a means of both growing in friendship with one another and as a great help in the quest for wisdom. Lastly, and most importantly, growth in knowledge should serve as a powerful stimulus to charity, pursued in prayer and savored in the earthly consummation of liturgical worship.
Developing Moral Virtue
As noted above, virtues are gained by discipline, education and sacrifice. These three acts translate into rule, right reason, and love of neighbor. The seminary is the place where these acts are engaged cooperatively. By cooperative is meant that the rule is given, but it is in keeping with the nature of a man, who is not merely an instrument, to share in the mind of the law-giver. If the law be divine, we seek in humble obedience to see the mind of the Master. If the law be for the good of the house, it is appropriate for the faculty to share their minds about the law. Indeed, faculty and seminarian live the rule together and while the rule must be obeyed, it must be done not in a slavish manner, but with generosity of spirit. We are all disciples. Discipline and disciple come from the same root. We are disciples of Christ and thus discipline ourselves according to His law, a law written on our hearts. This discipline checks the passions and the will. Discipline leads to disciplina, that is, education. The mind, seeking to participate in the mind of the Master, is educated. It is “led out” of the two-fold darkness in which it was born, the darkness of ignorance and the darkness of sin (prayer of St Thomas Aquinas before study). The passions themselves participate in this education, being freed from their blind excesses and evangelized as it were, converted to the order of right reason.
Finally, the increased conformity of will and the enlightenment of the mind will lead to deeper friendship. The result of this development will be an increased desire to sacrifice for one another. The man who aspires to offer the Holy Sacrifice must first, by the above means and an increase in Divine Charity, become himself an oblation.