Cardinal Thomas Collins presides at 2018 ordination Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Seminarians look for light during dark times of abuse crisis

  • October 10, 2018

Hayden Straczala had just finished a fruitful year in parish internship when news broke of a Pennsylvania report that identified 1,000 victims who were sexually abused by Catholic priests. As more stories began to come out in Chile, Germany and other parts of the world, it weighed heavily on him as he returned to his academic studies in St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto. 

“Reading the story was not just some abstract piece of news to me because I’ve got to think about these young people who I loved getting to know during my internship,” said the 26-year-old seminarian. “It deeply disturbed me that clergy would abuse their roles, would abuse the souls that were given to them and do the exact opposite of caring for them and protecting them.”

Straczala said that there is quite a bit of outrage among his fellow classmates as more stories of sexual abuse and systematic coverup are  brought to light. He said it only motivated them more to become strong leaders in the Church. 

“You don’t leave Jesus because of Judas,” said Fr. Seamus Hogan, associate professor and member of the Academic Council and Formation Council at St. Augustine’s. “Something like this should encourage men who are faithful, who desire holiness, who want to help people get to Heaven…. We don’t need less holy men in the priesthood, we need more.”

Hogan said the revelations of abuse should propel young seminarians to go after the heart of Jesus Christ. It should also encourage seminary formators and teachers, like himself, to play their role in preparing these men for the life of priesthood. 

Today’s seminaries are fundamentally informed by an apostolic exhortation written by Pope St. John Paul II in 1992 called Pastores dabo vobis (“I will give you shepherds”). The document was the result of a Synod of Bishops in 1990 about “The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day.” 

John Paul II outlined four pillars in which young men will be formed for the priesthood: intellectual formation, pastoral formation, spiritual formation and human formation.

On Oct. 4, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) released a new document that calls for an emphasis in human formation in the seminaries.

“In the past, some persons lacking affective, emotional and psychosexual maturity were able to pass undetected through an inadequate seminary formation program more focused on spiritual and theological training rather than on pastoral and human development,” says the document. “Insufficient knowledge and inadequate practices about human formation resulted in the ordination and religious profession of various ill-prepared candidates, leading to some of the devastating consequences which emerged years later.”

Fr. Stephen Hero, rector of St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, said seminary formation was very different 25 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. Family violence and sexual abuse were not things that were discussed openly in society, which made it possible for young men who suffered silently to enter the seminary without dealing with their childhood traumas.

“I think some very wounded people or those with arrested development could have ended up at times in formation, but years ago, formators would not have been equipped to determine or deal with this as well as today,” he said. “Today, seminarians are out in the community more, learn about themselves in a more systematic and intentional way.”

Many faithful people have been shaken by the news of clerical abuse, said Hero. Even among the 42 seminarians under his care, he said it could not have been easy for them to return to their academic studies after the continuous outbreak of scandal. 

“I would say that I know what they are going through,” said Hero. “When I began philosophy as a seminarian in 1991, it was around the time of the scandals at Mount Cashel (in Newfoundland). As painful as it was to hear those shocking stories as a young man, it also made me want to be the priest that I could be.”

Before a man steps inside a seminary, he must provide proof of recommendation from his vocations director or bishop and a criminal record check. He must also be evaluated by a professional psychologist. 

Seminarians are often assigned to a spiritual director with whom they meet on a weekly basis. The seminarian, in order to be aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, must provide evidence of integrating the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of formation.

Seminaries often have a human formation counsellor who co-ordinates students’ psychological assessments and works with other psychologists to create part of a yearly evaluation approved by the rector at the end of each year. 

Each candidate is evaluated according to feedback from professors, spiritual directors, counsellors and even pastors and lay people where each candidate is required to do apostolic work in a parish community. 

Benedictine Fr. Matthew Gerlich is rector at Christ the King Seminary in Mission, B.C. As formators of the future priests for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Gerlich said all counsellors, spiritual directors and professors take their job very seriously. By living in community with the seminarians, it ensures that no candidate will slip through the cracks. 

“When I’m making a decision as rector, there is a lot of consultation involved,” he said. “It’s not just from what I’ve seen, but from what a lot of people have seen from (the seminarian), including from lay people.”

Christ the King is a unique seminary in that the Benedictine monks are responsible for running the major seminary and a minor seminary, which is a high school for boys located on the same campus. Community living is an integral part of daily life  — they live and eat and study and play together every day.

When news of the sexual abuse scandals came out, Gerlich said the faculty and students made a point to create an open dialogue with the young men in both the major seminary and the high school. He encouraged men to see their spiritual directors and to talk openly with their peers and teachers. 

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