Friday, February 20, 2015

Is there something wrong with priestly formation in St. Paul/Minneapolis?

I thought it was almost perfect.

Seriously, I did.  Then I came across this from Fr. James Martin, S.J. - with caveats that this is one former seminarian's experience and not all formation programs are like this, so on and so on.  Fr. Martin's post led me to the Commonweal article by the former seminarian, Paul Blaschko.  To be sure, there is no scandal involved, but perhaps an odd response to all the scandals has made for an unusual approach in formation?

I don't know - I assumed, along with many others in the archdiocese that we had the best seminary in the country.  I know what my own reactions have been in leaving novitiate for religious life, as well as some jobs: I sometimes focused upon the negative culture of the place I was quitting in order to justify my decision to move on.  An unconscious attempt for self-affirmation can incline one to view everything as negative and even creepy, and to judge problems as being far worse than they were.  Oftentimes that attitude describes 'disgruntled'.  If that is the case with Blaschko's account, that's too bad.  But I wonder?

What he writes about sounds believable enough - and it doesn't come off as having been written by a disgruntled former seminarian.  As Fr. Martin wrote on his Facebook page:
But I also want to say that I have heard stories from several seminarians around the country who describe their own formation around sexuality in the way that the author describes--closed, fearful, and, frankly, unhealthy. Yes, celibacy is not the cause of sexual abuse. (More abuse happens in families.) But poor and even twisted education and formation around sexuality will inevitably lead to serious problems for the priest or religious, for his community and for those with whom he ministers. So even if this kind of formation is happening in one seminary, it is a big problem. - Fr. Martin
After recent scandals in the archdiocese, things are still far from normal.  At least everything 'feels' fairly dysfunctional at the moment, albeit under autocratic leadership.  I've never heard concerns voiced over formation at the seminary.

Inside the Seminary: Is there reason to be worried about formation? 

From 2008 through 2010, I was a seminarian in St. Paul, Minneapolis, an archdiocese now entrenched in its own abuse scandal. My experience there led me to believe that the problem of priestly sexual abuse is due, at least in part, to the failure of seminaries to provide adequate human and sexual formation to men studying for the priesthood. More specifically, my seminary formation failed to confront the questions surrounding sexual abuse in a candid and psychologically sophisticated way. I realize that my experience is limited, and that it would be unwise to generalize about seminary education from the the operations and culture of one institution. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to tell my story in the hope of calling attention to what might very well be more widespread problems.
But just a few weeks into my time at the seminary, my confidence began to waver. I recall the day when the first-year seminarians, or “new men” as we were called, gathered in the seminary’s spacious basement to attend a workshop on sexual ethics titled “Freedom and Victory.” The workshop was run by a psychologist from something called the Theology of the Body Training and Healing Center, together with a blind priest who, we were told during his introduction, had witnessed at least one Eucharistic miracle and had had extensive experience with exorcisms. The breakout sessions had titles like “Masturbation: Is it Healthy? Is it Holy?” (you can guess the answer to both questions); and at various points throughout the workshop we were invited to approach the microphone and share stories of sexual pain and healing—“if you feel called by the spirit to do so”—with the sixty or so priests and other seminarians in the room.
The whole thing felt more than a little strange to me, and for the most part I kept my head down, pretending to take notes in the workbook that had been provided. The strangeness culminated with a workshop session devoted to reenacting the “spiritual warfare” that goes on when a young man watches pornography. Each of us was given a nametag with the name of a demon on it. These demons, we were told, were the principalities most closely associated with sexual temptation. We were then gathered around the chosen man and told to hiss and curse at him, trying to entice him to “watch pornography” and “masturbate.” Afterwards, the priest came around with a coffee tin, collecting the nametags—he had to burn them, he told us, while reciting prayers of exorcism. Demonic influence wasn’t something to take lightly.
After the session, I caught up with one of the priests on staff and hesitantly expressed my doubts about the workshop. He reassured me that the formation staff knew exactly what they were doing, and encouraged me to defer to the authority of the workshop leader. - Finish reading at Commonweal

It sounds weird, doesn't it?  But maybe it's because we weren't there or don't know the program used, or ...  as one commenter asked:

I wonder how much the overworked directors of the seminary were drawn in by the credentials of the experts from the Theology of the Body Training and Healing Center, who offered to solve their problem even though their methods and agenda undermined the mission of the seminary. 
As a related question, I wonder how much overworked pastors are being drawn into pre packaged programs for youth, for couples, for men… that may not fit the parish's mission. - Steve McCluskey February 19, 2015 - 10:30pm

Discernment is a difficult process for all concerned - I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect system. 


  1. I know this is odd, but if I were in there, I'd be happy that the seminary took an approach so seriously to masturbation, pornography, and other sexual sin, such as that name tag exercise.

    Most seminary formation seems to either not cover this well, or go the other way. And obviously, should one scan the net and be generally aware of what's happened in the Church over the years, seminaries had a profound influence of pro- or actively homosexual priests in formation, and while a small number of priests overall have committed sexual abuse, needless to say those in power were a little "lax" in their discretion of candidates, unless you were moderately to heavily conservative. These men in power turned away good candidates. The remaining candidates, well .... you get the picture.

    Now, I will say that sharing exercise, that's creepy. Why the heck would I want to know of what my fellow seminarians have done sexually in life, or they of mine, for that matter? That's for me and my spiritual director or formation director to discuss and confess sacramentally.

    1. I think the honest approach to sexual morality is especially needed and I agree it's a good idea.

      I wonder if the 'exercise' mentioned in the article was the full picture? Exercises like that always sound strange out of context.

  2. It reads like a non-story to me, certainly compared to typical seminarian formation in the 1980s.

    I think that's amazing that you're part of the seminarian oversight committee in your diocese. I wish they asked for my input out here. What?

    1. haha! I just thought I'd invite others to comment who may know more than I do about it. I sincerely thought the place is one of the best in the country, so this comes as a surprise.

  3. I read the Commonweal article, only Blaschko's story, earlier today with intention of passing it on to my list. But I came away after reading it wondering if it was Blaschko's problem, rather than the seminary's. So I just passed it on to a priest I know. I haven't heard back yet.

    Blaschko seems to have been upset when friends quit/left/expelled from the seminary. But it is well known that few who start in seminaries end up getting ordained. Maybe that might not have been the case in the 40s and 50s. But I doubt it.

    My best friend from high school dropped out of the seminary, became a brother for a time and then left that too. He married and found a great career. I think he went in in the first place because of great pressure from his mother and his pastor.

    1. Another friends sent me links to more information on the author. Looks as if this is simply his personal experience and interpretation. He thanked Jennifer Haselberger for linking to his article so I'm wondering what motivated the article in the first place ...

    2. Since he thanked JH for linking, everything he says is suspect.

  4. Sharing sexual pain & experiences albeit from a healing angle does not seem like good formation to me.

  5. Is he sure it wasn't albino monk assassins? Because it makes no sense that the Church would sanction people invoking the names of demons when what She teaches is to avoid near oaccassions of sin and letting demons have a way in.

  6. Is he sure it wasn't albino monk assassins? Because it makes no sense that the Church would sanction people invoking the names of demons when what She teaches is to avoid near oaccassions of sin and letting demons have a way in.


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