Fostering Vocations at an Early Age

Minor seminaries (high school seminaries) were a normal feature on the landscape of Catholic education to the priesthood late into the 1960’s. In fact the Catholic University of America annually hosted the Minor Seminary Conference which drew formators from minor seminaries all over the United States. In Canada the first seminary, the Petit Séminaire in Quebec opened in October 1668, accepting First Nations and French students who were going to study at the Collège des Jésuites. It closed in 1759 when the city came under siege by the British but reopened in 1765. This institution ceased to exist after 1987.

English speaking Canada also had her minor seminaries, or rather, only one, the Seminary of Christ the King at Ladner, B.C. This minor seminary was first erected in 1931 under William Mark Duke, Archbishop of Vancouver. The first students who lodged at Ladner, BC, were not college students but 16 high school students. The Benedictines were invited to take charge of the seminary in July 1939 and arrived on September 13, 1939. They then continued building on the work of the first formators and developed both the minor and major seminaries.

In the 1960’s minor seminaries came under a barrage of criticism causing most of them to close their doors. For example, of the 122 minor seminaries in the US in 1960, only seven remained by 2000. However, the long experience of the Church has shown that a priestly vocation often manifests itself early in a boy’s life. The vocation of a modern saint such as St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina bears out the wisdom of the Church’s practice. Many of the Vancouver clergy and even two bishops in B.C. began their priestly formation in the minor seminary.

It is interesting that in spite of the many arguments brought against the minor seminary, there is little to prove that it doesn’t work when conducted properly and when weighed against the Church’s long tradition. It is certainly the mind of the Church that this much beleaguered institution of the 20th century continues to be a place where young vocations are promoted and nurtured. At the Second Vatican Council, the Decree on Priestly Formation dedicated a whole paragraph to the merit of minor seminaries:

  1. In minor seminaries erected to develop the seeds of vocations, the students should be prepared by special religious formation, particularly through appropriate spiritual direction, to follow Christ the Redeemer with generosity of spirit and purity of heart. Under the fatherly direction of the superiors, and with the proper cooperation of the parents, their daily routine should be in accord with the age, the character and the stage of development of adolescence and fully adapted to the norms of a healthy psychology. Nor should the fitting opportunity be lacking for social and cultural contacts and for contact with one’s own family. Moreover, whatever is decreed in the following paragraphs about major seminaries is also to be adapted to the minor seminary to the extent that it is in accord with its purpose and structure. Also, studies undertaken by the students should be so arranged that they can easily continue them elsewhere should they choose a different state of life.

Although at its beginning in 1931 the Seminary of Christ the King had only a high school, now it also has a college and each has its own Rector. In the recent past, when Canadian and American dioceses were closing down their minor seminaries, Westminster Abbey decided to promote and retain this institution conducted by the monks. They did so convinced of the Church’s experience that the minor seminary is a sure way to give young men a solid human and Christian formation which will prepare them for vocations to the priesthood or religious life or, if they do not pursue these, to the lay life.  In Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), St. John Paul II wrote, “As long experience shows” these vocations are often first heard “in the preadolescent years or in the earliest years of youth” (#63).  He also cited St. Thomas Aquinas who lived in a Benedictine monastery for 10 years beginning at age 5: “God loves in a special way those who give themselves to his service from their earliest youth”.

The Seminary of Christ the King has retained the essential practices of minor seminaries in the Catholic Tradition but has also adapted to the times. For example, the students follow the provincial curriculum for studies but with a strong spiritual, faith and human formation. The monastic community models this multi-dimensional formation and students learn by participation. Every student has a spiritual director. In recent years the faculty has tried to work more closely with the parents of the seminarians. In the last few years we have also introduced peer formation in the faith through spiritual reading (lectio divina).

The aims of the minor seminary are several: to form in the students a strong sense of community, responsibility and friendship; each week the seminarians engage in some local apostolic work. Daily physical exercise, daily exposure to musical training and an ordered lifestyle encourage the students to mature as Christian young men with pure and free hearts dedicated to Christ.  The seminary tries to prepare young seminarians for their ministry by offering them a countercultural lifestyle which often evangelizes the families of the students themselves.