This month hundreds of young men, having discerned a vocation to the priesthood, are commencing this journey by entering the seminary. Several hundred graduate theology students are also returning to seminary as they move ever closer to ordination, God willing. As it has been over seven years since Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, it is both timely and appropriate to see how much support seminaries are demonstrating for the Latin Mass through the liturgical formation of these young men.
During the course of researching this I interviewed nearly a dozen priests and seminarians. Specifically I wanted to know whether or not seminaries in the United States are currently training the men in their charge to offer both forms of the Roman Rite. I soon discovered that seminaries simply respond to the priorities and agendas of the dioceses from which they receive the majority of their seminarians, and therein lies the problem.
Confidentially I was told of direct conversations with bishops who believe that, while the Extraordinary Form is now technically available worldwide and that every priest can learn to celebrate it, the pastoral need for it is minimal, pertaining to a relatively small group of faithful. These same bishops note that while this group is a rather vocal minority, it is nonetheless a minority. For their own dioceses, many bishops simply request seminaries to provide a general liturgical formation which they believe will have the greatest impact on the largest number of parishes. In these dioceses, that liturgical seismic event known as Summorum Pontficum never happened.
In the near future we should not expect the majority of dioceses to request, let alone mandate, that their seminarians receive instruction in offering the traditional mass. A seminary instructor shared his belief that most seminaries in the United States, and most likely worldwide, provide little if any training in the Extraordinary Form. Often rectors are simply afraid of antagonizing diocesan bishops.
Ultimately, like so much else in the Church today, the issue is largely a generational one. Those bishops and archbishops whose own formation and ordination came in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae (1969) are often the ones most militant in their opposition to the old mass.
It was also explained to me that while some seminaries do provide training for offering the Extraordinary Form, they will not do so without first receiving written permission from the seminarian’s bishop. This has been the case, for example, at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, which does offer instruction to third and fourth year theologians, but only with the permission of their bishop. Of course, with some aging prelates, permission is never granted.
Widespread support for the Latin Mass in seminaries, one priest told me, is frankly going to require more courageous bishops requesting it and, sadly, more of the “old guard” going on to their reward.
While the majority of dioceses still see little value in their seminarians learning both forms of the Roman Rite, there are noticeable exceptions. Dioceses as diverse as Lincoln (Nebraska), Arlington (Virginia), Madison (Wisconsin) and Charlotte (North Carolina) either require, or strongly support, their seminarians learning the traditional mass.
Fr. John Zuhlsdorf recently wrote about the amazing liturgical and vocational resurgence occurring in the afore mentioned Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. During a week long orientation with his seminarians, Bishop Robert Morlino celebrated Mass for them in the Extraordinary Form. As Fr. Z also reported:
Bp. Morlino told the men – 32 in number! – that it was his expectation that all of them learn how to say Mass in the Extraordinary Form before they are ordained…Morlino did not say that they would be required to use it all the time, but that they must know how to use it. If seminaries are not offering the opportunity to learn the older form (which they ought to be, by the way), they could go to workshops or find priests who could help them to learn it. Bottom line: they are to learn the Extraordinary Form.
In addition to these dioceses, both Wichita and Peoria have also permitted their seminarians to learn the traditional mass. Most of these dioceses are also recognized, on a per capita basis, as being leaders in producing vocations to the priesthood. This, I would argue, is no coincidence.
In the end, hope does spring eternal. A priest friend who was ordained during Benedict’s papacy confided that all seminarians these days, even those who do not necessarily show a specific interest in the Traditional Latin Mass, seek solemnity and reverence in the mass. There is a great deal of interest in sacred music and in other ways by which a sense of the transcendent and beautiful can be restored to the liturgy.
To a man, all of the priests I have spoken with who offer both forms of the Roman Rite believe they are better priests for being able to do so. As one put it, “I will tell you this: it has absolutely affected and enhanced the way that I offer the Ordinary Form…the sense of the Sacrifice that is there in the Extraordinary Form I carry (over) to the OF…”
Recognizing the benefit and necessity for our diocesan priests to be able to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in both forms, may more bishops support a complete liturgical formation for this current generation of seminarians.