What is a seminarian?

A seminarian is a man who has applied and been accepted by the bishop of a diocese to be formed as a priest, and, like priests, we come in many shapes and sizes, and from different walks of life.

In order to prepare these men for priesthood, the bishop sends them to a seminary, to be formed by priests and other appointed persons, intellectually, spiritually, and pastorally, and there we grow in knowledge of God, ourselves and others. We must remember that it is the bishop who is ultimately responsible for his students, not the seminary where they are studying.

How long does it take to train a priest?

For most men, 6 years. But the use of words is very important, and we don't normally use the word 'training' when we talk about seminary. 'Training' tends to refer to training for a job or a career, but being a priest is not so much about what they do, but what they are, an alter Christus. Because of this, we tend to use the word 'formation', because, in seminary, we grow towards priesthood in our manner of life and development, culminating in ordination by a bishop after 6 years, if and when the Church, manifested in the persons of the formators and the bishop, recognises a divine vocation to the priesthood over the duration of that time.

Formation does not begin upon entry into a seminary, nor does it conclude with ordination to the priesthood, but is the journey of a lifetime.

Isn't 6 years a long time?

It's a very long time indeed. They say that 'the days fly by, but the years drag.' Priesthood isn't a job; it's a state of being. It's important that we, as individuals, and the Church as a whole, are completely sure that priesthood is the right thing. 

Sometimes, if necessary, before being sent to a major seminary, men may be sent to a  propaedeutic seminary, to undertake a year of 'pre-formation'. This exposes the student to community life and seminary formation before undertaking it 'for real'. It can be an important time of discernment for a seminarian. The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales maintain one propaedeutic seminary, in Valladolid, Spain, but there are many others around the world, and, in fact, some seminarians from England attend the seminary run by the Society of St John Mary Vianney in Ars, France for their propaedeutic year.

Some men only discern to apply for priesthood after many years in the world of work, and there are a number of men over the age of 40 who go to seminary. Sometimes, in this situation, a bishop may decide that a man should only be exposed to 4 years of priestly formation, because of his wealth of experience and wisdom already acquired. This may take place in a seminary like Oscott, or, there is an English seminary in Rome catered specifically for this purpose.

Men who have been ministers of a protestant religion may convert to Catholicism and apply to their bishop to be formed as Catholic priests. Married men in this position must have permission to be ordained by the Holy See, because Catholic priests are normally celibate. Given their prior theological formation and pastoral experience, their formation is usually only for around 2 years. Priests and seminarians of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham also undertake such formation. 

How many seminaries are there?

For the training of priests specifically for the dioceses of England and Wales, there are six seminaries:
  • St Mary's College, Oscott, Warwickshire, the diocesan seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, founded in 1794
  • St John's College, Wonersh, Surrey, initially the diocesan seminary of the Archdiocese of Southwark, founded in 1891, now within the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
  • Allen Hall, Chelsea, London, relocated from St Edmund's, Ware, in 1975, the diocesan seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
  • Venerable English College, Rome, Italy, founded in 1579
  • Pontifical Beda College, Rome, Italy, founded in 1859 to form older men to the priesthood from the English-speaking world.
  • Royal College of St Alban, Valladolid, Spain, founded in 1589, and continued to form priests until re-founded as a propaedeutic seminary in the 1990s. 

Can you take time out?

If the individual seminarian, or the formators, or both, decide that he should not be in seminary at that particular moment, he can leave. Sometimes, this means that he doesn't have a vocation to the priesthood. Some people have seen this as some sort of 'failure', but really, it shows that he has discerned that his vocation lies somewhere else, and discovery of this is not a time to lament, but rejoice, even though leaving your home of many years, and good friends and return to the noisy world is a hard thing to do. Sometimes, a man can still feel called to the priesthood, but for some reason or another, he leaves, perhaps to gain more experience of the world, or himself, before deciding to continue on the path to priesthood. He may simply not like the seminary! It is important that seminarians remember that no man has a vocation to be a seminarian forever, but only for a short period. He should remember that his aim is to get out of seminary!

How long does it take to qualify before you can say the Mass?

Often people think that the only thing we do in a seminary is learn how to say Mass. Only a priest is able to celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. Objectively, a priest does not require certain qualifications to celebrate the Mass, except that he is an ordained priest! On a practical level, after ordination to the diaconate in year five, seminarians are taught how to celebrate the various liturgies of the Church, so really, we don't even start thinking about such things until we are about to leave!

It is important, though, that priests are properly formed to function as priests in their pastoral ministry among the people of God. Before the ecumenical Council of Trent in the sixteenth-century created the seminary, men were often 'apprenticed' to priests, and, after a number of years, were presented to the bishop for ordination. Some people today wish to return to this mediaeval practice! But the Council recognised that it was important that its priests were properly educated and formed as persons. By the end of the twentieth-century, this formation was described as being manifested by four 'strands' of formation: intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human. Really, they are all inseparable, but are like categories for what we do at the seminary. It is increasingly important, especially in our time, that priests are fully grounded in the Catholic faith, and full rounded as human persons.

So, what academic qualifications do you get?

Most of our time in seminary is taken up by lectures and academic work. This is a practical necessity, simply because there is a lot to learn. And what we learn in seminary, we will use for the rest of our lives, so it is important to get it right from the start. As a rule, you don't get a qualification from the seminary. Oscott is affiliated with two universities, however: the University of Birmingham, and the Katholiek Universitiet Leuven, in Belgium. This enables seminarians to be awarded a bachelor of arts degree in fundamental Catholic theology at the conclusion of third year from Birmingham, and, at the end of sixth year, a sacred theology baccalaureate from Leuven. Not all seminaries have such affiliations, however. The diocese may want to arrange other academic programmes for students, such as preparatory courses before starting seminary, or another type of course.

Are you stuck in the seminary the whole time, or do you go into parishes?

Pastoral work is a very important part of our formation. As we've already seen, our formation centres around the four strands of human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral development. It is important that the seminary is a place of separation from the world, not because we are monks, but because we are entering a life where the sacred and transcendent occupies the whole of our being; necessarily, we should learn to live apart from secular worldliness, while continuing to live within it.

Most priests will undertake their ministry in parishes throughout the country; it is the whole purpose of priesthood, after all! As so, in seminary today, we undertake a considerable amount of pastoral work, to gain experience, yes, but also to build us up as persons.

Every year in Oscott, as a rule, seminarians undertake a 3-week placement in January in a parish in the diocese, or in another place. Every week, on Thursday afternoons during term-time, they are placed in an institution or with a group for a couple of hours. This can be a school, a hospital, a prison an RCIA programme, a social club for the elderly, and many more examples! This placement lasts the whole year.

At the start of the fourth year, they undertake a 5-month placement in a parish in the diocese; they call this an extended pastoral placement. During that time, they do not live in the seminary, but in the parochial presbytery.

After a seminarian is ordained to the diaconate, he undertakes a month-long placement in a diocesan parish over the summer, and, when he returns to seminary in September, he is attached to a local parish, and attends it parish life on Sundays, and perhaps other times too.

Every seminary has a different pastoral programme; this is what it looks like in Oscott. Some people say that we should have more pastoral work, as if we should be made into perfect models of pastoral priests upon leaving the seminary. Perhaps we could do more in parishes, perhaps not, but, as we have already seen, a seminary does not produce finished products, and we grow in experience and wisdom throughout the whole of our lives. A complete and honest openness to priestly formation in seminary is sufficient to permit the germination of this growth; self-discovery is of capital importance for our pastoral responsibility. Sometimes, some priests are more shy than others; some seem far too bombastic for their own good! But, we must remember that all the work that we do is, in fact, God's work done through us, his earthenware vessels.

Don't you want to get married?

It seems a little impertinent to ask someone, 'why aren't you married?' You don't normally go up to someone and say, 'so, why are you married'. But still, clerical celibacy is a very big thing for seminarians, because ordination in our rite requires a promise of celibacy.

For many of us, the opportunity to get married never really came up! For some of us, there was an opportunity of marriage but we chose a different path. Some of us have had lots of relationships, others haven't had any relationships.

In our post-war society, it seems a little odd that someone would choose to reject the sexual revolution culture which is dominant in the west. Even from within the Church, we seminarians are criticised for not wanting to have sex. For future reference, this can be very discouraging for seminarians, and priests, who hear this from parishioners, and is not the best way to go about fostering priestly vocations! One could similarly ask, 'why aren't people getting married?' How many marriages have been solemnised in your parish recently? There is a crisis of marriage, as well as a crisis of priesthood. People just don't want to make commitments. The real crisis is a crisis of humanity; lack of priests and marriages is a symptom of something evil in our society.

Well, first of all, celibacy is odd. It is unnatural. Our blessed Lord, too, was a bit odd. Just imagine, a thirty-something year-old man, single, living with his mother, in a society which expected men to marry and multiply. Jesus was counter-cultural. Even though every baptised person is conformed to Christ, priests are conformed to Christ in a particular way, and imitate his life. As Cardinal Hume said, "If I had no arguments in favour of celibacy, I would look no further than the person of the Lord, and He was celibate. I would find that totally satisfying."

Second, it is simply more practical for priests to be celibate. They are able to channel their overflowing love to perform their pastoral functions among the people of God. Priests are freer to serve them. They are totally theirs.

Third, is an eschatological reason. Eschatological means 'about the end times'. The purpose of priesthood is to get people - you and me - into heaven. That is it. Everything a priest does flows from that sole purpose. This eschatological symbol of celibacy says: 'there is more to our life than what we experience here and now. There is another life to come, a life with the Blessed Trinity in heaven.' When we go before the Judgement Seat, it's just you and God. We shall have neither our iPhones, nor our wives at our side. Imagine some people waiting for a bus at a bus stop. They are a sign, a sign which indicates something which hasn't yet arrived, but will surely come. Otherwise, why would they be waiting for it?!

For these three reasons, celibacy, even though it remains a discipline of the Church, rather than a doctrine, it is integral to the life of priests, and priestly spirituality. In seminary, we grow into celibacy, so that we are ready to make the commitment at the end of our formation. We make it our own. So no, we don't want to get married.

There are lots more questions out there! Watch this space for more answers, and send us your questions by using our e-mail address, eastanglia@live.com