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Inspired by this front page article.

Fr. Paul Ward write in his article that one of his seminarians flipped out when he said that intellectual and spiritual formation go hand in hand. The young man believed that the priest’s role was to be “with the people,” but how can a priest be with the people and shepherd them if he doesn’t have the intellectual grounding to do so? It’s a very interesting question and one that fascinates me.

During the period before the Reformation, one of the things which the Church sorely needed to reform was the way in which it trained its priests. During the Middle Ages, there really was no such thing as a seminary. Most of the priests that were ordained during those times were men who were literate enough in Latin to say the Holy Mass and the Divine Office and to serve the people. Unless they were Dominicans or Franciscans, who studied as part of their formation, the studies of an ordinary parish priest usually ended with his ordination to the priesthood. Nothing more and nothing less than that.

Of course, a limited knowledge of theology has its problems. For example, I once read about a priest who was preaching on the Annunciation and made the following blunder: “Our Lady was meditating on the passage of Isaiah and she was praying the Little Office of Our Lady when the angel came.” Clearly, this parish priest had no clue what he was talking about. The Little Office of Our Lady did not even come into existence until the eleventh century with the Carthusians and there is no way that Our Lady would have known about it or prayed it.  Clearly, Father was having a bad day and this was in the 1400s not the 1990s.

The congregations in those times were made up of people who attended a Mass in which they could not participate. Since the Mass was in Latin and a hand missal was not available, most of the members of the congregation prayed the Rosary or other devotional prayers during the Mass. If one was a nobleman or educated person, then the Mass had more meaning. But most of the people during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance were illiterate.

When the Reformation arrived, most people found that having a service in their own language was better than having a service in a language which they could not understand. This is one of the reasons why so many flocked to Calvin and Luther. Not only this, but the reformers also preached sermons that were aimed at the ordinary people so that anyone could understand what they were saying. Not only this, but the theology was much more practical than what they probably heard from the pulpit day after day and year after year in their home parishes.

At the Council of Trent, one of the major problems that the fathers had to solve was how to combat Protestantism. One of the solutions was to set up a seminary system. Instrumental in getting this system working were two different Orders, the Jesuits and the Theatines (Order of Clerks Regular). Together, these two groups helped to spread the message of the Council and to create the first seminary systems.

In those days, seminaries were very different from what they are today. A young man going into the Jesuits, for example, could expect to study for the priesthood for some twelve years. These included four years of philosophy and four years of theology in addition to the formation that he would have received as novice, postulant , and so on. The reason why this length of time was needed for the young man’s education was simple and readily apparent: to form a man that could serve God by combating those that went against him.

Of course, the program of studies varied from group to group. Some allowed their seminarians to study for four years before they were ordained, while other groups believed that eight years was sufficient. Either way, the goal was the same as that of the Jesuits and it worked wonders for the Church.

In our own society, of course, our situation is somewhere near that of the Reformation. Our seminaries are not what they used to be. Anti-intellectualism reigns in our world and so it has infected the halls of the seminaries and universities as well. No wonder, then, that the question I began with popped up. No wonder that so many of us Catholic do not know our faith.

As Father points out in his column, we must study our faith in order to understand and to love it. I know this from experience. My reading of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII was one of the things which led me into the Church. Not only this, but also the numerous book on the saints that I read at the same time. When I read those books from end to end, I was so edified and inspired that I wanted to be where these people were and to do what they did. God was leading me to the Church by the example of those who lived anded within that Church.

After my conversion, however, I realized that few of my friends were on the same intellectual footing as I was. I remember once calling the vocations director for the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Our telephone call was lengthy and included all kinds of talk about St. John Baptist de La Salle. When it ended, Brother Director said to me in all seriousness, “You know, most young men that call me have no clue about De La Salle.” I was not surprised.

So how do we cure anti-intellectualism? How do we rid ourselves of this syndrome? The answer is quite easy. We must study our faith. We need not pore over volumes and volumes that have no meaning for our state in life, but rather those books that do. Indeed, there is so much solid reading material out there and that one merely has to choose something and read it. That one book that we read will lead us to another and then another. We will discover more and more about ourselves and the way that we live our faith will change as well.

St. Augustine was converted by picking up the New Testament and reading it. Why should we be so different? Let’s take up and read and continue to do so.

Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!

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