Dressing for Failure: When Bishops Refuse to Ask the Right Questions on Why Seminaries are Empty

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By Daniel Attard, Regina Magazine, July 21, 2017

We are witnessing a time of great scandal in the Church, and many speculate as to why this is. I have long believed that priests and religious who fall into grave scandal do so as a result of the abandonment of the external witness to the faith – that is, by ceasing to wear their priestly clericals/habit.

At the dusk of the Second Vatican Council, priests in their droves discarded their clericals and hid amongst the faithful, resulting in a downward spiral still bearing rotten fruit today. Many priests stopped acting like priests when they ceased living like priests; they ceased living like priests when they stopped praying like priests. And they stopped praying like priests when they stopped dressing like priests.

Recently, I came across several instances where seminaries around the world were partaking in the centuries-old tradition often referred to as the taking of the cassock and tonsure. Without going into finer detail, this milestone on the road to priesthood predominantly occurs for seminarians commencing their second and third years of formation, though this can vary. On a personal level, I confess that reading such articles makes me quite envious of these seminarians.

Once a Seminarian

Just a few weeks into my first year as a seminarian (2004 and 2005) at Corpus Christi Seminary in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, I asked the Rector when the taking of the cassock and tonsure took place. He stated quite abruptly that there is no such tradition or ceremony at Corpus Christi because “Vatican II banned such traditions.” He also advised me that the wearing of clericals by seminarians is permitted only when specifically instructed by the Rector. Even for Sunday Masses and Solemn Feasts, seminarians were strictly forbidden from wearing clericals.

Perhaps I was naïve to expect a different response, given that the Church in Australia is home to some of the worst abuses in the Roman Rite. This can be seen in the level of doctrinal and theological errors being spouted in ‘Catholic’ schools, colleges and seminaries, and the regular liturgical and sacramental abuses in parishes on a daily and weekly basis.

I have observed a clear correlation – both good and bad – between the way priests dressed and the way they conducted themselves in public, their prayer life, their faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church, their reverence at Mass, their loyal adherence to the liturgical rubrics, and their belief in the doctrines of the Church.

                                  Abbe Chaptal, Canon Francis Altiere, Canon Amaury Montjean, and Canon Fennoll of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest

Not a minor issue

Some may think this is a minor issue, but I disagree. the way we dress and present ourselves directly reflects our pride in the office we hold. Whether we wish to admit it or not, our dress is an external sign of our interior attitude which influences our mannerisms and behaviours. In the case of clericals, the wearing of such garments is a public witness to Christ.

We must ask ourselves how we would react if a person presented themselves for a job interview, a date or at a dinner party dressed in dirty old clothing? This public witness is one of the main reasons why religious Orders that pride themselves in the wearing of their respective clericals like the Society of Pius X or religious habits as worn by the Sisters for Life are flourishing. In contrast, consider Orders like the Sisters of Mercy or the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

The Church simply cannot function without her religious members. It continues to astonish me that many diocesan and religious seminaries forbid their seminarians from embracing this external witness to Christ. And this stubbornness is having drastic effects on the age and number of priests throughout the Western world.

Fr. Anthony Uy, F.S.S.P, Fr. Noah Carter, FR Jeffrey Keyes, REGINA Chaplain

This same attitude towards religious clothing reflects the ideology of the priest as an individual, the seminary in which he studies and above all, the Diocese or Order he serves. Ask yourself what the ideology, the theology, the adherence to doctrine is likely to be in a seminary that specifically forbids its seminarians from wearing clericals. Please keep in mind that these seminarians are the Church’s future priests. I won’t go into the philosophical, canonical, dogmatic and theological errors that were taught at the nearby theological college where we studied as seminarians; but they accurately reflect the same corrupted ideology.

My home Archdiocese of Melbourne, where the bishops and priests have largely abandoned their clericals, and with the average age of a typical parish priest rising by the year, refuses to ask the correct questions, for fear of the answers.

Father Reinecke, Germany

Women’s Orders

Women’s religious Orders are not immune. In truth, the remnants of these once great Orders are dying a slow death. Orders such as the Sisters of Saint Joseph (the Josephites) and Sisters of Mercy have shunned their religious habits in favor of the pants-suits and jewellery popular in the 1970’s when these Orders’ sisters were young.

Many have closed their last houses of formation. Is it a coincidence that these Orders which abandoned the external witness of clerical dress correlate almost perfectly with the drop in the numbers within their own communities? As a researcher by profession, I would argue, not.

No vocations, no Church

This ideology has seen the lines between Priest and laymen deliberately blurred; examples of this blurring are found in altars in many churches being moved to the centre of the nave, the destruction of altar/communion rails, and a legion of laymen in the sanctuary looking for a job to do during Holy Mass.

As I reflect on the photo of Corpus Christi Seminary in Melbourne, I conclude that people looking at this photo could not be differentiated between those men studying for the priesthood and your average class at university.

The primary reason why seminaries in Australia are maintaining their numbers is because many of these students are imported from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. This is the case in most of the West.

Nothing is wrong with this in and of itself; however, the Australian Bishops who I have raised this very issue with are afraid to ask why more Australian men are not presenting themselves to study for the Priesthood.

As a seminarian, my Bishop simply dismissed my concerns as “getting hung up on insignificant things” and not to get “swamped in narcissism.”

This is a man with ideological blinders on. The Church can no longer afford this. Today, for the sake of future vocations, we must ask what is the seminary staff’s understanding of the Holy Priesthood, the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the delineation between Priest and layman?

Dress as witnessing to Christ

A visiting Bishop once gave a talk about being a witness to Christ. In speaking with him afterwards, he told me that one is free to wear clericals once ordained. What are the chances of a seminarian wearing clericals once ordained, when for the first six years of their formation they have been strictly forbidden from wearing them?

Conversely, when one looks at Orders which are flourishing, I struggle to find a single Order whose novices, candidates or seminarians are dressed casually. The Church is blessed with many examples of these flourishing religious communities, which publicly and externally display their witness to Christ.

Until the Church’s episcopacy looks at the root of the decline in the priesthood, however, many dioceses will continue to witness a steady loss of priests. If bishops continue to allow such policies in their seminaries, they will see the clerical ranks continue to wither.

Christ stated that “you will know them by their fruits” [Mt 7:16]. When we refuse to be a witness to Christ, we reject Him; subsequently we reject the One who sent Him [cf Lk 10:16].


About the author: DANIEL ATTARD is a sociologist who lives with his wife and five children in Melbourne, Australia.

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Photo credit: Harry Stevens