A “Modest Proposal” for a Pastoral Year Apostolate

As the academic year winds down, administrators go into overdrive in planning for the next year, hence, the rationale for my present musings. Since it appears that most seminaries/dioceses are now moving (or have moved) to a mandatory pastoral year during the theology years, I would like to make a “modest proposal.” I would hope that bishops and vocation directors would always assign a seminarian for his pastoral year to a parish with a school. Work in a Catholic school enables one to evangelize/catechize at least two generations simultaneously (the children and their parents), and not infrequently even the grandparents.

Having a seminarian active in the parish school is very much needed for a number of reasons: firstly, because most priests today are sadly absent from that arena of apostolic endeavor; secondly, with the virtual disappearance of women religious from our schools, the presence of a seminarian (presumably in ecclesiastical garb) provides an “institutional” face to the school; thirdly, a seminarian on campus offers a male presence — sorely lacking (even in government schools nowadays); last but not least, the seminarian can gain important insights into a theology or spirituality of “presence.”

Assigning the seminarian to work in the school ensures meaningful and gainful activity. Lord knows, in most parishes, he is little more than a bump on a log, since he cannot even replace a third-grader serving Mass or the octogenarian hairdresser distributing Holy Communion. What I am proposing here is, in some way, also attempting to duplicate my own experience as a seminarian when I worked in an inner-city parish school (actually, even serving as the vice-principal), much to the chagrin of the seminary authorities.

What follows is a kind of “job description” for a seminarian’s involvement in an elementary school (he should also be available to any nearby Catholic high schools). I have tried to “think outside the box,” considering what “gaps” exist in our schools and how a candidate for the priesthood might fill in some of those gaps, to the benefit of both the school and the young man. Here goes my “wish list” for a seminarian-intern in the parish school, any or all of the following, according to the talents of the young man:

– Be at the front door of the school to greet students upon arrival

– Lead morning prayers for the student body

– Teach one religion class a week in each grade

– Be present to the students at lunch and recess times

– Plan class/school Masses and other liturgical services (guide older students in the process)

– Form and moderate a vocation club

– Assist with coaching any teams, if competent

– Attend sporting events (at least home games)

– Serve as a resource and/or counselor for faculty and parents

– Train and moderate the rank of the altar boy (establish a chapter of Knights of the Altar)

– Preside at Marian devotions, Stations of the Cross, Holy Hours

– Take responsibility for sacramental preparation (First Penance, First Holy Communion, Confirmation)

– Be available as an auxiliary counselor for students

– Form/direct a Gregorian schola, according to ability

– Provide continuing faculty formation on various aspects of doctrine, the Church’s understanding of Catholic education, and the vocation of the teacher

– Conduct periodic parent evenings of recollection

– Create mini-courses in Catholic culture, especially for middle school pupils

– Serve as moderator for the PTA

– Attend all faculty and school board meetings

– Introduce Latin into the curriculum

– Be at the door to send children home at day’s end, tracing the cross on their foreheads

Taking on any of the above roles will fill in the lacunae that may exist or may relieve some faculty member who is already over-burdened. Most importantly, if a young man can relate effectively to grammar school children — let alone to hormone-raging kids in middle school — he will be equal to any pastoral challenge he will face as a priest. Furthermore, he will be prepared to assume a position of authority and service as a parochial vicar or pastor of any parish with a school — or any parish that needs to open one.

While immersed in the school apostolate, the future priest should also befriend the many saintly priest-educators or priest-founders of religious families committed to teaching in our history. Springing to mind immediately, I think of: John Neumann of Philadelphia, Thomas Aquinas, John Bosco, Jerome Emiliani, John Baptist de la Salle, Norbert, Benedict, Ignatius of Loyola, Dominic Guzman, Joseph Calasanz, Vincent de Paul, Albert the Great.

Have I left anyone out? I would sin grievously were I to omit the indomitable champion of Catholic education — St. John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman’s commitment to Catholic higher education is well known; less well known is his commitment to Catholic education at the earlier levels. After all, a Catholic university needs a natural “feeder.” And so, within fourteen years of Newman’s conversion, he established the Oratory School (“the apple of his eye”), intended as a Catholic Eton, precisely “to create an intelligent and well-instructed laity.”

An “Old Boy” of the Oratory School, Arthur Hungerford Pollen, recalled:

At the Oratory we saw a good deal of the Cardinal. Nothing pleased him more than making friends with the boys, and the many opportunities we had of personal contact with him made the friendship a real one. Of course, to us he was the greatest of heroes. Slight and bent with age, with head thrust forward, and a quick firm gait, the great Oratorian might often be seen going from corridor to corridor, or across the school grounds. His head was large, the pink biretta made it seem still more so, and he carried it as if the neck were not strong enough for the weight. . . . In the Latin plays which he had prepared for the boys to act he always took the keenest interest, insisting on the careful rendering of favourite passages, and himself giving hints in cases of histrionic difficulty. In the school chapel he from time to time appeared, giving a short address, and assisting at the afternoon service. It is curious that it should have been in connexion with these two widely different occupations that we should have seen most of him. It is, perhaps, characteristic of his disposition, in which playfulness and piety were so sweetly combined.

Yes, even as an old cardinal in his eighties!

Newman became internationally acknowledged as a strong proponent of Catholic schools, so much so that the archbishop of Sydney sought his support and counsel for the struggle in Australia. To which the newly-minted cardinal offered this reflection:

. . . it is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action; – whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their God and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims; – for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?

After receiving the red hat, the new cardinal was feted at many events back home, but especially by the many groups associated with his Oratory School. He acknowledged that the project was the cause of “much weariness and anxiety,” but went on to assert:

Nothing indeed is more pleasant than the care of boys; at the same time nothing involves greater responsibility. A school such as ours is a pastoral charge of the most intimate kind. . . . In order to the due formation of their minds, boys need that moral and intellectual discipline which school alone can give. Their parents then make a great sacrifice, and also make an act of supreme confidence, in committing their dear ones to strangers.

Then, with a most priestly heart, he places the role of the priest in a Catholic school directly within one’s pastoral ministry and gives it preeminence: “No other department of the pastoral office requires such sustained attention and such unwearied services. A confessor for the most part knows his penitents only in the confessional, and perhaps does not know them by sight. A parish priest knows indeed the members of his flock individually, but he sees them only from time to time.” Revealing a profound knowledge of adolescent psychology, he observes:

Boys not only have eyes, but they have very retentive memories; and that is another pleasure which I have in reading this Address, because this day and time will be printed on your memory a long time hence. You will say: “I recollect that perfectly well; it was the day I saw Cardinal Newman there for the first time,” and you will have something to tell to those after you. That, of course, is a great pleasure to me – to think that this day will be in your minds. And so again, when I look to those who have gone forward in the career of life, and see how many instances one has to look back upon, the way they have turned out, their excellence, and the way in which they fulfilled the duties of their station, and how, in respect of some of them who have been taken off by death by the will of God, what good lives they led, and how much there is to be thankful for in their career, which is now finished, – when I think of that, and think of you who are to go into the same world, and fight the same battles as they have, I have great confidence that you, beginning with such tender feelings towards your teachers and me especially, will answer all the expectations that we have formed of you, and the wishes we have for you. I will say no more, but will thank you, and assure you that, as this day will remain in your mind, so it will remain in mine.

This deeply moving and personal remark of Newman reminds one of the conversation between Thomas More and Richard Rich, who doubted the value of being a teacher. Robert Bolt puts these sentiments on the lips of the two interlocutors:

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

Something worth pondering for a future priest.

One other saintly advocate for Catholic education was none other than St. John Paul II, who insistently referred to the Catholic school as “the heart of the Church.” A priesthood candidate working in a school (the “heart” of any parish) will discover that apostolate to be a real seminarium — a seed bed planting in him many powerful lessons of life and ministry, as well as happy memories for a lifetime, arising from a most productive “year of grace.”

Avatar About Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

Comments

  1. Congratulations, Father Peter!!!!!!!! An excellent article, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I encountered many problems with my seminarians who were assigned to a pastoral year in a parish where they were treated like a “junior cleric.” Their exposure to the consumption of alcohol by the priests of the parish laid the grounds for real problems with alcohol after their own ordination.
    Blessings, +Rene Henry Gracida

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