Minor Setback or Major Disaster? The Rise and Demise of Minor Seminaries in the United States, 1958-1983
by Fr. Robert Anello, MSA
Minor Setback or Major Disaster presents the history of minor seminaries from the concept’s inception following the sixteenth-century Council of Trent’s mandate for a new training method for the Catholic priesthood up to the present. It describes the function and purpose of the “minor seminary,” which initially corresponded to the four high school and two junior college years a young man preparing for the Catholic priesthood would participate prior to his six years at a “major seminary.” It focuses on the unprecedented growth in youthful vocations to the priesthood beginning in the mid-1950s, when teenage boys in the U.S. filled minor seminaries to overflowing, and the concomitant building boom in both minor and major seminary facilities. It describes in detail the seemingly inexplicable decline that began less than a decade later. The historical part of the study concludes in the late 1980s, by which time most minor seminaries – now high school and college seminaries – had closed. This study analyzes the external context of minor seminaries: Catholic boys’ and their parents’ values, and how those values influenced priesthood vocations. The internal context of minor seminaries examines the growth and development of minor seminary pedagogical practices. Supporting the analytical narrative are nineteen figures presenting demographic and enrollment data. Through eight case studies, it postulates causes for the near-total extinction of minor seminaries.
What differentiates this study from other studies on the subject of priestly and religious vocations is that there are no “others.” No critical history on this topic exists, which has given commentators over the past half century free license to speculate on causes for the decline in priesthood and religions vocations. As CARA Senior Research Associate Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D., describes it in the book’s Foreword, “Robert Anello systematically presents here an alternative scenario to the common assertion that Vatican II killed off vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Through careful examination of the existing available research of that time period, combined with the CARA statistics that document the trend, this book makes a compelling case that the seeds of the demise of minor seminaries were sown a generation before Vatican II and were already having an impact on vocations by the time Vatican II was set in motion.” Noted Church historian and Professor of History at Marquette University, Fr. Steven Avella, Ph.D., concurred with Dr. Gautier, observing, “This exhaustively researched book tells the fascinating story of a once-thriving system of priestly formation that had already began to fade just prior to Vatican II.”
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“Fr. Anello offers a helpful overview of the cultural, sociological, demographic and ecclesial trends which characterize the post-World War II landscape in the Church in the United States. He makes use of the data supplied by the good work of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and other archival collections. Fr. Anello cites the impact of the G.I. Bill and the possibility of obtaining low interest loans for college. He identifies the isolation of the seminary environment at the minor seminary level, the decline in perseverance rates from entry into the minor seminary until admission to the major seminary which pre-dated Vatican II, the break-up of the “Catholic ghetto” mentality, changing attitudes toward priestly vocations in light of other purposeful secular options, and discussion among seminary educators following Vatican II on the nature of seminary formation at the minor seminary level, as factors which contributed to the decline of minor seminaries. The book deserves our attention!” — Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York
Being a seminarian during the peak years and on the faculty of a minor seminary during the declining years, the in-depth the analysis of how the dynamics within the church and in our culture affected enrollment was revealing. With forty plus years of perspective, Fr. Anello does a scholarly job analyzing how the failure to read the signs of the times within the church and in society affected minor seminaries. The book puts to rest some myths and gives important insights.Minor Setback or Major Disaster?gives new perspectives on minor seminaries during their peak years and declining years. This book can serve as a challenge for encouraging and fostering vocations today. — Most Reverend Martin J. Amos, Bishop of Davenport, Iowa
Rev. Robert Anello shows that though the Second Vatican Council was supportive of minor seminaries, changing demographics and changing attitudes among US Catholics, along with a host of other internal and external factors led to the demise of a system that once been vital for the nurturing of vocations among the Catholic youth. He asks what can be done to promote youthful vocations today and whether a revitalized approach that includes minor seminaries might make a valuable contribution even today. — Most Reverend Anthony B. Taylor, Bishop of Little Rock
Robert Anello systematically presents here an alternative scenario to the common assertion that Vatican II killed off vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Through careful examination of the existing available research of that time period, combined with the CARA statistics that document the trend, this book makes a compelling case that the seeds of the demise of minor seminaries were sown a generation before Vatican II and were already having an impact on vocations by the time Vatican II was set in motion. — Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D., CARA Senior Research Associate, Georgetown University from the Foreword to the book
This thorough and fascinating study offers valuable insights for anyone in the vocation’s ministry or who is a student of the history of Catholicism in America. The second half of the twentieth century offers us valuable insights for our current situation and strategies for the future. I do not foresee a resurgence of high school seminaries, but one thing is for sure, vocation promotion among our youth is of vital importance for the future of the ordained ministry. In my experience, young men are considering priesthood at an earlier age than they were even a decade ago – may we not fail to find viable ways to reach out to them and foster their vocations. — Very Rev. Msgr. David L. Toups, S.T.D., Rector/President, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary
This exhaustively researched book tells the fascinating story of a once-thriving system of priestly formation that had already begun to fade just prior to Vatican II. — Fr. Steven M. Avella, Ph.D., Professor of History at Marquette University
In Minor Setback or Major Disaster: The Rise and Demise of Minor Seminaries in the United States, 1958-1983, Fr. Robert L. Anello systematically examines various historical factors that ended in the near extinction of minor seminaries. I recommend a careful read of this important contribution on seminary education.
In humility, Anello admits that his first assumption that the initial fall of minor seminaries was a post-Vatican II phenomenon was proven inaccurate by his research. That research demonstrates that the peak years for minor seminary enrollment took place while Vatican II was in session in 1963 and 1964. In addition, data indicates that in the 1950s, prior to Vatican Council II, there was a noticeable decline in the rate of perseverance of those studying for the priesthood.
Historical factors of the decline of minor seminaries prior to Vatican Council II include the following internal factors: naïve acceptance or overzealous rejection of accreditation through regional higher education associations and state agencies, the introduction of psychological evaluations of seminary applicants, the growing awareness that minor seminaries may impede states of human development, incidents of abuse at minor seminaries, the struggle to maintain high academic standards in the face of decreasing enrollments, the rise of late vocations, pursuing development plans with insufficient finances, loss of vision, mission and purpose.
External factors that Anello identifies include decrease of support from parents – notably fathers – of their sons becoming priests, the decline of the family size, identity crisis among priests, dissent to Humanae vitae, and a later lack of vocational promotion among the youth. — Fr. Peter Kucer, MSA, Chief Academic Officer at Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell, CT
Having informed my parents on the first day of kindergarten that I wanted to be a priest, I did not surprise them when in eighth grade I told them I wanted to enter the high school seminary. They, who had always been completely supportive of their only child becoming a priest, did surprise me by their adamant refusal, bolstered by the parish priest, who counseled attendance at a co-ed Catholic high school, followed by college seminary. And that was the path that was followed.
The reasons for the negative assessment were largely those reported on by Father Anello in his scholarly but intensely practical study of the rise and fall of minor seminaries: alienation from family; problematic psycho-sexual development; poor perseverance rate. Having taught at every level of Catholic education and having been involved with priestly formation for decades — as well as observing the social and cultural milieu of the moment — I think it is necessary to re-assess the need for some kind of “tertium quid” to foster youthful priestly vocations. All the surveys show that most seminarians experience “the call” in their tender years; that call needs to be nurtured and protected, especially in terms of preserving adolescents from harmful experimentation (or worse) with drugs, sex and alcohol, which are very hard to shake off in later years.
It seems to me that a worthwhile program would be to have a kind of “vocation track” in a regular Catholic high school, allowing young men the benefit of being exposed to the culture of their generation and living at home, all the while being supported in their vocational discernment and likewise serving as a leaven within the school community. This could be supplemented by more intensive weekend retreats and summer apostolic work.
Father Anello is to be congratulated for raising this topic and for providing the solid information from which to launch on a pastoral solution. Anecdotal and statistical data indicate that not a few priestly vocations are lost in those critical years of high school. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman refers to young men embarking upon the priesthood as “giving the flower of their youth.” The Church’s garden cannot do without many such flowers. — Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., Editor, The Catholic Response
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fr. Robert L. Anello, M.S.A., a member of the Society of the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles, participated in priesthood formation at Holy Apostles College and Seminary prior to his ordination as a Catholic priest in 2007.
In 2011, Anello completed his doctoral studies in the history of the Catholic Church in United States at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
Fr. Anello is a retired human formation adviser and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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