EMMITSBURG, Md. (WHTM) – Tucked to one side of the Mount Saint Mary’s campus in Emmitsburg, Maryland, you’ll find its seminary. Since 1808, the next generation of Catholic clergy has been trained there.
“We want to have good, holy, zealous priests,” said Monsignor Andrew Baker, the director of the seminary.
Andrew St. Hilaire, of Mechanicsburg, is certainly zealous. He will be ordained in early June and assigned to a church in the Diocese of Harrisburg. After four years of college and four years of seminary, he’s ready.
“I can’t picture myself being anything else but a priest,” St. Hilaire said with a smile. “I can’t picture myself being happier outside of that vocation or being more fulfilled.”
That is a beautiful thought from this beautiful campus. But seminarians here, like the rest of the world, learned an ugly truth about their predecessors who abused children and their leaders who covered it up. And yes, that grand jury report was much discussed in class.
“Sadness, frustration, disappointment,” St. Hilaire said, describing his classmates’ reaction. He said the discussions were raw and candid.
“I told them they’re [seminarians] not part of the problem, but we need to be part of the solution,” said Baker. “We all need to be part of the solution.”
Tighter screening at seminaries is also part of the solution, according to diocesan officials. Catching problems before they become priests is crucial, and seminaries are now thrust onto the front lines of that fight.
While seminaries have always been for young men to discern whether or not they’ve been called to the priesthood by God, it is also a time for the church to be discerning.
“Who is this man? Is he a healthy individual? Is he balanced?,” said Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Harrisburg diocese.
Gainer says the process to priesthood is now radically different than when he was a seminarian. Most notably there’s a full battery of psychological testing prior to admittance.
“We are eliminating candidates that should never be in the seminary,” Gainer said, adding that in his day seminarians who simply obeyed the rules would become priests.
There’s now intense scrutiny and testing after admittance including peer reviews from fellow seminarians.
“We’re on the lookout, not only for some sexual deviancy but difficulty or problems that the man may have and we cannot then allow him to continue on,” said Baker, who added that he’s personally asked seminarians to leave.
While the screening is stricter, the shocking sins of the former fathers require this disclaimer.
“Can I guarantee that none of these men will ever act?” Gainer asks. “Certainly not. Human nature is what it is.”
But another side of human nature is on display for the young men about to leave the seminary for the priesthood.
“We’re motivated,” St. Hilaire said, “and we’re determined to regain that trust from people, to serve them unconditionally.”
They also know the climate they’re about to enter has changed drastically in recent years. Priests are no longer respected unconditionally in society at large, as they once were.
“I have to earn that trust and I hope, by the grace of God, I can do that and do so by example,” St. Hilaire said.