Francis effect growing among seminarians, says Theological College rector

This story appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.
Sulpician Fr. Phillip J. Brown, rector of the Theological College, meets with Pope Francis in 2013. (Courtesy of Theological College, Catholic University of America)

Sulpician Fr. Phillip J. Brown, rector of the Theological College, meets with Pope Francis in 2013. (Courtesy of Theological College, Catholic University of America)

by Peter Feuerherd

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The Pope Francis effect?

Some express hope, others dread, still more argue that day-to-day church life is business-as- usual, with little change.

But Sulpician Fr. Phillip J. Brown, rector of the Theological College, the national diocesan seminary of the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the Francis effect is alive and well, and growing, at least among seminarians. It's been a sudden development.

Last fall, asked by reporters about the impact of Francis on the seminary, which educates and forms 84 men sponsored by dioceses across the U.S., the rector said it was too early to gauge. That's not true anymore, he told NCR in a recent interview.

A message the seminary always taught, he said, is catching on. "You are not a priest to be a policeman. You are to be a pastor. That's the message of Francis," he said.

The numbers have remained steady, but the attitudes of newer arrivals has begun to transform the place, he said. That transformation will be felt soon at a parish near you.

The subject of change in the attitudes of seminarians is "a delicate situation for me as a seminary rector," acknowledged Brown, who will be moving on to a similar position at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore later this year.

"Our basic approach to formation would have always been congenial to Pope Francis," he said, noting in particular the requirement that seminarians engage in direct service to the poor, an opportunity readily available in the nation's capital. He's aware of complaints from some U.S. Catholics that sometimes the newly-ordained come into parishes intent on forcing changes of a more traditional view in liturgy and the role of clergy.

That view is "contrary to how we form seminarians," he said. "We would always say to go in for a year or so and see where the parish is at. Then gain people's confidence if you want to make changes."

He's seeing a shift in attitudes among seminarians particularly in the areas of:

View of church tradition. "They are more open to diversity," he said, noting that there is less of an embrace of apologetics -- the view that church teaching should be preached to a secular culture that often ignores it -- and more of an embrace of the view, echoing Francis, "to get in with people and see where they are ... The guys coming in now are more curious, ready to apply the teaching to people's real lives."

There's less focus on the sacerdotal nature of priesthood -- the view that priests are men set aside with particular sacramental powers -- and more on how a priest can work among people, what Francis has described as being a shepherd who smells like the sheep.

There is less of an emphasis on signs and symbols indicating traditionalism. They can seem like small things: the wearing of cassocks, Communion only on the tongue and not in the hand, to name two. But in recent years these symbols became what Brown described "as markers of orthodoxy" with an indication that those who didn't follow such practices were suspect.

"I don't see that now," he said.

The newer seminarians have a more Francis-like, some would say Vatican II, view that the church should engage the culture and not see itself as a community set apart. Previously, seminarians were keenly aware that they were different from their peers in the wider culture of the millennial generation. They are now more likely to see themselves as very much like their peers in the wider world, with the goal of transforming the culture with the message of the Gospel.

More impressions from the seminary rector, who has been at the Theological College for the past five years:

Seminarians are more inclined to move from what Brown called a Calvinistic, rule-based view of moral theology, to a more nuanced understanding of the role of church teaching in people's lives. They are less likely to view psychological counseling with suspicion. The Francis message on the environment is also catching on, he said.

Those who see this change as good news can take heart, said Brown. The impact of Francis' teachings is not only affecting new seminarians beginning studies early in his pontificate. It is also seeping into the culture of the entire system.

Parishioners, he said, should be seeing its impact in the ministry of newly-ordained priests within a few short years.

[Peter Feuerherd is a professor of communications and journalism at St. John's University in New York and contributor to NCR's Field Hospital blog.]

Editor's note: "The Field Hospital" blog series covers life in U.S. and Canadian Catholic parishes. The title comes from Pope Francis' words: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. …" We can send you an email alert every time The Field Hospital is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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