“Third way seminaries”: admission of a collapse and signs of failure

Par Rédacteur

Français, italiano

In a study on priests of the generation John Paul II, the researcher Céline Béraud notes the paradox of these clerics expressing at the same time their very modern ambition to fulfill themselves in their priesthood and to reactivate the priestly Tridentine ideal[1].

The publication of this study dates back from 2006 and is the result of an investigation carried by the author on priests of the dioceses of Paris and Valence, ordained less than ten years before and no older than “forty years at most.” Even if the priesthood has been particularly under attack these last years, especially with the scandals of sexual abuse and the Report of the Sauvé Commission, we can hazard that the reality has not changed very much, except maybe that the “neo-Tridentine” aspect is even stronger now, with priests of the “generation Benedict XVI”.

If Céline Béraud draws an interesting assessment and brings out the particular aspects of millennium priests, she discusses the question of their formation and notably the places where priests attend their training, as if these priests belonged to a sort of spontaneous generation born solely out of admiration for John Paul II and of the personal charism exhibited by the Polish pope during his pontificate.

Yet some seminaries have tried to represent this sort of a “third way” which consisted in wanting to put together a certain modernity and the priestly ideal set out by the Council of Trent and the great apostles of the Counter Reform. Far from exhaustive our study may be, we would like to try to give some examples of these “third way” seminaries.

Let us mention that by “third way”, by the way not the best chosen expression, we understand the general tentative represented by John Paul II and the bishops he appointed (in France, first of all, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris) to find a via media based on the interpretation of Vatican II along the line of “neither, nor”: there is neither rejection of the Council, nor excessive progressive change.

In that regard, we will not mention here Ecône and the other seminaries of the SSPX, nor will we mention those of the Ecclesia Dei communities or even the formation received by priests in religious communities. Mentioning them would be in a way off-topic, though they played a large role in stimulating the organization of “third way” houses of formation.

“Third way” seminaries, pushed back in the common track

Paray-le-Monial – As soon as 1969, one of the first initiatives to see the light of day was the one of the Superior of the chaplains of Paray-le-Monial, in the diocese of Autumn, France, Fr. Jean Ladame, a specialist in the apparitions of the Sacred Heart. This man considered in Rome as pious and faithful, gathered few young men wanting to prepare themselves for the priesthood outside the diocesan structure hit harshly by the wind of the conciliar revolution. Fr. Ladame did not reject the Council or the new mass, but had at heart to avoid the rupture with all of the Church’s past. He offered a year of spirituality also called propaedeutic in relation with the conciliar decree Optimum totius on the formation of priests (n.12).

The initiative of Father Ladame was more tolerated than supported. In 1974, he passed into the hands of Father Guy Bagnard who set it up as a pre-theological program and integrated to the life of the Church in France the seminary of Paray-le-Monial, though not without difficulties and criticism. The seminarians who followed the program, upon completion were sent to the seminary of their diocese, most of the time an inter-diocesan seminary, or to the French seminary in Rome. Having received a classical formation most often marked by the French School of spirituality, attentive to a liturgy celebrated with respect, the young seminarians coming from Paray-le-Monial had to take part, sometimes were forced to take part, in a formation connected to the “pastoral” of their diocese. The result did not always prove itself a success. Some left to find refuge in religious communities, others were dismissed, even past the diaconate, when others simply gave up and went back to the life of a laity.

Paris – In Paris, in 1984, Cardinal Lustiger in charge since 1981, took over the formation of his seminarians. He started a strategy of bypassing the formation given at the Seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux and at the seminary of Les Carmes (Catholic Institute of Paris). Rather than getting into a head-on opposition with these institutions, he made available a wider offer and favored the new structure he had put in place.

To the traditional single seminary structure gathering all of the candidates to the priesthood and all of their professors, he favored the creation of small houses. In this way, he set up the Maison Saint-Augustin in which he proposed a year of propaedeutic, and later on set up seven more houses, each gathering a dozen of seminarians who met at the cathedral school, now called Collège des Bernardins (Faculté Notre Dame) to receive their intellectual formation.

The formula, new in a context of the era but inspired by the Middle Age, was somewhat of a success. It answered an actual need for proximity and the experience of a life in a small community with, at the same time, a formation considered to be more “classical” than the one offered by Issy-les-Moulineaux or Les Carmes.

The Lustiger experience lasted 24 years (1981-2005), which corresponds more or less with the pontificate of John Paul II. Numbers speak for themselves: from the fifty some seminarians in the time of Cardinal Marty, it went up to over 100 seminarians at the end of the eighties, down again to fifty seminarians at the beginning of the new millennium.

Fréjus-Toulon – At about the same time, in 1983, Mgr Joseph Madec, as soon as he arrived as Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, decided to reopen the seminary of La Castille, first with a year of propaedeutic and then successively with the other years. His successor since the year 2000, Mgr Dominique Rey continued what his predecessor started, keeping at heart to welcome the candidates to the priesthood the various religious communities established in the diocese. Open to the traditional world, Mgr Rey did not hesitate, in recent years, to entrust the running of the studies to Fr. Dubrule from the Missionaries of Mercy, a community celebrating in the old rite. If the diocesan seminary can show an enrollment in 2022 of fifty some seminarians and almost a dozen of students in propaedeutic, it didn’t prevent Rome from no less than forbidding the ordination of four priests and six deacons in June of the same year. Yet, not all is lost for the seminary of La Castille, where the Missionaries of Mercy are still present and different opportunities for its future are still open.

Ars – It is yet an other strategy that the one Mgr Guy Bagnard followed when he was appointed Bishop of Belley in 1987 by pope John Paul II. The year after, he started in Ars the International Seminary Saint John Mary Vianney to offer a priestly formation to any young men of the world who wanted to become a priest. The entire cycle of formation is offered there (from propaedeutic to theology) under the egis of the Jean-Marie Vianney Society, which became in 2002 a clerical public association of pontifical right. It has for a purpose to comfort the diocesan priests in their ministry by allowing them to live a common priestly ideal wherever their ministry calls them. Twenty five years after its foundation, in 2016, the Society Jean-Marie Vianney numbered 83 priests set out among thirty two dioceses, in France and abroad.

Whether held up or simply blocked by Rome (Fréjus-Toulon), whether put aside for lack of episcopal support after the departure of the bishop founder (Bellay-Ars) or too connected to the charism of the founder (Paris), or even completely merged into the present system of the French seminaries (Paray-le-Monial), most of the “third way” seminaries are slowing down and seem as taken by their contradictions of the “neither, nor”. We are far from the seminaries of the Tridentine Reform, relying on a strong community and personal spiritual participation, a demanding doctrinal teaching and a very sanctifying identification to Christ as priest. This via media appears for what it is: a median way, in all sense of the word “median”. One will remember, in comparison (and with its own limits) that it is for noticing the failure of the via media engaged by Pusey and his Anglo-Catholic movement that the one who was to be known as Cardinal Newman came to the Catholic Church.

An ongoing tentative: the seminary of the Communauté Saint-Martin

The examples of Paray-le-Monial, Paris, Toulon and Ars find themselves all, more or less, in a diocesan or inter-diocesan context, and in any case in relation to a bishop. The case of the Communauté Saint-Martin is different. Founded in 1976 by Fr. Jean-François Guérin, this foundation which has become since a clerical public association of pontifical right, has for a goal to train priests and deacons sent in small communities to the service of the dioceses. It was first received by Cardinal Siri, Archbishop of Genoa (Italy) before establishing its first French apostolate in the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in 1984. Its house of formation, set up first in Candé, in the diocese of Tours, in 1993, is since September 2014 now in Évron, in the diocese of Laval.

It is worth noting that according to its internal documents, the “School of Philosophy and Theology of Évron, that is the seminary, “is affiliated to the School of Theology of the pontifical Lateran University” and that its statutes allow the formation not only of its members but of “all candidates to the priesthood sent by their ordinaries”. Next to saint Thomas Aquinas as a foundation of the seminary curriculum, Vatican II stands also as a compass in the studies.

In 2021, according to French daily La Croix, 168 priests of the Communauté Saint-Martin were exercising a ministry in thirty dioceses. According to the same source, in thirty years, “the community could represent between 20 and 40% of the clergy in place, once the priests born in the 1950s are gone.”[2] A perspective reinforced by the fact that a hundred seminarians or so are preparing themselves for the priesthood at their seminary in Évron. It remains, as La Croix noted that, in France, “candidates to the seminary have decreased ten times in a half a century (a reality over which Saint-Martin has no influence). The community does little more than to attract most of the remaining vocations, most of them from classic Catholic families where sacrality in the mass and the figure of the priest remain central. This last few years, other seminaries have played a role like those of Belley-Ars or Toulon. As it is, one fifth of the priests ordained in 2021 come from Saint-Martin.”

In this present context, the Communauté Saint-Martin thus seems to be an exception, enough  for the daily La Croix to wonder about it and to a certain number of bishops to appear as a lifebelt. It remains that the same causes producing ineluctably the same effect, a conservative enterprise, no matter how marked it may be, can only but fail to produce a counter-reform. These difficulties come certainly from the particular form the via media plays. Indeed, Latin, Gregorian and saint Thomas Aquinas are found in the seminary curriculum, but the in the apostolates the celebrations are in line with the actual pastoral style of the dioceses. With only one categorical refusal… to also celebrate the traditional liturgy. In short, a permanent balancing act, and in the end, a painful one.

Pierre Benoît

[1] Céline Béraud, « Prêtres de la génération Jean-Paul II : recomposition de l’idéal sacerdotal et accomplissement de soi », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 133 | January–March, 2006.

[2] Mikael Corre, « Communauté Saint-Martin, l’avenir de l’Église de France ? », La Croix, 09/20/2021.