Change in the seminary

Change in the seminary St Patrick's College, Maynooth


Are reforms at Maynooth for the better or a return to the sort of rigid seminary life of yesteryear, asks David Quinn


Last week, this newspaper reported changes that are being undertaken at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in the wake of the Apostolic Visitation conducted on behalf of the Pope by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York.

One of the changes is a clearer separation between the seminarians and the lay student population of NUI Maynooth.

A lot of people probably don’t realise the extent to which the seminary at Maynooth has been overwhelmed by the secular university. The number of seminarians undergoing priestly formation at St Patrick’s — running into dozens — is now only a small fraction of the much bigger lay student population which runs into thousands.

The days when clerical students dominated student life overall in Maynooth town are long gone. What is more, the drastic shrinking of the clerical student population, and the huge expansion in the lay student population has coincided with a deliberate collapsing of the wall which once separated the clerical students from the rest of the world.

Cardinal-designate Dolan believes there should be a clearer separation between the two student bodies once again and this is what the president of St Patrick’s, Msgr Hugh Connolly, has undertaken to do.


One change, as reported by The Irish Catholic last week, is the installation of doors to ”partition the seminarians’ living quarters from the rest of the campus to which only members of the seminary community now have keys”.

Another recommended change, not yet undertaken, is that the two student bodies have separate dining facilities. The big question of course is whether this is a change for the better or a return to the sort of rigid seminary life of yesteryear.

Back in the 1980s, Blessed John Paul II ordered an inspection, or Apostolic Visitation, of America’s seminaries.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, sweeping and radical changes were made to seminary life right across the United States, as elsewhere. Some of the reforms were needed and others were of far more dubious value.

The visitation was undertaken by Cardinal William Baum, then Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Among the problem areas it found in the seminaries were the following: A ”blurring of the concept of priesthood” and an ”undifferentiated notion of ministry”; inconsistencies in spiritual direction; under-achieving, unchallenging courses in theology; ambiguity and confusion about the nature and content of the Magisterium of the Church; overemphasis on practical field work experience to the detriment of theological study and reflection; failure to state clearly the seminary’s expectations of students.

As an outsider, it is extremely difficult to tell which, if any, of the above difficulties are or were to be found at Maynooth. This was the purpose of Dr Dolan’s visitation.

Msgr Connolly told The Irish Catholic last week that he could not speak about the visitation for reasons of confidentiality.


The main reason we know about the efforts to better separate the clerical students from the lay students at Maynooth is because it is visible and undeniable.

Is it a change for the better or a retrograde step? That probably depends.

Those who would argue strongly against this move are most likely those who have unhappy memories of their own formation which was often very rigid and authoritarian and unworldly, even anti-world.

If this change augurs a return to those days, then it is change for the worse.

However, in reaction against the way in which clerical students were once formed, it is possible to let the pendulum swing in completely the opposite direction and to have, for example, almost no separation at all between the seminary and the life of the rest of the students.

In fact, it would be an almost complete repudiation of the Christian spiritual tradition, indeed of almost any spiritual tradition, to believe there is nothing to be gained by withdrawing from the world for a period of time in order to better find God.

This is the very meaning of the word ‘retreat’ for example, to retreat from the world and spiritual retreats are still offered all over the country.

Contemplatives withdraw from the world entirely of course, and most priests and religious are not contemplatives. It is not their calling to withdraw from the world in prayer. They are meant to be witnesses to the Gospel of Christ in the world.

But this is not to say there is nothing to be gained spiritually by withdrawing from the world, either partially or completely, for a given period of time.

It should also be remembered that while Christians are called to be in the world, they are not supposed to be ‘of the world’.

The changes flagged in this newspaper last week are very obviously an attempt to create a better distinction between life in the seminary, and the wider world.

If this produces overly pious, unworldly priests, then it will prove over time to be a bad change.

But if it produces more prayerful priests, priests who are holier, and not holier-than-thou, priests who have deeper spiritual lives, then it can only be a change for the better.

Above all, what the Church needs right now are holy men and women to lead it.

We should bear in mind also that Cardinal-designate Dolan has experience of reforming seminaries. He was head of the North American College (NAC) in Rome, the US Church’s version of the Irish College and helped to implement sweeping changes to the life of the seminarians while there.

Those changes have led to the NAC becoming one of the most vibrant seminaries in the whole American system. With proper leadership, something of the same kind can happen in Maynooth.