Early in 2012 I visited a Jesuit community in which I was once a member. One new member asked what ministry I am pursuing. Explaining that I worked with college-age seminarians, I sensed a fog suddenly descending over the conversation. After a second, as the Jesuit took another sip of his cocktail, I was asked, “How conservative are they?”
This was not the first time I was asked such a question in response to my naming my ministry. And not just by Jesuits. There are many middle-age and older clergy who are fearful of the assumed outlook of most seminarians today. The ‘conservative vs. liberal’ conversation about the attitudes of seminarians, priests, bishops, or anyone else does not intrigue me. To oversimplify it, clergy of my generation think many, if not most, of today’s seminarians want to return the Church to its pre-Vatican II status. If that is true, then I wonder how it will be done, since none of today’s seminarians even remotely experienced life before Vatican II.
Vatican II is the red line. For many clergy today, everything before it was bad. Everything that immediately followed it was good. In other words, value judgments have been laid out blanketing any sensible dialogue. My OED defines the word ‘conservative’ as “characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged.”
The word liberal is a little more complex. It comes from Latin meaning ‘pertaining to a free man.’ The word originally meant ‘the distinctive epithet of those ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’ that were considered ‘worthy of a free man.’ Its secondary meaning is ‘free in bestowing; bountiful, generous, open-hearted.’ It further means ‘free from restraint; free in speech or action; free from narrow prejudice, open-minded, candid.’
Both words suffer connotations that give them negative implications. Both apply to politics but they are also used in Church environments as well. And each age views them differently. History, once lived, lets the deeper senses emerge.
Seminarians are at one and the same time conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional. The best of them are well-rounded in their views. The worry is that some are very rigid in their views. The best are open-minded and willing to learn. Most seminarians I know are much more conservative than I was when I was one of them. But they are not easy to label. Many of them also have a much greater openness to God and spirituality and ministry than I ever remember in the seminary.
The bottom line for me is that these young men seek holiness; they are eager and enthusiastic; they want to serve. They are also novices on the road to the priesthood. They are not finished products. The rigid ones – and I’ve only met enough to count on one hand – do not last. If they do, they tend to isolate themselves from everyone else, including the institutional Church. I am not as unhopeful about the future of priestly ministry as some others are.