Introibo: Entering seminary

Letter from the District Superior, Rev. Robert Brucciani, September 2018

My Dear Brethren,

The first step of the journey to the priesthood or the religious life is the decision to try a vocation. It is a difficult decision because it pivotal: the direction of one's life changes and, while not yet an irrevocable decision, it will mark the rest one's life one way or another. It is a difficult decision because there is not much to go on; there is not much upon which to base the decision. Our ignorance of the priestly or religious life is usually profound when we start the journey, and our intimacy with priests and religious is usually only circumstantial and distant when we cross the threshold. We have the example of the saints of course, but few have the grace to set their sights so high in all humility. There are also souls we know who have recently entered seminary or have been ordained, but somehow most have a different temperament to our own; or, if they are kindred spirits, they curiously end up on the other side of the world in a remote apostolate; or, to our disappointment, they change during their formation so we know them no longer.

Young men and women need to imagine themselves as priests and religious to make the decision to try a vocation, but most of the time there is simply is not enough data. It's not like marriage which is all around us and comes easily to human nature; that decision can sometimes be too easily made.

In happier times, it was different. Every church had a parish priest and a good number of curates: two, three or four was not uncommon. Attached to every parish was at least one convent of nuns who may have even run the primary school, and a monastery was never too far away. Priests and religious were everywhere to be seen. It was much easier for young man or woman to find a model for their imagination to work on. It is true that we have the beginnings of parish life at St. Michael's School, but it remains the only place in the whole of the British Isles!

One obvious remedy to this problem is for an aspirant to volunteer to help in a mission or monastery or school. If you are made welcome and participate in community life with generosity, then you can easily imagine yourself among them.

Another remedy is to read the biographies of great priests and religious who lived close to our own time. For the priesthood, Confessions of a Convert by Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson, Fr. William Doyle, S.J. by Alfred O'Rahilly, or Ronald Knox by Evelyn Waugh are good places to start. They are windows into the minds of great priests which show them to be human and frail like ourselves.

Particularly evocative is the description of the day of Mgr. Robert Hugh Benson's reception into the Church:

I do not suppose that anyone ever entered the City of God with less emotion than mine. It seemed to me that I was utterly without feeling; I had neither joy nor sorrow, nor dread nor excitement. There was the Truth, as aloof as an ice-peak, and I had to embrace it. Never for one single instant did I doubt that, nor, perhaps it is unnecessary to say, have I ever doubted it since. I tried to reproach myself with my coldness, but all fell quite flat. I was as one coming out of the glare of artificial light, out of warmth and brightness and friendliness, into a pale daylight of cold and dreary certainty.

It is not very glamorous, but it is real. It teaches the valuable lesson that following God's Will is not always accompanied by champagne and applause!

My own experience was similar:

The day my arrival at the Seminary of St. Curé d'Ars is remembered with great clarity. It was a cold, drizzling and misty Sunday in October. After the flight to Charles de Gaulle and metro journey to Gare de l'Est, I boarded an old, slow train eastwards. Tired, after lugging two heavy suitcases across Paris, it was a relief to sit in the almost empty carriage and let the fields and villages drift by the window, and my thoughts with them. Damp misty day began its turn to damp, dark dusk. The old world was left behind, and the new world was obscure. I was last of the few who alighted at Gare les Laumes—Alesia, where Vercingetorix made his last stand against the legions of Julius Caesar in 52 BC. He surrendered, was held prisoner in the notorious Mamertine Prison in Rome for six years and was then publicly strangled. A religious brother was waiting for me in a car, and a ten-minute journey up a winding road brought us to the seminary door as the light faded.

The building was vast and cold and illuminated by fluorescent strip lights. I was shown my room which was furnished with a metal bed, a table, chair, small wardrobe and sink. The window was cracked and a run of silicon sealant ran across the pane to stop the draft. 6pm rosary was the first engagement. At least I thought it was, for my understanding of French was limited.

Kneeling in the chapel was a consolation. Here I was, in seminary at last and here for good, but, as much as I tried, I could not imagine the future. The bell struck six and I was still alone. Must have been 6:30pm then.

The first meal was the occasion of the first humiliation. Attempts at introducing myself in incomprehensible French were met with nervous bursts of laughter by my new confrères who were still teenagers.

Awkwardness and isolation were dominant emotions of the first few weeks, but later, it was clear that this was all part of God's plan; the path to heaven runs through the valley of darkness, but He is always there with rod and staff.

It was difficult at first, but as the months passed, I knew that this was where God wanted me to be and even feared being sent away.

This year, we have the great grace of sending two young men from the District to the same Seminary of St. Curé d'Ars and one young man to the Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady of Bellaigue, Virlet, France. I hope they read this so as not to be discouraged by similar experiences. Please pray for them every day. Archbishop Lefebvre saw the resolution of the crisis in the Church being resolved by the ordination of well-formed and holy priests. He founded the Society of St. Pius X for this end. Every vocation, therefore, is a victory and a beacon of hope.

May God bless you all.

In Jesu et Maria,

Rev. Robert Brucciani

View also Dispatches from a hilltop seminary

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