Referred to more than once as a "witch hunt," the Holy See's current apostolic visitation of American seminaries has been widely misunderstood by many in both the mainstream and the Catholic press.
Recently, Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole, rector of St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., sat down with Our Sunday Visitor to talk about the real reasons behind the visitation, as well as the impact Pope Benedict XVI is having on America's seminaries and its seminarians.
Our Sunday Visitor: In the coverage of the apostolic visitation, the issue of homosexuality has gotten a lot of attention. But the visitation teams have a bit more on their agenda, don't they?
Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole: Absolutely. The visitation teams are primarily concerned with the intellectual formation of seminarians and the seminaries' fidelity to the magisterium, especially in the field of moral theology. They're also giving special attention to seminaries' admissions criteria and to their programs of human and spiritual formation. Ensuring that seminarians can faithfully live chastity for the kingdom is also a very important part of that formation, but it's just one part.
OSV: What are some of those questions?
Father Belsole: "Do the seminarians know how to use alcohol, the Internet and television with prudence and moderation?" "Are the Church's liturgical norms faithfully observed?" "Do the seminarians receive the sacrament of penance with due frequency?"
OSV: Does Pope Benedict XVI have a particular vision for priestly formation that will be guiding the apostolic visitation teams?
Father Belsole: Like Pope John Paul II, the present Holy Father's vision for priestly formation is both ecclesiological and liturgical. It's grounded in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and seeks to form priests whose ministry is animated by the spirit of Christ and who think with the mind of the Church.
OSV: What are some of the ways you're already seeing Pope Benedict's influence on priestly formation in the American seminaries?
Father Belsole: Pope Benedict has been influencing seminaries and seminarians for years. For example, at St. Vincent, long before he ever became pope, many of Cardinal Ratzinger's books were in our syllabi, and his vision of liturgical life -- a liturgical life that embodies the intended reforms of Vatican II -- is something we've striven to pass on to our young men.
OSV: What about seminarians, specifically? During his years as a cardinal and now as pope, has he impacted their vocations?
Father Belsole:: Without a doubt. Probably his most significant influence has been through his writing. With books like "Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today," "Ministers of Your Joy" and "The Spirit of the Liturgy," he addressed the issues that young seminarians care deeply about. And his reflections found an echo in their minds and hearts.
His personal witness has also profoundly affected them. Seminarians recognize him as a man of deep faith with a love of the sacred liturgy -- both of which matter greatly to them. And during his time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was one of their unsung heroes.
As a generation who reached maturity in a time when so much seemed up for grabs, they appreciated Cardinal Ratzinger's commitment to maintaining and advancing Catholic doctrine.
OSV: Do you see signs that the vision of the priesthood shared by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI is starting to bear fruit in today's seminarians?
Father Belsole: Today's seminarians are generally men who have shared the faith and imbibed the joy and confidence of Pope John Paul II. They're unburdened by the ideological agendas of earlier times and willing to commit themselves to the Gospel message if it's presented in all its nobility and liberating force. They also desire a faith community and reverent liturgical celebrations that lead them to a deep personal relationship with God.
Finally, in former times, the respect for the priesthood often carried the priest through difficult situations. But now, in light of the challenges facing young priests -- tremendous workloads and the loss of prestige due to the sex-abuse crisis -- that's no longer the case.
Still, today's seminarians go forth confidently, knowing the priesthood will not carry them, but rather that they, with the help of God, carry the priesthood. I think that's some very good fruit.
Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio.