When Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago shut its doors in 2007 after 102 years of service, some observers characterized the occasion as the virtual end of the minor seminary system in the United States.
Others today may beg to differ.
Quigley -- whose graduates include Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and retired Cardinal Edward Egan of New York -- saw its enrollment decline from some 1,300 students in the 1950s to fewer than 200 in its final year. The reduction mirrored the disappearance of minor seminaries themselves in the wake of the Second Vatican Council Council and the tumultuous cultural revolution of the 1960s.
In 1967-68, nearly 16,000 students were enrolled in 122 freestanding high school seminaries and a few dozen other schools that provided a high school education in a seminary context. Four decades later, Quigley Preparatory's demise left just seven such houses of formation serving 536 seminarians.
Nevertheless, there are signs that an interest in minor seminaries -- variously called high school seminaries, preparatory seminaries or apostolic schools -- has begun to rekindle. Five of the eight preparatory seminaries in existence in the United States today were founded after 1980. The newest is Blessed Jose Sanchez del Rio Minor Seminary in Mankato, Minn., operated by the Institute of the Incarnate Word, which opened in 2008.
The Legion of Christ, a religious congregation that has established three preparatory seminaries in the United States since 1982 (and is currently undergoing a Vatican-ordered "apostolic visitation" or audit), sees its "apostolic schools" as places where "young men who feel called to the priesthood can discern their vocation in an environment that supports them in their aspirations," said Jim Fair, communications director for the Legionaries.
"The noise and distractions of modern life can drown out God's call, and often make it much more difficult to respond," Fair told Our Sunday Visitor. "The apostolic school provides boys with a space of freedom to hear and answer God's call."
Forming boys at an early age before that noise and distraction cloud their sense of vocation is a key argument in favor of minor seminaries.
"At age 25, young men still don't know what they want to do with their lives," said Brother David Mary, brother guardian of The Knights of the Holy Eucharist, a relatively new congregation based in Hanceville, Ala. "We've had much better success taking men younger, closer to the age of 17 or 18, right out of high school. Those young men, if we can get them through the first couple of years, are sticking out their vocations."
The Knights community stipulates that applicants be high school graduates between the ages of 17 and 21. But it has dreams of planting the seed of vocation earlier by establishing a boys' boarding academy to accommodate 300 students in grades 6 through 12.
"We want to build a school so that boys can come to us at the age of 12 to 14, and we can form them so that when they are 18 they'll know the purpose of their life," said Brother David Mary. "They'll have a goal, a vision -- whether that's priesthood, married life, single life or consecrated life -- and know how they can best pursue it."
The Knights community is affiliated with the Heralds of the Gospel, a rapidly growing congregation with a large minor seminary in Brazil. In a recent year, all 46 members of its graduating class entered consecrated life.
"The Heralds say that one of the mistakes we've made in the Church today is that we got away from the minor seminary," said Brother David. "Minor seminary starts to form our saints, and that forms our vocation. By getting away from that, we got away from vocations."
Sulpician Father Jerry Brown, who in July 2009 retired as rector of St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., suggested that some U.S. dioceses and congregations might have been too hasty in shuttering their minor seminaries.
"I think a lot of places made a mistake in closing down these programs," said Father Brown, who also was provincial of the Sulpicians for 12 years. "It would have been better to amalgamate and not lose the system -- because once you do, you lose faculties, and how do you get them back again?"
He sees re-establishing minor seminaries as an option worth consideration. "I've been saying this for quite awhile that we need to reach out to the high school students and the young adults," he told OSV. "And if you don't reach them immediately, then you have to reintroduce the minor seminary."
Sanctity in the world
Still, the mini-resurgence of new high school seminaries is "a very unusual trend," said Father David Toups, associate director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He expressed concern that young men in formation programs acquire sufficient life experience outside the seminary.
"We want our young people to come from the world," said Father Toups. "We want them to grow up, and that's the responsibility of the family that keeps them grounded during their high school years. We want them to have dated and to have experienced life to a certain degree, so that they know precisely what it is they are giving up and to what they are being called."
The task of helping young people discern their life's vocation, added Father Toups, is the responsibility of all Catholics, not just of minor seminaries.
"That's the balance of leading a good, healthy, wholesome life in the midst of the world, the call of all the baptized," he said. "That's the importance of youth ministry in the parish and college campus ministry. This is really the age where we need to continue to help our young people to be formed and to discover who they are and who God desires them to be."
U.S. minor seminaries today
Here are the eight minor seminaries operating in the United States today, with dates of establishment, sponsorship and 2008-09 enrollment (data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and other sources):
St. Lawrence Seminary, Mount Calvary, Wis. Capuchin Franciscan , Date Est. 1860, Enrollment 194
Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Elmhurst, N.Y. Diocese of Brooklyn Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Date Est. 1914, Enrollment 163
Cathedral Preparatory Seminary House of Formation, Yonkers, N.Y. Archdiocese of New York, Date Est. 1963, Enrollment 30
Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, Center Harbor, N.H. Legion of Christ, Date Est. 1982, Enrollment 62
Holy Cross Seminary House of Formation, La Crosse, Wis. Diocese of La Crosse, Date Est. 1995, Enrollment 9
Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, Colfax, Calif. Legion of Christ, Date Est. 2003, Enrollment 21
Sacred Heart Apostolic School, Rolling Prairie, Ind. Legion of Christ, Date Est. 2005, Enrollment 45
Blessed Juan Sanchez del Rio Minor Seminary, Mankato, Minn. Institute of the Incarnate Word, Date Est. 2008, Enrollment 10
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.