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Mundelein, St. Francis tread diverging paths

Special Report Writer

It may seem ironic that the school of theology with the largest enrollment of seminarians in the country, Mundelein Seminary near Chicago (186 students) and the smallest, St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee (five candidates for the priesthood), are only 60 miles apart.

The experience of these two institutions illustrates vividly the unexpected and bizarre contrasts that can occur in post-Vatican II seminary education.

In the late 1970s, both schools had similar enrollments of about 65 seminary students, but each was moving in a different direction in separate attempts to implement the directives of the council and respond to the imminent shortage of vocations. That has made all the difference.

Indeed, theological education in Chicago and Milwaukee has been a story of contrasts for more than 150 years. Both dioceses were established in the same year, 1843, and their first bishops, William Quarter in Chicago and John Henni in Milwaukee, founded seminaries within two years. Over the next two decades the Chicago school, the University of St. Mary of the Lake, was beset with weak leadership, continual financial crises and bitter battles between diocesan officials and the seminary faculty. The school closed in 1868 in the midst of the mental breakdown of Chicago's fourth bishop, James Duggan. It would reopen only 55 years later, in 1921.

In contrast, the Milwaukee diocese experienced smooth, unbroken leadership under Henni for 37 years; St. Francis became the leading seminary in the Midwest, drawing students from Chicago, St. Louis and other emerging dioceses.

During the late 1920s and early ’30s, Chicago’s aggressive Cardinal George Mundelein managed to arouse pride in his city’s stew of ethnic groups with the new St. Mary of the Lake Seminary on a 900-acre campus in a northwest suburb, which promptly changed its name to Mundelein.

By the 1950s St. Francis and the Mundelein school were comparable in enrollment, governance, student regulations and approach to theological education.

The similarities began to dissolve in 1969. That was the year that Msgr. William Schuit became rector at St. Francis and quickly instituted a shakeup in curriculum and every other aspect of seminary life; it came to be known as the “Schuit shift.”

He and his associates took seriously and literally the Vatican II decrees that called for the church to immerse itself in the language, culture and concerns of the modern age.

Seminarians were no longer to be isolated from society; rather, they were to become general practitioners, well equipped to apply Christian values to modern society.

In 1970 the curriculum reflected the new emphasis. Among the new courses were: Introduction to Theology and the Personal Sciences, and Pastoral Analysis of Contemporary Social Problems.

Field education programs put students to work outside the seminary and traditional discipline was relaxed.

The most important change was the dramatic, full-scale opening of the school to lay students. “Our offerings are such that a good share of them can be of significant value to anyone interested in following the directives of the council, not just those seeking a full share of the priesthood,” the rector said.

In 1972, the first lay cohort -- eight men and two women -- began studies at the seminary amid wide publicity. The school advertised this historic departure from tradition with brochures urging interested persons to “pass the word along.”

As interest and numbers of lay students grew, the curriculum was revised to maintain at least some distinction between seminarians (working for a master of divinity degree) and the laity (earning a master’s in theological studies). But lay students attended the same classes as the seminarians, mixed freely and were virtually indistinguishable (except for the women) from those destined for the priesthood.

Like the seminarians, the laity had individual spiritual directors, were invited to seminary liturgies and took part in formation and ministerial programs.

In 1976 the Schuit shift ran into unexpected complications. By then laity accounted for 20 percent of the enrollment, and the number of seminary students had dropped from 144 to 94 in just three years. “Seminary literature referred to lay students as those ‘who do not desire ordination,’ ” wrote Gary Pokorny, St. Francis’ present lay formation director, in an anniversary essay.

“However much this reflected the intention of the program, it did not always accurately reflect the desire or intentions of individual students. Some Catholic women felt called to the priesthood but, unable to pursue that course, sought other avenues of service. ... Likewise some men began preparing for ordination, only to discontinue studies for priesthood and complete their formation as lay students.”

Faculty observed that lay students, many of whom had families and outside jobs, took “courses more seriously than our own students who are geared to priesthood, and [lay students] are more motivated because they have to make more effort.”

St. Francis continued its commitment even as the enrollment shift continued. In 1985 laypersons constituted 50 percent of the student body; 28 of these were women and seven men.

Meanwhile, the Mundelein Seminary had initiated many of the same Vatican II-inspired reforms: relaxation of rules, introduction of the social sciences, expanded formation and ministry programs. There was one major difference: Mundelein did not admit lay students as equals or near equals into the school.

The rector, Fr. Thomas Murphy, was determined to keep enrollment high. An exceptionally persuasive man, he traveled the country in 1977 and ’78, visiting bishops, urging them to send their candidates to Chicago and praising the high quality of the seminary’s pontifical (appointed by the Vatican) faculty, which included respected names like Fr. John Shea and Sr. Agnes Cunningham.

Murphy did an incredible selling job, said Fr. John Canary, the current rector. “At first no one wanted to change, but he took the whole thing in his own hands.” Soon the effects of the vocation decline, which had seen Mundelein’s enrollment plummet by about 50 percent in a decade, began to reverse itself with an infusion of students from every area of the country.

Murphy, who was made a bishop in 1978, died last June as archbishop of Seattle, where he helped arrange a settlement between the Vatican and Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in the mid-1980s.

As Mundelein’s situation stabilized, St. Francis grew more troubled. In early 1985 a five-member, Vatican-appointed visitation team studied the seminary and issued a highly critical report. The still growing proportion of laity, it said, indicates “a shift in the primary purpose of the institution. ... Mixing of all students for classes or formation events may present a problem.” The school responded, “We consider this to be a very favorable situation, given the kind of theological and pastoral situations encountered in the church today. It has provided us with a fine opportunity to clarify the identity and responsibilities of both the priesthood and all the baptized.”

Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall, and many bishops who had traditionally relied on St. Francis sent their seminarians elsewhere. In 1987 the school still had representatives from six dioceses; in 1997 it has none except for the five students studying for Milwaukee.

In retrospect, Fr. Andrew Nelson, the present rector, acknowledged that some of the administrative decisions over the past 25 years were ill-conceived but insisted that the visitation team report “terribly misrepresented what we had done and were trying to do. ... The criticisms were deadly and gave us a negative image among bishops.”

St. Francis has made some revisions and additions in the 12 years since the report but has retained its commitment to mixed, lay-seminarian education. Over the past five years the school has produced some 50 lay graduates with its current master of arts degree in pastoral studies. Of these, said Nelson, 42 are employed in parishes. Another 50 lay students are presently enrolled in the same degree program, while 80 others are earning certificates in areas of pastoral work.

Perhaps in time seminarians will return in substantial numbers, but Nelson makes no apologies for St. Francis’ present condition. “There is absolutely no future for this church without incorporating men and women together,” he said. “That’s how it is. I can see no other way!”

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 1997