“I Knew You Would Never Be a Priest”

“I knew you would never be a priest.”

Those were the words that Mom uttered to me when I nervously told her that I decided not to continue with my Catholic seminary studies. Of course, you need to understand that along with this statement came a hand wave as if she was chasing away a pesky gnat.

Months of nervous introspection and practicing just how to tell her all vanished with the wave of a hand. It would have been helpful for her to share some of her insights maybe six years earlier. But then, I wouldn’t have any good stories to share.

There are many misconceptions about life in a Catholic seminary. If you have followed this blog series you have probably had a few of those myths shattered and buried. “Thunk” (October 17, 2014 or “Christmas or Bust” October 26, 2014

By the time I am done with this edition, a few more myths might bite the dust.

The road to the seminary is different for everyone called, and it is a calling. You receive small invitations that you don’t recognize until you start putting all of the pieces together. Like playing priest and setting up an altar on your mother’s kitchen table. Or, being the on-call altar server for the parish. You become the server that Father looks for in the congregation when the assigned server sleeps in.

Then there are the nuns who would just come right out and say, “You ought to be a priest.” I think they saw every boy who managed to stay out of their discipline radar for more than a year as a potential candidate. I was never the favored student. Matter of fact, the nuns probably secretly voted me most likely to fail. Proof of this theory was when it came time for the SAT tests. Sister, who will remain nameless, refused to let me sign up for the test. “Why would you take the test, you are never going to make it in college.” I know she meant well and was probably just trying to give me a free Saturday morning to go fishing.

One year later, when I announced my intention to go to the seminary, the same “blessed” woman elevated me to just below valedictorian status and somehow my poor algebra skills, which she was convinced would hold me back, vanished out of importance.

I wish the call to the priesthood was as clear as Paul being knocked off his horse or Moses and his bush of fire, but it wasn’t. Of course it is very obvious from Scripture that those two key figures didn’t understand subtle hints as clearly as I did or God would not have used such dramatic signs.  (I’ll probably need to answer for that statement somewhere along the line.)

When the day arrived to head to the seminary in Kentucky a whole crew of seminar recruits assembled in a parking lot in Lincoln to form a caravan of priestly hopefuls. We looked like the Crusaders sent east to conquer and convert the Kentuckians. We had no idea what to expect and the peaceful Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, KY also was not prepared for the onslaught of Midwest culture.

The lane leading to the Seminary building

Entrance to Seminary Lane

Back to Mom.

Mom and I argued about this for years, but I know what I saw. After tearful good byes we pulled out of the lot to start our new adventure. Looking back I know I saw mom dancing a gig in glorious celebration. She finally had me out of the house. In her defense, she said a bee was chasing her around the lot. I think my version is more believable.

Move in day in the seminary is a little different than move in day at any other college. There are no buff fraternity brothers jumping in to help hoping to recruit some new pledges. There is a notable absence of cute girls in shorty shorts checking out the new freshmen. There ARE numerous upperclassmen, dressed in black clerics, standing around carefully assessing the class of freshmen to see if there is a future Bishop or Cardinal in the pack that they may need to buddy up to. In our case, they were more curious to see what a likely priest from Nebraska looked like. We disappointed them on this trip and left our bib-overalls and seed company hats at home.

After going through a week long induction process the real seminary life began. In chapel by 7:00AM for Morning Prayer followed by a half hour of spiritual reading. Required dress for prayer was a cassock. For those not familiar with clerical attire, a cassock is a one piece black covering with a clerical collar. What was great about these was you could get out of bed, slip on a pair of socks and shoes, roll up your pajamas if you were so inclined to wear them, and head to chapel with no further decisions to be made. I have little doubt there were many of my brother seminarians who had less than what I just mentioned under their frocks.

For prayer, the seminary body filled the chapel with the faculty perched in the last row like a flock of white throated crows keeping an eye on tasty morsels carefully analyzing which to keep and which ones to discard. Chapel had assigned seating so the faculty always knew who made it up for prayer or who came in late. The prayers volleyed back and forth in true monastic style. It is a moving experience to hear a hundred plus men praying in unison in the stillness of the morning. It gives the morning a voice that should start everyone’s day rather than the staccato blabbering of news anchors. The stain glass windows would cast angelic rays across the student body giving the look of pure holiness and innocence to the whole body of men. The scene made you appreciate all that nudged you to this point.

God's View of the Seminary

God’s View of the Seminary

After prayer you moved right into spiritual reading. During this time you were to read something from the lives of the saints or any other tract that would keep you focused. You obeyed that rule for the first six months. After that, you realized that no one was keeping tabs on what you were reading.  You knew that most of the faculty were gone after prayer, retreating to their private dining room for breakfast and I am sure a grilling of the personalities of the student body. What was considered spiritual reading then became a matter of your own censorship. There were guys reading the latest bestsellers, copies of Sports Illustrated were smuggled in under loose fitting cassocks as well as class notes for the day and letters from home.

When the hour of chapel came to an end, the bell would ring announcing time for breakfast. We filed out of the chapel based on class rank with the seniors leading the long black line to the refectory. (fancy word for cafeteria) If you could get an aerial shot of this procession out of chapel it would look like a stream of black ants one following the other with one goal in mind…food.

Now I have no proof of this next statement but it is one of those things that just seems glaringly obvious. I believe they replaced and hoped to repress any sexual inklings of a student body made up of twenty something year old men with food! Breakfast and lunch, which were served cafeteria style, could outpace the finest smorgasbord you can imagine. Eggs prepared to order, always more than one breakfast meat choice, pancakes, waffles, coffee, juice all made up your choices. Three saintly nuns, who must have started in the very early hours of the day, prepared each meal as if they were cooking for the Pope himself.

Supper, a community event, followed immediately after evening prayer. Supper was served family style with six guys at a table. Two people were assigned to the table as waiters. One was the server. He was in charge of coming in sometime during the afternoon and setting the table in preparation for the evening meal. Once everyone was seated for supper, it was his job to bring the food to the table from the kitchen. If seconds were needed, again, it was his duty to retrieve them. The other guy, had it a little easier. When the meal was over, he cleared the table. His biggest worry was stacking the dirty dishes. There was a very specific way to stack the dishes. Violating this order gained you a scolding from the guys on dish crew.

One of the specialties of the nuns was scratch carrot cake. Its thick cream cheese icing and moist cake made it such a desired treat that guys traded favors for cake. Bargains were made to spend a day on dish crew or take a turn on a work crew for an extra piece. If we were in a prison, (well we kind of were) carrot cake would be the equivalent of trading cigarettes.

I had the good fortune in later years of rooming with the Joe Pat who was assigned to work in the refectory. He had the keys to the kingdom of carrot cake. More than once, in the middle of the night, Joe and I would help ourselves to some of the leftover cake.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were work crew days on campus. Every man was assigned a job with little discretion as to class ranking or position in seminary society. Two seminarians were in charge of the work crew details and they floated around the campus making sure that the assigned jobs were being completed based on the job list handed down by the faculty. For some reason, the first detail that came down to the new Nebraska residents of the hill was operating the tractors to cut the twenty-five acres of land or to plow the cornfields or…to drive an Army surplus dump truck loaded with a tractor and slop for the hogs down to the seminary farm.

You can probably see where this is going. I was tapped to drive the truck, the only question asked was, “Do you know how to drive a standard shift.” After several years of driving my VW Beetle around, I answered with a confident yes. I should have kept my mouth shut. The priest in charge of the grounds directed me to a truck with a cab so high it had steps. The truck had more gears than my eighteen speed mountain bike and each one, as Father made note of, needed to be double clutched.

The journey to the farm followed every twisted, hilly road Kentucky could throw at me. To make things worse, I shadowed a school bus that would stop every time I managed to get through gear five and six. Once I finally made it to the farm, I had to back this monster up to a loading ramp using only the mirrors. Come on! I signed on to save souls not piglets.

Little did I realize, God intervened and did me a favor. From that successful trip I was now the official driver of the big blue monster as well as enjoying being allowed many hours of solitude on the tractors, cutting grass and plowing fields while others were scrubbing urinals, waxing floors and dusting shelves,

Grand silence fell on the building at 10PM. Every student was expected to be in their rooms with no talking unless the building was on fire or you were addressed by a faculty member. If you were in the halls, you had better be on your way to or from chapel or one of the common bathrooms. It was moving to hear the silence descend on the building. It was a peacefulness that inspired prayer, study and gin rummy.

My room was gin rummy headquarters. I made a lot of pocket change after 10PM helping my brothers learn the finer points of the game. It wasn’t necessary to talk through the game other than to quietly utter the word, “gin” at the appropriate time so we weren’t breaking too many rules.

Once a year we had a seven day silent retreat, usually after our return from Christmas vacation. I am sure the idea was to help restore us to the saintly practices that we left behind at the start of the break. What it really was, was the start of the gin tournament which ran for seven nights. When the retreat was winding down, the parallel tournament was also coming to an end. The winner walked away that week enriched spiritually and financially. I think that is called good stewardship.

Retreats were not all about gin rummy. My senior year in the seminary, Bishop Connare, the then Bishop of Greensburg, PA and one of the authors of the Vatican II documents, was our retreat master. You will never find a more down to earth and saintly Bishop than this man. During one of our chapel sessions with the Bishop, a freshman seminarian presented a question he asked, “Bishop, when do you get a handle on, you know, these urges?”

Bishop Connare, dressed in full bishop regalia stepped off the altar, walked up to the now shaking seminarian sitting in the front row put his face almost next to the freshman and calmly said, “When they put the last nail in your coffin.”

That settled that discussion.

You often hear people say that every young man should be in the military. I can’t totally disagree with that. In my opinion however, the seminary could run a close second. Behind the walls of the seminary you learn to live in a community, looking out for others first, then yourself. Orders are followed because they will make life easier for everyone. Your daily attire, black clerical shirt or cassock, unifies the body of men, (plus you don’t have to make any decisions as to what matches with what.) The prayerful atmosphere and ample time for meditation and introspection gives you time to understand and appreciate the soul that is trapped in your body. Whether you go on to be a priest or decide to leave based on the urgings of those who know better “that maybe you should pursue other career options,” the seminary has a lasting effect.

For my part, I still wear black socks with almost everything I put on.

Learning about yourself. Challenging yourself. Changing directions. It is all part of growing up.

If you would like a copy of the “special secret carrot cake” recipe send me an email at yesac1@gmail.com

Photo’s Google Earth, 2015

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Midnight 911

If you have never attended Midnight Mass you are missing a beautiful event. Next to Easter it is one of the most anticipated celebrations on the calendar. Regardless of the denomination, Easter and Christmas are the two days when the churches are packed with parishioners spilling out to the aisles.

Midnight Mass is also one of the most decorated of all the Masses. The sanctuary is adorned with pine, poinsettias, trees and other trappings of Christmas. In many churches, the transformation from the repentant Advent season morphs into the beauty of the season almost overnight by an army of volunteers. Those volunteers are proud, rightfully so, of their accomplishment. All of this work adds to the beauty of the celebration.

As a young altar server, to be selected to serve at this pinnacle of the season was an honor and as you can imagine…my story unfolds from here.

I started my career on the altar when we were still required to memorize the Latin prayers. Sister Marie, (from the blog “Your Hand will Stick out of the Grave 10/10/14 fame) was the examiner testing our proficiency with the prayers. You didn’t step on the altar until she gave her approval.

Once you mastered the Latin responses and went through the drills to learn your duties and positions on the altar, you were placed on the schedule of Sunday and weekly morning Masses. The early morning Masses were the real challenge. It meant getting up well before normal school time and then walking up the four blocks to church in the dark. If you were dependable in these early mornings, it wasn’t long before you were moved up the scale of serving at funerals, which got you out of a couple hours of class and put you in line for an occasional wedding on the weekends.

I soon turned altar serving into a for profit position. I was the server called on for funerals, weddings and special occasions. The pastors, of which I went through three in my tenure, soon turned to me as their master of ceremonies for all of the liturgical events. It was my responsibility to make sure everyone knew their place, the altar was ready to go, and we had enough personnel to carry out the celebration. For this service, I was usually slipped a few bucks by the priest, the family of the bride or the local funeral director.

Not a bad part-time job.

The first Midnight Mass of my MC career arrived. The church was decorated with Christmas trees on each of the side altars. Poinsettias were in every nook and cranny of St. Peter and Paul. The back altar with a carved wood back drop climbed to the ceiling. Injected at each level was a shelf holding a candelabra surrounded by poinsettias and the statues of the patron saints, Peter and Paul.

As midnight drew closer the church filled from front to back, quite opposite of the usual pattern of Sunday mornings. The church was dark with the exception of the red sanctuary light which cast a strange glow on those in the first pews. Around 11:30 the tradition of the living Rosary started. Students from the high school would walk in carrying blue or red votive candles depicting their role in the rosary decades. When it was over, the church took on the warm glow of mixed colors blended with the soft sounds of the choir. The atmosphere that inspired “Silent Night” settled on the whole congregation.

The time to light up the altar arrived. As the oldest server, and also the tallest, the honor and duty of lighting all of the candles fell to me. The candles on the lower front altar were no challenge. As the candle flames multiplied, so did the light cast from the sanctuary.

The next task was the candles on the back altar. Again, those on the lower back altar proved to be easy to light. Now it was time to tackle those on the next level.

With the candle lighter extended to maximum length, I was able to reach the highest candle by stretching myself out to my longest length.

Now if you employ a little knowledge of physics you can understand some of the dynamics of the actions that follow. When you have a pole reaching out six or seven feet, movement of several inches at one end transmits to twelve inches or better on the other end. If you stick a flame on the end of it, it now looks like a bouncing tongue of flame in the darkness.

With a full church behind me and nothing more for them to do than watch this process, I had the congregation’s full attention. Mothers grasped fathers with vise grip fear while they covered the eyes of sleepy little children with their free hand. The bouncing flame moved from one candle to the next each time coming closer to the dry wooden altar façade. Each level up required more of a stretch and with each stretch the ability to hit the target candle lessened.

With one miss swing the flame touched the leaf of the closest Christmas flower. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that poinsettias are not flammable. A collection of ooOOs and aaAAHHs rose from the crowd behind me. You would think they were attending the July 4th fireworks, not the December 24th holy celebration. The poinsettia went up in a flash and in my mind I pictured the entire back altar going up in a blazing apocalypse.

Thank God, this was pre-cell phone days. I am sure the thumbs would have been hitting 911 before the first leaf went up. Once again my guardian angel was tested. He must have flown up and with one mighty blow, extinguished the flower as quickly as it erupted. A blackened pot sat there as obvious as a black dog in a snow storm. This was fortunately the last of the candles to be lit. There was nowhere for me to hide. I only had one recourse and that was to retreat to the sacristy with the hope that Fr. Chonta was not paying attention to the congregation’s reactions.

All was fine until the opening procession for the Mass. As we approached the altar Fr. Chonta had to be blind not to see the glaring charred pot sitting under the statue of St. Peter. Being the saintly man that he was, he never mentioned the obvious eyesore. I think we were both secretly thankful St. Peter was a rock and not one of the wooden statues of the side altars.

Midnight Mass was…all part of growing up.

Altar Boy

By James Metcalfe

“Garden of my Heart”

(One my mother’s meditation books)

 In cassock and surplice white…He takes his privileged place…To serve the priest at Holy Mass…With reverence and grace…He kneels and stands with folded hands…And piously he shares…The Latin words and phrases of… Profound liturgical prayers… He moves the missal and the cloth… He sounds the altar chimes…The designated times…At benedictions he is there…To swing the censer high…And waft the fragrant incense to…The angels in the sky…He is the acolyte of God…Whose special time is spent…In serving Mass and being near…The Blessed Sacrament.

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