When Will They Ever Learn?

Bryan Dunn reflects on Paul Casey’s book, “Where did all the young men go?”  

Where did they come from to live in these ageless, unlovely rooms? Outside was a lusty nation, healthily, sanely attached to its vices, a sporting, wenching, boozing, touring, colour-photographing, gambling nation (Thomas Keneally, 1964, The Place at Whitton).

Paul Casey has assembled the autobiographies of 23 Australian men who studied, like Thomas Keneally, in these “ageless, unlovely rooms” for the Catholic priesthood in the 1960s.

Considering the nature of the task, the book is remarkably accessible. The contributors address a wide range of questions; notably, how they decided to leave their homes and become priests, and the impact of their training for the priesthood, personally and professionally. The book implicitly provides a reflection on whether these men, because of their experience, were destined to be different from other men of their generation.

This review is a personal reflection as I was a student for the priesthood in the 1950s and 1960s at St Columba’s College, Springwood and St Patrick’s College, Manly. 

For many who studied at Springwood and Manly, Paul Casey’s book provides riveting reading. It might also interest anyone wanting to understand the spirituality, education and socialisation of their current or retired parish clergy; the character and qualities of those who stayed or left at various stages of training or after ordination..

The contributing authors are now in their 70s or 80s. The retired and practising priests of the cohort write of their long pastoral careers. Many who left seminary or priesthood write of successfully re-establishing their lives. Some married, had families and lived quietly and privately. Others took on more public entrepreneurial roles, assumed leadership positions in the public sector or worked in overseas development, academia or administration.

The authors began their seminary journey as young men of 17 or older. Their early lives had many commonalities: they derived in the main from close Catholic families, imbued with the faith. The men were responding to what they described as a ‘call’ to the priesthood, a vocation from God. There were no psychological tests to measure their motivation or suitability. If doubts arose, for example, over living the celibate lifestyle or foregoing parenthood, the young man was often promised that God would give him the grace to live out the priesthood happily. Once one subscribed to that structural mindset, it was difficult to change one’s mind. No other preparation for living a celibate life was provided over the course of their studies.

When I recall my first day at Springwood – a steamy February Sunday afternoon in 1958 − my experiences and reactions were similar to those described by many of the authors. About 130 young men in black suits and hats congregated at Central Station for the trip to Springwood.  For some hours, the train lumbered up the Blue Mountains and eventually into Springwood Station. The black suits and hats disgorged, not just through doors but through windows.  The old hands cracked ‘in house’ jokes, laughed and jostled and backslapped. I recall being surprised and confused by the antics of the male mélange. The group looked more like adolescents than student priests. However, as I became part of that group, I came to recognise that joking and laughter were constants in seminary life. This may have reflected our extended adolescence or been a way of coping with fear and repression or of masking depression, loneliness and anxiety. At the same time, our fellow students “were all we had”, as a former priest once said. We shared grief and humiliation as well as a form of extended adolescence as we committed and recommitted ourselves to a priestly vocation. We were a band of brothers.

Nevertheless, the process of seminary formation was dubious. One esteemed senior priest described it as a process of turning young men into “boys in short pants” who would later struggle into adulthood and maturity.

Some of the biographers delighted in the learning opportunities the seminary provided. Others were critical of an academic approach which they believed repressed critical thinking and rewarded rote learning. They also allude to the psychological regression experienced in the seminaries which had many hallmarks of a total institution in Erving Goffman’s terms. In effect, psychosexual immaturity crystallised in some of the young men who were affected by the parental-style control and discipline. The reader will question the effect for some of seminary training which, in the words of Archbishop Coleridge, led to “institutionalised immaturity”.

The authors describe their varied reactions to Springwood from initiation, to transition, to the intangible experience of mortification into obedient men. Those who stayed would be at Springwood for three years of philosophy and other studies and at Manly for four years of theology; a long time for young men to live in a highly controlled environment where, for some, an underlying feeling of fear prevailed.

What emerges from the recollections of many contributors is the focus on the seminary rule which was the foreground of their experience. They would be told that to break a rule was sinful. The details of that rule might surprise the reader in their insignificance. The outcome of that focus, for many, was a fundamental change in the concept of self; in many cases from being a confident boy for whom Catholic Christianity had been experienced in a loving home to one wherein holiness was achieved by conforming to institutional ways of thinking and behaving whilst repressing feelings.    

Some enjoyed seminary life, others found it a repressive experience with little practical preparation for ministry. Importantly, with few exceptions, students were not known as individuals. Only one lecturer in my experience tried to get to know us as individuals and to understand our thoughts, feelings, doubts and yearnings. Our suitability was judged on external behaviour, adherence to the rules, conformity in thinking. Spiritual direction was for many, totally inadequate.

Nevertheless, some contributors found fulfillment in their long and faith-filled lives as priests. Others continued to search for the truth as partners and fathers, some seeking new paradigms for their faith. Others recovered less successfully from their experience of those years of ‘formation’. Their stories offer valuable insights into the nature and impact of their seminary experience.

The title Where did all the young men go? evokes for the ‘60s generation, an age of searching for what was real behind the spin. Pete Seeger’s song begins with the line “Where have all the flowers gone?” and ends with a warning to “wake up”, lest disempowered young men continue to die in pursuit of false causes and beliefs.  His ‘wake up’ call was expressed in the lyrics, “When will they ever learn?”, an adjunctive theme in Seeger’s song which is the title of this article.

I hope that readers of Where did all the young men go? will understand better the formation of their senior priests and also ‘wake up’ to what renewal of priesthood, preparation for ministry, responsive leadership in the Church and care of our planet home could be like. In the spirit of Francis, may their response reflect courage and mercy.

Where did all the young men go? is available at www.feedaread.com

Follow mnnews.today on Twitter and Instagram.

Bryan Dunn Image
Bryan Dunn

Bryan Dunn is a member of Newcastle Parish. He operates a private counselling practice in Merewether.

Other Aurora Issues