The current issue of Commonweal Magazine features a number of articles on the priesthood. Among them is a report by a former seminarian of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who writes of the inadequate (and frankly bizarre) formation that was provided at the Archdiocese's minor seminary, Saint John Vianney, on the topic of human sexuality.

For instance, the seminarian, Paul Blashcko writes of his experience during the period from 2008-2010:

'I recall the day when the first-year seminarians, or “new men” as we were called, gathered in the seminary’s spacious basement to attend a workshop on sexual ethics titled “Freedom and Victory.” The workshop was run by a psychologist from something called the Theology of the Body Training and Healing Center, together with a blind priest who, we were told during his introduction, had witnessed at least one eucharistic miracle and had had extensive experience with exorcisms. The breakout sessions had titles like “Masturbation: Is it Healthy? Is it Holy?” (you can guess the answer to both questions); and at various points throughout the workshop we were invited to approach the microphone and share stories of sexual pain and healing—“if you feel called by the spirit to do so”—with the sixty or so priests and other seminarians in the room.

The whole thing felt more than a little strange to me, and for the most part I kept my head down, pretending to take notes in the workbook that had been provided. The strangeness culminated with a workshop session devoted to reenacting the “spiritual warfare” that goes on when a young man watches pornography. Each of us was given a nametag with the name of a demon on it. These demons, we were told, were the principalities most closely associated with sexual temptation. We were then gathered around the chosen man and told to hiss and curse at him, trying to entice him to “watch pornography” and “masturbate.” Afterwards, the priest came around with a coffee tin, collecting the nametags—he had to burn them, he told us, while reciting prayers of exorcism. Demonic influence wasn’t something to take lightly.

For those of you who might be inclined to disregard what the author is reporting, I remember the incident with the seminarian looking for sex online. If I recall correctly, either that incident or another was actually discovered by the University of Saint Thomas, not the seminary, because the seminarian's search items were identified as problematic and reported by the University's IT service, not the seminary's. 

I strongly encourage you to read the full article, as Paul provides an important and thoughtful analysis of his experience of seminary formation during the Nienstedt-era. God help us all. 


Nathan Tucker
02/19/2015 11:57pm

As a former seminarian for the ASPM (2009-2013), I was eager to read Paul Blashcko's account. Sadly, I have to agree with Paul that the formation process is deeply flawed. One word I have heard both Jennifer Haselberger and Pope Francis use this year, referring to the Church hierarchy, is "self-referential." For me, that about sums up my diagnosis of the problem. Outside voices are (if politely listened to) never seriously considered. The abuses continue, unchecked, and what is lacking in the formation advisors is passed on to their protégés.

Ironically, like Paul, I was also disciplined by my formation advisor for having a close friendship with a brother seminarian, which apparently gave off the vibe of being too "gay." This was during the campaign against same-sex marriage, so maybe homosexuality was just on everyone's radar during that time (?). Anyway, after being humiliated and traumatized more than once by the formation process, I mostly kept to myself and just tried to get through by keeping my head down. Every year, my closest friends at the seminary would drop out. I was, finally, one of those men who disappeared from the seminary "suddenly and without explanation," after a (professional) counselor and a beloved SPS staff member who knew me well saw how the process was killing me (and repeatedly expressed strong concern for my psychological well-being and safety). I still wanted to be a priest, but, in the end I was not willing to pay the price of my own sanity. Two years later, I'm still recovering from the experience.

I have no axe to grind. I love the Church more than ever. However, after the $200,000 that the diocese spent on my education for those 4 years, I think the parishioners who write those checks to the diocese (and the seminary) owe it to themselves to find out how that money is being used. And, please look beneath the surface of the nice dinners and guest Masses where everything is presented with the veneer of apparent spiritual health.

I write here of my own experience in the hopes that those who might be reading this blog with the ability to help reform the system will do something about it. I cannot recommend attending the seminary or financially supporting it whatsoever (under it's current leadership).

02/20/2015 2:41pm

What a sad experience. I really believe the elephant in the room is the deep pathology that exists within the Church regarding homosexuality. So many gay priests, so much shame, endless cover ups and above all...silence. So many shame filled young men entering the formation process as a result; only to be instructed by a culture that reinforces their shame and secrecy but does not promote growth and healthy acceptance. A never ending cycle of self loathing behavior that hurts people in the process. It must stop!

02/20/2015 5:08pm

Is it any wonder that the Church fails to demonstrate and role model appropriate relationships between men and women - as Jesus reflected in His relationships with Mary, Susanne, and other female disciples - with such a formation as you depict? How sad and disappointing. Yet, one cannot teach what one does not know. Similarly, it seems the priest you spoke to after the workshop knew nothing about spiritual warfare or spiritual attacks and thus was unable to answer you other than attempt to dodge your comments and shut you down as soon as possible. You sound like a sincere and intelligent man and I am sorry for your stint in such a dysfunctional setting.

Paul Blaschko
02/20/2015 1:29pm

Thanks so much for sharing the article Jennifer, and for all you've done to help keep archdiocese and our church accountable.

02/21/2015 1:31pm

I see this as a non-issue, based upon what I know about the seminary and the current crop of seminarians.

02/23/2015 5:58pm

I really hope you'll elaborate on this, Dave.

I've been chatting with Cameron Thompson, whom you may know, and a couple others about the state of the seminary under Fr. Baer. His perspective as a veteran added valuable context, but didn't come close to making me see this as a non-issue. I have yet to reach out to those I knew in the seminary during the Baer-Beckett transitional period.

02/21/2015 2:54pm

Dear Paul,
Thanks for your courage in sharing. I have no doubt that your article only scratches the surface. I am left wondering under what circumstances you left the seminary and what you are doing now? You alluded to living in fear that you would be one of those young men who suddenly disappeared with no explanation. Is that what happened, and was it a personal discernment or was the decision made for you? I sympathize with you in your pain - this local diocese has many cradle Catholics who live in the pain of relegation to the margins and the current crises and bankruptcy do nothing to give one hope that the picture may change.

02/22/2015 4:16pm

Mandated celibacy may be contributing to aberrations in the priesthood.

02/24/2015 11:12am

Not only are the sexual health formations described in the Commonweal article  dismaying to say the least; the teachings about women and the appropriate priestly attitude toward them should be of equal concern. It is outrageous that in this decade at least some seminarians are still being encouraged in medieval attitudes toward women--being prompted to view them with fear and suspicion, to avoid their company, to see them as threats or temptresses rather than expressions of divine creativity seeking wholeness through participation in the church. How exactly does avoiding women through the formative seminary years help prepare a young man to establish healthy, respectful relationships with the human beings  who will most likely make up at least 50% of his future parish? Should not seminary include numerous opportunities to relate to and work with lay people--female and male--in various settings, since lay people are the church? 

Christine Sorensen
02/24/2015 11:01pm

This article was disturbing in so many ways. For me, reading the piece on training about women was beyond so disheartening. That in the 2000's women are talked about in what, to use theological language, are sinful ways begs for forgiveness from women. With the number of female parishioners and the number of female staff priests will be ministering to and with, it is crucial that men learn healthy ways to work in a collaborative, respectful manner with us. This article coming so closely behind Cardinal Burke's insulting remarks on women leave me both sad and angry.

02/25/2015 1:39pm

I concur. One common thread here is the fear of femininity; whether with respect to women or the imposed shame of homosexuality in men. The experiences we read about here are not at all uncommon and illustrate the disconnect between Church leaders and healthy human sexuality. An interesting article highlighting both the dangers, and injustice, of repressing discussion and acceptance of homosexuality in priestly formation entitled "Weeding Out Gays from Seminaries" by Jesuit priest James Martin S.J. can be found in America Magazine.

02/24/2015 12:21pm

Interesting that Nienstedt is a former Seminary Rector in Detroit, from 1988-94.

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    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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