Thursday, 15 December 2011

32 seminarians tonsured the same day

On 22nd October 2011, 14 and 18 seminarians were tonsured in each of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter's two seminaries, making it 32 altogether: the largest number of ‘tonsurati’ in the history of the Fraternity. Among them were three from the United Kingdom: Revs Krzysztof (originally from Poland), Alex, and Mark. The latter reports on the ceremony in Bavaria.

In the Old Testament the tribe of Levi had no inheritance to call their own; they had no land to pass on to their sons. According to God's merciful plan they were accorded forty-eight cities to dwell in – scattered amongst the other tribes – but this was for their maintenance; they had no "heritable property" as we would know it today. And yet, having nothing, they had everything, for "the Lord God of Israel Himself" was their possession (Jos. 13:33).

So it is for the cleric. He is singled out, set apart – after a particular call from the Lord – to bring sacrifice to the Lord. Living in a spirit of poverty, he has – like the Levites – nothing material to give. Rather he brings the offerings of others, and above all he brings himself to be offered. Thus with a joyful heart I, and thirteen of my confrères, prayed the immortal words from Psalm XV– "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup: it is thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me" – and received the clerical tonsure on October 22nd in Lindau, on the shores of Lake Constance in Bavaria, from His Excellency Vitus Huonder, Bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Chur (Zurich) in Switzerland.

In a moving ceremony, the Seminarian is "called forward" to receive the tonsure, where he answers "adsum", that he is present and ready; he is prepared. The Seminarian having donned the collar, soutane and cincture privately in the Sacristy – the collar representing Christ's yoke, and the cincture chastity – the Bishop proceeds to cut five locks from the Seminarian's hair in the form of a Cross, at the same time reciting the above verse from the Psalter in Latin. Then the Surplice – the cleric's particular garb for Liturgy (the Soutane being his everyday clothing, it must be remembered) – is "imposed" onto the Seminarian, with the prayer that the Lord will make him a "new man, created by God in justice and the sanctity of Truth" (c.f. Eph. 4:24).

Whilst the Code of Canon Law now recognises the clerical state only with the conferring of the Diaconate, the ceremony of Tonsure and Clothing as Clerics makes us such liturgically and „existentially‟. One may not yet canonically be a cleric, but for us, and for the eighteen further Seminarians who received the Tonsure on the same day in America, a very visible change has taken place. To the world we look like clerics, or – not knowing any better – we are mistaken for Priests, and we are confronted with a new identity each time our reflection is seen in a pane of glass or a mirror. Is it really me there? Yes, and – trusting in God's call – I will continue to "put on" My Lord each day, and suffer for His sake. (Though, most encounters are positive, because – even in today's "Godless" society – people recognise a commitment as such.)

And so began my second year as a Seminarian for the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter. After a first, "probationary" year, the very visual ceremony and change from civil clothes into always dressing like a cleric, is one that strikingly confirms that one is continuing in formation. With six years still "to go", there is plenty time to become used to the soutane, and also to be formed by it. After all, our formation here is not only academic, as Pope John Paul II noted in the Apostolic Exhortation "Pastores Dabo Vobis", but must also encompass human, pastoral and spiritual formation. And even a piece of clothing contributes to that (though, having been blessed by the Bishop, our Soutanes are also sacramentals!).

The Seminary formation here follows the model prescribed by the Council of Trent while conforming to the Ratio Studiorum of the Holy See. The first year, probationary in nature, is a year of spiritual formation, during which the candidate becomes disciplined in a community life of prayer and penance. The next two years comprise a thorough grounding in thomistic philosophy, during which the Seminarian also continues studies in Latin, scripture, and Gregorian chant, already begun in first year. This is then followed by four years of theological studies, during the last of which one is on placement as a deacon.

Already in the first year there were many challenges to be met: dealing in a foreign language "all day, every day" has its initial frustrations but immense benefits. After years of disuse my childhood German had become very rusty, and I prepared for entering the Seminary by going "back to school", to night classes. That said, the first few weeks were daunting as the artificial environment of my Hometown University could only prepare me so far, and I found many gaps: the language of philosophy being somewhat different from that of the holidaymaker or business traveller.

The daily régime of the Seminary is also demanding, but very rewarding: the day centres around the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Hours of the Divine Office (the Breviary). By 6:25am Seminarians are in the Church praying Lauds in choir, this is then followed by silent mental prayer and then the community Mass. Likewise, Seminarians gather in the chapel for Sext (midday prayer) and Vespers, or Rosary in common, or Adoration and Benediction, and again in the Church for Compline (night prayer). The rest of the day is made up of classes and tasks and chores. Despite there being two mandatory recreation periods, one after lunch and one after the evening meal, the day seems full-packed and in second year it does not show any signs of slowing down!

That said, the daily rhythm bears for me a great deal similarity to that one finds in, for example, a Benedictine monastery. By that I mean that there seems a healthy mix between all the aspects of life necessary for formation: not one seems to rule at the expense of the rest. There is work and study, time for silence and then time to talk, private prayer and contemplation, public liturgy and outreach; all has its right place. This follows the succinct maxim of the Middle Ages: "in medio stat virtus", virtue lies in the centre. Hence, whilst the life can be hard at times, there is a real sense of reward and valuable work, especially when one looks to the goal: the Catholic Priesthood. I cannot presume to second-guess the Lord's divine plan for me, but should it be that He wishes me to be His Priest, then here is the place to realise that end. And so I am reminded of the prayer of the cleric each day he dons his Surplice: "Clothe me, O Lord, in the new man, who is created by God in justice and the sanctity of truth".

(originally published in Downry, no. 12 (Autumn 2011), magazine of the FSSP in England)