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Band of Fathers Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
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A solitary figure, clad all in black, out on a frozen Minnesota lake, moving gracefully over the windswept surface, glimpsed from a study hall window of the minor seminary, where he was rector. The glimpsing eye is mine. It is the early 1940s. The school is a magnificent structure on the shore of the lake in which several hundred boys and young men are being prepared for the major seminary and eventually the priesthood.

War is far off, the more so for students who read no newspapers or timely magazines. Our minds were full of the campaigns of Julius Caesar and the slow retreat of the Anabasis; Troy was under siege. If I was ever made uneasy by this distance from the grim realities of those days, my misgivings were removed by reading, years later, C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War Time.”

There were a dozen or more priests of the archdiocese of St. Paul assigned to Nazareth Hall, chosen on what principle it would be difficult to say. Perhaps the whimsicality of the prelate in J. F. Powers’ stories, based on John Gregory Murray, the archbishop of the time, was not a fictional trait. Initially at least, each priest was astounded to receive this assignment, usually his first after ordination.

The last surviving member of the priests who taught me there died recently at over 100, bringing a rush of memories and that image of the rector skimming over a Minnesota lake in the waning light of a winter afternoon while his charges were busy at their studies. The school itself had died long since, the principle on which it was raised airily dismissed as part of a forgettable past by a Church renewing itself; the property was sold for a song, a casualty of one interpretation of aggiornamento.

The priest who recently died, last apple on the bough, was known as Spud by the students, and such nicknames were conferred on most of the other priests as well, their origin often soon lost – Butch, the Greek, Harpo, Sookie, Zip, Uncle Bill, Kush. Those nicknames come more readily to mind now than their family names, conveying a mixture of irreverent love and feigned chumminess.

Those who were eager to dismantle the system of preparatory seminaries could not have foreseen what lay ahead. Did any of them regard the sequel as an improvement, a change that brought the Church more surely into dialogue with the modern world? The sudden melting away of the number of priests in the United States due to defection and to the dwindling of new vocations brought home how rich the Church had been then in personnel. Imagine the ability to assign a dozen men to the faculty of a minor seminary. True, they all did week-end work at parishes in the Twin Cities but that too recalls a time when the churches were full and Sunday Mass was celebrated on the hour from early morning until noon. The phenomenon of Nazareth Hall does indeed gather together many of the aspects of the pre-Conciliar Church.

There was of course the initial assumption that a newly ordained priest was equipped to pass on to the young the education he himself had received. That education was in large part a remnant of the classic education that had characterized schools for generations, it in turn the fruit of the liberal arts tradition, both in the version of Augustine and Boethius, and the medieval version which saw the arts as preparatory to philosophy and theology. Latin and Greek were central to it with a modern language or two, literature, history and some science. It is tempting to romanticize and idealize all this, and assume that the goal was reached. In many cases, as with Dr. Johnson’s lady preacher, the wonder was not that it was done well but that it was done at all. For all that, it was for me the most stimulating and formative experience of my life.

Like myself, a majority of the students did not advance to ordination and the priesthood. In that perhaps lay the strongest practical argument against such institutions as Nazareth Hall, but I do not recall that it was often invoked. I could formulate an argument to the effect that even so such schools served the Church, but it is impossible, I suppose, not to see that place, those years, that curriculum, in terms of its personal benefits. I cannot imagine who I would be without them

All that, like so many other things, is gone now, with fewer people even to remember it. With the demise of Spud, the last living link to those priests who made up the faculty is gone. All the more important, then, the image of the skating rector, performing intricate arabesques on a frozen lake while from the study hall students look on. You cannot skate twice on the same lake.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught at Notre Dame since 1955.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
Bravo, Dr. McInerny
written by David J. Carradini, September 24, 2009
Thanks for writing such a beautiful piece on the role of Church-sponsored classical education for the formation of her future priests and leading laymen. Much has been lost. You were also nurtured in the beautiful Tridentine Mass, formed by it to revere the transcendence of the Father, the Son's absolute condescension in taking on our lowly estate for the world's salvation, and the graciousness of the Holy Spirit. May the recovery of the ancient liturgy lead to a recovery of classical education, too.
The Idea of a University?
written by Willie, September 24, 2009
One would have to search far and wide for this curriculum of studies. These classic studies facilitate and refine ones cogitation. However, don't we need to focus our minds on those things that our jobs will require, not on the ethereal inquiries of the ancients? For today we have TV and the Internet to frame our thinking for us. I am afraid this is the mindset of the current age and with it the inclination to swallow truthless errors and evil freedoms. Should the University be a trade school?
At the heart of it all.
written by Stephen Kalonick, September 24, 2009
Every writer has a voice and I love the melody of yours. I am reminded of a book I read in the seventies, "Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut. The image of the people, after destroying the machines that controlled their lives, walking through the rubble only to start putting them back together again. How timely is the scripture I read last night, "...The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." John 6:63
written by Cavaliere, September 24, 2009
Dr. McInerny, your article reminded of another professor from St. Thomas that also taught at Notre Dame for a few years in the late 50's early 60's I believe. His name was Fr. Henri DuLac. Just wondered if you ever knew him.
written by Dan McNeill, September 25, 2009
Dr. McInerny has spoken lovingly of a lost past. I, too, long for that past. But the reality which created that past is still with us. We can find it in many places scattered about our land. They exist because they seek the same reality our forbears sought - Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are in a time of destruction, but when was the Church never in such a time? The foremost reason for our existence is not to create a civilization but to follow the crucified one. The rest follows.
written by Michael Pacella III, September 26, 2009
Mentors and devoted teachers/professors are vital if the Church is to become all that She was meant to be. I attended such a seminary and I am eternally grateful for the deposit of God that I received from those devoted men of God. I attended one such place with Dr. McInerny's brother!
written by John Anthony Warbrick, October 02, 2009
I too have those memories. I am an Englishman, living in Malaysia. I attended Preston Catholic College In UK, was given my "classical" education by the Jesuits of St Wilfrid's, Preston. Sung Latin Mass on Sunday at 11-o-clock, Benediction at 3pm sunday afternoon,There wasnt a lake with a skating priest,but my abiding memory is of the black wings of the priests robes,and the gowns of the secular teachers, hurrying down the corridors like fluttering birds, between classes. What would I be?

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