Reflections on My Day at a Catholic Seminary

John ArmstrongRoman Catholicism

I mentioned last week that I spent a 24-hour retreat day on the campus of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. My personal retreat included time to walk, pray, read and rest. It also included some time in the library. Mundelein Seminary has a great library filled with wonderful biblical and exegetical resources, as well as the expected Roman Catholic theological treasures. I love to “hang out” in libraries and discover what a school provides as resources to its faculty and students. Mundelein clearly has a first-rate library. The older section feels like its 1920s origins and the newer, brighter, window-filled newer section is inviting and warm.

I drew some comparison/contrasts between Mundelein and evangelical seminaries I have visited, and even taught at, over the years. I made a few mental notes of several differences:

1. Mundelein puts corporate worship at the very center of seminary life. Morning prayers are held each day at 8:00 in the chapel and a community worship time, with the Mass of course, is held daily at 11:30 a.m. Evangelical seminaries also have chapels, at least most of them do. At evangelical schools chapel, in most cases, is poorly attended. In most evangelical schools chapel occurs two of three times a week and community prayers even less frequently.

2. The atmosphere of the Mundelein service was reverent but not stuffy. (The liturgy was both read and sung and in Spanish they day I attended.) The service was global in perspective. Each Thursday chapel uses a language other than English. The day I was there the service was a folk-like context with beautiful Hispanic music, including a wide-range of instruments used from the balcony. (It just felt like worship, not entertainment, since the leaders were out-of-sight and the focus of our eyes was on the front of the chapel, not the rear.) Many evangelical schools have lots of international students but the sense of their contribution to public worship and liturgy is generally not prominent.

3. To my surprise the students are Mundelein are far more outgoing to a visitor than I have found at evangelical schools. Often on seminary campuses students walk right by me without eye contact and no personal greeting. At Mundelein this was entirely different. I talked to students, asked them lost of questions about their preparation for priesthood and their life orientation as single men. Evangelical students, often already married, live on and off campus and treat seminary as simply a school, not so much a community. I believe there is a real loss to community in the typical evangelical setting but I realize marriage is a huge factor in this difference.

4. Not once did I find a student or faculty member who treated me any differently when they discovered I was a non-Catholic. In fact, they often wanted to know more about me and my ministry and no one seemed to look down on my faith in the least. I do not know how a Catholic would be treated on an evangelical campus but I tend to think we are far less interested and emotionally open to the openness ecumenism has provided to us.

Evangelical seminaries do seem more diverse in certain ways and clearly tend to talk more openly about mission. At the same time I was pleasantly surprised at how much mission orientation I did see at Mundelein. The adoration of Mary exceeds what I can accept biblically but the gestures, the signs of the cross in prayer, and the constant sense of being around that which is holy impressed me deeply. (Even the door handles all have a cross on them!) One of most profound regrets I had in chapel was that we can not share a common Eucharist yet. This cannot, indeed will not, happen under the present circumstances. 

I did not find that my not taking the Mass was as much a disappointment as I thought it might be. I did find myself longing that the whole church may be able to come to the one table together again. I also found myself thinking a lot about John 17 all day long. At the end of the Mass I prayed for the catholic church around the world to be one in Christ during these dark and foreboding times when radical Isalm threatens all of us. I wondered if this same grief is shared deeply by my Catholic friends? I don’t know the full answer, of course, but some of these brothers seem to also long for more fellowship with those who do not share their views of ecclesial authority, the sacraments and other important doctrinal differences that keep us (rightly) separated. I also long for the day when the rampant anti-Catholic note that I have known in some conservative evangelicalism would simply die out. We have made great progress in a post-9/11 world. There is surely less and less room to maintain the old conflicts between serious Catholics and evangelical Christians. We are not living in the sixteenth century and our actions should demonstrate this reality. When radical Muslims attack Christians in Africa and the Middle East they do not separate the Catholics from Protestants in their persecution. We should learn from this reality and continue to wide range of dialogue that grows between Catholics and evangelicals.