“A Collar Well Worn” is the work of a ninety year old Catholic priest who spent more than thirty years each in civilian ministry and another thirty years as an Air Force Chaplain. Rev. Paul F. McDonald, (Ret. Chap. Col. USAF) has knitted together sixty years of events from the 20th century, by describing stories about those periods, the geography and history of places where he lived and served, some of the notable people he had known during fifteen assignments and a few dozen temporary duty assignments in Western Europe, the Pacific region, and the United States. He served the Catholic Church and his Country, during and after the dynamic times of the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, during this time he listened to his people in a collaborative ministry in bringing about the necessary pastoral and liturgical changes.
Such reforms, and others, continue to shape a revitalized church, and a
resilient people who feel empowered as the ‘people of God’ to work with
all people of good will. Surely, such an abundance of experiences provide a
panorama of a life’s journey in the service of God, Church, and Country,
during which time he was proud to continue to wear.
“A Collar Well Worn.”
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Read an Excerpt
Life in a Major Seminary-
In the fall of 1947, I boarded the Burlington Zephyr railroad train in East Dubuque, Illinois, to travel to St. Paul, Minnesota, to begin theological studies at the St. Paul Seminary located on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The seminary buildings were surrounded by old trees that looked battered by Minnesota's winter elements. Situated at the end of Summit Boulevard, the seminary is somewhat secluded from the city that bears its hallowed name and where Archbishop Leo Binz chose me to spend the next four years of my life following a discipline of formation and spirituality. My roommate and fellow Dubuquer, Ernest Engler, and I learned to adapt to living in a three-story unadorned brick residence with painted brick interior. We shared two small rooms, each with a study area equipped with a desk and cot, sharing a communal bathroom located on each floor. We struggled to keep warm in wintry weather because of temperamental steam radiators. Methodist railroad tycoon James J. Hill and his wife, Mary, built the seminary in the 1890s. This helped to explain why the three residence halls looked, from a distance, much like railroad cars.
Matthew Beelner, one other Loras College graduate from the Archdiocese of Dubuque, joined us in first theology studies. Two other men would arrive the following year: John Benda and John Hargrafen. Five other Dubuquers were one year ahead of us: Robert Ferring, William Greener, William Goltz, Wilfred Schmidt, and Gerald Shekleton. While the majority of students came from Minnesota, the presence of students from fifteen other states offered a broader perspective for the majority. Our daily seminary schedule was tolerable because of the opportunities to interact with 175 other midwestern aspirants to the priesthood.
Our common uniform was the cassock, a long outer black garment fastened with buttons from neck to ankle, or else a button-free cassock with Velcro at the shoulder and left hip, and a wide sash belt. Civilian clothes were set aside except for sporting activities. The black cassock became a daily reminder of our preparing for a special mission, set apart in our training. In the winter, a black cape and headgear called a biretta were worn outside especially when seminarians took long walks around the seminary grounds. Pictured are first year theologians, Louis Wappler and Paul McDonald. First and second-year philosophy students, who were equivalent to junior and senior college men, and lived in Cretin Residence under stricter supervision than I had experienced at Loras College. First, second, and third theologians lived in Loras Residence Hall, named after Bishop Loras, the first bishop of the upper midwest territory, from whom Loras College in Dubuque received its name. The fourth-year theologians, the soon-to-be ordained deacons, enjoyed somewhat better living conditions in Grace Residence Hall. Two deacons served as overall floor prefects for the Cretin and Loras Residence Hall students and reported to the Residence Hall faculty members when necessary.
Major Seminary Differences
St. Paul Seminary is one of many Catholic seminaries in the world that offers its future clergy a philosophical and theological education. The Archdiocese of Dubuque, like so many other dioceses, had a tradition of sending their academically bent students to major seminaries in Louvain, Belgium, Innsbruck, Austria, and Rome, Italy, where they would mix with European seminarians, some of whom were predestined for positions of note in the Vatican and hierarchical structure. However, the majority of candidates for the priesthood in America attended the Catholic University of America, Washington, St. Mary's, Baltimore, Maryland. Conception in Missouri, Kenrick in St. Louis, Missouri, St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Meinrads in Indiana. In this way, the diocesan bishops would have an educated clergy that was less parochial because members were molded in a variety of sociological and ethnic environments that would expose them to different ways of doing ministry.
Each seminary no doubt was proud of its own intransigence in communicating its time-bound subjects in the classroom, rooted in a classical traditionalism that was lived and communicated by stern faculty members. Reformed religious orders and monasteries cultivated men for stability, clerical uniformity, and obedience that preceded reforms in clergy education brought about by the Council of Trent in the Middle Ages. Centuries later, seminarians still study to know Church law and doctrine and to conform unquestioningly to the prescribed canonical rules of life.
Seminarians before the 1960s lived in a regimented community from morning until night, while being indoctrinated with the same timeless philosophy, classical theology, and unchanging truths in spite of cultural differences in the nonwestern world. Manuals of moral theology were composed chiefly of rules from early Church fathers or natural law supported by quotes from scripture, most of which, for most seminarians, were abstract, impersonal, and left little opportunity for critical discussion. However, twentieth-century Catholic spirituality was decidedly pluralistic due to the vast number of schools identified with religious orders. Spiritual directors advise seminarians that reading about some of the acclaimed priestly personalities of the past such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. John Neumann, and St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney can influence their lives. Seminarians often had personal copies of such handbooks of spiritual direction as the Holy Bible, The Imitation of Christ by the Augustinian Monk Thomas a Kempis, The Introduction to a Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, and the seminary manual of spiritual direction by the twentieth-century Sulplician Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life. Ecclesiologist and theologian Richard McBrien believes that this work of Tanquerey, "remarkably anticipates some of the major theological and pastoral developments of the period of Vatican II."
The all-priest faculty members of the St. Paul Seminary held advanced degrees from American and European Universities. These committed priests possessed the eccentricities found in tenured faculty members in other universities. In speaking about them, new students learned to use the time-bestowed nicknames passed on by their predecessors, while their ever-observant instructors had to decide whether we lowly aspirants to the priesthood demonstrated the ability to hone the knowledge, skills, and the right attitude necessary to seek ordination. Arriving at the seminary in the fall of 1947, the professor of Dogmatic Theology, James J. Byrne, STD, recently had been ordained auxiliary bishop of St. Paul Minnesota. Years later, he would become our archbishop in Dubuque. New seminarians were in awe of him because when they saw him in the chapel, he appeared to be a motionless figure, shrouded in black, kneeling in prayer in a choir stall close to the sanctuary of St. Mary's Chapel. During the first few weeks of classes, no matter the time of day, whenever other seminarians and I stopped to pray in the Chapel of Our Lady, Bishop Byrne was there, kneeling in the shadows in a mesmerizing quietness that caused me to whisper to a friend, "Are we expected to reach that level of spirituality some day?"
No Stained Glass Holiness Here
One evening, during our weekday spiritual fervorino by our ascetic mannered spiritual director, Monsignor Ryan, I glanced around the auditorium, better known as the "aula maxima" at our seminary's three groupings of students: my first-theologian classmates, the more dignified third and fourth year theologians, and the younger first and second year philosophy students. In the 1940s, we were a cassocked, quiet, undistinguished lot of aspirants to the priesthood, much the same as thousands of our peers in dozens of seminaries across America who assemble for almost daily talks on some aspect of the spiritual life or what to avoid that might contaminate us. Monsignor Ryan, who served as a pastor for many years and now was our spiritual director, impressed upon us the need to make time every day for prayer. "Do not kid yourself and say to yourself, 'My work is my prayer.' Read in the Gospels how often Jesus went off by himself to talk to the Father or when the disciples returned to explain to Jesus all about what they had done and taught. Jesus told them, 'Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest awhile' (Mark 6:30-31). I urge you to purchase your personal copy of Dom Chautard's Soul of the Apostolate."
Our ages averaged eighteen in first year philosophy to twenty-four for those in the deacon year prior to ordination, with a few older men in each class who had come from other careers. Our studies, spiritual exercises, and daily routine seemed more appropriate as preparatory for monastic living and ministry rather than living in a rectory and doing pastoral ministry with people of all ages. Devoid of access to newspapers, magazines, and radios, purportedly because they would keep us from our studies, it was difficult to keep current with historic developments and changes in society that affected the families we were preparing to serve.
Recently, I read about James Carroll, son of a three-star Air Force General, who was ordained in 1969 and left the priesthood after five years to become a writer. His seminary training began immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) during a period of high expectations among seminarians and priests, as well as rapid change. Carroll authored ten books, including Prince of Peace in 1984, a story of an idealistic priest who wanted to stop the war in Vietnam, questioned the stance of New York Cardinal Spellman toward the South Vietnamese government, and found himself in a love triangle with his best friend, who was an ex-nun. He describes his recollection of seminary life during the turbulent 1960s. "What counted for success in the seminary was mastering that peculiar mode of high-toned mediocrity — to be devout but not pious, savvy but not intellectual, athletic but not physical, self-confident but not arrogant, deferential but not insecure, jocular but not sarcastic, friendly but not intimate with anyone — that developed as the dominant personality type of the American Catholic priest."
Schedule Begins Early Each Day
Daily life in the seminary in the late 1940s was very predictable because the daily and weekly schedule remained frozen somewhat in time. Each day began with a harsh awakening knock on the hallway door of my private room by the floor prefect, who was a fourth year theologian. He knocked loudly to announce "Benedicamus Domino," which means, "Let us bless the Lord." I would respond, "Deo Gratias" (Thanks be to God). Seminarians joined in praying daily the psalms alternately in the prayer room of each residence hall. A block away, in St. Mary's chapel, a faculty member would celebrate Mass in Latin with his back to us, every weekday at 7:00 a.m. The celebrant of Sunday's principal liturgy was assisted by a deacon and subdeacon, as well as six nervous seminarians in training, under the watchful eyes of the liturgy professor, Father Ziskovsky.
Being part of the forty voice choir gave us a close-up view of our director and organist — the flamboyant and one-of-a-kind Herr Doctor Missia. His protégé, a baton-swinging senior seminarian, Frank Melovasich, kept an anxious eye for any cues from the indisputable director. Seminarians stood, sat, or knelt in monastic choir stalls, which enabled us to look across the center aisle at one other. This alternate exchange of voices, especially during the praying of the time-honored Psalms of David, sounded like intermittent thunderclaps of practice to God from whom all blessings flow. We donned a white surplice over our black cassocks for all such liturgical celebrations that usually were the high point of our week's activities.
The interior sidewalls of the chapel, behind the choir stalls, had small alcoves that provided a prayerful setting for six altars at which faculty members offered private Masses during those pre-Vatican Council II years. On the domed ceiling over the chapel sanctuary was a garishly painted figure of Christ as Judge. In some ways, Christ always looked too severe to be approachable. This seminarian would rather picture Him as the Good Shepherd or the Christ at the Door, waiting for an invitation to enter.
The refectory environment appeared austere. Interior brick walls were painted light blue and the hardwood floor throughout was highly polished. Before the evening meal, we stood at our places, waiting as the faculty paraded up the center aisle of the dining room that could easily seat two hundred. Stepping up two steps to an elevated platform, they took their usual places on one side of a long table that stretched across the front of the dining area. A junior seminarian stood at the corner of the platform while waiting for the faculty to sit and then proceeded to read the daily Martyrologium Romanum, a brief reading in Latin about the life and example of some martyr or saint who died in the early Christian period, whose feast day was observed on that calendar day. In real life, I hoped to meet a few "real" saints however; those who have the experience of living with "saints" have passed on this bit of wisdom: "To live above with the saints we love, ah! That is the purest glory. However, to live below with the saints we know, ah! That is another story." Following the reading, we responded, "Deo Gratias" (Thanks be to God). Seminarians sat at tables for eight while junior seminarians brought large trays of food dishes to the ends of our tables where they were passed along from one seminarian to the next. Table conversation was somewhat muted during the evening meal because a fourth-year deacon delivered a note-free sermon without a microphone to an assembly of indifferent faculty members and hungry seminarians.
Prayers at Mary's Grotto
After the evening meal, many of us joined with friends to take a fast walk around the eight-block perimeter of the spacious campus, which was dotted with aged oak trees and over-sized shrubs. Our walk ended with prayers at a shrine of Our Blessed Mother located at the beginning of a ravine in a secluded area that served to hide from general view a spring of cool water barely strong enough to form a stream. Caring for this rock-faced shrine is a project passed along by generations of seminarians who sometimes chose to do gardening chores over sports during their afternoon recreation period. River ferns and wildflowers grew unimpaired around protruding rocks that outlined the sides of the grotto, while watercresses grew copiously in the down-flow water of the spring that bore white and blue wildflowers in clusters.
In the everyday reality of Catholic life, Mary and the saints are more immediate objects of prayer and special devotion than of doctrinal reflection. From ancient times, Mary remains revered as the Mother of Jesus or the "God-Bearer" and is the foundation of the special devotion directed toward her. It is interesting that Mary's name is mentioned more in the Qur'an than in the entire New Testament. She holds a singularly honored position among women in the Qur'an. Many fifteenth-century Protestant Reformers were reared as Catholics and shared some measure of contemporary Catholic spirituality, especially Martin Luther, who pointed to Mary as an example of faith and of the goodness of God. The cultivation of popular devotions as a distinct form of prayer had its origin in the sixteenth century as a response to the spiritual needs of people who did not understand or feel comfortable participating in the Church's increasingly elaborate and complex liturgical celebrations their priests led in Latin.
A few of the more traditional devotions of the twentieth century, especially before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) were Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, and Novenas. Such devotions appealed to religious feelings. However, because of the reformed Liturgy of Vatican II, many of the devotions have declined in popularity since the liturgy is celebrated in English or in the language of the people.
Excerpted from "A Collar Well Worn"
Copyright © 2017 Rev. Paul F. McDonald.
Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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