The National Catholic Review
Mark Neilsen
The year that made my life
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A news item caught my eye not long ago: the minor seminary in Chicago was closing after 102 years, and all the alumni had been invited to see the place one last time before it was to be renovated as a pastoral center. I had attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary for only one year, my freshman year in 1962, and was not invited to the reunion, but learning about it pulled me into a nostalgic undertow. Set Apart

Back then, the rector gathered us in an assembly on our first day. Take a look at the fellow sitting to your right and the one on your left, he told us. Neither one of them will be here in four years. Freshmen did not live a life of privilege at Quigley, but it was drummed into you from the first that to survive the cut meant you were special, set apart and chosen by God to do great things for him and the church. If not, well, there might be other good things to do, but ours was clearly the best of all vocational worlds. Even the school schedule was special: Thursdays off and Saturday classesperhaps to cut down on dating.

The message was clear: with swollen pre-Vatican II admissions, they could be selective, and only the few would be chosen. In those heady days, standards could be rigorous and still lead to abundant ordinations. In the past 16 years, by contrast, only one graduate of Quigley had made it all the way to ordination. Keeping the place open, then, no longer made sense.

Is God Calling?

I was there because a well-intentioned assistant pastor convinced me that if I did not give the seminary a try, at age 13, I would be forever turning my back on a possible vocation. Though his theology may have been flawed and his understanding of human development more so, he was simply following the days standard practice of steering conscientious altar boys toward the priesthood.

As much as I felt the weighty obligation to listen to Gods call, I was also a willing seminarian with a fair share of youthful religious fervor. Besides, for a kid from the suburbs, the daily trek downtown (Quigley was a day school) provided many a wonderful adventure. Encountering the ethnic Catholicism of Polish, Irish and Italian boys was mind-expanding, not to mention the pick-up basketball games, poker parties and learning to navigate Chicago on my own.

But when the retreat master challenged us at the end of the year (If you are not happy here, then you dont belong here. If you still have doubts, you will do yourself and us a favor if you leave now), I decided he was right. During the summer I decided I would have to leave.

For years I regarded my freshman year of high school as a terrible mistake, an embarrassing detour and a vocational failure. I tried to put myself as far from the experience as possible, which was easy enough to do since I lived 25 miles away from the school. One day many months after I had left, I was walking somewhere downtown, probably to the Chicago public library, when I came around a corner and was face to face with John Cunningham, one of my classmates at Quigley. John, every bit still the seminarian in his sports coat and tie and carrying his briefcase, looked up to recognize me at once. Bug off, he said with a smirk, and kept on walking. I kept on walking, tooright out of the church.

A Defining Experience

When I was ready to be drawn back some years later, the ethos of that freshman year was something I would gradually tap into. The daily Mass and Rosary, as well as the lofty desire to give ones life to Christ in service to the church, proved to be ballast for a lifetime. Though for many more years I regarded my experience in the seminary as a foolish miscue and a waste of precious adolescence, one day it dawned on me that the whole experience had served me quite well in what had come to define my life. I learned to live in the urban areas that have been home for all of my adult life, found a career in Christian publishing and, most important, discovered the vocation of husband and father. The same stream that took me to Quigley Preparatory Seminary 45 years ago, the Catholic faith, has never meant more to me than it does now.

Seminaries close in the face of the obvious truth that times have changed. The church cannot go back to those days, even if they might sometimes be preferable to the turgid present. Providence being what it is, we cannot regard these days either as simply another failure, a terrible waste in the life of the church. Some day it is bound to dawn on us that good has come out of it after all.

Mark Neilsen is an associate editor with Creative Communications for the Parish in Fenton, Mo.

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