Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seminary: A Search

The Chapel, now St. Joseph's Parish, at Holy Trinity, Alabama

I have a special affection for The Missionary Servants of the Holy Trinity. I began going to the retreat house at Holy Trinity, Alabama, which is run by the Trinitarian Sisters, a number of years ago when I was still a searching Protestant. Through much prayer and searching, much of it done at Holy Trinity Shrine Retreat, I found the Truth of the Catholic faith.

In 1958 Paul Hendrickson was a fourteen year old who had just entered the minor seminary located at Holy Trinity and hoped to one day become a Missionary Priest. In 1965, at age 21 and only weeks away from taking his permanent vows, Hendrickson left religious life. In 2002 he wrote in The New York Times that he is a “cultural Catholic” and no longer attends Mass but that he still believes and “We fear. We (Hendrickson and his wife) both say our prayers.”

Hendrickson as a seminarian

Hendrickson has been a lightening rod for controversy. For reasons detailed below, the book under consideration Seminary: A Search (Summit Books: 1983) was controversial. In 1996 Hendrickson published The Living and the Dead a controversial biography of Robert McNamara. Henrickson has worked as a feature writer for the Washington Post and is currently on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches in the English Department. His latest book is about Ernest Hemingway.

Paul Hendrickson

The Missionary Servants of the Holy Trinity or Trinity Missions was founded by Father Thomas Augustine Judge, a Vincentian priest, in the early years of the 20th century in Russell County, Alabama. Rural Alabama was (and I might add, still is) mission territory for Catholics when Father Judge began his work. At the beginning, Father Judge said mass in an old sharecropper’s cabin which had been converted to a chapel. This building still stands on the property and holds the status of a Shrine for pilgrimage. Eventually a major and minor seminary was established at Holy Trinity.

Father Judge

Seminary is Hendrickson’s attempt, through personal recollection and interviews with his former classmates and faculty members, to make sense of his seminary experience. Hendrickson is a gifted writer and story teller. He began his seminary experience during the Halcyon days of “the Catholic ghetto” and left during the turmoil in Church and the world which occurred in the 1960s. Hendrickson loved and hated the seminary at the same time. He says the Holy Trinity, Alabama is “the most holy ground that I know.”

Out of Hendrickson’s classmates only one remained a priest and in the early 1980s was working as a missionary priest in Eastern Kentucky. A fascinating chapter of the book talks about Father Charles Liteky who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam for bravery as a Chaplain but then left the priesthood to marry. Liteky told Hendrickson that he didn’t know why he kept his medal. After Hendrickson’s book was published, Liteky renounced his medal and has since served time in Federal prison for trespassing during a protest at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. His brother Pat, who was in the same class with Hendrickson, was ordained but then left the priesthood. He then married and had two children but divorced and “came out of the closet” as a gay man. An internet search reveals that Pat Liteky has recently died.

The controversial part of Seminary involves Hendrickson’s description of the counseling techniques used by his faculty spiritual director. In 2002, Hendrickson recapped this for the New York Times:

“I’d go in, sit in a green chair beside his desk, unzipper my pants, take up a crucifix (it was called the Missionary Cross, and it had a tarnished green skull and bones at the base of the nailed savior’s feet), begin to think deliciously about impure things and then, at the point of full erection, begin to recite all of the reasons that I wished to conquer my baser self and longings. “Father, I’m ready now,” I’d say. Having taken myself at his prompting to a ledge of mortal sin, I was now literally and furiously talking myself down, with the power of the crucified Jesus in my left hand. My director was always there, guiding me, urging me, praying with me. . . . This is important: he never once touched me. . . . I never once saw or felt him studying me with anything close to an erotic urge or a lustful desire. . . . Usually, he sat three feet from me in his black religious garb, hunched forward, watching and listening and talking and nodding intently through a haze of blue smoke. He was a fiend for tobacco. At age 20, somewhat sadder and I suppose wiser, I told him I didn’t want to do it anymore. . . . I can report that many other boys from that same seminary acted out an almost identical ritual with the same man. . . . Something I regret to this day is that I allowed the fleshpots of Playboy magazine to use it as an excerpt. They sensationalized it, of course. It was only my base, worldly longing to score a publishing hit with my first book. Which I suppose is just another way of saying we are all sinners.”

Long out of print, I found Seminary to be a very enlightening read with regard to the Church in the fifties and sixties. Hendrickson sums up his experience as a seminarian as follows:

“What I think I got out of the seminary was a moral framework upon which to build the rest of a life. There was far too much protection: we were far too isolated. But there were joys in that ghetto. There were deep mysteries. There were camaraderies and values of a transcendent nature that I doubt a “value-free” Self-oriented, Rolfed, est-ed society could ever understand. If we are a record of whom we have loved and those who have loved us, then I think I am a lucky man indeed.”

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