At present the French Seminary has 34 students comprised of 17 seminarians, 4 deacons, soon to be ordained priests, and 13 student priests. The Diocese of Versailles currently has two seminarians and three student priests at the French Seminary in Rome.”
The modesty of these figures is obvious when one remembers that the French Seminary had more than 100 seminarians in 1903, and more than 200 in 1924, including Fr. Marcel Lefebvre, ordained in 1929, before entering the Holy Spirit Fathers in 1932.
The crisis of vocations that has struck all the French dioceses for decades, encourages a look at the few seminaries that have tried to remedy it. A study published in Res Novæ in June 2023, under the pen of Pierre Benoît, entitled “ ‘Third way seminaries’: admission of a collapse and signs of failure,” takes stock of these experiences born after the Council.
Paray-le-Monial – “As soon as 1969, one of the first initiatives to see the light of day was the one of the Superior of the chaplains of Paray-le-Monial, in the diocese of Autumn, France, Fr. Jean Ladame, a specialist in the apparitions of the Sacred Heart. This man considered in Rome as pious and faithful, gathered few young men wanting to prepare themselves for the priesthood outside the diocesan structure hit harshly by the wind of the conciliar revolution.”
“Fr. Ladame did not reject the Council or the New Mass, but had a heart to avoid the rupture with all of the Church’s past. He offered a year of spirituality also called propaedeutic in relation with the conciliar decree Optatam totius on the formation of priests (n.12).”
Nevertheless, Pierre Benoît admits, “the initiative of Fr. Ladame was more tolerated than supported. In 1974, he passed into the hands of Fr. Guy Bagnard who set it up as a pre-theological program and integrated to the life of the Church in France the seminary of Paray-le-Monial, though not without difficulties and criticism.”
“Having received a classical formation most often marked by the French School of spirituality, attentive to a liturgy celebrated with respect, the young seminarians coming from Paray-le-Monial had to take part, sometimes were forced to take part, in a formation connected to the ‘pastoral’ of their diocese.”
“The result did not always prove itself a success. Some left to find refuge in religious communities, others were dismissed, even past the diaconate, when others simply gave up and went back to the life of a laity.”
Paris – “In Paris, in 1984, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, in charge since 1981, took over the formation of his seminarians. He started a strategy of bypassing the formation given at the Seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux and at the seminary of Les Carmes (Catholic Institute of Paris).”
“He set up the St. Augustin House in which he proposed a year of propaedeutic, and later on set up seven more houses, each gathering a dozen seminarians who met at the cathedral school, now called Collège des Bernardins (Faculté Notre-Dame) to receive their intellectual formation.”
The Lustiger experiment lasted 24 years (1981-2005), which corresponds more or less with the pontificate of John Paul II. Numbers speak for themselves: from 50 some seminarians in the time of Cardinal Marty, it went up to over 100 seminarians at the end of the eighties, down again to 50 seminarians at the beginning of the new millennium.”
Fréjus-Toulon – “At about the same time, in 1983, Joseph Madec, as soon as he arrived as Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, decided to reopen the seminary of La Castille, first with a year of propaedeutic and then successively with the other years. His successor since the year 2000, Msgr. Dominique Rey continued what his predecessor started, keeping at heart to welcome the candidates to the priesthood the various religious communities established in the diocese.”
If the diocesan seminary can show an enrollment in 2022 of fifty some seminarians and almost a dozen students in propaedeutic, it didn’t prevent Rome from no less that forbidding the ordination of four priests and six deacons in June of the same year.”
Ars – “It is yet another strategy that the one Guy Bagnard followed when he was appointed Bishop of Belley in 1987 by Pope John Paul II. The year after, he started in Ars the International Seminary St. John-Marie Vianney to offer a priestly formation to any young men in the world who wanted to become a priest.”
The entire cycle of formation is offered there (from propaedeutic to theology) under the aegis of the Jean-Marie Vianney Society, which became in 2002 a public clerical association of pontifical right. Its purpose is to strengthen diocesan priests in their ministry by enabling them to live a common priestly ideal wherever they are assigned.
25 years after its foundation in 2016, the Jean-Marie Vianney Society numbered 83 priests set in 32 dioceses, in France and abroad. Pierre Benoît offers an assessment of these four conservative conciliar experiences:
“Whether held up or simply blocked by Rome (Fréjus-Toulon), was put aside for lack of episcopal support after the departure of the founding bishop (Belley-Ars) or because it was too connected to the charism of the founder (Paris), or even completely merged into the present system of French seminaries (Paray-Le-Monial), most ‘third way’ seminaries are slowing down and seem caught in the contradictions of the ‘neither, nor.’”
“We are far from the seminaries of the Tridentine Reform, relying on a strong community and personal spiritual participation, a demanding doctrinal teaching and a very sanctifying identification with Christ as priest. This via media appears for what it is: a median way, in all senses of the word ‘median.’”
St. Martin Community Seminary
The author concludes his study with a particular case on the St. Martin Community seminary: The examples of Paray-le-Monial, Paris, Toulon, and Ars all fit into a diocesan or inter-diocesan context, in any case with a connection to a bishop. The St. Martin Community case is different.
Founded in 1976 by Fr. Jean-François Guérin, this foundation which has become since a clerical public association of pontifical right, has for a goal to train priests and deacons sent in small communities to serve dioceses.”
“Its house of formation, first set up in Candé, in the diocese of Tours, in 1993, has been in Evron, in the diocese of Laval, since September 2014. Next to St. Thomas Aquinas, explicitly claimed, Vatican II serves as an equally explicit compass for studies in the seminary.”
In 2021, according to the daily La Croix, 168 priests of the St. Martin Community were in ministry in 30 dioceses. According to the same source, “the community could represent between 20% and 40% of the active clergy in thirty years, when the priests born in the 1950s will no longer be there.” [La Croix, September 20, 2021]
A perspective reinforced by the fact that a hundred seminarians are preparing for the priesthood within the walls of the Evron seminary. La Croix has noted that “in France, candidates to the seminary have decreased ten times in half a century (a reality over which St. Martin has no influence).”
“The community does little more than attract most of the remaining vocations, mostly from classic Catholic families where the sacrality in the Mass and the figure of the priest remain central. The last few years, other seminaries have played a role like those of Belley-Ars or Toulon. As it is, one fifth of the priests ordained in 2021 come from St. Martin.”
Pierre Benoît concluded: “In the present context, the St. Martin Community seems to be an exception, enough for the daily La Croix to wonder about it and to a certain number of bishops to appear as a lifeline. It remains that the same causes inevitably produce the same effects, a conservative enterprise, however how marked it may be, can only but fail to produce a counter-reform.”
“These difficulties come certainly from the particular form the via media plays. Indeed, Latin, Gregorian and St. Thomas Aquinas ae found in the seminary curriculum, but in the apostolates, the celebrations are in line with the actual pastoral style of the dioceses. With only one categorical refusal … to also celebrate the traditional liturgy. In short, a permanent balancing act, and in the end, a painful one.”
An interview posted on the Diocese of Versailles website on May 5, 2023, by Fr. Olivier de Rubercy, rector of the French Seminary in Rome, informs us about the current staff of the illustrious French Seminary house in Via Santa Chiara.