Today, on the Eighth of December, for Catholics the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, memories bring me back to another December the Eighth forty years ago. For me, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception has become something of a day of atonement. Please let me explain why.
In a recent post I mentioned my unhappy college experience in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Niles College Seminary, the former college seminary (campus closed 1994) of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and specifically cited a beer party on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, which the students had given a mocking and vulgar name.
This name was the “Immaculate F_ _ _ Party,” and this party began on December 8, 1972 at one of the Niles College residence halls, Thomas Merton Hall. Chicago’s John Patrick Cardinal Cody learned of this party in 1979 due to a dispute among the clergy when someone leaked the word to him, and ended it.
But for a time this party drew a few from around the Chicago seminaries and the archdiocese to stage a beer blast at the college seminary on a rather theologically inappropriate night, a night intended for the mystery of faithful love, the feast of the Patroness of our country, Our Lady, as Vatican II called her, the Mother of the Church.
Drinking by seminarians and some priest faculty at Niles College was always problematic for me. The young priests in my own boyhood parish had “taken the pledge,” as did many newly ordained priests of the 1950s and early 1960s, not to drink alcohol until the age of thirty.
The multiplication of alcohol in rectories was one of the unacknowledged changes of the Vatican II era. Witness the account from Margery Frisbie’s biography of late Msgr. John J. “Jack” Egan, when he was assigned as pastor of Chicago’s Presentation Parish in 1966:
There were some surprises for Jack, even in himself. “I’ll never forget the first night. I went up to (Father) Jack Gilligan’s room. Father Tom Millea and Father Jack Hill were there. I can’t imagine myself doing this or saying this. They were having a drink and there was a bottle of Scotch on top of the dresser. Now, we’re on the third floor of the rectory and here’s the new pastor, saying, ‘Fellows, do you think we should have a bottle out in public like this?’ I turned them off. I remember them looking at one another, thinking who the hell let him in. They had just got rid of Monsignor McCarthy, an old conservative, and now this guy comes along, Jack Egan, whom they know!”
Jack describes his reversion to prototype domineering Irish tyrant as “a certain type of rigorism that did occupy my life when I was given positions of authority up to the time I was at Presentation. I think I’ve lost it. I hope I’ve lost it, he says now. He had exploded at his surprised young associates in their own rooms on their own time. “Here was a man trained in YCS, YCW, the Christian Family Movement, and in community organization all through the fifties and sixties. Now I go into that parish as a pastor. I practically forget all my training. Why? Because I was scared.” Jack admits. He was scared of the huge responsibility he’d been given. Driven by that fear and by his gut hankering to succeed, he momentarily parodied himself. But he didn’t please himself. His bona fide style was eliciting cooperation, not demanding conformity. Jack Hill, now resigned from the priesthod, doesn’t remember the Scotch story. He remembers Father Egan greeting his new associates, “Well, guys, I’m home.”
Margery Frisbie, An Alley in Chicago: The Ministry of a City Priest, 1991, Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, pp. 183-184.
The moral argument to allow the 1960s young priests to drink hard liquor seems to be, “Can’t a guy have a drink in peace on his own time at the end of the day?”
But imagine what the Church would be like if Mother Teresa gathered her nuns together each evening, not for an hour in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, but around a bottle of Scotch. This contrasting, non-liquor ridden ideal of holiness never seemed to have taken root among a certain number of Chicago clergy of the 1960s and 1970s: “Sometimes, a guy just needs a stiff drink.”
For some among the post-Vatican II clergy, being free to drink alcohol was an essential expression of independence and freedom.
But this freedom only went so far. One friend has told me that a priest close to him left the priesthood for the very reason that he tired of coming back to his room and drinking alone each night.
The anti-authoritarian attitude of a few of the faculty in control of Niles College in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was similar. Although officially there was not supposed to be liquor in Niles College seminarians’ rooms, this rule in time was ineffectively enforced, and in some cases, and at some times, a faculty member’s refrigerator might provide beer to whomever among the older students wished to pop open a can.
It is difficult to reconstruct, after the word “enabler” permeated the culture in the 1980s, the prior particular attitude of “concerned let-be” inspired by the work of psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1960s that would let alcohol and some drug abuse run rampant through a college seminary. When coupled with Niles College’s late 1960s idiosyncratic interpretation of the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow that assumed that young undergraduate men, left unimpeded by any significant authority structure or limits, would grow inevitably to maturity without any pathology, seems to us today as incredibly naive.
But the formations approach at Niles College during the late 1960s and early 1970s was inspired by the highest ideals then current on the freedom of the human spirit.
A close reading of Eugene Kennedy’s contemporaneous contribution to the 1970s “priest study” (Heckler, Victor J., and Eugene C. Kennedy. 1972. The Catholic priest in the United States: psychological investigations. Washington: United States Catholic Conference), reveals such a strong focus on maturity and self-actualization, that pathology, outside of immaturity, was hardly considered as a possibility. But pathology is precisely among those things that we would up inheriting from the 1960s and early 1970s Niles College.
It is true that no authority was just about the only authority that the Viet Nam era young man, even the seminary young man, would accept. Hindsight is indeed 20/20, so it is easy to compute now that, if one mixed dozens of young undergraduate men into a seminary that at the time offered a deferment from Viet Nam military draft (and did not ask young men who no longer intended to study for the priesthood to leave the seminary in any systematic way, but let them stay for four years during which a few did little else but party), coupled with the widespread availability of alcohol and drugs, in rooms that offered little privacy, among formations faculty some of whom were still in their young 30s, and placed very few limits on the young men, with some students obtaining liquor from the faculty themselves, that literally all hell would break loose.
The high ideals of the seminary faculty, formed amidst a deep and resentful reaction against their own authoritarian pre-Vatican II training, were contradicted regularly by the disordered reality of the seminary they shaped.
I prefer not to recall how many times at the college seminary that I found a classmate retching with his arms wrapped around a toilet, or passed out on the floor near his own vomit or pee, or hovering at the door of another student in a state of buzzed obsession, or stiff and stupefied unable to walk, or crouched weeping in a stairwell in inebriated panic, or worse, in a state of soused rampage seeking to beat another student. Indeed, our only Latino classmate was driven from the seminary by the relentless, intoxicated vendetta of a bully whom to my knowledge was evidently never disciplined, because, apparently, he was one of the “boys.” I recall first meeting a noted theologian as he collapsed, “drunk on his arse,” on a nearby couch in the seminary rectory. I remember hearing of one fellow so drunk–perhaps this is apocryphal–that he could not find a part of his anatomy–“It’s gone!”–and who broke down in grateful tears when someone helped him “find” it. I particularly remember the “crying in his beer” soliloquy of a student whom decades later was jailed for pedophilia–not the misnamed abuse of a teen or a young adult–but real pedophilia with young children. How he was ever ordained I will never know.
When the press picked up on the “Woodstock” or “blame the 1960s” aspect of the John Jay study, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, of the USCCB reacted strongly against this analysis. Fortunately, Sr. Walsh cannot be expected to know even a fraction of what went on at the late 1960s/early 1970s Niles College, which did at times did indeed vie to out-Woodstock Woodstock.
One night working at an apostolate for troubled teens, I cleaned up a drunken young man’s vomit off the floor, and returned to Niles College only to find the dorm faculty on vacation and the dormitory filled with drunken and carousing seminary students and female guests.
I recall in particular one Spring day in 1970 when no priest appeared to say the morning Mass at Niles College, and a number of us enlisted our holy teacher of dear memory, the late David J. Hassel, SJ, who walked at our request directly from teaching us in his classroom to the chapel and celebrated Mass. (I highly recommend Fr. Hassel’s book, Radical Prayer: Creating a Welcome for God, ourselves, other people, and the world.)
Perhaps the most infamous “prayer service” at Niles College of that era was the Easy Rider-inspired ritual, which culminated with a motorcycle barreling up the aisle. I remember opening the windows to release the fumes from the chapel. At Niles College, aggiornamento apparently meant opening the windows of the church to let the smoke out.
Niles College of the late 1960s and early 1970s was in many ways a social experiment in the establishment of a free, permissive environment, an experiment–based upon an incorrect reading of John Henry Newman and a probably correct reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau–that not only failed, but that had terrible and costly later consequences in the number of abusers who arose from that environment.
Theoretically, it appeared that the students were expected to develop leadership by being cast into a chaotic and disordered maelstrom. In reality, some forms of order were never established, and great damage was done to some. (By the grace of God, a few other amazingly holy priests somehow survived Niles College). While many of the academic faculty of Niles College were proven, scholarly, and holy men, the formations faculty included men just a few years older than the students, some of whose perplexed attitude toward authority and alcohol mirrored that of the late Monsignor Egan in 1966.
One of the most difficult decisions I made was to remain at Niles College after my first week in the Fall of 1969, a week of what seemed endless carousing and partying by the students long into the night, making study all but impossible unless one hid in a remote corner of the seminary.
I remember sitting in the yard a few hundred feet opposite my dormitory and praying for a long time about my decision, since the college I had chosen was the most contradictory of seminaries. (One of my dear friends, now a missionary priest, was actively discouraged by his father from entering Niles College because of its reputation, so a number of us had advanced warning about what we called “The Niles Experience.”)
During my time of prayer, I reasoned that if I was called to be a priest in Chicago, and if Niles College was the pathway, and if the Devil himself had scrambled the seminary, I would ask God for the strength to persist and to live on to change the seminary for the better. (I was indeed blessed to return to much quieter though still troubled Niles College as a lay faculty member years later, 1992-94, until the day it finally closed and moved to another location under a new name.) I coped at Niles College during my own college days by throwing myself into volunteer work at mental hospitals, and at child care and correctional institutions.
Although it was in many ways unfortunate for me that I decided to remain at Niles College in 1969, by three years later, in the week of early December, 1972 when I had the opportunity to graduate early in the upcoming January, and I had made the decision to leave the Chicago seminary, I remember finding a flyer announcing the December 8, 1972 beer party and showing it to a friend. I debated with myself whether I should throw away the flyer, and simply purge myself of the memory. I first threw the flyer out, but later retrieved and archived it. I have never been able to purge myself of the memory, because of what such a beer party on such a holy feast represented for a seminary.
The Immaculate F_ _ _ Party served as a metaphor for me of how a seminary could go almost completely awry, and dishonor its very purpose and the source of its integrity.
With the passing years I came to view the choice of the evening of the feast of the Immaculate Conception for a beer party as an intentional “poisoning of the well” within the seminaries, a not so subtle rejection of Marian devotion and the place of Our Lady in Catholicism, part of a vain attempt by change agents within the seminary to form the illusive “unclerical clergy.”
By attempting to wipe out traditional “clericalism,” which included certain lifestyle practices meant to sustain clerical virtue, seminary change agents opened the doors to clerical vice.
I recall the mockery at the time that both students and faculty had for things Marian, such as the rosary, the color “Blessed Mother Blue,” Marian hymns, prayers, novenas, the Pilgrim Virgin, Lourdes and Fatima, and such organizations as the Blue Army. Seminary students in the early 1970s, unless they were Latino or Polish, where overt piety was tolerated as ethnic heritage, were mocked if they prayed the rosary. Earlier, one pious one close to me was purged from the seminary because of his “authoritarian personality” and Marian devotion by a priest who was finally almost 50 years later revealed as an abuser.
Niles College was quite a change from our early high school days in 1965 at Quigley Seminary North in Chicago, where as freshman (called “Bennies” because Benjamin was the twelfth son of Jacob, and the cycle of high school seminary in Chicago to priesthood took twelve years), we were encouraged to pray the rosary at least once a day. Quigley even had a club called the Beadsmen, who prayed the rosary after school or in between classes.
A seminary friend from that era of the 1970s tells the story of how he placed a statue of the Blessed Mother five separate times in an empty niche in the hallway near his room at the then St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, IL, the major seminary of Chicago, and five times it was removed, despite his public pleas to the contrary. He finally painted Mary’s image in the niche, where it reputedly remains to this day.
As a student at Niles College of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I like other students served as subject, whether witting or unwitting, in someone else’s social experiment: the construction of an experimental seminary “without rules” in which the students had to form their own social order.
A long-time and holy faculty member at Niles College, Fr. Stanley R. Rudcki, penned in 1995 an article on Niles College in the New Oxford Review entitled, The Tale of a Dead Seminary. I recommend this first-person account by a man of prayer, music, and culture who taught at Niles College from its beginning in the early 1960s to its end in 1994.
In an “Catholic samizdat” article entitled “Deconstructing the Seminary” on the Chicago seminaries that I privately circulated in 1996 and 1997 after years of reflection and after my own return to teach at a later (1992-4) Niles College when I interviewed key witnesses, I wrote:
If it is not an old proverb, it should be–that you should never poison a well, because one day you may desperately desire to drink from it. This adage brings to mind something of a Prometheus in reverse: while it takes a powerful titan to steal fire from the heavens and free humanity from the gods, any trickster can poison a well and sicken a village. In [recent] decades, a number of American seminaries have seen their wells poisoned–by intent, by neglect, by hubris, or by circumstance–and have become for a time sickened villages. These sickened villages have contributed to the many problems besetting the Church. During these decades, some unfortunate American seminaries have been run by faculties including titans and tricksters: titans who sincerely and tragically embraced bad ideas, and tricksters bent on the eradication of a lifestyle which they hated. From year to year bright-eyed young men called to priesthood by the example of Jesus of Nazareth have been forced to maneuver their way through the subtleties and hidden agendas of sickened seminaries. For the sake of these young people, one task of our age is to rebuild the sickened, deconstructed seminary. . . .
What happened? Nothing less than the continual deconstruction of what once was the largest and arguably the finest Roman Catholic seminary system in North America. This deconstruction, far from being the solely the result of demographic and cultural change, was also the result of conscious change-agency in Chicago seminary education. This change-agency included a reduction of the perennial or classical tradition and the by-passing of canonical requirements for seminary activity and conduct. This reduction was accomplished by a subtle dialing down of the thermostat of seminary tradition. . . .
Enough. I now take a big step back from my 1996 words above, and consider, with the perspective of the aging grandfather that I now am–and I never wish to claim to be anything other than a sinner–that while the Catholic seminaries of Chicago have in many ways been reformed thanks in great part to Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago–and thankfully Our Blessed Mother is honored again in the Chicago seminaries–we as a culture have still not learned the “sobering” lesson of the corrupting effects of alcohol abuse on both the young and the old, and the importance of confronting this deadly disease as the public health challenge that it is.
Alcohol abuse provides a turbulent gateway to violence, to sexual abuse in particular–the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that each year “97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape”–to injury to hundreds of thousands of young adults and to death for over 1,800 young adults in the USA annually, with 25% of college students reporting that alcohol abuse interferes with their studies.
The scope and scale of the college-age alcohol abuse statistics today are dumbfounding. See them again here.
Alcohol and other drug abuse has not changed greatly over the past decades among the young. Alcohol and drug abuse helped lead to the wild late 1960s, early 1970s days of buzzed stupidity at Niles College Seminary. It was in this environment that a few ill–later to be abusive–men were educated and later unfortunately ordained. The Catholic generation of today, and the generations of tomorrow, will continue to pay the price.
While others debate many of the liturgical or doctrinal changes of Vatican II, few concentrate on the cultural changes, like the proliferation of useless meetings, or the introduction of microphones and sound systems, or especially the impact of alcohol abuse among the clergy and in seminaries.
Much has happened in the seminaries since the 1970s that led these church institutions to come to terms with alcohol abuse among seminarians and clergy. But the damage has been done.
So I agree in this respect with Sr. Walsh: The problem with Niles College during my years there, 1969-1973, was not so much the Woodstock culture. It was the alcohol abuse culture, one of the most powerful forces in human civilization, that still directly today affects by illness about one in thirteen adults and about one in four college students. Think of the wasted energy, resources, and all those student loans taken on by those with this terrible affliction. . .
Forty-some years ago, an idealistic group of change agents shaped, for what they were convinced were the best of reasons, a seminary without rules, but they instead succeeded in releasing one of the most familiar scourges known to man and to woman.
Although colleges and universities still struggle with widespread alcohol abuse to this day, seminaries are among the few institutions, if properly led and structured, that can minimize it.
Earlier this year, we buried a seminary friend from those days, who died, fifteen years earlier than his life expectancy, from the damage that the disease of alcoholism did to his internal organs. Binge drinking sneaked up on him in his later years, in a familiar progression for lifetime drinkers.
As he lay dying and we prayed at his side, I had time to reflect on the past five decades of his life, from a young, bright, promising teen, to an aged and broken physical wreck. His drinking habits were laid down, quite early in his life, in the Chicago seminaries.
“Albert,” he asked me, when he woke from a prolonged sleep, “Am I dying?”
“Yes, (his name), you are,” I said. “We’re here with you (and will pray with you, I thought).”
The disease of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is an attribute of the culture of death. This culture, and its effects, must be systematically eliminated from seminary and priestly life, for the sake of the bright and idealistic young men who begin the journey to priesthood, and for those whom they will serve.
The Immaculate F_ _ _ Party at Niles College Seminary on 12/8/1972 came but a few months after Pope Paul VI stated on 6/29/1972, “Da qualche fessura sia entrato il fumo di Satana nel tempio di Dio (The smoke of Satan has penetrated the Temple of God through some crack),” and expanded upon his remarks on November 15, 1972. But a few of us in 1972 were not then prepared to “put on the armor of God” because we had not yet learned our struggle was not with mere “flesh and blood” but with “Principalities and Powers,” as St. Paul warned the Ephesians (6:10-17). We were confronted then not only with the culture of death, but with the power of sin and evil.
So indeed, December 8 will again be for me, a sinner, a day of prayer and atonement, and also a day in which I am happy to report that Chicago seminarians can honor Our Lady once again, and learn from her who is so filled with grace that her “yes” to God helped promise us eternal life. May seminarians especially continue to turn to Our Lady as a paradigm of grace!
And may the Lord forgive our sins from the old, now dead, Niles College. . .
PS: Here is a link to the Office of Readings second reading for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, by St. Anselm. It was these truths that were denied to many of the seminarians 40 years ago —
From a sermon by Saint Anselm, bishop
(Oratio 52: PL 158, 955-956)
Blessed Lady, sky and stars, earth and rivers, day and night – everything that is subject to the power or use of man – rejoice that through you they are in some sense restored to their lost beauty and are endowed with inexpressible new grace. All creatures were dead, as it were, useless for men or for the praise of God, who made them. The world, contrary to its true destiny, was corrupted and tainted by the acts of men who served idols. Now all creation has been restored to life and rejoices that it is controlled and given splendor by men who believe in God. The universe rejoices with new and indefinable loveliness. Not only does it feel the unseen presence of God himself, its Creator, it sees him openly, working and making it holy. These great blessings spring from the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb.
Through the fullness of the grace that was given you, dead things rejoice in their freedom, and those in heaven are glad to be made new. Through the Son who was the glorious fruit of your virgin womb, just souls who died before his life-giving death rejoice as they are freed from captivity, and the angels are glad at the restoration of their shattered domain.
Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance. Virgin, blessed above all creatures, through your blessing all creation is blessed, not only creation from its Creator, but the Creator himself has been blessed by creation.
To Mary God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary.
God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Savior of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.
Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself.
© Copyright 2012, 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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