Seminarians obliged to keep a media fast

July 4, 2011

TORONTO — When Thomas Collins was in the seminary, he felt like the busiest, most rushed guy in town. Now, as archbishop of Toronto, he wants to give seminarians a chance to stop and reflect — something he wishes he could have done more often.

For the incoming class at St. Augustine's Seminary, that will mean a media fast — abstaining from electronic and traditional media of all types — for much of their first year. No phones or cellphones, no Internet or computer games, no TV or radio. No modern devices or even old friends like newspapers and magazines.

Beginning in September, the new class of seminarians will take part in a type of spiritual preparation called a propaedeutic year. The 10-month period, which falls between formation and the traditional studies of the seminary, is meant to prepare discerning priests in a non-academic setting.

It will include reading traditional Church texts, a collection of retreats and, for five and half days per week, a "fast" from electronic and popular media.

"Sometimes when you're studying about Jesus all the time, you're writing exams on Jesus and all that, you may never stop to think, do I give my heart to Jesus? And do I give my whole life to him?" said Collins.


"So what we want to do is (give seminarians) the chance to do that — to do it together, to do it with an outward reach of service, with an inward focus of prayer."

The propaedeutic year is modelled after a program that was run by the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger in Paris, but it was at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver where Collins first saw the effects of the program.

While directing retreats for seminarians in Denver, Collins asked about the program and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

"Now I use technology, but I'm not used by it," said one seminarian.

Since the introduction of the propaedeutic year in Denver, no ordained graduate has left the priesthood.

From Monday to Friday and on Sunday morning, seminarians in the propaedeutic year will be prohibited from using the phone or computer, watching TV, listening to radio — or even reading The Catholic Register, Collins joked.

"The fast is always a means to an end, it's not an end in itself," said Msgr. Robert Nusca, seminary rector. "How can we focus on (Jesus) if we're distracted?"

The technology fast is meant to promote human interaction and a sense of "heart speaking to heart, not machine speaking to machine," said Nusca.

"It's a time in the desert," he said. "The desert in the Bible is the place where people are tested. . . . It's where God works his greatest miracles. To go out in the desert is to go within."

While Nusca admits that the seminary's Scarborough property isn't exactly the desert, a more literal translation of going into the desert might be the 30-day immersion experience each seminarian will have during the year.

"The guys leave two by two to go off somewhere in North America with nothing but two dollars, a breviary, and a Bible and a change of clothes, and live serving the poorest of the poor," Collins explained.

"We're all kind of secure in our world, and here you get up and you just go out and you're there at the service of the people."


Even Collins and his fellow bishops take time away from their everyday life to go on retreat and reflect, as they fall into some of the same traps as all people do. At a recent meeting of Catholic leaders, as soon as break began, all the clergy - including Collins, he admitted - pulled out their phones and began to speak to, text or email someone not in the room.

"We are analogue people in a digital world," said Collins. "I think this will be an immense blessing for the seminarians and the people they serve."