The faculty at Immaculate Conception Seminary would have been a fertile field for someone like Damon Runyon. The Rector was an austere brilliant scholar who would never be mistaken for a touchy feely type. He was glacially distant, and when in his presence one felt like the Spanish Inquisition had been renewed. However, for those who knew him well viewed his distance as shyness, and had a loyalty to him despite his outward aloof appearance. Unfortunately he suffered a massive heart attack during Sal’s first summer at the seminary, and died instantly. For a two day period his body lay in repose in the main ballroom of the mansion which was referred to as the “Magna Aula.” Sal was assigned to be one of the seminarians as escorts in the room ,and it was actually quite creepy to be in a room filled with only candle light and the corpse of the Rector.
The Dean of students was a former jock ,tall handsome who could hit a softball for miles, but he was the scourge of anyone who he believed was in any shape or form effeminate. There was an outspoken policy at the seminary regarding “particular friendships’ but everyone understood that it was in many respects a code for men he perceived to have homosexual tendencies. He knew that Sal was an athlete, but Sal never shared with him that he loved the Opera and classical music. Those” two devotions would have moved Sal off the favorite list to the suspect file. He was not an unkind individual, but seemed locked into an incessant focus on how a manly priest should look and behave. He constantly was on the prowl to make the lives of anyone who he sensed was less traditionally masculine difficult.
One of the senior faculty Monsignor O’Brien was a hypochondriac, who when he spoke to you covered his mouth because he had the intense fear that a germ might escape your body and infect him with a death dealing virus. Sal always believed that he probably had the first constant Lysol automatic spray mist in his quarters. He was an affable man, but his virus fetish was one of the standing jokes among the seminarians.
The primary head of the Philosophy department was a true intellectual who was in the finest sense of the words a “space cadet”. There is a story that while he was musing about Descartes while mowing his sister’s lawn he allowed the power mower to ascend up the base of an elm tree.
Another member of the philosophy department was a gracious soul who would have a kind word for everyone. Despite his gentle demeanor he had a sharp mind, and a great sense of humor. Once taunted by a brash young member of the Theology department who asked him to say something stupid ,he responded immediately with”Ok you say something and I will repeat it.”
The primary Homiletics professor was nicknamed Jolly Jack” who pranced around like a peacock in full Monsignorial regalia every chance possible. He was very effected, and although he had a doctorate from Columbia University one sensed that his formal education stopped the day he received his terminal degree. He was politically astute, and made no bones about his desire to become a member of the hierarchy. The rumor was that he had a Bishops outfit on call in case it ever happened. The book on him was that he was truly a genius because he spread five minutes of prepared material over four courses.
Coupled with this cast of characters was a feisty eighty year old former sailor, tattoo and all who was the primary spiritual director. His great warning to Sal’s class was beware because if you put a Roman collar on a broomstick someone will fall in love with it.Talk about deflating the belief that the seminarians were all handsome, bright and loveable.
One of the favorite faculty members was Monsignor Henry Beck a world famous church history professor. He was absolutely a magnificent teacher who had the ability to engage the students in meaningful dialogue .He taught a course on the Reformation in the context of art, politics, music and every facet of medieval life. His classes were so vibrant that when the bell for the next class rang there was always a tinge of disappointment.
The faculty has some degree of intellectual autonomy but it was ever apparent that Rome had specific ideas on priest formation that were non negotiable.The Vatican council may have been somewhat radical but those in charge of all seminaries were still holding fast to ancient rituals. In order to send the message that they were still in charge Rome issued a document entitled” Veterum Sapientia”.The meaning focused on the ancient wisdom of Latin and why it should govern curriculum.
The news that all courses would now be taught in Latin in the seminary caused a great deal of anxiety especially for American seminarians.
The day after notification of this impending doom the first class of the day was Church History. Being fluent in Latin and Greek the seminarians knew Monsignor Beck would immediately implement the frightening new document that came from the bureaucratic side of Rome .Monsignor Beck came to the next class after the dictum had been received and said”Gentlemen the Holy See has spoken.We will begin immediately. “Nos Habemus bannae hodie. Nos habemus bannae hodie. “For those of you not familiar with the mother tongue I have said twice in Latin we have no bananas today. That will suffice for the semester. If Rome does not like it they can lump it.” The students howled with glee and had another reason to love Monsignor Henry Beck.
The faculty members were different to a man but Sal always had the sense that as a group they cared about the seminarians, and had tried to create an environment of warmth and caring.
In the hands of these scholarly and religious men seminarians were to be shaped and molded into what they believed would be pious and dedicated servants of the Church. As one who has always been a private contrarian Sal bought some of the guidance, and dismissed some of it out of hand. Never overtly confrontational or disagreeable but always intellectually challenging their “ my way or the highway “path to the Christian message . For Sal a lot of the “hocus pocus” dogma was nice but not particularly relevant to the service he imagined. His anchor then and to this day was the Beatitudes. No one ever lives them fully but he thought if he could pattern his live on them then all else would fall in line.