Sunday, May 04, 2008

Seminary in the 1940's

I was just perusing through the autobiography of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame University for 35 years, entitled "God, Country, Notre Dame." It is an interesting book, full of Fr. Hesburgh's anecdotal stories about Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI (whom he says was his favorite pope). The book is also full of somewhat disparaging comments about different aspects of the pre-Vatican II Church, like Fr. Hesburgh's disdain for the pre-V2 fasting requirements.

One passage I found very interesting was his description of his rigorous seminary training in Hebrew during the 1940's at the Gregorian in Rome. Here's what he says:

"We had less than one week to prepare for our final exams, pack and get ready to leave [for the end of the semester]. Fortunately, I had kept up in all my subjects and did very well in them-except for Hebrew. Because that ancient language was too difficult to retain from week to week, student traditionally crammed for that final examination during the final two weeks. Anyway, Hebrew was my last exam the day before I was to leave and I had exactly twenty-four hours to get ready for the dreaded moment.

"...The first question was: "Quomodo dicitur occidet hebraece?" ("How do you say in Hebrew, 'He kills'?")

"Katal," I answered. He continued with "She kills" and "He will kill," and I was doing just fine until he got to "He was killed," and I had to say "Nescio," which in Latin means "I don't know." My Hebrew teacher, a Basque Jesuit by the name of Galdos, gave me a rather disgusted look and said, "Videamus si possis legere?" ("Let's see if you know how to read"). He then spun a Hebrew Bible that he had in front of him so that it was facing me. Luckily it was open to the first chapter of Genesis, and he put his finger on the text of the first twenty or so lines, which I had memorized. "Legas," he commanded, and I read the Hebrew text. He then asked me to translate, and I said, "Et dixit Deus, fiat lux et facta est lux," which means, of course, "And God said let there be light and there was light." The little I knew of Hebrew had not fooled Galdos, but he gave me a 6, which was the lowest passing grade for the course."

Imagine having to learn Hebrew in a class that was taught in Latin! Hebrew was then a required language, and it was just taken for granted that this class (like all classes) would be taught in Latin. In the seminary in Detroit, Latin is a one semester elective. I don't know about Hebrew, but I suspect it is not even offered. Can anyone deny that the expectations of our what our seminarians ought to know has declined in the post-V2 generation.

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