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An Interview with Rev. Sebastian Walshe, O.Praem, (’94)
January 29, 2021
Note: Rev. Sebastian Walshe, O.Praem. (’94), a professor of philosophy at St. Michael’s Abbey Seminary, was the 2020 Convocation Speaker at Thomas Aquinas College, California.
It is not often that the College has a religious priest to celebrate Convocation. Would you distinguish the differences between the religious priesthood and the clerical / diocesan priesthood, and how it is that you discerned your vocation to the one rather than the other?
I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but when I joined the Norbertine abbey, I did not know the difference between the diocesan and the religious priesthood. I simply had two criteria: I wanted a place that was orthodox and where the men were serious about holiness. Those were my only two criteria, and wherever I found those, I was planning on trying.
While I wasn’t aware then of the distinction between the two kinds of priesthood, I can tell you that now. A religious priest is marked by three vows: obedience, chastity, and poverty. While every diocesan priest makes a promise of chastity and of obedience, they do not make a promise of poverty.
Another difference is that the diocesan priest’s promise is not the same thing as the solemn vow that the religious priest makes. A solemn vow is made to God such that one is directly responsible to God for that vow. A promise, on the other hand, is made either to the bishop or to the Church. That promise is in some way to God, too, but the point is that the Church has the authority to dispense a diocesan priest from his promises. For example, there can be married priests in the Roman rite through the Anglican Ordinariate.
In the early days of the Church, there was only the vow of obedience. A superior assumed that if a priest were obedient, he would remain chaste and poor as well. Eventually, the other vows had to be made explicit, and by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, the three vows were pretty well explicated. But even he mentions that the central vow of religious life is obedience.
What drew you to St. Michael’s Abbey, in addition to the orthodoxy and holiness you found there?
The Abbey also had a community life, which is another difference between the diocesan priesthood and the religious priesthood. Religious, for the most part, live in the context of a community for their whole lives. There were really great young men that I was in formation with in the seminary, and really great priests. So that community life was very important.
Only after I joined the Abbey did I discover our order’s particular charism. St. Norbert and his confreres were dedicated to the reform of the clergy, a movement Pope St. Gregory VII had initiated at the end of the 11th century. While St. Bernard of Clairvaux spearheaded the religious side of that reform, St. Norbert spearheaded the clerical side.
At that time, there were no clerical seminaries. (St. Charles Borromeo, in the 16th century, was the first to mandate clerical seminary formation.) New priests were mostly trained by older priests, many of whom lived high on the hog, with concubines and, if you read the writings of St. Peter Damien, there were all sorts of practices that were satanic. There was real corruption.
The point of the Gregorian reform was to encourage priests to live once again in common, to practice authentic poverty and chastity, to be serious about holiness, and to celebrate worthily the sacred mysteries. For St. Norbert it was all about priests worthily celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; that was his purpose. The Eucharist is central to our charism, as is clerical reform.
One other feature of our life at the Abbey is that we pray all seven hours of the Office. Most religious communities say five of the hours of the Office, but we say all seven. This is because the Divine Office is the extension of the Mass throughout the day. We begin every day early with the Divine Office, followed immediately by Mass; and we end every day with a Holy Hour in the evening. The Eucharist is the beginning and end of every day. The centrality of the Eucharist in our Norbertine life at St. Michael’s is the key to our way of life.
You are the Prefect for Studies at St. Michael’s seminary and teach philosophy there. Why is it necessary for seminarians to learn philosophy?
Most of the errors in theology are actually founded in philosophy; errors in philosophy result in reading Scripture through the wrong lens. You have to start with the correct foundations in reason and nature in order to be able to not misunderstand or distort divine revelation.
In addition, philosophy ends up being particularly fruitful when applied to theology. To give a simple example: Logic is a tool for the mind, and the reason you need that tool is because there are many things that are very difficult to see or very far away from the human mind. I like to compare definition (which is a tool of logic) to a microscope. A definition makes something that’s vague into something very distinct; just as with a microscope, logic helps you see it more distinctly.
I also compare syllogism and demonstration to a telescope because just as it allows you to see what is very far away, reasoning with syllogisms takes you to truths that are very far away from their principals. And the things considered in theology are farthest away from our sense knowledge, so that logic is more necessary in theology than anywhere else.
The same is true with the other parts of philosophy. Take a simple example: the Resurrection account in St. Luke’s Gospel. At one point Jesus comes and stands before the Apostles, and they’re afraid; they think they’re seeing a ghost. He says to them, “Feel my hands and see that I am not a ghost; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” So, He has them touch Him. He then ate in order to show them that He had a real, human body.
Now you might say to yourself, “How did the eating help their unbelief? The sense of touch is more certain and would tell you that He is not a spirit or ghost much more readily than seeing Him eat.” The answer is that what they discovered from touching Jesus was that He had a body. What they needed to see was that it was a body that was a living body, informed by the soul. In philosophy we learn that the soul is not only the mover but also the form of the body. Therefore, the Apostles could have had the wrong impression, thinking that Jesus’ soul was just moving His body, but not informing it and making it alive. Jesus had to exercise a properly living activity, namely eating, as a way of certifying that not only was His body standing there before them, but that it was a living body. Philosophy explains all that.
You have recently authored two books. What are they about?
The first, Secrets from Heaven: Hidden Treasures of Faith in the Parables and Conversations of Jesus, is a collection of talks I’ve given at priestly retreats on the Scriptures. I was asked so often to publish these talks that I finally decided to see if Catholic Answers, where I regularly do radio shows, would be interested. Their first response was that this really wasn’t their line of work; they do apologetics, not Scripture. But on second thought, their acquisitions department decided to publish it, and it’s doing great. They even want me to record an audio version.
The other book is titled Understanding Marriage and Family: A Catholic Perspective. The origin of this one is an apologetics course I began teaching five years ago for the seniors at our high school. While the typical apologetics subjects came up in these classes — the primacy of the Pope, the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Scripture and tradition — by far the students were more interested in the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. On these matters, their friends and all that they were getting from the culture were at odds with their Catholic education. They wanted a defense of the Church’s teaching. So, I wrote up a text and, over the years, refined it based on the back and forth in the classroom, and added some objections and responses. It has been wildly successful from my students’ standpoint. They love it and feel very confident that they can defend the Church’s teaching and answer objections to it.
You often serve as chaplain for the High School Summer Great Books Program on the College’s California campus. Would you describe the role you play in that program and your impressions of it?
My role is to be a spiritual father to the students and to take care of their essential spiritual needs. They need to see that the life of the Catholic faith is essential and integral to the identity of Thomas Aquinas College. If there were a Summer Program without a priest who was intensely involved, they would misunderstand how life is at the College. So my fundamental role is to offer Mass each day, hear confessions, and offer spiritual direction. I also try to play sports with them and be involved in their other activities.
Some tremendous conversions take place during the Summer Program. You might think, “Well, it’s just two weeks in a person’s life.” But there are moments in a person’s life that are decisive, and I’ve found that the College’s Summer Program provides a decisive moment for many young people. They see, some for the first time, an authentically Catholic environment, an authentically Catholic education, an authentically Catholic world — even if they’re not Catholic — and they see how the world could be if everyone were practicing their faith. Taken together with the spirit of deep sacrifice and charity among the prefects, all of that makes a deep impression. The two weeks of that Summer Program can plant a seed that is a lifetime in growing.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Just some words of gratitude. I never could have imagined when I was a student here that I would preside at Convocation one day, and I am extremely grateful that President McLean would even think of me. I have such a fondness for so many here at the College, from Dr. McLean all the way down to six of the new freshmen at the College who graduated this year from our high school. For me, it has been a real blessing to be here.