Don’t Turn Your Back

It was a beautiful day.  Many of our parishioners spent last Saturday together at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.  We had spiritual talks in the beginning of the day, Mass, a barbecue, family games and tours inside and outside the great complex.  The building is about a century old, immense, and sits on about 200 acres in some of the most beautiful land on Long Island.  Located just north of Huntington, the seminary of the Immaculate Conception has been the place where countless priests have been trained for six years of studies to serve the people of Long Island.  In the old days, men attended college and then spent the next six years secluded away in the fortress-like solitude of the seminary; they rarely left the grounds.  It is a place of great history, prayer and formation.  Those rigorous years of formation were not easy years because we were challenged in every way:  constantly tested in our academic studies and the discernment necessary to make such a permanent commitment to God to serve Him forever as His priest.

Today the seminarians have been moved to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, under the supervision of the Archdiocese of New York.  There they are taught by a group of priests in order to best utilize the smaller number of priests available, as well as the diminishing number of seminarians.   As a result, the seminary in Huntington no longer serves as the place where priests are formed and educated, but as a place for ongoing spiritual learning for clergy and laity here on Long Island under the title of the Sacred Heart Institute. 

It felt somehow odd to see so many different people utilizing the great building.  In my years there it was rare to see anyone other than another seminarian or priest, yet here were so many people busily about in various classrooms.  It was like returning to your home and finding all sorts of strangers in every room.  I wasn’t sure what I thought, until…

During one of the many tours I was providing through the massive edifice I noticed a group visiting the small Blessed Sacrament chapel in the crypt area.  It is a tiny chapel which contains the Blessed Sacrament; I’d been in it many times before, but for the first time I noticed something I’d never seen before.  As the small group of devout visitors left the chapel, they individually genuflected and backed out of the chapel.  I realized exactly what they were doing:  no one leaves the presence of the king and turns his back; one backs out of the room.  It is considered disrespectful to turn one’s back on the king.  It was an ancient European custom which the group had applied to the Lord, and I was stunned to see such devotion.  And here’s the interesting thing:  they have no idea what a profound impact they made upon this priest by their simple act of devotion, so much so, that the little group I was leading immediately did the same as they left the chapel.  It was profoundly, silently, beautiful.

As we left the subterranean chapel we went past the main chapel upstairs where the Blessed Sacrament is also reserved, and it was here that I was struck a second time.  A group of college students on retreat were coming and going up and down the main staircase.  Every time one past the outside of the chapel he or she would stop and profoundly genuflect very slowly in recognition that the Lord was present in the chapel.  They too did not know what an instantaneous impression they had made upon me in that simple action. 

I left confidently knowing the seminary was continuing its good work into the 21st century of forming the evangelization of faithful for “Dramatic Missionary Growth”.