VATICAN CITY – Silently processing out of the sacristy of St. Peter’s Basilica at 7 a.m. each day, the altar servers look like angels, but the women who cook and clean for them say they are normal boys.
Well, maybe not totally normal. After all, these 11- to 18-year-olds live at the Vatican during the school year.
During the 2005-06 academic year, 21 of them ate, slept, studied and occasionally created chaos at the St. Pius X Pre-seminary inside the Vatican walls.
Father Enrico Radice, rector of the pre-seminary, said four students graduated from high school in June, and three of them are entering diocesan seminaries in September.
This year’s percentage of students going on to a full-fledged seminary is high, even by Vatican standards, he said. About 10 percent of the 700 boys who have lived at the pre-seminary in the past 50 years have become priests.
Some of the boys return home before finishing high school, and one or two, suffering severe cases of homesickness, leave before their first Christmas at the Vatican, according to the women who not only cook and clean, but also confess to mothering the boys on occasion.
The pre-seminary opened its doors in 1956 at the urging of Father Giovanni Folci, a priest of the Diocese of Como, Italy, who founded an association of priests committed to promoting vocations to the priesthood. The association, still made up mostly of Como priests like Father Radice, runs the pre-seminary.
Father Radice said the pre-seminary purposely does not call itself a minor seminary; its primary function is not to prepare young men to enter a seminary.
…"Our first aim is to provide a decorous liturgical service in St. Peter’s Basilica. We try to create a spiritual atmosphere appropriate for that service," he said.
When the pre-seminary is effective, he said, the boys get more of a taste of what the priesthood would be like than they would as altar servers in their home parish.