Friday, September 2, 2016

Plenary Meeting of SJS Faculty

To begin the new year I addressed a plenary meeting of the Saint John's Seminary Faculty yesterday afternoon. Thirty-nine full time and adjunct faculty members were present for this presentation, followed by a festive dinner to mark the beginning of a new year.

Welcome. To some of you, welcome back - and to others, welcome for the first time to the work of educating, forming, and leading these good and holy men in discernment of what God has in store for them. Welcome!

I begin with a few new and interesting statistics.

First, an observation on Christian Seminaries and Theology Schools as a whole. As of next year, Catholic and Orthodox Institutions will comprise almost half of the remaining Schools of the Boston theological Institute. This is because, as many of you know, Andover Newton Theological School is in the process of shutting its doors and moving a small core of its faculty to Yale Divinity School. Declining numbers of students and financial pressures made it untenable for them to continue to operate as an independent institution.

Since then, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge has also announced that they will end their degree programs this Spring in order to preserve what is left of their resources. It is likely that they, too, will join what remains of their school to another institution, in what is known as an “embedded model”.

Despite often having a clearer vision of the purpose of theological and ministerial education, Catholic institutions have not been immune this trend. St. Charles Borromeo Seminary announced this June that they would no longer pursue their previously announced plans to consolidate their campus, and will instead seek to sell the property and form a partnership with one of Philadelphia’s Catholic colleges.

Indeed, as of last fall, some 40% of all ATS member schools were embedded within a university.

In stark contrast, SJS presents us with a set of notable numbers which bring greater hope, along with new challenges. We will have 98 resident seminarians this year, thirty-three of them “new men.” They are from ten nearby dioceses, plus Hanoi and Dalat in Vietnam. 42% of them are from the Archdiocese of Boston. 57% of the new Boston seminarians were born outside the United States, which means that 40% of the incoming class and now 23% of the house is foreign born. This is just below the national average for seminaries as reported by CARA at around 25%.

Among the non-resident seminarians will be fifteen men from Redemptoris Mater and 23 from the other religious communities. That gives us a total population for this fall of 139 seminarians. Half of these new men were in Seminary before they came to live with us, a quarter were in College, and the rest were working full times jobs.

Two interesting observations in this regard.

First, while the number of seminarians nationally dropped by 4% last year, the number of seminarians at Saint John’s increased by 7%.

Here’s the really quite remarkable trend of the past ten years.

Secondly, it should be noted that there are about 70 Roman Catholic Major Seminaries serving the United States today (the largest is the North American College with 236 seminarians, while the smallest is the Franciscan School of Theology in California with 5 seminarians), it looks like we have become the fifth-largest Seminary serving the dioceses of the United States in the coming year.

Speaking of size, you will note several updates to the Seminary building which were accomplished over the past few months. In order to accommodate the larger number of resident faculty, we have added five new faculty suites. In preparation for the overflow of seminarians, we are renovating the Rectory at Our Lady of the Presentation Campus as our new Deacon House, and have purchased a home on Lake Street, now known as “Cheverus House”, to temporarily house seminarians.

Finally, I am delighted to announce this afternoon for the first time, that we have scheduled the signing of a purchase and sales agreement with Boston College for September 19th to buy back the rooms now known as The Annex, but previously known as popcorn alley, or simply “the rooms over the refectory.” At a cost of $5 million, this purchase will allow us to plan for the future with the addition of students rooms and other much needed room to grow. You will hear much more about these plans throughout the next year.

Growth has been the by-word of Saint John’s for the past several years and will continue to be for at last the next several. That growth will be capped at approximately 115 resident seminarians and forty externs.

Financial Development
This extraordinary growth is being built upon a solid commitment to placing Saint John’s Seminary on a solid financial foundation. Such an effort involves facing up to hard realities, including a recognition of our significant if limited resources, resolution of the outstanding $36 million debt of the Archdiocese of Boston to the Seminary and ways in which to achieve a balanced budget. I am deeply grateful to our Board of Trustees and its Administration and Finance Committee for a continuing and major commitment to this essential task.

Formational Development
However, numbers and buildings and finances are not my main job. My main job, in which you are my most vital collaborators, is to provide the highest quality program of formation of any Seminary serving the Dioceses of the United States today. That means we must discern and learn to foster in our seminarians those specific skills which are needed for effective priestly in parishes as they exist today.

That’s why we have been working closely with the Angelicum University (in cooperation with whom we hope shortly to grant Pontifical Degrees), and the Peter Favre Center for Priestly Formation at the Gregorian University in different ways to achieve this goal.

As we prepare for our accreditation visitation by the Association of Theological Schools next years, each one of us are moved to reassess what we do and how we do it to form men into the image of Christ the Great High Priest.

In this past year we have achieved demonstrable success in creating a “culture of assessment” here at Saint John’s Seminary. The first results are back from the Matrix, and highlight both successes in formation and opportunities for continued improvement of the tool. In response to feedback from students and alumni, we partnered with the Leadership Roundtable to start a program that builds and refines the management skills of seminarians and priests. By cultivating these habits of institutional reflection and continual improvement, we grow in service of our mission.

For what we are engaged in here at Saint John’s is what Saint John Paul II called “the educational project at Seminaries, which takes into account the fundamental complementarity of the four dimensions of formation: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, nos. 43-59)

This four-pillared Seminary task, we should always remember, is far more challenging than the task of a School of Theology, which strives, to quote from the catalog of one eminent school, to “provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary for reasoned reflection on their own values, faith, and tradition, as well as on the religious forces that shape our society and world.” (

Our mandate is significantly more challenging, as described by the Conciliar Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatum Totius, which gives us a threefold mandate:

(1) to develop in our students an intellectual rigor

(2) to foster a profound love of the magisterium

(3) to integrate our instruction into the work, the prayer, and the lives of seminarians.

Allow me to spend a brief moment of each of these mandates.

First, Optatum Totius tells us that “In the very manner of teaching there should be stirred up in the students a love of rigorously searching for the truth and of maintaining and demonstrating it, together with an honest recognition of the limits of human knowledge.” (Optatum Totius, no. 15.)

What the Church is calling for here is an authentic theological method, whereby the seminarian sees himself as the unworthy servant of the Truth, and not as its ultimate master. Such a theologian is ruthless in his self-critique, but childlike in his wonder at the tradition he has been called to preserve, a tradition which comes from the Word made flesh and has been preserved by the Church in fidelity and love.

The seminarian who has been exposed to such a method will hunger for solid theological reflection for the rest of his life. The questions which arise from the pastoral, spiritual, and human struggles he will encounter will be informed and challenged by the authentically Catholic theologians to whom you have introduced him. In other words, you will have taught him how to embrace the Church and the truth she preserves with humility and love.

Second, Optatum Totius calls us, “under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church” to teach students how to “correctly draw out Catholic doctrine from divine revelation, profoundly penetrate it, make it the food of their own spiritual lives, and be enabled to proclaim, explain, and protect it in their priestly ministry.” (Optatum Totius, no.16.)

In other words, you are not just teaching the seminarian in the second row, you are teaching every parishioner he will ever preach to, every confused young adult he will ever counsel, and ever catechism class he will ever instruct. And, by the way you teach him, with a love for the Catholic faith that has penetrated your heart and become food for your spiritual lives, you will enable him to teach the truth not just with his words, but with the manner in which he lives his priestly life.

And finally, the Church calls on seminary professors and formators to beware lest they “tend merely to the communication of ideas.” Rather, you should counsel and “provide a true and intimate formation” (Optatum Totius, no. 17) for your students.

True means preaching Christ and not the latest academic theory. True means teaching what the Church teaches and not what I think she should teach.

And “intimate” means understanding that what we teach goes to the very heart of things, seeking what Pope Paul VI has called the “total formation of the young man, not only as a human being and a Christian but above all as a priest, whose whole personality must be penetrated by the light of divine revelation.” (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Summi Dei Verbum, no. 51. 4 November 1963)

So, thank you for participating in this great work. It is a work at the heart of the Church, preparing men who will baptize and preach, consecrate and shepherd long after we have gone to our final rewards.

And for your good work, I pray that your reward will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thank you.