why a visitation of US seminaries?

Before diving into the heart of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the present visitation of US seminaries, it’s worth examining the introduction to this document, which clears up a few misconceptions that have circulated in the media.

not sex-obsessed
The focus of the visitation is not one-dimensional. It takes a integral look at all the factors that are important to the formation of healthy, well-balanced priests. The introduction to the Instrumentum Laboris reveals that the apostolic visitation is designed to focus on three major areas:

  1. the intellectual formation of seminarians, especially as it relates to fidelity to the Magisterium and the principles of moral theology laid out in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor
  2. criteria for admission of candidates
  3. the programs of human and spiritual formation aimed at ensuring that candidates can faithfully live chastity for the Kingdom

not a punitive measure
Some in the media have treated the visitation as though it were some kind of Inquisition, but the Instrumentum clearly states that this visitation is being made at the request of the US Cardinals and the President of the USCCB, following a meeting with John Paul II and the Roman Curia in 2002. “The Visit is a service to the American Bishops, and the Holy See offers it to them as a help.” So it’s a bit silly to characterize this process as some kind of punitive measure on the part of Rome against the Church in America.

not an effort by Rome to micro-manage
The tone of the Instrumentum Laboris is realistic and respectful, clearly stating that such a visitation is not The One Answer to improving programs of priestly formation, and underscores the fact that “the primary responsibility for the correct functioning of the US seminaries and houses of priestly formation belongs to the competent Ordinaries, be they Bishops or Major Superiors.” It then quotes from John Paul II’s Pastores Gregis, his apostolic exhortation on the role of the bishop:

each Bishop will show his concern above all by selecting with great care those charged with the training of future priests and by establishing the most suitable and appropriate means of preparing them to exercise their ministry in a setting so fundamental for the life of the Christian community. The Bishop will not fail to visit the seminary frequently, even when particular circumstances have caused him to join other Bishops in making the at times necessary and even preferable choice of an interdiocesan seminary. A genuine personal knowledge of the candidates for the priesthood in his particular Church is indispensable for the Bishop. On the basis of these direct contacts he will ensure that the seminaries form mature and balanced personalities, men capable of establishing sound human and pastoral relationships, knowledgeable in theology, solid in spiritual life, and in love with the Church … When the time comes to confer Holy Orders, each Bishop will carry out the necessary investigation.

From my own experience, I would say that this is a very wise focus. When I entered the seminary in 1994, it was during a time when the ordinary of my archdiocese was very rarely present at the seminary, and for this reason — among others — morale was suffering.

When a new coadjutor was named for the archdiocese, Archbishop Harry Flynn, there was palpable excitement among the seminarians. (The University of Saint Thomas, on the other hand, immediately gave tenure to a good number of the faculty members teaching at the seminary in the spring of 1995. I think UST suspected these individuals would not remain under Flynn’s leadership… individuals such as Dr. Thomas J. Fisch and Sr. Katarina Schuth, OSF, who are still listed as professors emeritus and emerita on the Saint Paul Seminary website, as of October of 2019).

When Flynn became the ordinary, after my first year of seminary, the seminarians were very impressed with the approach of our new archbishop. He was frequently present at seminary events, took time to speak with each seminarian, knew everyone’s name and would remember stories about each of us. During a particular crisis of morale at the seminary, during my first year of formation, he made himself available on the seminary premises for individual appointments with seminarians who wanted to meet with him. All of this was indicative of a man whose heart is clearly that of a pastor, who has a love for the priesthood and the Eucharist, and is committed to the next generation of priests. The rise in the number of strong, healthy priestly vocations in the Twin Cities is due, in no small part, to the efforts of Archbishop Flynn. He is a priest’s priest with the heart of a shepherd. Some would have liked him to move more quickly and aggressively to address problems at the seminary, but he has taken a more measured approach, not firing people but filling vacancies with very well-chosen and well-qualified individuals. His recent choices for the positions of rector (Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan) and vice rector (Fr. Peter Laird) are very positive signs for the future of the Saint Paul Seminary.

In my next post, I will lay out the eleven major areas of formation that the visitation is designed to address.

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