Forming Renaissance Priests: Spiritual Fathers for the New Evangelization
Very Reverend James A. Wehner, STD
September 1, 2009
I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder
and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well
as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.
Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by
constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but
eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge
but being examples to the flock. And when the chief
shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading
crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4)
Brothers in Christ, I am honored and humbled to be
with you. You are a gift to the Church, because the
priestly vocation itself is a gift. And how exciting
it is for us faculty members to be called in service
to you, to encounter men encountering Christ. Our assignments
are assignments of complete service. We hope that the
seminary is a primary means for you to encounter Christ.
I. Apostolic Encounters with Christ
After Mary’s encounter with the Archangel at
the Annunciation, Mary brought Christ, in her womb,
to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. In the time and
space of Elizabeth’s home, John, in the womb
of his own mother, encountered Jesus Christ and leapt
for joy within her.
Years later, John the Baptist provided the means
for two disciples – Andrew and another disciple – to
meet Jesus in John’s home. The two stayed with
Jesus and enjoyed intimate moments with him. Andrew
then goes to his own home to inform his brother Peter
about the Lord.
All of these encounters with Christ brought about
evangelization. After the introductions, something
mysterious happens. People make radical decisions.
Pope John Paul II spoke of the mysterium vocationis,
the mystery which grows the vocation, the mystery which
enshrines the Word in that man.
Andrew spent hours with Jesus in a home. He learned
from him, and the encounter inspired life-changing
decisions. Although Andrew heard John exclaim, “Behold,
there is the Lamb of God,” that was not enough – Andrew
had to actually encounter Jesus. After those precious,
special hours, Andrew left the fishing net and followed
Peter’s life-changing encounter came with Jesus’ post-resurrection
question, “Do you love me?” There is
a reason why Jesus waits until after the Resurrection
to ask this question. There were experiences and
realities that Christ first wanted Peter to encounter.
In preparing for the priesthood, we have to learn
how to answer that question, Do you love me? But, we need
to encounter what the Lord expects of us in the Church.
At the seminary, you will encounter Jesus in ways
that you never had before. Before coming here, you
experienced Jesus at retreats, World Youth Day, adoration
in your home parishes, mission trips, and perhaps in
conversion from a sinful past. These are all real and
necessary. But now, can you encounter Jesus in
a new way? Can you allow yourself to encounter him
through a community, through a rigorous walk to Calvary?
Jesus was not just wandering around the hillside,
he was on a Mission. At a certain point, he began the
journey to Jerusalem and then to Calvary. Walking with
him were disciples. These disciples had to surrender
themselves to the way in which Jesus traveled, sometimes
avoiding towns and purposefully going through others. Can
we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ following him
here, to this town called Seminary?
Pope John Paul II said in October 1990 addressing
bishops in Rome: for a future priest, the answer
to the question can only mean total, unconditional
self-giving. Or as Pope Benedict XVI said
this past June – priests can only see themselves
as slaves to Christ. Being a slave or self-surrender
are not signs of weakness. In fact, they are signs
of strength, signs that we are men convicted by the
And so, with all this, how do we proceed here
at the Josephinum?
II. Rector’s Responsibility
The Church instructs me as your Rector with these
words: The rector sets the direction and tone of
the seminary […] The rector conferences are
especially helpful in aiding students to interpret
rightly their life in common, their discernment of
vocation to the priesthood, and the human and spiritual
virtues they strive to appropriate (PPF).
After consultation with the faculty, I need to lay
out the vision which I have introduced to you.
III. Year of the Priest
We begin here. On June 19, Pope Benedict wrote a
letter to all the priests of the Church. One thrust
of the letter is his reflection on the apostolic
zeal that Saint John Vianney had for the salvation
of souls. The foundation of this apostolic zeal is
falling in love with the Word of God. Our love of
the Word of God is what drives us to the altar to
celebrate the Mass and receive the Eucharist. Our
love for the Word of God is what drives us to the
confessional to confess our sins; and for the priest – to
hear those confessions.
Pope Benedict asks in his Letter to Priests: Are
we truly pervaded by the Word of God? Is that Word
truly the nourishment we live by, even more than
bread and the things of this world? Do we really
know that Word? Do we love it? Are we deeply engaged
with this Word to the point that it really leaves
a mark on our lives and shapes our thinking?
He makes this conclusion: priests today need a “new
style of life.” A lifestyle in which there
results a zeal to save souls. The style of life I
am proposing as Rector centers itself around this
Priests: Spiritual Fathers of the New Evangelization
IV. Renaissance Priests: Spiritual Fathers
of the New Evangelization
This concept brings together the vision of Pope John
Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. And as we embrace this
vision, our mission as a pontifical seminary becomes
Each pope, of course, forms the vision for the Universal
Church from the 2000-year tradition of the Church:
the Word of God given to us in Sacred Scripture and
Sacred Tradition that forms the Deposit of Faith as
guaranteed through the Sacred Magisterium of the Church.
As beneficiaries of this pontifical vision, we can
be and are the only Roman Seminary in the United States. Renaissance
Priests: Spiritual Fathers of the New Evangelization captures
who we are as a Roman seminary.
V. The Renaissance Priest
What do we mean by renaissance priest?
This is the seminarian and priest who is a man of
virtue. He is confident, and has right judgment and
even temperament. He is a man of his word, a man formed
by culture in the best sense. He knows who he is, he
has a sense of mission, and he is not afraid to be
a man. The renaissance priest inspires a sense of awe,
mystery and curiosity. He has his act together, and
makes other men think twice about what it means to
be a man.
The renaissance priest is not arrogant, disconnected,
unmanly or of poor humor. He does not shrink from people,
hiding in the sacristy or rectory. He is not insecure
about himself, and does not hide behind something else
that is strong.
Not long ago, when priestly identity was not so
clarified, what was projected was a weak, disconnected,
angry, aloof man – maybe even a man insecure
in his own sexuality, projecting that which does
not reflect a healthy masculinity. The renaissance
priest cultivates the best of the human virtues for
the service of others, and he does so with good attitude,
without selfishness, without cynicism and rancor.
VI. Spiritual Fatherhood
What do we mean by spiritual fatherhood?
Every man is called to spousal love – be it
in marriage, single life, or priesthood – and
every man possesses spousal qualities that need to
be cultivated and formed. These qualities can be seen
in Saint Joseph – a man who protects, a man of
commitment who does the right thing, a man who sacrificed
for the other, and a man who sees the one, good, true
and beautiful in the other, whoever and whatever that “other” might
A husband sees the woman to whom he is married as
the “other” – the one, good, true
and beautiful. He sees the mystery of God in her.
He loves her body for this mystery. He will protect
that mystery. He will nurture that mystery in her.
He will adore her, and incense her with hands and
a manly heart. He will dress the altar of that relationship
with reverent hands.
And so it is with a diocesan seminarian, who is engaged
to his bride, the Church. As a man, the seminarian
is called to spousal love, preparing to adore that
bride with his whole self. He loves her body for this
mystery. He will protect that mystery. He will nurture
that mystery in her. He will adore her, and incense
her with hands and a manly heart. He will dress the
altar of that relationship with reverent hands.
A seminarian needs to know how to develop his spousal
virtues to be a good spouse to the Church. He cannot,
therefore, deny his masculinity and manhood.
Having said this – what do we mean by fatherhood?
Every man, by the nature of his being, is called to
generate love. The generative love of spiritual fatherhood
is not denied in the priesthood. Rather, it is expressed
through celibacy, a desire to teach, to cultivate something
in others, and to save souls. It is seen in work with
at-risk kids, the elderly in the nursing home, and
those in the county jail.
As a spiritual father, you see the people as your
flock. You want to love them, feed them, teach them.
You cannot wait to prepare a couple for marriage
and baptize their babies. You’ll sit in that hospital
room until she dies, you’ll grieve in the funeral
home with the widow. You’ll be patient with and
encourage the teenagers preparing for confirmation.
You’ll be looking out after the young men, cultivating
seeds for a potential priestly vocation. You can’t
wait to expose the Blessed Sacrament for people to
worship the Lord. And there is the awesome experience
of bringing the faithful the Body and Blood of Christ
through Holy Mass.
This is fatherhood. This is the priesthood. This is
what it means to be a spiritual father, and this is
the mission of the Josephinum.
VIII. The New Evangelization
The Josephinum is about preparing new evangelizers
for the new evangelization. This begins with an understanding
of the vision of Pope John Paul II.
For John Paul II, the new evangelization is about
the credibility of the Church in world affairs, the
effectiveness of the Gospel in addressing social problems,
a Christian humanism in which the rights and dignity
of peoples would be guaranteed, how the Church can
dialogue with Christians and even non-Christians, and
how science and other disciplines can help us better
proclaim the Gospel of Christ.
In his own vision, Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed
the principles of the new evangelization. He speaks
of interculturation – how faith can be expressed
through culture – making faith something experiential,
tangible, something that can be grasped and that
truly forms ourselves. He says, too, that culture
needs faith to purify itself from sin, and that culture
relies on faith to express what it intends to be.
The new evangelization plays itself out in the life
of a seminarian. Faith and culture are in dialogue
within the man. Authentic culture forms you into
the man God has created you to be; faith forms you
into the priest you are called to be. Neither is
in opposition to the other – each complements
the formation process.
IX. School of Mary
The perfection of the New Evangelization is so beautifully
achieved in the Blessed Mother, leading us to call
the seminary a School of Mary. The same dynamics of
how she received the Word must be seen in seminary
The humble, Jewish woman was prepared in her own culture
to receive the Word of God. She was not asked to leave
the world, but to raise Jesus in her environment, with
no special treatment. She gave Christ the best of human
experience: a true love, a true surrendering to the
will of God, and a true formation that prepared Christ
for his own mission.
Indeed, the Josephinum is a School of Mary
X. School of Apostleship
Jesus said to his apostles, “Come, follow me.” The
seminary is a school of apostleship. Here in the
seminary is where you meet your Lord in a new way.
The apostles had to embrace a new lifestyle and,
as a result, they became new men because they trusted
in the Master. The same obedience the apostles gave
to Jesus, we give to the Church.
As a seminarian, you cultivate the virtue of obedience
so that the will of God be accomplished rather than
your own. You ask the questions: What does Christ
want? Where does he want me to go? What should I change
in my attitude? How does my personality need to be
changed? This apostolic sense of obedience
allows the Lord to form you to be “men on a mission”.
XI. The Seminary - Your Parish
Mission begins with your relationship to the Church
who gives the mission, announces what it is, and responds
to the pastoral needs. The seminary is your parish
through which you are connected to the church. You
are called to be good parishioners.
Brothers, your vocation is ecclesial. It is meant for the
Church, and therefore, in a sense, belongs to the
Church. “Each Christian vocation comes from
God and is God’s gift. However, it is never bestowed
outside of or independently of the Church. Instead
it always comes about in the Church and through the
Church” (PDV 35).
There is no parallel formation and no submarine
formation. You expect an environment of trust. I
expect you will trust me, the faculty, and the Holy
Spirit. Avoid the sin of cynicism – it can
run rampant in a seminary.
XII. Accountability and Renaissance
How can we, as a seminary community, adopt practices
to reflect that we are being formed as renaissance
men, spiritual fathers, and men of prayer?
Practically speaking, we begin with some standards
of living which require from you accountability, obedience,
and trust. Each apostle had to change his way of life,
to allow a freedom to encounter Jesus the way that
Jesus wanted them to encounter him. And so I ask you
to observe the following way of life:
Cell phones are reserved for private use
in rooms. They should not be worn on the person,
and are not to be used on the grounds. No i-pods
are permitted in the dining room or in class. These
practices will foster a sense of connectedness here
rather than out there.
Hospitality must be shown to one another
and to our guests. Welcome them. Introduce yourself.
Ask if they need assistance. Never just walk by them – be
Meals in the Dining Room are something
to be experienced, and are important for formation.
Personal effects are to be left in hallways. Observe
good table manners, hold good conversation, allow
guests to eat first and always leave one seat open.
Avoid sliding tables together and excuse yourself
from the table when finished.
Dinner is communal in nature, a formation
experience during which we exercise manners and social
skills, and is therefore required. Seminarians who
are fasting must still present for conversation.
On most days of the week, we will assemble in the
Dining Room and pray together. Those with classes
or apostolates may eat first then depart. Third and
fourth year collegians will lead prayer and announcements.
Next semester we will adopt a family style dinner.
In terms of dress and attire, no shorts
are permitted in the classroom, chapel or dining
room. Clerical attire is the norm for men in theology.
Cassocks are permitted as long as your bishop is
aware of this.
Off-campus time is reserved for weekends.
This is not meant to restrict freedom but to facilitate
time management and accountability. If you need to
leave campus, see the Dean of Men or leave a note
on your door indicating where you have gone.
XIII. Environment of Accountability
In this community, we are called to hold one another
accountable. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” You
bet. We are in this together. This is not a community
of tattle tales but of men. However, if something
needs to be addressed, as formators we will address
it. I will give you 100%. I need you to do the same.
There were six departures at the end of last year,
some of which were expected, some were not. There may
be rumors as to the reasons why, but we will leave
that in the past.
I am very proud and honored to serve with the present
priest faculty members. They are dedicated men, team
players, who will strive to create a positive environment.
We will, however, need two more priests in theology
next year. Be patient with me as I attempt to recruit
the best possible priests for seminary formation.
I believe these standards reflect that we are a Roman
seminary, that you are renaissance men being formed
as spiritual fathers, and that you are on fire with
the new evangelization.
XV. Amazed with Your Quality
Brothers, I am amazed at your quality. From the
shown in the house, to the man of faith who simply
wants to follow the Lord, to the former physician
who gave up his medical practice to live the life
of a student again. From the Louisiana accent of
our southern men to the Latino accent of our Hispanic
brothers, from the military veteran to the former
You are all fine men. Thank you for being here. Thank
you for saying yes to the Lord. Thank you
for your patience with the faculty. Thank you for trusting
in my leadership. Know that I have your best interests,
best interests of the Church, and best interests of
our Holy Father, as we move forward in this Year for
Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the
Saint John Vianney, pray for us.
Saint Joseph, pray for us.
Let us praise the Lord, and give him thanks