Rector's Opening Address

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 Christ.

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 Holy Spirit.

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 theme: Renaissance 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 clear.
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 be.

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?

VII. 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 formation.

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 kind!

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.

XIV. Faculty

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 deacons’ leadership 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 athlete.

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 Priests.

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Saint John Vianney, pray for us.
Saint Joseph, pray for us.
Let us praise the Lord, and give him thanks