Building a home for new disciples of Jesus Christ

On Aug. 27, St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., celebrated the blessing of its third wing. The remarkable thing about this expansion is that the seminary is incredibly young and growing at an astounding rate. Founded in 2011, it is bursting at the seams.

The seminary was the brainchild of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington. Appointed archbishop in 2006, it was soon apparent to Cardinal Wuerl that the archdiocese needed its own seminary.

The idea came from a realization that the archdiocese had many prospective seminarians of its own, and it just made sense that they should be educated and go through formation in their home diocese.

“Really the idea of having our own college-level and pre-theologate came out of my experience that, today, there are many young men of college age who are experiencing a sense of call,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

“They want to be associated with the Church; they want to be associated with discipleship of Christ. And what has happened is, if we are able to provide a place, a home, where they can continue initially discerning this call and growing into formation into priesthood, they will have a much better chance of nurturing and persevering in a vocation.”

Keeping it local

Logistically, the location of the seminary right across the street from The Catholic University of America allows for integration into a vibrant and orthodox Catholic higher education community.

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Kyle Vance, a seminarian at St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, helps to carry a wooden cross during an annual Seven Church Walk event April 8 in Washington. CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

“We can offer our seminarians absolutely excellent academic preparation,” Cardinal Wuerl said. To allow for superior spiritual formation, Cardinal Wuerl has asked some of the diocese’s most experienced priests to be the spiritual formators at the seminary house.

For Cardinal Wuerl, it is very important that the seminarians feel a strong sense of diocesan character and involvement. Additional priests from the archdiocese are brought in to be confessors, “so that there’s a sense that they really belong to the local Church,” he said. “And I encourage our priests to go by and celebrate Mass and stay long enough to have a meal so that the seminarians get to know some of our priests, and our priests can be encouraging to those seminarians.”

Before St. John Paul II Seminary was opened in 2011, seminarians for the Archdiocese of Washington would go away to seminaries in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. When these dioceses began to restructure their formation programs, Cardinal Wuerl and his board of consultors considered the question: Why invite someone to study for the priesthood and send him somewhere else? Why not keep him home, where we can get to know him and he can get to know us?

A guiding namesake

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Cardinal Wuerl speaks to seminarians at a January 2017 workshop on Amoris Laetitia at St. John Paul II Seminary. CNS photo/Sarah Yaklic, Archdiocese of Washington

Pope St. John Paul II was a driving force for priestly renewal — and formation and seminary renewal. Cardinal Wuerl served in the 1980s as the executive secretary to the papal seminary study that was required by the pope of every seminary and house of formation in America. “Out of that study came some really fine recommendations,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “Then came the synod on priestly formation, and I had a chance to serve on that synod. Out of that came Pastores Dabo Vobis.”

From all of this, Cardinal Wuerl saw Pope John Paul II as the “renewing principle for our formation across the United States.” To name the seminary St. John Paul II seemed only logical. Cardinal Wuerl feels that the seminarians themselves are an ongoing statement of the power of the priestly vocation, and this can help account for the seminary’s success.

“The men that are studying here on campus become something of a witness, of a testimony, to priestly formation, to the fact that young men still are preparing for priesthood,” he said. “We get visitors to the seminary from the campus, from people who come to know our seminarians in the classroom. So in a way, it’s its own evangelizing formation outreach program.”

Cardinal Wuerl continued, “The joy of priests and the active engagement of our seminarians is what accounts for our seminary.”

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Seminarians from St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington dance and applaud during a pro-life youth rally at the Verizon Center in Washington on Jan. 22, 2017. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Centrality of the Spirit

Since its founding, the rector of St. John Paul II Seminary has been Msgr. Robert Panke. Msgr. Panke has extensive experience in the formation of priests, as he was the vocations director and director of seminarians for nine years before being named rector of the seminary.

He has been amazed at how the seminary has flourished in just a few short years. Upon reflection, he chalks it all up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

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Pope Francis greets seminarians at the St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington in September 2015. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

“Reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit is sort of our guiding principle,” he said. “There has to be the work of Jesus first, and really we’re following the lead of what God wants. So we put him in the first place.”

The structure of the seminary and seminary life itself has been carefully tailored to focus on the most important things, he said.

“We took the most care in the actual building to make sure that the chapel is kind of the centerpiece,” Msgr. Panke said. “Physically, it’s right at the center, because the things we do there are the most important.” There is regular adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, “emphasizing that this is the center and core and the heart of everything that we do: the relationship with Christ, which flows from the Eucharist that we celebrate every day.”

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What is it that Msgr. Panke and Cardinal Wuerl are instilling in their men in formation? It is simple, Msgr. Panke said: “To learn first to become a disciple of Jesus; to be an ardent follower of Christ first. We challenge the men to be good disciples, good men of virtue, good Christian gentlemen; to exude the joy of what it means to be a disciple, and to embrace the fraternity that one wants to have both before priesthood and during.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.