Seminaries tailor education to meet diverse needs

The face of the Church in the United States is changing, and the face of the clergy is changing with it. And while this change in demographics presents certain challenges for seminaries and houses of formation, leaders in the Church say these institutions are up to the task.

Mount St. Mary’s is the second oldest seminary in the United States. It was founded in 1808 in Baltimore, the same year in which the Diocese of Baltimore was elevated to an archdiocese and several suffragan sees were established around the Northeast. The seminary currently serves 23 dioceses as well as three congregations of consecrated life.

Mount St. Mary’s has a national perspective rather than just a regional one. It serves dioceses from all over the country, including: Colorado Springs, Colorado; Wichita, Kansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Fargo, North Dakota; Madison, Wisconsin; Savannah, Georgia; Arlington, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and several more, just to name a few examples.

Msgr. Andrew Baker, rector of Mount St. Mary’s, said seminaries are in a difficult spot regarding their role in encouraging diversity among the clergy. Seminaries are not directly involved in recruitment efforts for dioceses or religious orders; vocations directors from the dioceses and orders themselves accept seminarians and sponsor them.

Diversity at The Mount

The community at Mount St. Mary’s has a number of foreign-born seminarians — there are 20 this year, and also one from Puerto Rico. This accounts for 14 percent of the student body. Six of the students are from Spanish-speaking countries, which is significant, as the makeup of Catholic laity in the United States increasingly is Spanish-speaking.

The trend at Mount St. Mary’s of foreign-born seminarians has ebbed and flowed over the years. One way the seminary has adapted its curriculum to better serve these students is by having the first in-house accredited English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program. Started in August 2017, it has made Mount St. Mary’s more attractive to many dioceses.

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While the seminary has many foreign-born students, diversity among its American-born seminarians is lacking. Currently there are no African-American seminarians there, nor American-born Hispanic seminarians. The dioceses that Mount St. Mary’s serves do not have racially diverse American-born seminarians to send there to study.

It is important for the clergy to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the laity, according to Msgr. Baker, but it also is important to see past that.

“I think we have to realize that the priesthood is the priesthood, and in my experience,” he said, “the people will love their priest. But it is important that the communities themselves feel the responsibility to foster vocations.”

It all starts at home, according to Msgr. Baker: First and foremost, parents must realize that they have a responsibility to foster vocations to the priesthood and to help their sons discern whether or not the Holy Spirit is calling them to an ordained vocation.

“Is it essential to have that diversity in the priesthood?” Msgr. Baker asked. “No, certainly the priest can be whomever. But when it comes to language, this is the barrier that is most important to people.”

Msgr. Baker observed that language, more than culture, seems to be what people want to see reflected in their priest. “They want to hear the word of God in their language; they want to have the comfort of a confessor who can understand what they’re saying in the confessional; the comfort of pastoral counseling or catechesis in their own language. This is important to them — even more important than culture.”

Multicultural community in Oregon

Mount Angel Seminary sits atop a hill, along with Mount Angel Abbey, in the lush Willamette Valley in Oregon wine country. Mount Angel serves 26 dioceses and several religious orders. Msgr. Joseph Betschart has been the president-rector of Mount Angel since 2012.

“The seminarians at Mount Angel Seminary reflect the population of the communities from which our seminarians come,” Msgr. Betschart said. “Here, as in the communities of the Western U.S., Hispanics comprise a large part of the population.”

While there is some variation from year to year, the seminary community at Mount Angel is about 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent Anglo/white, with a variety of other ethnicities and nationalities comprising the remaining 20 percent, including Vietnamese, Filipino, Pacific Islander, Korean, African, Native American and others.

“I think that diversity is part of the great gift that this seminary community experiences in one another here,” Msgr. Betschart said, “and we try to foster that and learn from one another along the way.”

One of the aspects of seminary life that particularly pleases Msgr. Betschart involves the diversity of the seminary community and how it is reflected and celebrated among the students.

“By the seminarians’ own initiative,” Msgr. Betschart said, “whenever we have a cultural event, like the Tet celebration we had on Feb. 24 that, in some way, emphasizes the diversity of our community, seminarians of other ethnic communities also participate, so the celebrations of our diversity also become celebrations of our unity — a great example of our communion ecclesiology focus in action and the kind of priest we are seeking to form.”

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Mount Angel serves many dioceses, including its host Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, which have large and growing Hispanic communities. This is a community that is fostered at the seminary — and a pastoral reality for which the seminarians are trained.

In order to prepare to serve this community, the seminary has initiatives that include Spanish Mass every Wednesday morning and Spanish language classes. Additionally, the course that teaches the seminarians to celebrate the liturgy also includes a section on various Hispanic liturgical celebrations and how to preside in Spanish, Msgr. Betschart said.

“We have developed a Spanish-language ministry track in our pastoral formation program at the theology level to give our seminarians opportunities to develop skills and gain experience in Hispanic ministry,” Msgr. Betschart said. This allows them to learn from those who are serving in that area. “We are blessed to have several Hispanic priests serving as formation directors and spiritual directors.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Read more spring vocation articles here.