Is New York seminary merger the way of the future?

The future of seminary organization may have arrived this month in New York, with the Empire State’s three southernmost dioceses agreeing to share a single major seminary and collaborating on priestly and lay formation programs. 

New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan said the joint operating agreement he signed Nov. 10 with the bishops of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre provides a model of collaboration for other dioceses while giving “flesh and blood” to the New Evangelization envisioned by Blessed Pope John Paul II. 

Archbishop Dolan also told Our Sunday Visitor after a Nov. 10 press conference announcing the merger that educating the dioceses’ graduate-level seminarians next year at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. — popularly known as Dunwoodie — will save money, though he did not provide estimates. Considering the costs of educating seminarians and the difficulty of assigning clergy to faculty positions during a priestly shortage, more dioceses may consider joining forces. 

“You wonder if the days when one diocese could support its own seminary without help or collaboration from another diocese ... you wonder if those days are numbered,” Archbishop Dolan said. 

Pooling resources

The collaboration “recognizes where we are as a Church today and what the needs will be into the foreseeable future,” said Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. 

“Blessed John Paul II called us at the beginning of this century to be courageous and set out into the deep. With his prayers and with the vision of our Holy Father Pope Benedict, I believe we today are creating the structures and the opportunities for our churches to be heralds of the New Evangelization,” Rockville Centre Bishop William Murphy said. 

Bishop Murphy noted that merging seminaries is not without precedent, mentioning a province-wide seminary in Florida. 

Economic pressures

Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently wrote that economic factors and the lack of enough priest-instructors are causing seminaries to merge or close, such as the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium. 

Those pressures are squeezing seminaries at the same time that more men are entering them for priestly formation. 

During the 2010-11 academic year, seminaries that prepare priests for the Church in the United States reported having 3,608 graduate-level seminarians, which marked a 4 percent increase from the previous year and was the highest enrollment figure in more than 20 years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

Diocesan enrollment increased by 86 seminarians and religious enrollment by 39 seminarians, according to an April 2011 CARA study, which also noted the average tuition of $15,505 in 2010-11 increased by $836 from the previous year. The average room and board increased by $500 to about $9,687. 

“As the number of seminarians has increased (and with them an increase in tuition dollars), there has been a decrease in financial resources available from dioceses to pay for the bumper crop of seminarians,” Father McKnight wrote. “Even more challenging is the lack of an adequate number of priest-faculty to fulfill the demands of a healthy program of spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation.” 

Writer Elizabeth Scalia wrote on her blog, The Anchoress, that she expects the New York seminary merger to be duplicated in other cities. “The pooling of resources and talent can bring new vigor and fresh perspectives to issues that have previously seemed unaddressed and stagnant,” Scalia said.

Long in planning

The three New York dioceses had explored the possibility of merging seminaries and entering into various resource-sharing agreements for several years, officials said. 

Archbishop Dolan said his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, initiated the idea. He added that Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, approved of the initiative during a recent meeting in Rome. 

In September, the three dioceses’ undergraduate and pre-theology students began studying together at the Cathedral Residence of the Immaculate Conception, located in Douglaston, N.Y. 

The emerging collaboration also envisions programs for ongoing priestly formation at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y., which is owned by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The seminary will host a retreat center, formation programs for lay ministers and some members of the permanent diaconate, the Verbum Domini Preaching Institute and the Sacred Heart Institute for the On-Going Formation of Priests. 

Father James Massa, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn who is coordinating the merger, said St. Joseph’s and Immaculate Conception will work with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the Association of Theological Schools to maintain accreditation and follow through on the agencies’ previous recommendations. 

The dioceses will also establish a council for joint episcopal oversight of the formation programs: The St. Charles Borromeo Inter-diocesan Council for Spiritual and Theological Formation. 

“This agreement establishes a system of formation for seminarians, priests and the laity in a way never before conceived,” Bishop DiMarzio said. 

Beginning next September, an estimated 100 graduate-level diocesan seminarians will begin studying together at St. Joseph’s. About 92 seminarians from the three downstate New York dioceses, the Rochester and Syracuse dioceses in New York, and the Scranton, Pa., diocese, currently study at Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s seminaries. 

They will be accompanied by seminarians from various foreign countries and religious orders.  

“It makes for a great cultural experience for the seminarians who will be studying (at St. Joseph’s),” said Father Massa. 

“By bringing together seminarians from our three dioceses, and God willing, from other dioceses as well, we will be providing them with the opportunity to form friendships and relationships that will remain with them for the rest of their lives, and will be a source of support, camaraderie and fraternity throughout their lives as priests,” Archbishop Dolan said. 

Further collaborations

The three New York bishops said they envision other possible collaborations, such as charitable activities, communications and evangelization, such as a recent “Reconciliation Monday” jointly organized by the three dioceses. Archbishop Dolan told OSV that the bishops were setting an example for cooperation, which he noted has been ongoing for several years at the parish level, in terms of joint ministries. 

“This is somewhat novel and that could either cause some nervousness or it could excite you. We’ve chosen the latter. This is daring. This is bold. This is innovative,” he said. 

Archbishop Dolan said the combined seminary at St. Joseph’s will save resources and ensure that there are enough priest-instructors. He also believes the sight of 100 seminarians filling the chapel and packing the dining room will be a recruiting draw for prospective candidates to the priesthood. 

“I think this is the advent of even more collaboration,” Archbishop Dolan said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts