Seminary staff, men ‘very sad’ to lose Bishop-elect Betancourt

| September 19, 2018 | 0 Comments

Bishop-elect Juan Miguel Bentancout Torres, right, stands with Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, the seminary’s rector emeritus, center, and fellow seminary Scripture professor and Father Scott Carl, who also serves as vice rector. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Bishop-elect Juan Miguel Betancourt Torres was trying to slip out the back door of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity the morning of Sept. 17 without being noticed.

He was headed to the airport to catch a flight to Hartford, Connecticut, to introduce himself as the new auxiliary bishop of the Hartford archdiocese. His new appointment was confidential — Pope Francis would announce it the next day.

But, his administrative assistant, Lisa Flood, spotted him just before he left the building.

“I did happen to go out the back door, and he was trying to depart unseen,” she said. “I had no idea where he was going or why. But, I just knew from the look on his face he didn’t want me to say anything to anybody.”

So, she simply chose not to ask him where he was going, even though she saw an overnight bag in his hand. She knew the man she had come to appreciate for his directness as a seminary vice rector would have a hard time coming up with a false answer to avoid telling a truth he was not yet able to reveal to the seminary staff.

“For sure, if someone had found him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ he would have been a terrible liar,” Flood said. “He wouldn’t have been able to pull off a fib without it showing on his face. So, I’m sure he wanted to avoid even being asked anything.”

Like many of the seminary staff, Flood found out the news of the bishop announcement the next morning in an email. When she opened it, she cried immediately.

“I’m so sad for our loss,” she said. “That’s the first thing that struck me. I’m very happy for him and for the Church at large, but he’s great in his role here. He will be missed.”

Qualities she admires about the future auxiliary bishop of Hartford, who also now serves as pastor of St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul, are his willingness to discuss challenging subjects, his sense of humor, and his ability to connect pastorally and personally with the seminarians.

“He’s so compassionate with the men here,” she said. “He’s careful to make sure they fit the criteria we need to have them fit. But, he sees them all so individually.”

Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who has known Bishop-elect Betancourt since 2004 when the two roomed together while studying in Rome, said he was hoping his longtime friend would fly under the Vatican radar so as to continue in his assignment at the seminary. But, he also realized that the 48-year-old Puerto Rico native, a priest of Servants of the Holy Eucharist and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the kind of leader the Church now needs.

“I’m not surprised because I know what kind of wonderful priest he is, and what character he has as a man of God,” Bishop Cozzens said. “Sometimes, you’re hoping that they don’t get noticed because they’re serving us so well, but it doesn’t surprise me that the Church noticed, and that the Holy Father would choose a man like Father Juan Miguel to serve the Church, because of his humility and his joy and his holiness.”

Like others on the seminary staff, Bishop Cozzens will miss Bishop-elect Betancourt’s “joyful presence” that radiated in the hallways and classrooms of the seminary. He believes the seminarians will miss him, too.

“He does have real skills as a formator, and I think already at the seminary, the men who have him as a formator are very sad that they’re going to lose him because he has been so endeared to them by the individual care he shows,” Bishop Cozzens said. “He is a man who likes to laugh a lot, and sometimes, he would also allow the seminarians to go bowling at St. Francis de Sales. And so, he would get right in there and bowl with the other faculty [members] and seminarians at his parish. [He’s] not a great bowler, but really a joy to be with, and a man who always lightens a room when he comes in.”

Deacon Andrew Zipp, second from right, prays during the opening Mass of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity Sept. 4. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Andrew Zipp has had Bishop-elect Betancourt as his formator since arriving at the seminary in fall 2015. Their weekly meetings have prompted both spiritual growth and friendship. Deacon Zipp is feeling some sadness, knowing he will have his last meeting with the bishop-elect in the next few weeks.

“He means a ton to me,” Deacon Zipp said. “He’s been there throughout some of my challenges here at the seminary … and he’s stood beside me as a father.

He added: “He is pulled in so many various directions, and yet he spends time with us and shows us how much he loves us. That has been what has hit me the most. I really admire how much he cares for us even though he’s so busy. He was always so busy, and yet he gave us everything — all his time. And that devotion, that sacrifice, that gift of self has been truly an incredible witness to me and called me on.”

Bishop-elect Betancourt has served in the role of vice rector of formation off and on for the last two years, filling in for Father Peter Williams at first, then taking over when Father Williams moved to a new assignment. In that time, Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, who recently retired as rector and continues to serve the seminary, developed an admiration for the tireless effort that he witnessed in a man he knows will be hard to replace.

“It’s a big loss for the seminary; it’s like losing an arm,” Msgr. Callaghan said. “I think he’s a wonderful priest. He’s dynamic — the Energizer bunny would lose a job [trying to keep up] with him.”

Bishop-elect Betancourt has worked alongside the vice rector of administration, Father Scott Carl. Msgr. Callaghan considers them his “right and left arms,” and jokingly refers to the two as his “dynamic duo.”

Father Carl noted that “there was just a sadness” at the seminary the day the bishop appointment was announced. Bishop-elect Betancourt was supposed to celebrate Mass Sept. 18 for seminarians he was assigned to, but was replaced so he could travel to Hartford. Father Carl said he felt the somber mood among the men during Mass. And, he is aware of what their formator means to them.

“He’s really a father, and deeply invested in those who were entrusted to his care,” Father Carl said. He described Bishop-elect Betancourt as “someone who cares so much” about the men he is helping to form into priests.

That deep concern is something faculty and seminarians hope will motivate Bishop-elect Betancourt to continue to visit the seminary, and maybe attend the next priest ordination Mass in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, scheduled May 25, 2019.

“Oh yes, I want him to be there,” said Deacon Zipp, who anticipates being ordained a priest that day. “And, I know that it might not be in the will of the Lord, that that might not work out. But, I would be so honored if he was there at that day of ordination.

“I’m so thankful for his priestly and fatherly love for me. And, that’s something I will never forget,” he added. “And, I hope to continue to remain in touch with him as I continue this wonderful journey that the Lord has placed us all on.”

Bishop Cozzens, the seminary’s interim rector, would prefer not to be looking for a new vice rector, especially because he helped bring Bishop-elect Betancourt to the archdiocese in 2006 when he and Father Joseph Johnson petitioned Archbishop Harry Flynn to allow members of Servants of the Holy Eucharist and of the Blessed Virgin Mary to serve in St. Paul. But, he knows that the Church needs good shepherds, even though the role is challenging.

“It’s not an easy time to become a bishop because of the dramatic struggles that the Church is undergoing,” Bishop Cozzens said. “But, in my opinion, Bishop-elect Betancourt is the kind of bishop that we want because he’s a man of great integrity and holiness who will serve the Church very well.”

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