The St. Paul Seminary turns 125

| Christina Capecchi | November 5, 2019 | 0 Comments

From left, seminarians Kevin Lorsung, Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, Jacob Epstein, Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, and Bill Duffert, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, serve as acolytes for the Admission to Candidacy Mass Oct. 18 at The St. Paul Seminary. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Sometimes a lecture at The Saint Paul Seminary is so intense Patrick Hoeft carries his notes straight to the chapel to pray and process them.

“There’s a sense of, ‘Wow, something amazing just happened in class, and I can’t quite articulate it, so I’m just going to sit in silence and soak it in,’” said the 25-year-old seminarian from rural Paynesville. “It’s an awareness of my own smallness, of being struck by the mysteries of God. It’s a feeling of wonder and awe.”

The image is an apt symbol of this storied seminary: a place for soaking in, a sort of incubator for future priests where a lanky farm boy brings his handwritten notes to God, where intellectual rigor and spiritual fervor meet — head and heart — to prepare new shepherds for the Church.

Since its founding 125 years ago, the seminary has become a regional center for formation, producing more than 2,500 priests and 30-some bishops, while expanding its scope to educate lay leaders, train deacons and support clergy.

Under the guidance of Rector Father Joseph Taphorn and an acclaimed faculty, today it numbers 70 seminarians from 13 dioceses and religious orders, 38 men in diaconate formation, 66 degree-seeking students, and more than 800 students in its catechetical institute.

It all began in 1890 with an unthinkable act: the gift of half a million dollars from a Methodist railroad tycoon to build a Catholic seminary. James J. Hill wanted to honor his wife, Mary Theresa, with a seminary that would be a boldfaced love letter to the woman who had attracted him in their first encounters — then a teenage waitress — as much with her devout Catholic faith as her physical beauty.

News of the donation made its way to Rome, where Archbishop John Ireland visited Pope Leo XIII, who “spoke to me at length of his high appreciation of your princely generosity in building our seminary and of the great honor thereby conferred upon the church in America,” the archbishop wrote to Hill.

The relationship between the two local leaders shaped the earliest renderings of the seminary, Hill’s resources and practicality fusing with Archbishop Ireland’s vision. The result: a seminary unlike others, a new approach to priestly formation for the American church on the cusp of the 20th century.

Their frontier seminary would be big in size and scope, based on intellectual curiosity and a broad mission. The men would study not only philosophy and theology but also science and literature. The construction, like the curriculum, aimed at fresh air, consisting of six separate buildings rather than the seminary norm, one all-encompassing fortress sealing off the outside world.

At the dedication ceremonies on a sunny September day in 1895, Archbishop Ireland described the seminary’s ecumenical reach “beyond” Catholics, proclaiming: “Its spirit will be to work for the whole people, offering it strength to uphold every noble cause and willing to cooperate with all men who labor to serve God, humanity and country.”

Over the decades the seminary grew, enduring the Great Depression and re-examining its approach in light of the Second Vatican Council. All the while it hewed to its founders’ vision for a well-rounded formation, finding new ways to integrate the four dimensions: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral. In 1983 the curriculum was revised in order to anchor academic study to parish life. Sister of St. Joseph Mary Daniel Hartnett developed a novel Teaching Parish Program linking classroom studies with regular participation in a local parish for four consecutive years — a rare degree of immersion for seminarians that has since been replicated by seminaries across the country.

From left, Chris Thompson, dean, and Father Joseph Taphorn, rector, recite the Oath of Fidelity at the kickoff Mass Sept. 4 at the seminary chapel. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Collaboration and evangelization

Integrated formation took on added meaning two years later when the seminary became officially affiliated with the College of St. Thomas, presenting new avenues for collaboration and evangelization. It was reinforced by remarkable opportunities for study abroad in Mexico, Jerusalem and Rome, stamping the seminarians’ passports and hearts. And it gained invaluable real-world training through a spiritual pastoral ministry program that teaches seminarians to minister to the sick and suffering at area hospitals and care facilities.

The seminarians’ objective is “to heal wounds and warm hearts,” former Rector Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan often said.

Hoeft has learned how to do that through his time at a hospital. “A huge aspect of ministering to people is learning how to be a good listener,” he said. “To make someone feel heard can relieve more pain than any physical healing.”

The interplay of lessons gleaned in the classroom, the chapel, the hospital and the parish help distinguish The Saint Paul Seminary from other major seminaries in the country, said Dean Christopher Thompson. “I would like to think what sets us apart is solid doctrinal formation coupled with a heart-felt desire to lead others to the Lord and his Church. I’d like to think we have a special commitment to this blend of fidelity and evangelization in the contemporary Church and culture.”

That blend is “the ideal mix,” according to Archbishop Bernard Hebda. “The seminary has provided us with such great priests who have really pastoral hearts and are theologically prepared and have a real desire to respond to God’s call to serve,” he said.

Also contributing to the seminary’s unique standing, Thompson added: the Twin Cities’ vibrant Catholic lay culture and St. Thomas’ prestigious Catholic Studies department, the oldest and largest Catholic Studies program in the world.

Archbishop Hebda described the seminary faculty as an invaluable resource, a sort of think tank he has personally tapped for insight on a number of subjects, from bioethics to interfaith outreach to the upcoming archdiocesan synod. “We have some great minds who are available to stimulate • theological thought, who are available to have an impact not only on our seminarians but on our Catholic population.”

Bishop Paul Sirba of Duluth, a 1986 graduate of The Saint Paul Seminary who now sends his own men to the seminary, echoed that observation. “The archdiocese has brought together this great faculty. That’s always made sense to me: You’re forming priests, and it’s a huge sacrifice to give some of your best, which means taking them for a time from where they could be in a parish. It’s saying, ‘No, in order to form the future guys, we want the best here.’”

The combined effect — the integrated formation, the pastoral ministry and the premiere education — has garnered acclaim, Father Taphorn said. “I think people see that there’s something special happening here. The skillset we have is spreading beyond the upper Midwest and having a national impact.”

Seminarian John Utecht of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis prays during the Admission to Candidacy Mass Oct. 18. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Happy, holy priests

Regular opportunities for honest self-assessment are a hallmark of formation at The Saint Paul Seminary, he added. Working closely with both a formation director as well as a spiritual director helps keep the seminarians accountable. The directors meet with the pastor from a seminarian’s teaching parish for year-end evaluations.

“Self-knowledge is so important,” Father Taphorn said. “Everybody has their issues. What’s most impressive is when a man can acknowledge, ‘Yeah, I still kind of struggle in this area.’ What people need in their parishes are happy, healthy, holy priests who can acknowledge their difficulties and tap into the support and resources to improve.”

Making sure the men have a healthy understanding of celibacy has been an area of particular focus at the seminary since the 2002 clergy sex abuse scandal broke in Boston.

Being honest about challenges requires humility, the antidote to the clericalism Pope Francis has cautioned against, said Sister of
St. Francis Katarina Schuth, a professor emerita.

“Human formation is tricky,” she said. “It’s internal and external — your feelings, your relationships with people, and it’s also the kind of person you are becoming. Do you treat people as a child of God who is your equal or do you treat them as someone lesser than you? There’s a real need to understand that being a relational, caring, listening person doesn’t mean that you lose authority. In fact, a good exercise of authority would involve building people up.”

Father Taphorn often quotes St. John Paul II, who wrote in a 1992 apostolic exhortation on priestly formation: “It is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.”

The quote can make an enlightening question for seminarians, he said. “It’s a concrete image, a point of self-examination: Am I being a bridge or an obstacle? And in humility we need to own it.”

The need for a bridge has never been more urgent, as the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any organized religion surges, according to the Pew Research Center. Today there are more religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. than Catholics.

Hence, Pope Francis’ charge to evangelize widely and “go out into the streets.”

The seminarians have the greatest impact when their love for the Lord shines through, Father Taphorn said. “We want men who can be inviting and warm and infectious with their joy because we have the greatest treasure, which is Jesus Christ. So if we’re rooted in the truth of the faith and we pay attention to that pastoral heart, that’s how we become the bridge.”

SAINTLY GRADUATEIn July, Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, clearing the way for his beatification. Five fast facts about this high-profile alumnus of The St. Paul Seminary who is on the road to sainthood:

  1. An Illinois native, Venerable Fulton Sheen attended The St. Paul Seminary for two years until his ordination in 1919.
  2. He commended the seminary, writing: “The courses were extremely good, especially in sacred Scripture, history, and moral theology.”
  3. He joked about the seminary’s emphasis on singing, recalling that all seminarians were expected to participate in Gregorian chant, “whether we had singing voices or not. … I didn’t even sound good in the shower.”
  4. Archbishop Sheen’s education at The St. Paul Seminary propelled him to become a renowned theologian and later an Emmy-winning television personality.
  5. He returned to the seminary on multiple occasions, lecturing the seminarians and speaking to faculty.

Time in prayer

Among many demands in any given day, spending time in prayer takes precedence, beginning at 6 a.m., when the men gather for Holy Hour.

“They’re up bright and early, kneeling in silence before the Lord,” Monsignor Callaghan said. “It’s moving!”

They gather again for mid-day Mass, joined by professors and administrators. “There’s a clear sense that everyone is united for a common mission,” Hoeft said.

Sister Katarina agreed, crediting the quiet, behind-the-scenes work of longtime administrators for the seminary’s level of excellence.

Taken together, it’s no surprise that so many graduates have assumed positions of leadership and service across the region, Archbishop Hebda said.

When the men are ordained at the Cathedral of St. Paul, they are ready to take on the great commission to “go, therefore, and make disciples,” the scene carved above its grand front entrance.

The bishops from outside dioceses who send their men to The Saint Paul Seminary — a dozen, currently — recognize this.

“We can entrust our seminarians to them and know they will be well formed to come back and serve God’s holy people,” said Bishop Sirba, who currently has four seminarians there. “We have confidence. We’re very happy with what’s happening there. I think it’s the faithfulness that the seminary has in forming good priests for our present needs. That’s what I hear (from other bishops) the most, and it’s woven through all the programs.”

A shining example is Father Mark Pavlak, a St. Paul native who was ordained three years ago and now serves as chaplain and a theology teacher at St. Thomas Academy, an all-male middle and high school in Mendota Heights. He draws on his notes from seminary often, particularly two of his favorite courses: moral theology, taught by Thompson; and the Eucharist, taught by Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, also a Saint Paul Seminary alumnus. As Father Pavlak is equipping his students to better understand Church teaching in an age of relativism, he is also building relationships.

“If I can show them that our faith matters and that there is joy in following Christ, I am hopeful they will find an anchor in that,” he said. “For me, I’m playing the long game with our young people. They’re not going to remember every note they took in my class, but they will remember me and my relationship with them. So all the times I’m on the sidelines with the football team or leading prayer with the hockey team before the game or watching the basketball or baseball team in the stands or asking them about their hobbies — whatever it is — I’m playing the long game, that there was a priest who cared for them.”

Jack Sexton, a junior at St. Thomas Academy, still remembers the time Father Pavlak checked in with him after class last year to ask, “Are you OK?” He had heard about a disappointing outcome Sexton had just experienced in golf.

The 30-something priest has given the teen a positive view of priesthood. “He talks in class about how much he loves priesthood, no regrets,” said Sexton, who belongs of Our Lady of Grace in Edina. “He tells us that if we would ever consider it, that we should try it. He’s always said there’s nothing better than learning about God every day.”

When it comes time to attend college and discuss controversial Church teachings such as homosexuality with his peers, Sexton said he now feels equipped, thanks to Father Pavlak’s instruction.

Danny McFadden, a junior from the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, described the same impact. “I had misunderstood most of the Church’s teachings, from how the media portrays it,” he said. “It was really refreshing to have him clarify it.”

Father Pavlak presiding at Mass for the football team every Thursday, the day before a game, has been a welcome source of support, McFadden added. “Of all my teachers, he would be the person I would go to if I was struggling with something.”

Another young alumnus serving the archdiocese is Father Aric Aamodt, who was ordained last year and now serves as associate pastor at St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen. It wasn’t that long ago that, at 18, he stood on the edge of Lake Superior and prayed to learn God’s plan for his life. A quiet whisper crossed his ear and pierced his heart: “Yes.”

Since then he has been on an incredible journey, spurred by the strong sense of priestly identity and rich prayer life encouraged at the seminary. “I could enter into priestly life and ministry with that foundation of who I am as a priest, having that relationship with Jesus very firmly established and ready to take on whatever Jesus has in store for me.”

Father Aamodt still keeps a morning holy hour, a holdover from his seminary days, and prays the rosary in the evening as he walks the parish grounds.

Since he began celebrating the 6 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. Hubert’s, attendance has gone up by at least 150 people, according to Brian Kloempken, liturgical coordinator. He’s even drawing non-parishioners, including Catholics who are returning from a weekend at their cabins and wouldn’t otherwise attend Mass.

His homilies hit home, resonating with the suburban families — especially an Advent series he did on social media, Kloempken said. “The high schoolers still talk about what they gleaned from it. That was really fruitful.”

To consider the impact of this one priest — and then to add in the thousands who have come from The Saint Paul Seminary over the past 125 years — is overwhelming, Thompson said. “When you step back sometimes at our community gatherings and think that these are the men who will baptize your first child, prepare you for a lifetime of married love, bring reconciliation between you and God and someday hear your last prayer — it can be an incredible moment of communion and worship. A project of formation of the most intimate sort is unfolding here — not only at the human level but the supernatural as well. It’s an occasion of awe to think we have been a part of Christ’s mission to reconcile the world to the Father and that we are poised to continue this work for generations to come.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article also will appear in The Saint Paul Seminary’s fall issue of the Oracle.

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