Msgr. Richter prepares for new role as seminary rector

| February 21, 2018 | 1 Comment

Msgr. Thomas Richter, center, who in June will assume the role of rector of the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, walks back to the seminary after lunch Feb. 15 with Father Scott Carl, back left, and a group of seminarians including Phil Conklin, left, and Paul Hedman. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Msgr. Thomas Richter was thrilled with his first assignment as vice rector of the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Having just arrived in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, he traveled to the Holy Land in January with the third-year seminarians, who’ll be ordained transitional deacons this spring.

“To be able to bond with them, get to know them [and] they get to know me was … a nice way to begin. So, I’m grateful to the rector for having me join them,” said Msgr. Richter, 50, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Now settling into life at the 133-year-old seminary, he’s spending the months leading up to June — when he’ll officially take the reins as its 15th rector — shadowing Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan, the current seminary rector who’ll retire after serving in that role for 13 years.

“I am inheriting a strong, healthy organization, and I am indebted to the leadership of Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan,” Msgr. Richter said. “I am grateful for the firm foundation.”

Believing it’s essential for those responsible for formation to share a meal with seminarians on a daily basis, Msgr. Richter has already begun that practice at the St. Paul Seminary.

“Some of the most important formation happens around a table,” he said. “If a seminary is going to be a community of formation, it needs to happen in an integrated manner, not in a clinical manner … [but in] the way formation happens in a family — by parents eating … with their children, the same in a seminary with priests eating and living with seminarians.”

Road of resistance

Msgr. Richter’s own foundation began 20 miles outside of Bismarck on a “diversified dairy farm” — the family also raised beef cattle — where he describes a happy childhood with nine brothers and four sisters, and loving parents. His younger brother, Father David Richter, is also a priest of the Bismarck diocese.

He graduated from St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck and didn’t enter seminary until after he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Most of his vocational discernment occurred during his college years, which he described as a time of “resistance.”

“Part of me operated out of a certain idea that I came to see is not true: … that when you don’t have any other options, consider the priesthood,” he said. “So, there was a certain misguided stereotype that fed this resistance.”

He said the Eucharist and confession were mainstays in his life, and a few men whom he respected had entered the seminary. He also recalls an important insight his father gave him when he was home for a weekend during college. He and his father were driving home after Mass from their country church when his father told him that the qualities he’s respected in priests throughout his life were the qualities he saw in him, adding he’d be honored if God chose one of his sons to be a priest. Those encouraging words, along with reading “Let the Fire Fall” by Father Michael Scanlan, helped eliminate some of his fears.

Then one day while sitting in bed reading his engineering manual, he was preoccupied with thoughts of the priesthood, so he began to pray. What followed was a consolation: You can’t lose.

“If you give one year to the seminary, you can’t lose,” he recalled thinking. “If you’re supposed to be a priest, and that’s your road to happiness, well, that’s the first year on that road. You won’t lose. If marriage is your beautiful vocation and road to happiness, one year in the seminary isn’t going to make you a worse husband, potential husband; you’re going to hopefully grow in prayer. You’re going to hopefully grow in relationship with Jesus, [and] you’re going to hopefully grow your faith.”

Along with the Pontifical North American College, he attended the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also in Rome. He later discovered that his sister and her husband prayed for his priestly vocation on their wedding day at his home church, where he was an altar server.

It was while on a retreat in the mountains in his first year of theology at the Pontifical North American College when he encountered Jesus in a “very beautiful, loving way” that affirmed his own vocation.

“And since that day, there hasn’t been a day I didn’t want to be a priest,” Msgr. Richter said.

During the first four years of his priesthood, he taught senior religion in two Catholic high schools while being an associate pastor for two years at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck and a pastor in western North Dakota. He has also served on the executive board of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, and as a faculty member and spiritual director of the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. Since 2010, he has served as the chaplain of the Bismarck Catholic Physicians Guild. Pope Benedict XVI honored him with the title of monsignor in 2012.

Christ-centered vision

Msgr. Richter knows the discernment process well. After serving in parishes for six years, he spent 11 years as the vocation director for the Diocese of Bismarck. Having met in Rome through mutual friends, Archbishop Bernard Hebda became familiar with Msgr. Richter’s experiences and expertise and recalled them when he appointed Msgr. Richter rector in October 2017 after Msgr. Callaghan announced his retirement.

“He knows what goes on in a young man’s heart; he has a lot of experience helping men to discern, [and] he has a great track record with the Institute for Priestly Formation, which helped him to recognize the priority of development of the spiritual life and discernment,” Archbishop Hebda said.

He added that he considered it important to choose a new rector from within the province, because the St. Paul Seminary serves men from other dioceses. The archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis is metropolitan archbishop of a province that includes the dioceses in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck said Msgr. Richter brings a dual gift to the archdiocese along with his “good sense of humor.”

“He’s a very good pastor of souls, and he listens very well and understands people’s circumstances and brings them along to greater engagement in their own Catholic faith,” Bishop Kagan said. “He has the ability to help other men cut through the haze and get to the heart of the matter in their prayer life in terms of discernment.”

As pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit for five years, Msgr. Richter oversaw the parish’s parochial vicars, recently ordained priests. In them, he observed and experienced the “fruits of a seminary” — where a seminary did well or where it could have done better.

“And so, experiencing and being able to accompany a brand new priest was a tremendous privilege,” he said, “and I think a valuable experience for me as I enter [the work of] seminary formation.”

Father Jared Johnson, 31, interim rector at the Cathedral, was an 18-year-old seminarian when he first met Msgr. Richter as vocation director. Father Johnson, who attended St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, most recently served as associate pastor with Msgr. Richter for four-and-a-half years at the Cathedral. He said Msgr. Richter modeled a daily prayer life in the Cathedral rectory.

“Every day, the first thing he did, whether it was his day off or just a normal weekday, was a Holy Hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Johnson said. “And that was something that I, of course, learned in the seminary, but it was something that I saw lived out by him, and it made it easier for me to keep that as a priority as well.”

Msgr. Richter was also generous with his time and taught people how to bring their joys and struggles to Christ.

“He knew that he didn’t have all the answers,” Father Johnson said. “And so, it was always about trying to instill in them the importance of relating things to Christ and that [Christ] has the answers. … And I think now in his role as a rector, teaching our seminarians how to assist people in that is crucial.”

Father Johnson added that Msgr. Richter has a “great ability” to lead and inspire. “And his vision is always rooted in the overall good of the Church,” he said.

Archbishop Hebda noted how the St. Paul Seminary is “thriving,” and its leaders would like to continue that momentum.

“We want to make sure our seminarians are well prepared for the challenges that are contemporary,” he said. “We want our seminarians to be theologically engaged and pastorally sensitive.”

Describing the seminary as a place to form the next generation of priests to be shepherds for the people of God, Msgr. Richter said an asset for any priest involved in seminary formation is to have had pastoral experiences.

“It could be somewhat simplistic, but we need to remember the men sitting in these pews studying to be priests aren’t different than the people sitting in the pews [of a church],” he explained. “Men who have been chosen to be priests are real, normal men who need to grow in faith and need to learn how to pray like everybody else. In fact, it’s not too crazy of an idea to think of a seminary as a parish — with parishioners who never leave.”

Msgr. Richter likens his role as rector of a seminary to that of a pastor of a parish — its spiritual father.

“Ultimately, a rector needs to be very good at forming the heart, forming a priestly heart,” he said. “This isn’t just about a guy getting a theological degree or a theological education. This is about forming priestly hearts in the image of Christ.”

Tags: , , , , ,

Category: Featured, Local News