St. John Vianney’s new seminary rector shares his hopes for this year and beyond

Therese Bussen

As the school year starts off, so does St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, and this year, Father Daniel Leonard, former pastor of Christ the King Parish who has taught at the seminary for 17 years, begins his first year as rector.

Born in Cork, Ireland, Father Leonard was ordained in 1994 and holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University and a licentiate in Dogmatic Theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.

 

Denver Catholic: You’ve been serving in the Archdiocese of Denver since 2000. What has been your experience here in the Archdiocese?

Father Daniel Leonard: I arrived in Denver in February, 2000. Before that, I had spent 14 years in Rome studying and teaching. I was ordained a priest in 1994. During my first six years of priesthood, I was dedicated to the academic life. It was a good life, but I had a desire for a pastoral experience in a parish. The opportunity arose for me to come to Denver. The idea was to help teach philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary and to be assigned to a parish. My first assignment was as parochial vicar at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Boulder and subsequently to Christ the King Parish, where I served as pastor for the last 12 years. It has been a very rewarding experience for me.

DC: You’ve been a professor at the seminary for 17 years; what are some of the most important things you’ve learned while teaching?

FL: I actually have been teaching in a seminary setting for the past 27 years! I taught for 10 years in Rome at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and then for the past 17 at St. John Vianney Seminary. Even though I have taught many different courses in philosophy and theology, the focus of my academic work has been philosophy of religion. I’ve enjoyed engaging with students in trying to answer simple yet complicated questions such as, “What is religion? And why are humans religious?” from an interdisciplinary perspective. Teaching at the seminary is satisfying since we have eager students who are more than willing to learn.

DC: What excites you about this new role as rector?

FL: Instead of having a parish or a territory to pastor, a rector is given an ecclesiastic institution, in this case, the seminary. It comes with the tremendous task of looking after the gift of the priestly vocation which God has placed in the hearts of some men. It is a mission of accompaniment, to help form them in the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions. I like to say that the seminary is the most important parish in a diocese. It is a kind of parish of parishes as we prepare future pastors.

DC: Is there anything that you especially hope to accomplish?

FL: I told the seminarians that, as a seminary, we are given the mission and vision by the Church: Form good pastors. To use a culinary analogy, we all have the same recipe. However, just like individual chefs have a secret sauce or secret method of preparation, each seminary is a little different, each one has its own distinctive flavor. I would like to put emphasis on two of the fruits of the Spirit: Love and joy. Love in the sense that every seminarian should know and be aware that he is supported by a loving community that wants them to succeed in every way. Joy that flows from following the Lord, and of course, the joy of learning.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.