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: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.