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: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.