In 1994, the seminary in Denver, St. Thomas Seminary, closed its doors. St. John Vianney Theological Seminary opened five years later after a prophetic plan put into place by Cardinal J. Francis Stafford and carried out by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
This fall marks the 20th anniversary of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary opening.
This seminary would become a place where “priestly formation really focused on the priest being a man of prayer,” said Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila.
Cardinal Stafford, then Archbishop of Denver, bought the land for the seminary from the Vincentian Fathers who were running the previous seminary.
Cardinal Stafford chose then-Father Aquila to look into the seminary, and study the “Paris model,” the idea of having different parish houses of seminarians throughout the diocese.
Archbishop Aquila and Monsignor Michael Glenn visited Paris and Ars, France to study their seminaries and make plans for the opening of St. John Vianney in Denver.
Cardinal Stafford drew up blueprints but was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II after getting to know him during the Pope’s visit in 1993. Archbishop Chaput, Cardinal Stafford’s successor, put the plan in motion.
Cardinal Stafford’s presence in Rome led to an affiliation with the Pontifical Lateran University there, and the seminary became an accredited institution.
When Archbishop Chaput was assigned to Denver in 1997, Father Aquila showed him the plans and preparations for the new seminary. Archbishop Chaput said to move forward with it, Archbishop Aquila recounted. Archbishop Aquila was subsequently named first rector of the new seminary.
“It was incredible and a real privilege,” said Archbishop Aquila. “Certainly something I never expected to do was set up a whole new seminary.”
The idea was simple: a large seminary divided into small communities of seminarians living in households, each with a priest to oversee the house as a spiritual, and in some sense, material father.
“It’s like being a father of a large, poor family,” said Father Gary Selin about his experience as a house Father and formator to the men.
Father Selin, a graduate of SJV and ordained in 2003, lives at the rectory of St. Joseph’s Parish in Denver. Seminarians also live at Our Lady of Lourdes and Christ the King parishes, along with housing at the seminary campus.
The first class of spirituality year men began in the fall of 1998, but it was not until they completed this year that the seminary officially opened on September 8, 1999, the feast of the Birth of Mary.
The spirituality year was another change implemented in the reopening of the seminary. As the first seminary in the country to have such a program, it was a bold step.
“The spirituality year was seen as a foundational year in which the men learned how to pray,” Archbishop Aquila said.
The seminarians do study during the spirituality year, but the emphasis is on prayer.
Father James Thermos was one of the men in the first spirituality year in 1998.
“It [the spirituality year] allowed me to enter seminary without the full brunt of academics,” Father Thermos said.
Father Thermos has been a formator for seminarians for the last 12 years, and specifically to the spirituality year men for the last three years.
The way seminarians live this year is in radical contrast to the current culture, including a media fast, where seminarians are only permitted to use cell phones (preferably flip phones) one day a week.
The spirituality year concludes with a 30-day silent retreat.
“I’m still unpacking graces that came about on that retreat,” said Father Scott Bailey, who was ordained in 2013 and just passed his 10-year anniversary of this retreat.
The spirituality year allows men to develop an intimacy with the Lord regardless of if they continue on in priestly formation, Father Bailey said.
He added the spirituality year provided the structure for him to develop the virtue and habit of prayer even when life gets busy as a priest.
“Ministry is a lot more fruitful when you’re praying,” Father Bailey said.
A Grace of St. John Paul II
The seminary’s closing and reopening reminds us of the gift of having a seminary in our own diocese, a gift not every city or state can boast.
“There’s a lot to be said for forming future priests on their own turf,” Father Selin said.
Many attribute the success of the reopened seminary to the Pope’s visit to Denver during the 1993 World Youth Day.
“Certainly, the visit of John Paul II to Denver transformed things,” Archbishop Aquila said.
“His presence here sparked the new evangelization,” said Father Thermos, one of the many attendees in that World Youth Day crowd. “This seminary is one of the direct fruits of that.”
Archbishop Aquila has seen fruit from the seminary in the quality of priests it produces, he said.
“They are ones who take their spiritual life seriously, are filled with enthusiasm for the Gospel, and have a real desire to invite others to encounter Christ,” Archbishop Aquila said.