A bold step for priestly formation, and now a leader in the New Evangelization

Twenty years later, St. John Vianney seminary continues to bear great fruits

Makena Clawson

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.

Different Houses

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.”

In 1999, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, then-Father Aquila, was tasked with opening St. John Vianney Theological Seminary as a place for rigorous spiritual and academic formation for seminarians. (Photo courtesy of St. John Vianney Facebook Page)

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.

Spirituality Year

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.

St. John Vianney Theological Seminary has been at the forefront of priestly formation since it opened in 1999. It celebrates its 20th anniversary as an institution next month. (Photo courtesy of St. John Vianney Facebook Page)

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.

COMING UP: Denver seminaries lead the charge with ‘rigorous’ screening process designed to form healthy priests

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Amid this current crisis in the Church, many are wondering about their own dioceses and the steps taken to ensure such a crisis doesn’t unfold in their own backyard.

Here in the Archdiocese of Denver, St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater have been leading the way for nearly 30 years when it comes to diligent seminarian screening and the formation of healthy future priests.

“The present generation of seminarians is the most screened ever,” said Father Daniel Leonard, rector of St. John Vianney.

Dr. Christina Lynch, Director of Psychological Services at St. John Vianney, has worked at the seminary for 12 years, where she said the guidelines for vetting candidates have evolved over time and continue to become more and more stringent.

There’s a reason for the drastic changes in seminary life, she said.

“What’s happened in the past shows us that if you don’t want to see something, you won’t see it,” she said. “That’s changed in seminaries.

“I think the difference is [that] not only is there a spirit of transparency, but it works both ways,” she added. “The men feel that their formators are there for their best interest.”

Screening seminarians

A seminary’s screening process begins the moment men are interested in pursuing the priesthood.

For St. John Vianney, men first meet with the archdiocesan vocations director, currently Father Ryan O’Neill, who gets to know each man’s personal, spiritual and family life over a period of time.

“He’s building a relationship,” said Dr. Lynch, “which is the number one criteria. It’s all about relationship and trying to get to know the man’s call.”

The next step is for the man to fill out an application — an over 20-page document. He must also submit to a background check, turn in an autobiography, four reference letters and a college transcript if applicable.

Men interested in Redemptoris Mater undergo a double track of admission screening that begins within the Neocatechumenal Way and “includes screening candidates four times and by different priests and lay people before they are recommended for seminary admission at local, regional and national levels,” said Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa, rector of Redemptoris Mater.

“If those screenings are successful and candidates feel prepared, they are invited to participate in the international vocational retreat where they are screened a fourth time…” he said.

What’s happened in the past shows us that if you don’t want to see something, you won’t see it. That’s changed in seminaries.”

Afterwards, these men go through the standard archdiocesan process.

Men pursuing either seminary must go through a comprehensive psychological evaluation to find out if they are fit to enter seminary. The evaluation covers a variety of areas, including the man’s psycho-sexual development and family background. Screenings also delve into any addictions the man might have and whether he struggles with same-sex attraction.

“We ask all the very hard questions in these interviews, and then we actually do some testing, like personality testing and projective testing,” said Dr. Lynch. “It’s an extremely in-depth interview.”

Finally, the man is interviewed by an admissions board, which consists of the rectors and other seminary staff.

Men can be turned down at any point in the screening process. According to Dr. Lynch and Father O’Neill, common issues that prevent men from being accepted are addictions, deep-seated homosexual tendencies and personality disorders, which can include the inability to control unhealthy sexual inclinations.

“The Catholic Church is for everyone,” said Father O’Neill, “but seminary is not for everyone. Just because a young man wants to be a priest doesn’t mean he will be.”

Formation inside the seminary

Screening doesn’t stop once the men enter seminary.

“Once they are admitted to the seminary, they are evaluated constantly and consistently by the formation team, faculty, apostolate supervisors and their peers,” said Father Leonard.

A major part of seminary life is formation, which, at St. John Vianney, comes in four pillars — human, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual — and begins with a spirituality year dedicated to prayer and discernment.

“It is a year for a man to truly disconnect from the world, and to dive deeply into the dark and mysterious parts of his heart,” said Father O’Neill.“That year of prayer teaches the men what is the priority in their Christian life and allows for an honest discernment of the celibate priesthood.”

At Redemptoris Mater, seminarian formation lasts about 10 years and includes a two- to three-year missionary practicum. During that time, seminarians are monitored by priests and lay people in situations outside the seminary.

“This longer time and the variety of non-institutional placements the men experience gives the formation team more opportunities to identify and act upon any potential issues that may surface either at the initial psychological assessment, during the formation and study years, or during the missionary practicum,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa.

Once they are admitted to the seminary, they are evaluated constantly and consistently by the formation team, faculty, apostolate supervisors and their peers.”

Dr. David Kovacs, a clinical psychologist at St. John Vianney, said living in the seminary makes it difficult for a man’s deep-seated issues to remain hidden.

“The testing is a great thing to look at what’s going on beneath the surface that people can’t see,” said Dr. Kovacs. “And once they get in, there are so many pairs of eyes on each guy.”

Both seminaries have formators who mentor the men and monitor their behavior, as well as peer evaluations.

“They live here, they’re being observed in their everyday situations, and we can’t help but be ourselves at some point,” said Dr. Kovacs. “I think it’s very difficult for a guy, after going through the rigorous process of admissions, to get through [around] seven years and for something serious not to come out.”

Both seminaries stay up-to-date with the latest scientific research, and both offer counseling services and other resources, particularly to help the men grow in chaste celibacy. According to Dr. Lynch, around 95 percent of seminarians take advantage of those services at St. John Vianney.

“Once they enter, we have all of these psychological services to help a man grow in maturity, and also, if he’s not called or he can’t overcome some of [his] issues, we help them know that we just want them to flourish in whatever vocation God’s calling them to.

“That’s our greatest goal,” she added, “is to form Christlike men for whatever vocation they’re being called to.”

That vocation isn’t always the priesthood, especially when certain traits like narcissism and self-entitlement develop to the point of becoming a full personality disorder, Dr. Lynch added.

“Men are still developing until the age of 26, and we’re accepting them at 20, so there’s hope there that if they’re formed correctly, that’s not going to develop,” she said.

“But we also can see if it does, [and] we try to be proactive to help a person move to a different vocation.”

A legacy of excellence

Denver’s two seminaries were created from the start with a vision of transparency and formation of healthy future priests. Thanks to Archbishop J. Francis Stafford’s vision and its continuation by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, Denver’s seminaries are considered some of the best in the nation.

When Pope John Paul II visited Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day, Archbishop Stafford, now a cardinal, was inspired to create both a diocesan and a missionary seminary for the archdiocese. He established Redemptoris Mater in 1996, which continues to draw seminarians from all over the world.

“Archbishop Stafford decided that Denver would benefit [from] a seminary formation based on a strong itinerary of Catholic formation, an ongoing call to conversion and with a strong missionary [and] evangelizing component,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa.

Cardinal Stafford also asked then-Father Aquila to work with other priests to open a new diocesan seminary modeled after the Paris Seminary, which included parish households and the Spirituality Year.  “Father [Michael] Glenn and I traveled to Paris and met with then-Cardinal Lustiger, the rector, and staff of the seminary, and stayed in one of the parish houses. We were able to observe first-hand their program and then modeled our seminary program after theirs,” said now-Archbishop Aquila.

“Two of the more unique features of the program are the spirituality year, in which the men learn to pray, grow in intimacy with the Trinity, study the Catechism, prayerfully read the entire Bible through the year, study the theology of the body, [be] free from all [technology] and TV, spend a month working with the poor, and conclude the year with a directed, 30-day silent Ignatian retreat. The second feature is they live in parish houses and small communities, which allows them to grow in the virtue of charity and not get lost in the large seminary,” noted the archbishop.

Staff at St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater continue to strive for transparency, strong screening of their seminarians and overall excellence to form the best priests possible — ones that are committed to serving the people of God and leading them to an encounter with Jesus Christ.

“Our task in our seminary formation is to form virtuous men with the heart of Jesus Christ, who have died to themselves, will be willing to serve wherever they are called, and who will serve the faithful entrusted to their care with pastoral charity,” said Archbishop Aquila. “The priesthood is not about oneself, but serving Christ and the Church, laying down one’s life as Christ laid down his life for us.”