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

Moira Cullings

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.”

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.