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

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”