Pontifical College Josephinum forming 'Renaissance Priests'

Seminary Photo by Jack Kustron, Catholic Times

The word “renaissance,” as defined by Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, means “a return of youthful vigor, freshness, zest, or productivity.”

It’s been used to describe the flourishing of cultural achievements in Europe from the 14th through the 17th centuries, with the term “Renaissance man” describing Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Copernicus, and others of that era whose knowledge extended into multiple areas.

The Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio has been undergoing a renaissance of its own in the past few years, with enrollment increasing significantly and seven dioceses sending seminarians there for the first time. They are learning how to be what the Josephinum’s rector, Father James Wehner, STD, describes as a priestly, 21st-century version of a Renaissance man.

As Fr. Wehner defines it, “The Renaissance priest is both a man of culture and a man of faith, propagating the mission of the Church in a language, method, and ministry accessible to the people of God.”

That vision has attracted an increasing number of young men to the Josephinum since Fr. Wehner was appointed rector in 2009 after being pastor of a large church in suburban Pittsburgh and spending six years as rector of the Pittsburgh diocesan seminary.

Enrollment at the Josephinum has increased 53 percent since his arrival, growing from 118 to this year’s total of 185, the seminary’s highest total since the 1970s. Students range in age from 17 to their early 50s. Since the Josephinum is a national seminary, they come from nearly 30 dioceses in the U.S.

Several, such as first-year student Nathaniel Glenn of Phoenix, had their pick of schools from throughout the nation. They chose the Josephinum because they felt a possible calling to be a priest and believed it was the best place to discern God’s will.

“A lot of my friends said to me, ‘You’re too smart and too talented to be going to a seminary,’” said Glenn, a National Merit Scholarship finalist who turned down nearly $450,000 in scholarship offers from schools such as Texas Tech, Alabama, Arizona, and Arizona State “I told them they had the wrong idea of what a seminary is. It’s somewhere we should be sending our best men. We need smart priests.”  

The Diocese of Columbus, with 30, has the largest number of students at the Josephinum for the first time in several years, followed by the Diocese of Phoenix, whose bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, is a former Josephinum rector. He is one of several past Josephinum rectors or students now serving as bishops.

Dioceses which have students at the seminary for the first this year are those from Victoria, Texas; Ogdensburg, N.Y.; Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.; Birmingham, Ala.; Lexington, Ky.; Great Falls-Billings, Mont., and Laredo, Texas. The 41-member faculty includes 22 priests, 17 of them residents, the largest such number in nearly two decades. They are from many dioceses and religious orders and were appointed by their bishops or the leaders of their orders to come to the Josephinum.

“There’s a great sense of fraternity among all of us because we do come from so many places and see the great diversity in the Catholic Church just in our own country. You know when you’re here, it’s not a run-of-the-mill place,” said Nic Ventura of Lancaster St. Mary Church, a first-year theology student, who is in his fifth year at the Josephinum after spending four years earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. The seminary offers both a four-year undergraduate program and a four-year course of graduate studies in theology, leading to ordination.

“The national flavor we have and the papal character of the Josephinum makes this a place where the competency level is very high,” said Fr. Walter Oxley, STD, vice rector for the undergraduate program. “You know you’re surrounded on the faculty by a group of very talented, competent educators who have served the church very well already,” he said. “ This creates a stimulating, vibrant, fresh atmosphere,” and makes the Josephinum what Msgr. Eugene Morris, STL, its director of liturgy, described as “a place that is in love with the church.”

The papal link Fr. Oxley referred to also makes the Josephinum unique. It’s the only seminary in the United States with pontifical status, an honor granted by Pope Leo XIII in 1892 at the request of Fr. Joseph Jessing, who founded the institution as an orphanage in Pomeroy, then moved it to downtown Columbus in 1877. Classes for future priests began there in 1888. The seminary moved to its wooded 75-acre campus near the border of Franklin and Delaware counties since 1931.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education appoints the rector, and the apostolic nuncio to the United States appoints the formation faculty and serves as the seminary’s chancellor. The bishop of Columbus traditionally is vice chancellor. Each year, transitional deacons attending the Josephinum who are soon to be ordained visit the nuncio’s home in Washington, while third-year theology students make a 10-day pilgrimage to Rome. All Josephinum students also hear Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly Angelus and general audience speeches and discuss them once a week during dinner.

An outward sign of the link to the Vatican comes in the form of the pontifical Roman cassocks which they wear on Sundays and for special feast days including Sept. 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, the day a Catholic Times reporter and photographer visited the seminary for this story. 

The cassocks are marked by red buttons along the arms and one shoulder and a red sash, and are the same as those worn by students of the pontifical seminaries in Rome. Fr. Wehner said the decree by Leo XIII allows students at the Josephinum to wear the cassocks. He decided to make them a part of the seminarians’ wardrobe as a reminder of the institution’s unique nature.

“Our clearly defined pontifical character as Rome’s seminary in America has interested bishops who want seminarians to have the unique, clear experience of formation envisioned by the Vatican,” he said.

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Fr. Wehner said the Josephinum’s mission is defined by three main concepts: Renaissance priesthood as described above, spiritual fatherhood, and the new evangelization as proclaimed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

He explained spiritual fatherhood by saying “priests don’t surrender the natural vocation all men have to provide nuptial, generative, spousal love. Priestly celibacy consecrates the natural order of man to the supernatural love of God. It does not deny the masculinity that is part of a man’s nature, but places it in a special context. This is important in today’s culture, where sexuality is defined in a perverse way.”

Fr. Wehner said that a Renaissance priest, “as the initial new evangelizer, exercises pastoral ministry in culture, with an understanding of what the Church is asking from him and of what the faithful expect from their priest. He can’t be afraid of meeting people wherever they can be found, but has to go beyond the world of the parish and into areas like the marketplace, prisons, or the places where addicts are. The 21st-century priest needs to be man enough to bring the Gospel everywhere people need to hear it.”

Students at all levels of the Josephinum go into the secular world every Thursday afternoon during the school year, teaching at Columbus-area Catholic schools, taking part in activities such as the Special Olympics, and paying visits to the sick in hospitals and nursing homes and to prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution.

“There’s not much a young men like me can say to someone who’s been in prison for a long time,” said second-year theology student Sean Dooley of Zanesville St. Nicholas Church. “You find out what prisoners mostly want is someone who can listen to them and can bring them a presence of God that’s hard to find in prison life.”

The Thursday afternoon apostolic works program is part of a rigorous daily schedule of academic and spiritual activities that begins at 6:45 a.m. with Morning Prayer and Mass and concludes with an 11:30 p.m. “lights-out” that’s not official, but is almost universally observed, said first-year theology student Brian O’Connor of Pickerington St. Elizabeth Seton Parish.

“It seems you’re busy all the time, especially on weekdays, so you’re too tired to stay up later,” he said. “There’s so much going on from sunup to sundown and beyond. But you know this is the way it’s going to be when you’re a priest, so it’s good to learn it now.”

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Besides classroom time, the weekly apostolic works program, and daily meals, the weekday schedule includes practice sessions for those involved in the Josephinum choir and schola or other musical organizations, one-hour weekly formation conferences one night a week with Father Wehner or faculty members speaking in depth on a particular topic, Evening Prayer at 5:45 p.m., and Night Prayer (optional on most evenings but required on some) at 9.

A Holy Hour is offered seven days a week and also is optional most days and required occasionally, In addition, there are ample opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance or to meditate in any of the institution’s four chapels, dedicated to St. Turibius, St. Rose of Lima, St. Joseph, and St. Pius X.

The Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the “Latin Mass”) is celebrated twice a month, and there is a weekly Mass in Spanish that’s part of a larger Hispanic formation program. An English-immersion program is offered for international students.

Seminarians also are exposed to a wide range of devotions including Eucharistic processions and weekly recitation of the Rosary, and they can join fraternities such as the Knights of Columbus, which recently began a campus chapter.

They have a little more free time on weekends, but are assigned to various maintenance activities on Saturdays. “It’s great for those of us from Columbus to be able to go home and visit friends for a little while, but it’s also a challenge because you know you can’t do everything your friends or family would like you to,”  said first-year theology student Tom Gardner of Columbus St. Catharine Church.

“You have to learn to say ‘No’ to people. It’s hard, but it’s a good life lesson,” he said. “We’re transitioning from a world where we’re surrounded by our family and friends to a larger world where our priorities go beyond the things we want, and where the demands on our time will be great.”

“A good way of describing the formation experience here is to call it a spiritual boot camp,” Fr. Wehner said. “This is not a monastery or a retreat center. Our programs of spiritual direction and pastoral formation are intense, and so is our program for seminarians’ external health.

“The days when a priest might be lazy, incompetent, and ineffective, but still be ordained, don’t exist. Today’s priest has to be strong, healthy, and confident. If he can’t meet these requirements, he won’t be ordained. Fortunately, with the program we offer, most seminarians who are having difficulty making the grade are able to see it for themselves.”

A gym, a swimming pool, and a fitness center which opened this summer and is equipped with $50,000 worth of treadmills, weights, and other equipment helps seminarians meet their physical needs. The Josephinum also offers intramural basketball, volleyball, and soccer, has a soccer team which plays teams off-campus, and hosts an annual basketball tournament involving other seminarians.

Its biggest sports event of the year is the annual Mud Bowl football game, played in November between the Theology “Papal Bulls” and the College “Vikings” as part of the school’s alumni weekend. It’s been said that although the level of play in the game may not be the same, its intensity equals that of an Ohio State-Michigan battle.

The Josephinum recently completed a $1.3 million renovation program which upgraded every room in the residence building for undergraduates. Fr. Wehner said it was the first significant change to the building since it opened in 1959. The upgrade is part of  a five-year strategic plan approved by trustees in an effort to respond to the continuing increase in enrollment and position the Josephinum as one of the world’s best seminaries.

A major feasibility study is under way to prepare the institution to launch a major capital campaign in 2013 to mark its 125th anniversary as a seminary.

Tuition, room, and board for a Josephinum student is $28,500 a year. Many of those students could not afford to come to the school without financial assistance from the institution and the Friends of the Josephinum, who assist needy seminarians with annual scholarships and funds for medical and dental expenses, emergency travel, books, and clothing.

For more information about the dinner and the Friends of the Josephinum, go to www.pcj.edu.

Printed with permission from the Catholic Times, newspaper for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.

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