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New Seminary Suggests Big Plans in Denver March 24, 1999

By Molly Mulqueen

A new major seminary will open in Denver in the fall of 1999. Amid the cheers of nearly 40 seminarians-- some dressed in cassocks; others in clerics; all in Roman collars-- Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, announced the new venture at a press conference on March 16. It is the end result of four years of astute planning and measured efforts by Archbishop Chaput and his predecessor in Denver, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

St. John Vianney Theological Seminary of the Archdiocese of Denver will be the only major seminary in the country located between the Mississippi River and the west coast, and one of only 25 in the world to be officially affiliated with the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Four years ago, then-Archbishop Stafford spent $2.6 million to purchase the St. Thomas Seminary in southeast Denver, formerly owned by the Vincentian order, after it closed due to falling enrollment in 1995. Stafford promised to explore the possibility of opening a new seminary there in the future, and when Archbishop Chaput succeeded him in Denver in 1997, the new leader of the Denver archdiocese took up his predecessor's cause.

The archdiocese embarked on a capital campaign, and raised the necessary funds to renovate the 40-acre campus and renamed it the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, in a reference to Pope John Paul II's inspiring visit to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day. The archdiocesan pastoral center and the archbishop's residence were moved across town to the site, which already housed the Vehr Theological Library (named for a former Denver archbishop) and Christ the King Chapel.

"Four years ago this spring, my predecessor, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, began a long, careful process which culminates-- or rather, begins a new phase-- today," Chaput announced. "In purchasing the former St. Thomas Seminary and transferring the Catholic Pastoral Center to the site, he showed prudent stewardship. He also showed real vision,… for in rededicating the grounds as the 'John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization,' he looked ahead to a renewal of the missionary zeal among Colorado Catholics. We need that renewal even more urgently today."

The seminary will be part of a larger educational endeavor in Denver known as "Our Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute," where soon, Archbishop Chaput said, "all archdiocesan priestly, diaconal and lay formation programs, along with the Office for Liturgy. . . will receive their training for their various ministries in the archdiocese."

The John Paul II Center includes ample space for all of these projects, and has become the hub of Catholic activity in northern Colorado.

According to Archbishop Chaput, "To evangelize today's world, we need the best possible integration of the various vocations within the Church. Through the institute, we hope to shape new apostles rooted in the heart of the Church who truly understand, respect, and mutually support each other's vocations from the very beginning of their formation."

Because of the connection to the 200-year-old Pontifical Lateran University, Our Lady of the New Advent (named for the patroness of the Archdiocese of Denver) will have the authority to grant pontifical degrees to the students who complete their course of study there. At first, only the graduating seminarians will receive STB degrees (baccalaureate degrees in sacred theology). Eventually, Chaput said, "the degree programs will open up to lay persons as well. Moreover, with God's help and our people's generosity, we hope to develop license and doctorate programs in the future."

The Pontifical Lateran University, which was founded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV, is still under the Pope's authority-- hence its nickname: "the Pope's university." Officials at the Lateran gave their approval of the Denver seminary curriculum and faculty (25 full- and part-time instructors, more than half of whom have pontifical degrees themselves) before granting the Denver institution the authority to confer pontifical degrees upon its graduates. And in Archbishop Chaput's words, "the faculty members. . .men and women with both local and international credentials-- are outstanding. I believe they are one of the best theological faculties in North America."

And what a curriculum! Officials of St. John Vianney (named after the patron saint of parish priests) promise a course of studies for these future priests that is unique among American seminaries-- a program that seminary provost Sean Innerst calls a "great-books theology curriculum."

"One of the exciting things about this is the possibility of doing some experimenting with the curriculum," said Innerst. "At many established seminaries, the curriculum is formed when someone [on the staff] asks for one thing, then someone else asks for another. . .. These things grow over time in an organic fashion. The curriculum gets bigger, more complicated, and in some ways, less unified.

"We have tried to approach seminary education in a different way, to bring to it an integrity and unity that the documents [of Vatican II] call for," continues Innerst. "Scripture is the bedrock of our curriculum. This is in response to the Vatican statement that 'Scripture is the soul of spirituality.'"

"Each seminarian will also read primary sources of the history of theological development-- knowing how the Fathers and Doctors thought about that particular Scriptural text," Innerst explained. "They will study the whole of it, and not pull out or pull apart each of the ecclesiastical sciences, in order to get the sense of the unity of the Gospel. This will enable these men to understand and disclose the mystery and the history of the Church."

The philosophy component at St. John Vianney will be very strong as well-- heavy on Thomistic philosophy, and including the important modern philosophers, too. Fluency in Spanish will also be required of all seminary graduates.

Like so many dioceses in the United States, the Archdiocese of Denver has experienced a shortage of priests in recent years. The geographic span of the archdiocese is immense, extending over 24 counties that stretch across the full breadth of mountainous northern Colorado. That geographical spread creates challenges for the local Church, demanding special efforts to maintain a common sense of community. And yet the number of men preparing for the priesthood in the archdiocese has ballooned in the last few years. In 1995, Denver had 29 seminarians in various stages of preparation. By 1998 that number more than doubled, with 68 men studying at nine different sites. At least 50 of those seminarians will attend the new St. John Vianney Seminary next fall.

"Over the next several years, nearly all of our seminarians will begin and complete their major seminary education here within the archdiocese," Archbishop Chaput.

Keeping these young men in the archdiocese while they work and study towards ordination is a cost-effective plan. But probably more important than the bottom line is what Innerst calls the "esprit de corps" that the seminarians will develop while work and study together-- a spirit that they will carry with them throughout their lives as priests in northern Colorado.

"There are lots of intangibles during priestly formation: the seminary is a time of rapid spiritual and intellectual growth. The nostalgia for that time in their life will connect them even more deeply to the place they are serving," Innerst said. "That value is incalculable and played pretty heavily in the Archbishop's decision to go ahead with this."

Walking the grounds at the John Paul II Center in Denver, one quickly gains the impression that it is teeming with life and vitality. Most of the business of the archdiocese is conducted in these offices; the classrooms are occupied by adult education seminars or youth group events, and there is a remarkable amount of traffic in the library, since it has been opened to the public. Outside on the grounds, with the Rocky Mountains framing the distance, there are soccer fields and a softball diamond, and every so often, the seminarians and the staff square off in a game of Frisbee football.

In addition to the local archdiocesan seminarians, two groups of young men in priestly formation have moved to Denver in recent years, with groups adding their particular charisms and enthusiasms to the program. Some members of the Neocatechumenate Way, an international Catholic spiritual movement of small faith groups, will serve at parishes in northern Colorado after ordination; others will be sent all over the world as missionaries at the discretion of Denver's ordinary. Members of Cor Jesu (Latin for "Heart of Jesus"), a new American religious order of men who will specialize in catechetics, will be ordained for the Denver archdiocese until their order receives its own canonical status, a process that can take many years to complete.

Father Samuel J. Aquila will serve as rector of the new seminary and the theological institute. Costs are expected to average about $15,000 per seminarian per academic year. The archdiocese is working to increase the $2.9 million endowment it holds for priestly formation as the numbers of seminarians increases.

The Church in Denver seems to be gathering steam for a long run into the next millennium. As Archbishop Chaput explained in his announcement of the new seminary:

"What do we man by a 'new evangelization?' It's a simple idea-- and it's the key to understanding our vocation as Christians of the Great Jubilee. It means preaching Jesus Christ to a rapidly changing world with a new zeal, new tools and new spirit suited to the needs of our age. That's a huge task. We have many great priests, religious, deacons, and lay persons doing God's work in northern Colorado. But we need more. And, in the decades ahead, we'll need them working even more closely together, supporting and complimenting each other in the spirit which Vatican II intended."