At a recent event commemorating the one year anniversary of the World Meeting of Families, Ken Gavin, the Director of Communications of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, argued that one of the lasting effects of Pope Francis’s visit will be a renewed interest in religious life.
In particular, Gavin highlighted the uptick in new seminarians in recent years as evidence that the Church in Philadelphia is growing—and now has been strengthened by the recent papal visit.
To follow-up, I recently spoke with Bishop Timothy Senior, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, to hear his thoughts on the papal visit, the Francis papacy, and what all of this means for religious life.
White: We’ve just commemorated the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia. What did this visit mean for the priests and seminarians in the archdiocese?
Senior: For the priests and seminarians in Philadelphia, I’d have to say that the visit of Pope Francis—and the World Meeting of Families, in general—was just a tremendous shot in the arm. I believe it gave new energy to the life of our faith community in Philadelphia.
It was a coming together of our Catholic community, and people of all faiths recognized it as a wonderful opportunity to welcome the world to Philadelphia.
The World Meeting of Families was just an extraordinary experience. Our seminarians who were given the opportunity to participate had a great glimpse of the universal Church—people from all over the world coming to Philadelphia—recognizing that experience of family, the importance of family, that cuts across ethnic and national boundaries and crosses over faith boundaries, as well.
We felt renewed energy for our Catholic faith and the great gift that it is. I believe that continues to resound. A year later, people of all faiths are still coming up to me and still talking about how much they have been inspired by the Holy Father. It gives us great hope for the future.
At the heart of Pope Francis’s ministry, we see in him a true parish priest. Has this influenced the formation process for priests at the seminary in Philadelphia? What about the way in which you help folks discern their potential vocations?
I believe the Holy Father has given us an articulation of pastoral ministry and speaking about pastoral ministry, about what a priest does. He gives us a wonderful example in his own ministry and his teaching, really in speaking to us about what it is a priest is called to do.
Through St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and through the Second Vatican Council, we have the great gift of the clarity of our teaching. But what Francis is calling us to do is say, “How do you take that truth and apply it? How do you help to engage the world from the firm, solid grounding of the teaching of our faith? And what’s the pastoral strategy?”
I think the Holy Father has given us the paradigm of accompaniment—meeting people where they are, listening before you speak, listening to their experience, letting people tell you the story of their experience of life, their joys and their sufferings, and looking for the point of intersection where the truth of the faith speaks to their experience.
And then, accompany them on a journey toward deeper communion with God. The Holy Father has articulated it in his writings — I’m thinking of Amoris Laetitia, in particular, but also Evanglii Gaudium. Through his own example, he says, “this is what ministers of the gospel are called to do.”
It’s certainly reflective of his Jesuit background and the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, finding God in all things.
People speak in terms of John Paul II being the great philosopher, Pope Benedict the theologian, and Pope Francis as being the spiritual director. Every good spiritual director knows that he brings the solid grounding of the philosophical and theological tradition of the Church to the work of leading others in discernment.
I think the Holy Father is really giving us an example, inspiring us as we lead seminary formation, to say, “This is what you’ve got to look at when you’re thinking about being a priest.”
Without that engagement of the world, you can be articulating the faith perfectly but no one will be listening, so it’s the noisy gong and the clanging symbol. When we allow people to speak of their experience and then meet them where they are, following a paradigm of accompaniment, I think our ministry is so much more effective.
In the work of formation too, we have to model this in our work with seminarians. It’s not just teaching them or telling them, but we have to meet them where they are and accompany them.
I’ve discovered this with seminarians where they basically put it back to me, where they’ll say you’re telling us to have a certain style to our priesthood or having a certain pastoral strategy, but we need to have it modeled and see what it looks like. There’s no better way than to actually live this than doing it with them.
I can think of situations where seminarians come with very strong perspectives about what they think the Church should be doing or not doing. It’s so important for me, as a rector, not to judge but to understand how God is working in their life in a way that perhaps I don’t see initially, and it wasn’t the way I experienced the deepening of my faith in the 1970s.
Yet I listen to their experience—and it’s so important because they come from this culture, this secularized world—and I need to hear that before I can begin to lead them.
Following the controversies that have plagued the Church in recent decades, some critics have said that Church would have to radically alter its teachings in order to attract new priests. Why is seminary enrollment up in Philadelphia?
We’re seeing an uptick of new young men entering the seminary. This year we increased our overall seminary enrollment by 13 percent. We had twenty-one new young men last year; we’ve got 18 new men this year, all studying for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Two years ago we had only six for the archdiocese of Philadelphia.
We’ve had two years in a row of increases for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and general increases for the seminary, and that has to do with our partner dioceses and their successes in recruitment. The diocese of Allentown has also seen an uptick two years in a row, which has improved our enrollment at St. Charles Borromeo.
I would say there have been a number of strategies, and what we’ve done has begun to bear fruit. Things we started years ago are beginning to bear fruit now, I think we’ve got six or seven men in application already for next year, so we’re still looking very hopeful and it seems to be trending in that direction.
In terms of why I think that’s happening, I think it’s because we’re engaging men at a younger age, we’re looking for greater collaboration with the laity in identifying potential candidates, and getting priests more involved.
In terms of your question as to whether or not we need to change Church teaching to attract more priests, that really isn’t an issue. The guy who is discerning if he’s called to priesthood or married life understands that the call to priesthood is a call to celibate chastity.
I haven’t really had a situation where a guy said, “I would apply to the seminary but I really want to be married.” I’m sure that happens, but I think that actually provides clarity in seeing if they’re called to serve the Church in another way, which is an important discovery.
The other thing, in addition to engaging men early on, such as in high school, and planting a seed and staying in contact with them as they’re deciding where they’re going to college, what their decision will be, is inviting them in and reminding them that a decision to enter seminary formation is not a decision to be ordained.
First of all, the decision to be ordained isn’t your decision alone, it’s something that the Church discerns with you and if you’re called to the priesthood. The seminary is a process of you getting to know us, and us getting to know you. It’s a community of discerners where we’re all trying to know the will of God, so that makes it a little easier. It also makes it easier for parents to support it.
We have to be open to this too, especially on the college level. We have an undergraduate college program at St. Charles, and it has a great liberal arts curriculum and the men live a very disciplined life and they’re coming to the seminary because they want to be priests. But we’re looking at it forming them first as Christian men and developing the Christian virtues of manhood and maturity. And then, the priesthood will flow from that.
The other thing that’s key is getting priests to encourage young men that they think may have an interest in it. I think as morale was getting lower because of the sexual abuse scandals and the other difficulties we’ve had, priests were feeling down about the Church and what’s happening. But the more you get priests to be enthusiastic and energized about the priesthood, the more likely they will be to encourage young men.
And I think Pope Francis has helped that—and helped priests—to feel better about what they’re doing and encourage them to be more zealous and enthusiastic and joyful in their ministry, and that’s going to bear fruit.
How can those of us not wearing collars work to support this renewal in religious life?
I think this is an important point. Not only is there the idea of recruiting and encouraging young men and women to the priesthood or consecrated life, but also the actual formation process, but it’s very important for the laity to work with seminarians and to encourage them, challenge them.
Giving seminarians the experience of gaining feedback and perspective from the laity is very important and valuable, and prepares them for their pastoral ministry.
On the recruitment end, in Philadelphia, we had a program last year, “Called by Name,” where we invited parishioners throughout the archdiocese to write down the names of young men that they thought might be called to the priesthood and turn them into the pastor. The pastor went through them as a first level of review and then we collated them and now we have several hundred names of lay people from across the archdiocese who are sitting in the pews who might be good priests, they might have a certain openness to it, and we can now engage them in this process.
Pope Francis recently announced that the theme of the next synod will be “Young people, faith, and vocational discernment.” What do you hope for this upcoming synod and its influence on the global Church?
The upcoming synod will provide a great opportunity to raise awareness of vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life.
In focusing the theme of the synod on young people and vocational discernment, the Holy Father seems to be acknowledging that a growing number of young people have an appreciation for our Catholic faith, as well as an intense desire for the spiritual life and a deeper relationship with God. Such a desire in young people will likely be highlighted in the synod as the Church seeks to guide young people in their discernment of God’s will, and could encourage more young people to think about religious vocations.
I look forward to the coming synod and to all the opportunities that it will bring.