ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Sometimes a lecture at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul is so intense that Patrick Hoeft carries his notes straight to the chapel to pray and process them.

“There’s a sense of, ‘Wow, something amazing just happened in class, and I can’t quite articulate it, so I’m just going to sit in silence and soak it in,'” said the 25-year-old seminarian from rural Paynesville, Minnesota. “It’s an awareness of my own smallness, of being struck by the mysteries of God. It’s a feeling of wonder and awe.”

The image is an apt symbol of this storied seminary: a place for soaking in, a sort of incubator for future priests where a lanky farm boy brings his handwritten notes to God, where intellectual rigor and spiritual fervor meet — head and heart — to prepare new shepherds for the Catholic Church.

Since its founding 125 years ago, the seminary has become a regional center for formation, producing over 2,500 priests and some 30 bishops, while expanding its scope to educate lay leaders, train deacons and support clergy.

Under the guidance of its rector, Father Joseph Taphorn, and an acclaimed faculty, today it numbers 70 seminarians from 13 dioceses and religious orders, 38 men in diaconate formation, 66 degree-seeking students, and more than 800 students in its catechetical institute.

It all began in 1890 with the gift of half a million dollars from a Methodist railroad tycoon to build a Catholic seminary. James J. Hill wanted to honor his wife, Mary Theresa, a devout Catholic, with a seminary.

News of the donation made its way to Rome, where Archbishop John Ireland visited Pope Leo XIII, who “spoke to me at length of his high appreciation of your princely generosity in building our seminary and of the great honor thereby conferred upon the Church in America,” the archbishop wrote to Hill.

The relationship between the two local leaders shaped the earliest renderings of the seminary, Hill’s resources and practicality fusing with Ireland’s vision. The result: a seminary unlike others, a new approach to priestly formation for the American Church on the cusp of the 20th century.

Their frontier seminary would be big in size and scope, based on intellectual curiosity and a broad mission. The men would study not only philosophy and theology but also science and literature. The construction, like the curriculum, aimed at fresh air, consisting of six separate buildings rather than the seminary norm, one all-encompassing fortress sealing off the outside world.

At the dedication ceremonies on a sunny September day in 1895, Ireland described the seminary’s ecumenical reach “beyond” Catholics, proclaiming: “Its spirit will be to work for the whole people, offering it strength to uphold every noble cause and willing to cooperate with all men who labor to serve God, humanity and country.”

Over the decades, the seminary grew, enduring the Great Depression and re-examining its approach in light of the Second Vatican Council. All the while it hewed to its founders’ vision for a well-rounded formation, finding new ways to integrate the four dimensions: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.

In 1983, the curriculum was revised to anchor academic study to parish life. Sister Mary Daniel Hartnett, a Sister of St. Joseph, developed a novel Teaching Parish Program linking classroom studies with regular participation in a local parish for four consecutive years — a rare degree of immersion for seminarians that has since been replicated by seminaries across the country.

Two years later the seminary became officially affiliated with the College of St. Thomas, presenting new avenues for collaboration and evangelization. It was reinforced by opportunities for study abroad in Mexico, Jerusalem and Rome, stamping the seminarians’ passports and hearts. And it gained invaluable real-world training through a spiritual pastoral ministry program that teaches seminarians to minister to the sick and suffering at area hospitals and care facilities.

The seminarians’ objective is “to heal wounds and warm hearts,” former rector Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan often said.

Hoeft has learned how to do that through his time at a hospital. “A huge aspect of ministering to people is learning how to be a good listener,” he told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “To make someone feel heard can relieve more pain than any physical healing.”

The interplay of lessons gleaned in the classroom, the chapel, the hospital and the parish help distinguish St. Paul Seminary from other major seminaries in the country, said Dean Christopher Thompson. “I would like to think what sets us apart is solid doctrinal formation coupled with a heartfelt desire to lead others to the Lord and his church. I’d like to think we have a special commitment to this blend of fidelity and evangelization in the contemporary Church and culture.”

That blend is “the ideal mix,” according to Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “The seminary has provided us with such great priests who have really pastoral hearts and are theologically prepared and have a real desire to respond to God’s call to serve,” he said.

Also contributing to the seminary’s unique standing, Thompson added: the Twin Cities’ vibrant Catholic lay culture and St. Thomas’s prestigious Catholic studies department, the oldest and largest Catholic studies program in the world.

Regular opportunities for honest self-assessment are a hallmark of formation at St. Paul Seminary, he added. Working closely with both a formation director as well as a spiritual director helps keep the seminarians accountable. The directors meet with the pastor from a seminarian’s teaching parish for year-end evaluations.

“Self-knowledge is so important,” Taphorn said. “Everybody has their issues. What’s most impressive is when a man can acknowledge, ‘Yeah, I still kind of struggle in this area.’ What people need in their parishes are happy, healthy, holy priests who can acknowledge their difficulties and tap into the support and resources to improve.”

Making sure the men have a healthy understanding of celibacy has been an area of particular focus at the seminary since the 2002 clergy sex abuse scandal broke in Boston.

Being honest about challenges requires humility, the antidote to the clericalism Pope Francis has cautioned against, said Sister Katarina Schuth, a Sister of. St. Francis and professor emerita.

“Human formation is tricky,” she said. “It’s internal and external — your feelings, your relationships with people, and it’s also the kind of person you are becoming. Do you treat people as a child of God who is your equal or do you treat them as someone lesser than you? There’s a real need to understand that being a relational, caring, listening person doesn’t mean that you lose authority. In fact, a good exercise of authority would involve building people up.”

Taphorn often quotes St. John Paul II, who wrote in a 1992 apostolic exhortation on priestly formation: “It is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.”

The quote can make an enlightening question for seminarians, he said. “It’s a concrete image, a point of self-examination: Am I being a bridge or an obstacle? And in humility we need to own it.”

The need for a bridge has never been more urgent, as the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any organized religion surges, according to the Pew Research Center. Today there are more religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. than Catholics.

The seminarians have the greatest impact when their love for the Lord shines through, Taphorn said. “We want men who can be inviting and warm and infectious with their joy because we have the greatest treasure, which is Jesus Christ. So if we’re rooted in the truth of the faith and we pay attention to that pastoral heart, that’s how we become the bridge.”

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Capecchi writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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