By Cardinal Justin Rigali

As we approach the Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo on November 4, we have the opportunity to reflect on our Seminary, which bears his name.

“You have a good seminary!”
When I greeted Pope Benedict XVI shortly after his election by the College of Cardinals, I was delighted when he said to me: “You have a good seminary in Philadelphia!” What an honor for our Archdiocese that the new Pope would say such a thing at such a moment. This week, we take the opportunity to discuss both the idea of what a seminary is and, at the same time, reflect on our own Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo and its role in the training of future priests.

Of course, the first priests and bishops, the apostles, were “trained” and prepared for their mission by Jesus Himself. They heard His words and were captivated by His presence and His message. As a result of this “training,” they were prepared to go forth and preach the Gospel with love and conviction, and with the purity of the doctrine they themselves had received. In many ways, although the training of priests has taken many different forms over the course of two thousand years, the same elements we just identified in the preparation given to the apostles, are meant to be replicated in the life and preparation of future priests.

Seminarians are to be motivated by a deep love for Jesus; they are to fill themselves with His words and commands; they are to benefit from His presence, in His Word and, most of all in the Most Blessed Sacrament; and they are to be filled with the zeal of the apostles in preaching the message of Jesus to those to whom they are sent. Many books have been written and many documents have been issued which identify all the ways in which seminarians can, and should, accomplish all of this.

Early formation of priests
In the early centuries of the Church, we obviously do not have accounts of seminaries as we understand them today. However, we do read references to the care which the early Church took in conferring Holy Orders. In his rules for priests in the First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul warns: “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone” (1 Timothy 5:22).

The external sign of the laying on of hands comes to us from Hebrew usage and signifies the transfer of power from one to another. It is, of course, the outward sign of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by which a Bishop transmits the power of the priesthood. In the first centuries of the Church, young men who were attracted to the work of evangelizing would begin to help the local bishop and would observe what he did. They would learn by watching and listening and would eventually be invited to receive the priesthood, if the Bishop thought them worthy.

In the time of St. Augustine (354-430), we find the first references to something approaching the concept of a seminary as we know it. Augustine gathered young men into a priestly community, where they could pray and learn together. In these cases, they generally were already priests, but the community concept begins to be present. This is also the origin of those preparing for the priesthood and those new to the priesthood living with or near their Bishop. In this way, he could observe them and they could benefit from his experience and wisdom.

These places of learning came to be called “cathedral schools,” because they were near the “cathedra” or “seat” of the Bishop. These cathedral schools were the seeds of the formation of the great universities, where the Church encouraged and assisted the expansion of learning in many parts of the world.

The development of universities also caused something of a tension in the training of priests. The universities had theology faculties, where a young man aspiring to the priesthood could progress in learning. However, very often there was little spiritual direction to accompany the intellectual formation. On the other hand, those who aspired to the priesthood without attending one of the universities, often received spiritual formation without the necessary intellectual preparation for the priesthood. The deficiencies of these systems in the training of priests led to the formation of seminaries as we know them by the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Council declared that: “Every diocese is bound to support, rear in piety, and train in ecclesiastical discipline a certain number of youths, in a college to be chosen by the Bishop for that purpose; poor dioceses may combine, large dioceses may have more than one seminary” (Session 23).

St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), Archbishop of Milan, was both a leading Father of the Council of Trent and a very zealous instrument in the carrying out of its decrees. He established three seminaries in his own large archdiocese, and drew up rules for them which inspired the formation of seminaries throughout the world for hundreds of years. It is most fitting that he, who in many ways can be considered the “Father of the Seminary system,” should be the Patron of our own archdiocesan seminary.

The founding of our seminary
With the expansion of the Church into the United States of America, the Bishops were anxious to form proper seminaries for the training of priests. After the initial presence of zealous missionaries from other countries, who laid the foundation of the faith in North America, the Church in this country matured, and it was natural that its own seminaries should be founded for the education of a native clergy.

St. Charles Seminary was founded in 1832 by the third Bishop of Philadelphia, Francis Kenrick. Consistent with the origin of seminaries as I mentioned above, the first St. Charles Seminary was located at the home of Bishop Kenrick on Fifth Street in Philadelphia. It was chartered by the state of Pennsylvania in 1838 to grant academic degrees. Subsequently, the Seminary was located at two other locations in Philadelphia before moving to its present home in Wynnewood, long referred to as “Overbrook,” a name lovingly associated with our Seminary for many years.

The present stately buildings of the College spanision of St. Charles Seminary, which can be seen at the corner of City and Lancaster Avenues, were opened in 1928. Such is the love of the people of the archdiocese for the Seminary and for the training of priests, that the buildings were completely paid for by the time they opened!

The buildings of the Theology spanision had been built earlier, with additions made over the years. In the 1970s a new residence hall, named after St. John Vianney, was constructed and most recently the Library was expanded and a Research area added. The Seminary is accredited by both the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada. It is committed to providing a unified college and theology program of formation in priestly spirituality, pastoral ministry, celibate witness, emotional maturity, intellectual integrity and physical wellness.

I am so pleased that many seminarians from other dioceses throughout the country, as well as members of Religious Orders and Congregations, choose to send their young men to be formed at St. Charles Seminary. This makes for a richer and more spanerse community and it enriches the seminarians with friendships that will last a lifetime.

“St. Charles also offers its resources to the larger Church community through its Religious Studies spanision and in cooperation with other institutes, provides a variety of academic and pastoral programs to serve the needs and interests of priests and deacons in parochial and other ministries, other parish workers, teachers of religion, and interested lay persons. The Seminary is committed to serve the need for on-going formation and pastoral education, as this need continues to be discerned and in collaboration with the leadership of the local Church” (Mission Statement, St. Charles Seminary).

The sower goes out to sow
The motto of St. Charles Seminary is: “A sower went out to sow,” taken from chapter 4 of the Gospel of St. Mark. It describes the mission of the priest, as he is sent forth from the seminary, and also refers to origin of the word “seminary,” which comes from the Latin word meaning “seed” or “to sow.” Indeed, the seed of a possible priestly vocation is nurtured and explored during the period of training spent at the seminary.

The seminarian, along with the faculty members and those in charge of formation, constantly examine a possible vocation to be sure that it is from God. However, that “seed” also begins to grow in another place: the home. There will always be priests, according to God’s plan. Sometimes there will be more, and sometimes there will be fewer. This has been the constant history of the Church. However, all must work together to bring forth zealous and holy priests. One of the places that this mysterious process begins is in the home, where there is an esteem for the priesthood and a generosity with God in both bringing forth children, and instilling them with a love for God and His service.

I thank all those who work so hard to support our Seminary in so many ways. Your sacrifices and prayers have great value in the bringing forth of future priests, who will serve God’s people and praise God in their name.

28 October 2010