DENVER—The first new major diocesan seminary in the United States since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 will open this fall in the Archdiocese of Denver.
Denver's plan, announced March 16 by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, represents a number of important firsts for the local, regional and national churches, and even has a link to the universal Church.
St. John Vianney Seminary is not only the first theology-level seminary sponsored by the Archbishop of Denver, it is the first diocesan theologate ever to exist in the vast western region between Minneapolis and the Pacific Coast. Sacred Heart School of Theology, opened by the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1988, is not comparable since it replaced a regional diocesan seminary, also based in Detroit.
It will also be the first seminary in the United States to be linked to a papal university in Rome, the 200-year-old Pontifical Lateran University.
The seminary will serve the rapidly increasing number of men preparing for the priesthood in northern Colorado.
“We have 68 men in formation for the priesthood today — that's more than double a few years ago,” Archbishop Chaput told members of the news media gathered for the announcement at the seminary site. “Call this a surprise action by the Holy Spirit.”
The Denver ordinary gave his explanation while surrounded by about 40 seminarians wearing Roman collars, a few of them dressed in traditional black cassocks.
“No one [among the reporters] seemed satisfied with my answer,” the Archbishop told the Register in an interview after the announcement. “I don't really know why we are getting vocations, but I do intend that our formation program be fully Catholic.”
The seminary will be located in the former St. Thomas Theological Seminary, established in 1907 by the Vincentian Fathers to train their own seminarians along with candidates from other religious communities and dioceses, including Denver. The Vincentians closed the seminary in 1995 when enrollment dwindled to about 30 men.
Before leaving Denver for a Vatican post in 1996, then Archbishop J. Francis Stafford bought the 40-acre campus for $2.6 million with an eye to using the facility as the archdiocesan chancery and, perhaps, as a seminary.
Following the completion of renovations in 1997, the plant was renamed the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization and the archbishop's offices and many of his archdiocesan ministries were moved in.
In creating the seminary, Archbishop Chaput also announced the establishment of Our Lady of the New Advent Theological Institute, which will encompass the new seminary, the archdiocesan deacon formation program and the many lay formation programs of the archdiocese.
The Denver seminary is only one of 25 institutions worldwide to be affiliated with the Lateran University. While the seminary will function under Archbishop Chaput's jurisdiction, all degrees will be granted by the Lateran in Rome.
Often called “the Pope's university,” the Lateran was founded in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV and remains under papal jurisdiction. It forms the top tier of Vatican teaching institutions along with Gregorian and the Angelicum universities. Affiliation with the Lateran “shows our strong relationship to the universal Church and to the Holy Father,” Archbishop Chaput told the Register.
The recent increase in men preparing for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Denver has been dramatic. In 1995, there were 29, but by 1997, that number had climbed to 42. During the 1998-99 academic year, the archdiocese has 68 seminarians studying at nine sites.
When St. John Vianney opens in September, the majority of the men being formed for the Archdiocese of Denver will be enrolled at the new seminary.
Father John Hilton, archdiocesan vocations director, attributes the vocations increase to a number of factors, including World Youth Day in 1993, when Pope John Paul II visited Denver, and the wide appeal of the youthful Archbishop Chaput, whom seminarians consider a spiritual father.
Archbishop Chaput has named Father Samuel J. Aquila as rector of St. John Vianney. Father Aquila, currently secretary for Catholic education for the archdiocese.
Twenty-five full- and part-time faculty members are expected to teach at the seminary in its first year, most of whom have either a doctorate or pontifical license from Roman institutions. Faculty members will include priests, sisters, and lay men and women.
Seminarians will participate in a six-year formation program focused primarily on philosophy and theology that begins with a non-academic “spirituality year” that focuses on prayer. Proficiency in Spanish is also required for graduation.
St. John Vianney is already home to seminarians who are members of the Neocatechumenal Way, an international Catholic spiritual movement, a number of whom took up residence on the campus three years ago.
While often drawn from outside the area, the Neocatechumenal seminarians “will be ordained for the archdiocese and will serve outside of Denver only if they are sent by me on a specific mission,” Archbishop Chaput told the Register.
Seminarians for Cor Jesu, a religious community of diocesan rank established in Denver under Archbishop Chaput, will also train at the new seminary.
Archbishop Chaput said his archdiocese is growing both through Latin American immigration and from new arrivals from other parts of the country, attracted by the area's natural beauty and its reputation as a wholesome environment in which to raise a family.
The archbishop attributes the burst of vocations in Denver and the encouragement they are receiving through the foundation of a new seminary to what Pope John Paul has called a “New Advent” in the Church at the dawn of the third millennium.
He told the Register: “They are signs of the spring time of the Church that the Holy Father has been predicting.”
— Joe Cullen is an assistant editor of the Register.