WASHINGTON — After Ben Petty converted to the Catholic faith, he made a pilgrimage to Poland to visit the homeland of John Paul II.
"What drew me there was John Paul II himself. Through his vocation as a priest and a philosopher, he tried to make the truth about the most important things manifest," Petty told the Register.
On April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday, John Paul II will be canonized in a ceremony that is expected to draw millions of pilgrims to the Vatican from across the globe.
Ben Petty won’t be one of those pilgrims: The 33-year-old former Protestant is in his first year of pre-theology studies at the Blessed John Paul II Seminary in the Archdiocese of Washington, and he will be in the thick of exams. (The seminary’s name will become St. John Paul II Seminary.)
The Church’s first Polish pope has been celebrated for many accomplishments, including his decisive role in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. But he also played a role in vocations.
Petty’s story serves to remind Catholics that John Paul’s charismatic presence at the helm of the Barque of Peter helped to reverse a decades-long trend of declining priestly vocations. Church leaders in the United States pinpoint the late pope’s appearance at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 as a watershed moment, though the spiritual fruits of that landmark event have not been experienced by every diocese or religious order in equal measure.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington invoked John Paul’s sanctity on Feb. 15, as he marked the dedication of a new wing at the burgeoning seminary located near The Catholic University of America.
"What we are experiencing right now is something that began with the renewal inspired by John Paul II," Cardinal Wuerl told the Register, during an interview that noted an influx of young seminarians who earn undergraduate and graduate degrees at CUA while moving ahead with the discernment process or taking part in the formal program of seminary formation.
The enduring legacy of great popes and saints, the cardinal noted, is "measured in decades and centuries. And we are now seeing the fruit of John Paul’s papacy in the growing enthusiasm for priestly vocations."
Opened in 2011
The seminary opened its doors in 2011, and its beautiful, intimate chapel features a first-class relic of John Paul II: a bloody fragment from the cassock he wore when he was shot in 1981.
The Archdiocese of Washington has 81 seminarians, and 24 young men reside at the new seminary, along with five from other dioceses.
The new wing adds 20 more bedrooms, as well as a library and classroom space.
The seminary expansion will allow a total of 50 young men to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies at CUA. The university’s highly regarded School of Philosophy is a big draw for seminarians and vocations directors, while CUA’s striking efforts to deepen its religious identity have boosted its standing among faithful Catholics.
Cardinal Wuerl’s decision to open a seminary close to CUA underscores his belief that a growing number of young men want to begin the discernment process while they earn an undergraduate degree.
"The average age of all of our seminarians is 27 years old. The men entering the John Paul II Seminary are coming out of high school and college," said Cardinal Wuerl.
"What we are learning is that they very much want to be in the formation process while they are studying at college at CUA. They are benefiting both from their formation, but also from being on campus at CUA and getting a first-class education."
Sign of a ‘New Pentecost’
Cardinal Wuerl describes the increase in vocations as a sign of a "new Pentecost" — the fruit of the ministry and teachings of the last two popes, with Pope Francis also nudging Catholics to reach out to a world in need of spiritual healing with hands-on evangelization and service to the poor.
"Cardinal Wuerl had this great vision for the seminary, and its growth shows that it is fulfilling a need," Msgr. Robert Panke, the seminary rector, told the Register.
"We look at our own numbers for next year. And with a few dioceses sending a few more guys, we anticipate being almost full."
Msgr. Panke and CUA’s president, John Garvey, see the relationship between the seminary and university as mutually beneficial.
"We are the perfect complement to a seminary of this quality, because of the high academic standards we can offer, beginning with our ecclesiastical schools," Garvey told the Register.
"In the other direction, what a wonderful thing it is for the culture on campus to have seminarians studying here. They are terrific, smart, dedicated young men. The witness they give to their own vocations is a real inspiration and an invitation to the other students on the campus."
Cardinal Wuerl and Msgr. Panke want to see the ranks of those young men increase much more in the years ahead, and they pray that St. John Paul II’s intercession will continue to help them lead young men into priestly formation.
But Msgr. Panke also made it clear that saints help dioceses and vocation directors who help themselves.
The local Church, he said, has sought to "build a culture of vocations," with talks at schools, outreach to families and the work of the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Society, an archdiocesan prayer apostolate that has encouraged a growing number of local Catholics to pray daily for vocations to the priesthood.
Meanwhile, the young men at John Paul II Seminary will do their part to be worthy of the outpouring of support they have received from Washington Catholics.
"At the conclusion of every one of our Masses at the seminary chapel, we invoke John Paul’s prayers for us. While we do that, I always look over at the relic of John Paul and acknowledge his influence on me personally — and on all our lives — as he continues to intercede for all us seminarians," said Ben Petty.
"I never had the privilege of meeting him, but those who have commented on the penetrating gaze he had."
"Even at the end of his life, when he could barely move, I was told that you could see in his eyes a profound soul," Petty added.
"Now that he is part of the communion of saints in a more complete way, he is looking at us with that gaze, praying for us and drawing us closer to Christ."
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.