DENVER—With a new major seminary in Denver — the first in the United States since the close of the Second Vatican Council — and lay initiatives abounding, Cardinal Francis Stafford sees a new evangelization taking shape in America.

“What is happening here today is truly a distinctive event, not only for the archdiocese, but for the region and even the nation,” Cardinal Stafford told the Register.

The cardinal has a unique perspective from which to judge. He is a former archbishop of the mile-high city and currently serves as president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity.

“They have moved so far from the immense grace that came from World Youth Day and the many other events in the archdiocese subsequent to that,” he said. “Now the challenge is to be able to sustain a vision that is centered and responsive to the spirit of Christ.”

Standing at the altar used by Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day 1993, Cardinal Stafford presided at the Sept. 8 dedication Mass for St. John Vianney Seminary at Denver's John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

The seminary is not only the first theology-level seminary sponsored by the Archdiocese of Denver, it is the first diocesan theologate ever to exist in the vast Western region between Minneapolis and the Pacific Coast.

An atmosphere of celebration permeated the dedication as more than 1,000 people gathered under deep blue skies frequently erupted into applause as Cardinal Stafford and others gave thanks to God for the new seminary.

Using a chalice that belonged to St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, Cardinal Stafford was joined by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and an international assembly of bishops and more than 100 local priests in celebrating the Mass.

The Mass culminated a day of inaugural events that included talks by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, who developed the formation program that serves as the model for St. John Vianney Seminary; Bishop Angelo Scola, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, through which the seminary is formally affiliated; and Bishop Guy Bagnard of Belley-Ars, France, who spoke on “St. John Vianney and the Spiritual Formation of the Diocesan Clergy.”

The John Paul II Center is the renovated St. Thomas Theological Seminary that was owned and administered for most of this century by the Vincentian Fathers.

The Vincentians formed more than 1,100 priests for the Archdiocese of Denver before its 88-year history as a regional seminary came to an end in 1995. Enrollment peaked during the 1967–68 academic year with 265 seminarians, but declining student numbers and a lack of funds forced its closure 27 years later.

Then Archbishop Stafford bought the 40-acre campus for use as a seminary and more in September 1995. “At times, all of us were a bit frightened by what we saw the Spirit unfolding for us as options,” recalled Cardinal Stafford. “But the priests and people responded to the challenge with great faith and courage.”

Following extensive renovations, the Catholic Pastoral Center was relocated there in 1997, and the site was renamed the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

Since then, the center has become a hub for Catholic activity in northern Colorado. Chancery activities fill the daytime hours, and meetings, catechetical classes, retreats and liturgies fill the evenings.

Archbishop Chaput recently initiated a “Back to Basics” series of talks on Catholicism at the center, and expected to draw an audience of no more than 200. More than 3,000 turned out for the first meeting in September.

Cardinal Stafford said that a good deal of his efforts at the Pontifical Council for the Laity are directed toward the “extraordinary phenomenon of the coming forth of lay movements in the Church in the last two or three decades.”

He pointed out that Denver has been blessed with the presence of a number of international lay movements, including the Neocatechumenal Way, a Christian formation program that originated in Spain in 1966; the Christian Life Movement, founded during the 1980s in Peru, and which has now spread across America; and the Community of the Beatitudes, established 26 years ago in Albi, France.

“These new lay movements are clearly manifestations of the gifts and charisms of the Spirit and are rooted both in the institutional and charismatic aspects of the Church as taught in [Vatican II's] Lumen Gentium,” he said.

Archbishop Chaput, who was installed in 1997 after Archbishop Stafford was called to serve at the Vatican, strongly supported creating a new seminary program. He began in 1998 by instituting a spirituality year, a one-year spiritual immersion program for beginning seminarians.

In March, Archbishop Chaput announced the establishment of the Our Lady of New Advent Theological Institute, which encompasses the new St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, the deacon formation program and the many lay formation programs in the archdiocese.

The recent increase in men preparing for the priesthood in Denver has been dramatic — from 29 in 1995 to the current number of 68, and only four of those are being trained for another diocese.

Father John Hilton, archdiocesan vocation director, attributes the vocations increase to a number of factors, including World Youth Day in 1993, when Pope John Paul II visited Denver. He also credits the vision of Cardinal Stafford and the wide appeal of Archbishop Chaput, whom seminarians consider a “spiritual father.”

Twenty-three of the seminarians are members of the Neocatechumenal Way, an international movement of small faith groups active in six northern Colorado parishes. They live in community on the John Paul II Center campus.

Peter Droege is editor of the Denver Catholic Register.