Julio De Jesus was only 16 when he came to the United States with his family from the Dominican Republic. As a teen in a new country, he struggled with leaving behind his friends, his language and his culture, but he knew he would not have to leave his faith behind.
In his effort to discern his vocation, De Jesus said that Pope John Paul II was his anchor.
"He was a role model for me to make my decision to go to the seminary," said De Jesus, 42, a student at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla. "When he died in 2005, that was when I made my decision to enter the seminary. He was a normal person. He was a sportsman, he was in theater, but he left everything for the Lord. I thought, ‘If he could do it, I could do it.’"
And De Jesus isn’t alone. St. Vincent de Paul is a bustling major theologate, which serves all seven Florida dioceses (as well as six other sending dioceses). With 85 men in studies now, the seminary has grown from 56 men just five years ago.
St. Vincent de Paul kicked off its 50th anniversary year with a gala event last November. All seven Florida bishops, apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and about 600 people gathered for the celebration, which had a decidedly joyful feel because of the state’s vocations boom.
Since then, the seminary has served as host to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a first-class relic of John Paul II and Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Later in the year, it will welcome papal biographer George Weigel and Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household.
The seminary’s rector, Msgr. David Toups, is thrilled with the anniversary-year festivities, but more so with the abundance of men studying for the priesthood in Florida. "In the next three years, because of what we know we have coming from St. John Vianney, the state’s minor seminary, we’re going to be at 110," he explained. "It’s the largest group of theologians we’ve ever had studying in the state of Florida."
There are a number of factors that led to the influx of seminarians, Msgr. Toups said, but the first reason is prayer. "Over the last 20 years, the Church across the country has quite consciously prayed as the Lord said, ‘Beg the Master of the harvest for an increase in laborers.’ We’ve created a consciousness of the need for vocations, and some of that awareness was brought about by soon-to-be St. John Paul II. His long pontificate brought stability to the Church, continued by Pope Benedict, certainly. And I think the ‘Francis Effect’ will continue this growth — especially as he challenges young people to great discipleship."
Not only is the quantity of men on the rise, but also the quality, Msgr. Toups said. "These men have really been formed without any of the baggage or difficulties of the post-conciliar world," he explained. "Not only that, but these men are coming into the Church in a post-2002 scandal world. So just when you think vocations should be at an all-time low, vocations are at an all-time high — because these men are stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not my Church, and I want to be part of the solution!’ They’re really a heroic group of men for saying, ‘I know our reputation has taken a hit, but I’m getting into this because it’s all about Jesus Christ and discipleship and serving him. It’s not about prestige and honor, but about servanthood.’"
At the invitation of Miami’s first bishop, Coleman Carroll, the Vincentian Fathers founded the seminary in 1963. The Vincentians withdrew in 1971, and the Archdiocese of Miami took over the operation of the seminary. Today, it serves all of Florida. Located just southwest of West Palm Beach, it’s the only major Catholic seminary south of Washington and east of New Orleans.
The seminary stresses the importance of multicultural ministry to the point that students are expected to be able to celebrate Mass and two other sacraments in both English and Spanish, making it one of only two bilingual major Catholic seminaries in the country (the other is Assumption Seminary of the Archdiocese of San Antonio).
Although the seminary is now operating at full capacity, its facilities haven’t seen a major renovation since its founding. The "motel units" where the men live don’t have bathroom facilities, so seminarians have to walk down the covered outdoor corridors to the showers and bathroom facilities.
The dorms "will soon be renovated," St. Petersburg Bishop Robert Lynch wrote on his blog last September. Two new residence buildings will house 76 future seminarians.
"The seminary endowment fund now sits at about $14.5 million, but the bishops agreed that, over the next decade, we will all raise enough money for seminary formation to increase the endowment to about $30 million," the bishop wrote.
Msgr. Toups said the new dormitories will be completed by December, and the renovated dormitories should be finished by summer 2015. "Just as the people of God provided for the needs 50 years ago, we’re now embarking on satisfying the needs for the next 50," he said.
Brian Garcia, 25, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Miami, is looking forward to his ordination to the diaconate on April 26. And even though he has just over a year of studies before his priestly ordination, he said the renovations and new dorms are a Godsend.
"The reality is that our buildings are 50 years old, and we need to expand because of the growing numbers," he said. "We’re blessed with a beautiful campus, with lots of land, which fosters meditation and prayer throughout our lives as we discern further how the Lord is calling us. It’s exciting to see how that affects community life and our own growth as Christian gentlemen."
That concept of forming "Christian gentlemen" is foundational to what they’re doing at St. Vincent de Paul, said Msgr. Toups.
"When I entered in 1991, it was just before John Paul wrote his landmark document on priestly formation — Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds)," he said. "At the time, I had no idea how important this was. He emphasized human formation: These need to be good men. We are forming them to be Christian gentlemen and giving them the human virtues which all these other dimensions can build upon — the spiritual, academic and pastoral."
"With so many broken families in the world today, some of these men are not receiving good human formation at home," he explained. "So we sometimes have to do the foundational work here."
Seminarian De Jesus said the formation he has received — and the inspiration of John Paul II — has been invaluable to him as he nears his ordination to the diaconate in April.
"My friends told me they were going to pray a novena to a saint leading up to my ordination," he explained. "They asked me which saint I wanted, and I told them it had to be JP2."
Patrick Novecosky writes from Naples, Florida.