The Pope, the Seminary and the Seminarians

U.S. and Vatican flags fly at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside of Philadelphia.
U.S. and Vatican flags fly at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside of Philadelphia. (photo:

Two days ago, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, I witnessed screaming nuns and even priests standing on pews with their phones in the air, as Pope Francis came down the aisle, looking not unlike teenagers at the arrival of some performing artist. 

The nearly 150 seminarians at my alma mater, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., who met Pope Francis on the steps of the theology building after the Pope's Mass at Philadelphia's Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, couldn't match the volume of the capacity crowd of nearly 25,000 at St. Pat's — but they more than matched their enthusiasm. 

For one thing, the seminarians weren't just cheering for the Vicar of Christ: They were welcoming him to their own home — and not merely as a visitor, but as a guest. Pope Francis will spend the night here for his sojourn in Philadelphia — not quite the first papal visit to the seminary, but certainly the first time a pope will stay here. 

"When we heard a year ago that the Pope was coming, it was really hard to even fathom that," 36-year-old seminarian Tim Sahd, a second-year theology student from the Lancaster area, said in a brief interview before the Pope's arrival. "So you know the Pope is coming, so you get excited about it, sure … but when you see the security go up around here, and just a few minutes ago we saw the Pope get off the plane, and you see him in front of our cathedral here, it really does hit home that the Vicar of Christ on earth is right here in Philadelphia and is going to be in our home here. That’s really amazing." 

The Pope comes to these young men at a crucial time in their spiritual journey — a journey I understand a bit better now, in the last year of my own formation for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark. A seminary class is a band of brothers, and as they prepare for the defining commitment of their lives, their father is in their midst: the living icon of our connection to Jesus Christ in the person of the 265th successor to St. Peter. 

A papal visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral, while a huge deal, isn't exactly a novelty. Almost exactly 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit the United States and celebrated Mass in St. Patrick's. Five years earlier, he had visited Philadelphia and the seminary — but as Giovanni Montini, archbishop of Milan. (Archbishop Montini was not the first future pope to visit St. Charles. In 1936, the future Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, then secretary of state, became the highest-ranking Catholic official ever to visit the U.S. In October, he spent two days in Philadelphia and visited the seminary.)

Pope Saint John Paul II visited the United States several times, both before and after his election to the papacy, visiting Philadelphia twice as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and then again as Pope in 1979, when he became the first pope to visit St. Charles. He also visited St. Pat's as pope — twice, in fact — as did his successor Pope Benedict XVI, who celebrated Mass at St. Pat's in 2008. (Pope Benedict had also visited St. Charles prior to becoming pope, in 1990.) 

The excitement of the seminarians on this singular occasion is something that seminary rector Bishop Timothy Senior well understands: Then 19 years old, he was among the seminarians at St. Charles in 1979 when John Paul II visited. At that time, the seminarians had been instructed to maintain decorum when the Pope arrived — though they obeyed this edict imperfectly. Bishop Senior made a point of giving the current students greater latitude. 

Pope Francis' papacy is still too young for his pontificate to have directly inspired the current seminarians to pursue their vocations. Even an 18-year-old first-year seminarian named Philtran, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam as an infant, told us that he was already well on the path to the his vocation when Francis was elected. 

Still, the effect of Francis' style on the current seminarians is clear. If he could learn anything from Francis, Philtran said, it would be "how I could be more like him. Something I really treasure is his heart. How can I love the way he loves people? The poor, the ill, the people who are the outskirts of society … I'd like to see Church officials being more approachable, having their people who they lead being comfortable with them. … It's something that's humbling. Pope Francis does that very well." 

Still, it seems likely that Pope Francis vocations are in the making. "I'm part of the John Paul II generation of seminarians and priests," Sahd said, "and behind us there's definitely a Pope Benedict generation boom of priests. I don't doubt that there will be a Pope Francis generation boom as well." 

Comparing Pope Francis to his predecessors, Sahd commented, "I grew up with John Paul II, and he had the same kind of way of knowing that perhaps an image is more than words. … I remember when he got off a plane, he knelt down to the ground, and he kissed the ground when he got into another country. With Pope Benedict, I remember more of his writings than the images, and they have really helped me to grow in my spiritual journey and have helped lead me here to the seminary. But Pope Francis also works in images more than words. So when you see him hugging a disabled person or going to a soup kitchen instead of than eating a lunch/dinner with congressmen and powerful people in Washington, I think he works more in images than in words, and I think that helps move people closer to him, but then to Christ, which is the ultimate goal. If it was just to him, it wouldn’t mean anything, but it's to something bigger — Someone bigger."

In the end, the buildup to Francis' arrival at the seminary was almost more dramatic than the reality. For 10 or 15 minutes, the crowd of almost 150 seminarians stood on the stairs singing hymns: Lift High the Cross; Church of God, Elect and Glorious (to the tune of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling); O God, Beyond All Praising, as well as a chant unique to St. Charles, Domine, Salvum Fac (“Lord, save our father”), sung for visiting bishops. 

The excitement mounted as police vehicles and a caravan of SUVs arrived, followed by the now-famous black Fiat, with the SCV-1 license plate (for Stato della Città del Vaticano, Vatican City State). But Francis, visibly exhausted from the morning's activities, retired early, abbreviating the already-short welcoming ceremony (though not before the seminarians managed to sing Happy Birthday to Archbishop Charles Chaput, now 71). 

On the riser I shared with members of the press, there was some disappointment, particularly from those with cameras who hadn't gotten a good shot of the elusive pontiff. 

I'm sure the seminarians weren't disappointed, though. That's because I wasn't, even though I spent 10 hours on the whole business and barely saw the Pope.

St. Charles is my alma mater, and I feel as if, in some way, the Pope is my own guest. He came to my house for some much-needed rest, and he got it, and, tonight, he'll sleep there. That's enough for me — and for the seminarians at St. Charles, I'm sure it will be more than enough, for decades to come.