Cardinal Wuerl Dedicates Blessed John Paul II Seminary

Reliquary containing a fragment of the bloodied cassock worn by the late Pope when he was shot is placed in the chapel.

A reliquary holding a piece of cloth containing the blood of Blessed John Paul II from the attempt on his life in 1981.
A reliquary holding a piece of cloth containing the blood of Blessed John Paul II from the attempt on his life in 1981. (photo: Ned Desmond)

WASHINGTON — Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington dedicated the Blessed John Paul II Seminary on Oct. 22, the feast day of the Pope who died in 2005.

During the dedication Mass in the seminary chapel, which contains relics of the late Holy Father and artifacts from the local Church’s rich legacy, Cardinal Wuerl expressed joy at the opening of the new house of formation.

Witnesses at the intimate dedication ceremony included two previous Washington archbishops and the 20 seminarians now in residence in the simple, home-like facility, which can accommodate about 30 men. They will complete pre-theology studies at the nearby Catholic University of America, and CUA’s president, John Garvey, was in attendance.

“The men who will be formed here are preparing to be priests of this millennium, the agents of the Holy Spirit renewing the face of the earth and the voice of the New Evangelization calling all people near and far to embrace the Lord Jesus and to respond to the call ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and ‘Do you love me?’” said Cardinal Wuerl in his homily.

Two days later, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Wuerl will serve as relator general of the 2012 gathering of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, which will have the theme “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”

“Just as Jesus on the cross entrusted John to his mother, so does the Church today continue to encourage all of us to entrust our lives, our vocation, our ministry, our service to Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of God, mother of the Church. It is under that title that we bless this chapel, dedicated to Mary, Mother of the Church,” said Cardinal Wuerl.

The dedication Mass drew a wheelchair-bound Cardinal William Baum, former archbishop of Washington and major penitentiary at the Vatican, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, who led the effort to raise funds to renovate the facility, used as an office building in recent years.

’Not Always Easy’

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl reflected on the Gospel reading of John 21:15-19, in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you love me?” and then warns them that their priestly vocation will take each man “where you do not wish to go.”

Significantly, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla offered a meditation on this same passage during the 1976 Lenten retreat conducted for the papal household. In hindsight, those present at the retreat have suggested that he was already anticipating his election as Vicar of Christ.

Cardinal Wuerl noted in his homily that the chapel contained important relics and other reminders that the spiritual life of the seminary would draw strength from a grace-filled continuum stretching back to the foundation of the priesthood and the Catholic Church.

The dedication program included a reference to Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis, the 1992 apostolic exhortation on the priesthood:

“The seminary can be seen as a place and a period of life, but it is, above all, an educational community in progress. It is a community established by the bishop to offer to those called by the Lord to serve as apostles the possibility of reliving the experience of formation which Our Lord provided for the Twelve. In fact, the Gospels present a prolonged and intimate sharing of life with Jesus as a necessary premise for the apostolic ministry.”

During the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl placed near the altar a reliquary that contains the blood of Blessed John Paul II that was stained on the cassock worn during the attempt on his life May 13, 1981, the memorial of Our Lady of Fatima.

“The relic of his blood reminds all of us that it is not always easy to bear witness and feed the sheep,” Cardinal Wuerl noted during his homily.

At the entrance to the chapel, there is a second-class relic of Blessed John Paul II, an amice he wore when celebrating Mass. A gift from Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, the longtime personal secretary of the late Pope, the amice is a liturgical vestment traditionally made of white linen. It symbolizes the “helmet of salvation” to protect the priest from temptation.

Communion with Peter

In the chapel, further signs of the local Church’s communion with the Successor of Peter include the altar and ambo built for the papal Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the nation’s capital. One of the altar stones was used by Archbishop John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore and of the United States, and contains relics of two unidentified early Church martyrs.

During an interview after the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl expressed his joy in the opening of the seminary.

“This new seminary has greatly encouraged our priests who are reaching out to the young in our parishes,” the cardinal said.

Like many Church leaders, Cardinal Wuerl is both jubilant that young men continue to answer the call and anxious that the number of recruits still falls short of the actual need. At present, there are 72 men studying for the priesthood in the archdiocese; 35 are still engaged in college and pre-theology studies.

The 20 men at the Blessed John Paul II Seminary must still complete four years of theology at another seminary, possibly the North American College in Rome,  Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md, or the Theological College, a national diocesan seminary also affiliated with CUA.

Despite the challenges posed by an increasingly secular world that disputes the value of priestly vows and, in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis, questions the integrity of men who wear the Roman collar, Cardinal Wuerl believes the priesthood remains attractive.

More than ever, he said, young men are searching for their mission in the world, and, like Karol Wojtyla, some gravitate to the sacrificial demands of the priestly vocation.

“We have to keep casting our nets,” he said, noting that the following evening he would meet with potential candidates who had just embarked on the process of discernment.

Father Carter Griffin, the newly appointed director of vocations for the archdiocese and the vice rector of the seminary, reported that the seminarians are younger than they once were, and they haven’t let the scandals dim their deep respect for the priesthood.

“They aren’t blinking. They would never want to tarnish the good name of the Church; but they also know great priests and realize there is more to the priesthood than the scandals,” he said.

Indeed, Msgr. Robert Panke, the archdiocese’s seasoned past director of vocations who is now the rector of the new seminary, hopes to double the number of seminarians at the new facility.

It was significant, he said, that the building, which initially served as a house of formation for the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement before it was bought by the archdiocese, was reverting to its original purpose.

He is especially pleased with the end product of the seminary renovation: “We took extra care with the chapel. It is a beautiful spot — a place to find God and to walk with Jesus, as the first apostles did. The idea was to have a prayerful residence rather than an institutional feel.”

Bobby Kilner, a seminarian who is the fifth of nine children raised in a local Maryland family and one of five men in formation who graduated from the nearby Heights School, founded by members of Opus Dei, said he was honored to reside at a seminary inspired by the legacy of the late Pope.

“Despite the headlines,” said Kilner, in a reference to the ongoing clergy abuse scandals, “God’s people still need to be fed with his mercy and love. I look forward to establishing the legacy that this seminary will become. A thousand men will go through its halls and become holy priests.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.