Philly Seminary Rises Renewed in Time for Pope Francis

When Pope Francis arrives at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he is expected to stay for the World Meeting of Families, he will find a renewed institution and an enthusiastic reception from seminarians inspired to be missionaries of the Gospel’s joy.

(photo: Courtesy of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary)

PAPAL MEETING. St. John Paul II greets seminarians during his 1979 visit to Philadelphia. Courtesy of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary


PHILADELPHIA — When Pope Francis arrives at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he is expected to stay for the World Meeting of Families, he will find a renewed institution and an enthusiastic reception from seminarians inspired to be missionaries of the Gospel’s joy.

“The whole seminary is enthusiastic to see the Holy Father,” said David O’Brien, a 24-year-old seminarian entering his first year of theology. “Whenever I see anyone, that’s all they ask me about. … We’re definitely excited to see him.”

The seminarians and priest faculty at St. Charles Borromeo will be on the steps of the college seminary building to welcome Pope Francis when he arrives Sept. 26. The seminarians hope to sing for the Pope a traditional anthem, the Domine Salvum Fac, which seminarians sang for Pope St. John Paul II when he visited the seminary in 1979.

“They’re extraordinary men, going against the tide of the culture,” said Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary since 2012.

Bishop Senior is hoping that the opportunity for the seminarians to meet Pope Francis will reinforce the deliberate efforts the seminary has been making to form men into priests who will be “missionary disciples” for the 21st century, according to the heart of the Holy Father. The rector knows firsthand the impression a pope can make: He shook St. John Paul II’s hand at St. Charles Borromeo during the Polish Pope’s 1979 visit.

“It was a moment of grace, when my own vocation was strengthened,” he recalled.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., and a native Philadelphian, told the Register that Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to St. Charles Borromeo made a powerful impression on him as a college seminarian. The bishop believes many St. Charles seminarians encountering Pope Francis in person will also have a similar transformational moment, renewing their commitment to become “holy, joyful, faithful priests.”

“I’ll never forget it; it’s like it happened yesterday,” he recalled of John Paul’s visit. “I was in the chapel … and the doors opened, and here comes the newly elected John Paul II,” he said. “And after he spoke to the seminarians that night, I was ready to be ordained a priest the next day.”

For Archbishop Charles Chaput, the Pope’s visit to the World Meeting of Families allows him the opportunity to show the Holy Father the fruits of the renewal that has taken place at the seminary over the past few years, in an archdiocese that had been hit hard by the clerical sex-abuse and cover-up scandals in 2005 and 2011. The seminary also reflects the archbishop’s commitment to priestly vocations that he has been known for since his days as Denver’s shepherd. Among the 59 archdiocesan seminarians in formation who will encounter Pope Francis, 20 are first-year applicants: It is the largest entering class for the archdiocese since 2005.

“Young people want something to live for that’s larger than themselves,” Archbishop Chaput, who also resides at the seminary, told the Register. “Many of our seminarians came to us because they weren’t being fed or inspired by the emptiness of the culture around them. Now we need to give them a mission they can give their hearts to.”

Austin Robuck, 21, a college seminarian, told the Register that choosing a vocation to the priesthood in the archdiocese may not make sense from any number of human perspectives, given the turmoil from the scandal.

“But the reason that all of us men are here, that they will tell you, is a call from the Lord,” he said.


Changes to St. Charles

Bishop Senior told the Register that St. Charles had many existing strengths when he came on board as rector three years ago: He noted the academics were “superb,” and the pastoral formation program was “strong.”

Archbishop Chaput wanted to build those “pillars,” Bishop Senior added, and he wanted to strengthen the program’s spiritual and human-formation elements, in order to make sure the archdiocese was forming priests as “missionary disciples, servant-leaders, after the heart of Jesus Christ.”

“We want to bring the joy of the Gospel out to the secular culture,” he said.

One big change was the addition of a “spiritual year” for men in formation. During this time, the seminarians engage in spiritual and catechetical reading and engage in fasts from media on weekends. They also engage in activities to learn about the different cultures in the archdiocese and spend a month living and working among the poor, concluding the year with 30-day Ignatian spiritual exercises.

“This is a time to develop a deep interior life,” Bishop Senior said.

Part of the goal was to make the formation program flexible enough to make sure that seminarians had a facility with language — such as learning Spanish — and knew how to communicate across different ethnic cultures, as well as to youth.

The seminarians also learn from laypeople in the seminary’s partnership with the St. Joseph University’s Evan K. Haub School of Business and Villanova University in developing leadership and church-management skills.


Strength for the Spirit

Bishop Senior said he wants his seminarians to pay attention to Pope Francis and realize that he is “no more heroic and just as human” in comparison to Benedict XVI or St. John Paul II. “But people are paying attention because of the way he presents the message,” he said.

When Pope Francis leaves St. Charles, Austin Robuck will remember the experience.

“I want to be a priest like Jesus Christ, like our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and like Archbishop Chaput — a priest of the people and for the people — someone who has given his life over to serve the people of God,” he said. “It seems a little lofty, but if you think about it, if you’re called to serve, those are some of the most important aspects you’ll ever deal with.”