Editor Emeritus - Ed Wilkinson

Calm Winds of Change at Seminary in Yonkers

This is the fourth year that seminarians from Brooklyn and Queens will study theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. For 80 years prior to that, the men had lived at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington.

The change is part of a new inter-diocesan program that consolidates resources and opens up opportunities for theological studies to others besides men studying for the priesthood.

The project has clearly been successful if enthusiasm is the measuring stick. The seminarians opened their academic year last week with a Mass of the Holy Spirit celebrated by the former academic dean, Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, and a barbecue was held on the spacious grounds of the seminary. The spirit of camaraderie was evident in the way the seminarians interacted among themselves and in welcoming back their former dean.

After celebrating Mass in the historic chapel, Bishop Massa helped plant and blessed a tree in his honor on the front lawn. He then sprinkled holy water on the new fleet of leased cars that had arrived that day. Later he was serenaded with the Beatles’ version of “Happy Birthday” by the seminary’s rock and roll band. And he cut a birthday cake that was emblazoned with his coat of arms. Clearly everyone was in a festive mood.

But don’t ask Msgr. Peter Vaccari, the Brooklyn priest who serves as rector, about whether the new set-up has been a success.

“The ones who will be able to make that judgment will be the people who are served in the parishes and the places where these men will serve,” he says.

In the meantime, the rector points out that in addition to the three metropolitan-area dioceses that use St. Joseph’s, seminarians from Bridgeport, Conn., and Albany, as well as men in formation for the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the Piarists and other religious orders also study there, although they do not live there.

Ninety-five men live at the seminary. Religious orders are day students and live elsewhere.

In total, there are 92 men – who were born in 22 different countries – studying for the priesthood. In addition, Msgr. Vaccari is quick to point out that the seminarians take some of their classes with candidates for master’s degrees from the laity and candidates for the permanent diaconate.

“A priest cannot be formed in isolation,” says Msgr. Vaccari. There is a grace-filled moment when lay women and men are sitting in the classrooms with our seminarians. These are the ones with whom our seminarians as priests will be working on a pastoral and human level.

“It is good and healthy to foster that kind of atmosphere that will allow for the best leadership for the Church.”

Laypeople can also participate at other sites – Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington; Immaculate Conception Pastoral Center, Douglaston, and a new site in Poughkeepsie – through video technology.

In addition to their studies, spiritual exercises and communal living, the major seminarians are preparing to participate in the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to New York City. Some will be singing in the Schola at the prayer service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Others will be serving Mass, singing in the Schola and acting as ushers at the Madison Square Garden.

While St. Joseph’s Seminary is not on the itinerary of this papal trip, it remains the only house of theology in the U.S. to have been visited by two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.