DOUGLASTON — Sadness and joy vied for the prevailing emotion Saturday, May 13, as bishops, a cardinal, priests, seminarians, and their families assembled for the Class of 2023 convocation at Cathedral Seminary House of Formation.
The event honoring seven seminarians was the final one for the “house,” which is closing after 55 years of forming young men for the priesthood. Since 1967, it has served the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, the Archdiocese of New York, and beyond.
Bishops announced the closure in October of last year, noting several reasons. Chief among these is the consolidation of resources to meet new directives from the “Program of Priestly Formation (6th Edition),” a document released nearly a year ago by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Meanwhile, other activities at the Douglaston campus will remain open, including the Immaculate Conception Center, the Bishop Mugavero Residence for Senior Priests, and various diocesan offices.
Still, the conflicting emotions at the convocation were palpable.
“Let’s admit it, folks, there’s a bit of a bitter-sweetness today,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan. “Ah, how sweet it is to see the accomplishments of these good graduates.
“How sweet it is to realize how God’s grace and mercy has been so overflowing in this magnificent institution for 55 years. But we’d be downright naive if we didn’t admit there was a bit of sadness in this very last chapter.”
Joining Cardinal Dolan were Bishop Robert Brennan, Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre, and Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of Brooklyn, who is rector of St. Joseph College and Seminary at Dunwoodie, Yonkers.
Bishop Brennan celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving after the presentation of cathedral medallions to the graduating seminarians.
“Every single one of us is experiencing transition,” Bishop Brennan told the seminarians during his homily. “And we all have reason to ask. What’s next? The answer is very simple: I don’t know.”
But, he added, the faithful are not alone as they discern how to navigate change.
“You will receive power and receive it through the Holy Spirit,” Bishop Brennan said. “You will be Christ’s witness here and in places beyond your wildest imaginations.”
Surreal Aspect to It
Aidan Birth of South Ozone Park is an example of a seminarian who attended college on his own but then returned to Queens for discernment at Douglaston. He was the lone seminarian from the Diocese of Brooklyn to be honored at the convocation.
Other honored seminarians included two from the Archdiocese of New York, two from the Diocese of Syracuse, one from Scranton, and one from Ogdensburg.
“Coming in, I didn’t expect to be part of the last class,” Birth said. “So there were challenges along the way. We saw the numbers sort of going down.”
Birth, 23, said his parents were Methodist when he was born, but the family became Catholic when he was 7. The family has since then belonged to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in South Ozone Park. Like many seminarians and priests, he set up a makeshift altar as a kid so that he could play “priest.”
He attended Cathedral Prep Seminary and High School and then attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion. While living at Douglaston, he earned a master’s degree in Catholic philosophical studies from Dunwoodie. His next stop: theological studies at Dunwoodie.
Birth said that being a part of Douglaston’s final convocation had a “surreal aspect to it.”
“But,” he added, “it’s really a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church to see me through these last two years with the various ups and downs of discernment.”
Father Robert Lauder, who has been connected to Douglaston since Archbishop Bryan McEntegart sent him there to teach in the late 1960s, attended the convocation. He teaches philosophy at St. John’s, is a columnist for The Tablet, and is one of 35 retired priests residing at the Mugavero home.
“I’m sad, very sad,” he said at the reception following the Mass. “Some of these kids I taught. I probably won’t be seeing them, so I’m sad about that.”
Origins at Douglaston
In 1967, Archbishop McEntegart opened Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. It began as a full four-year college seminary for the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre and the Archdiocese of New York.
At its peak in the early 1970s, the college housed more than 370 students who pursued baccalaureate degrees in nearly a dozen majors.
But in 1987, then-Bishop Francis Mugavero closed Cathedral College and repurposed it as a pastoral center for the Diocese of Brooklyn — the Immaculate Conception Center.
Subsequently, many seminarians received undergraduate degrees in philosophy at St. John’s University or other sites of higher education.
Still, a college and pre-theology program continued on the grounds, called the Cathedral Seminary Residence of the Immaculate Conception. There, seminarians could reside while discerning their vocations.
More change came in 2011 when Cardinal Dolan, then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, and then-Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre formed the St. Charles Borromeo Partnership.
The act consolidated resources to more efficiently foster the formation of seminarians from the respective dioceses.
“It was then that the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston — already the home of Cathedral Seminary Residence — became for all three dioceses the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation,” explained Father Joseph Holcomb, its current rector.
Since 2011, 175 men completed either a four-year undergraduate degree in philosophy or a master’s degree in philosophical studies, Father Holcomb said.
“Of the 175 young men,” he added, “23 have been ordained to the priesthood for the dioceses represented by the Borromeo partnership.”
The Propaedeutic Year
The next milestone at Douglaston is linked to the June 24, 2022, release of the “Program for Priestly Formation (6th Edition)” (PPF) by the USCCB. The PPF is the guide for seminaries, and this latest edition addresses directives set out in 2016 by Pope Francis.
Specifically, seminarians will complete a mandatory “propaedeutic year of discernment.” That will become part of the mission at St. Joseph College and Seminary at Dunwoodie.
“ ‘Propaedeutic’ is the Latin word that means prepare,” Father Holcomb said. “And it’s a yearlong program to help them in both their spiritual formation and their human formations.
“Given the culture of today, many of our young people, though they have the desire to serve the Church as priests, are lacking in a sense of Catholic culture. So this year will help that.”
After that, Father Holcomb said, the seminarians will move to philosophical studies — called the “Discipleship Stage.”
Finally, he said, “They’ll go to the ‘Configuration Stage,’ which is theological studies — the major seminary, in other words. That’s all going to happen at Dunwoodie,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Massa said at the convocation that the plans are proceeding “very well” to add the propaedeutic year at the seminary.
“We have a designated wing of the building for the propaedeutic-year guys,” he said. “And so we’ll have three distinct groups of seminarians at different levels. But we’re all one community, one Church. It’s going to be, I think, a very healthy and good interaction among the guys.”
Going forward, seminarians can get their college degrees from St. Andrew’s College Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey or Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Rhode Island.
Father Holcomb said that so far, two seminarians are transferring to Seton Hall, and another will go to Providence.
“There may be some others that we look at,” Bishop Brennan said. “We’ll determine where they would best be served.”
He added that the diocese will develop new ways to keep contact with college students, like Birth, who express interest in the priesthood but are attending college on their own. That way, the bishop said, the diocese can still “accompany them” as they discern their futures.
One thought on “Joy, Sadness Mingle at Final Convocation for Cathedral Seminary House of Formation”
Thanks be to God and the bishops and faculty of who had the vision and passion for the formation of young men these last 55 years. Douglaston was a center of community, learning, Christian ideals, service and prayer for countless young men who walked those halls and prayed in that beautiful chapel. It will continue in a variety of ministries, even housing some of the very graduates who went on to Holy Orders. Cardinal Dolan was quite correct, it is bittersweet to see this 55 year legacy come to a close as the sounds of the Salve Regina still echo in our hearts and minds.
(The Rt. Rev.) Kevin Francis Donlon, LL.M, Ph.D
Class of 1978
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