Yesterday our family of faith marked a special milestone as we celebrated the Founding Day Mass for our archdiocesan seminary, which was formally established five years ago originally bearing the name Blessed John Paul II Seminary. That day on which I signed the Decree of Erection, Divine Mercy Sunday, May 1, 2011, was also the day of the beatification of that holy pastor. When he was subsequently canonized on April 27, 2014, we rejoiced as this home for the formation of new priests became the Saint John Paul II Seminary.
As the seminary’s patron saint, John Paul offers the seminarians studying there a role model of self-giving to the Church, an example of a man who gave his life as a servant both of God’s people and as of Jesus Christ in his Church. During his nearly 27-year pontificate, he traveled to 129 countries, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, just as some day, the future priests studying at the seminary named for him will bring Christ to their parishes and ministries and to the individuals and families whom they will serve.
It was a blessing for me to attend this saint’s inaugural Mass as pope on October 22, 1978, and hear him say his unforgettable words, “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!” That message of encouragement for the world to be open to Jesus offers an especially meaningful reminder for those in formation for the priesthood, and those living out that vocation. When Christ is allowed into people’s lives, when his love enters people’s hearts, they need not be afraid of anything.
As a reminder of the seminary’s patron saint, the chapel has two relics of Saint John Paul II – a liturgical vestment known as an amice that was worn by him, and the saint’s blood stained on the cassock that he was wearing when he was shot and critically wounded during an assassination attempt in Saint Peter’s Square in 1981. These relics remind me and the seminarians of how priests bring Jesus to their people through the word of God and the Eucharist at Mass, and how they are called to give their lives totally, even to the point of death, for Christ and his Church.
Five years ago, when I announced the establishment of the new seminary at the Archdiocese of Washington’s annual Chrism Mass, I noted it was also fitting for the seminary to be named for Pope John Paul II because as pontiff he had called for a renewal of seminary life around the world and a visitation of all the seminaries in the United States. The Holy Father also dedicated his 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation to the formation of priests. Entitled “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), this document has become the norm for priestly formation across the Church Universal.
In a way, the teachers for our seminarians include three popes: their patron Saint John Paul II for his priestly example, and also the two popes who succeeded him. Pope Benedict XVI personally signed an apostolic blessing issued for the seminary’s inauguration that is on display at the entrance to its chapel. The altar used by him at his historic 2008 Papal Mass at Nationals Park is now at the seminary’s chapel, a reminder to the seminarians at every Mass there of what that pope proclaimed throughout his visit, Christ is our hope.
This past fall, Pope Francis honored our seminarians and priests with a visit to the Saint John Paul II Seminary. By his presence and his teaching and example, he shows those men studying to be the future priests of our archdiocese how to proclaim the joy of the Gospel and be missionaries of God’s mercy, meeting people where they are, and accompanying them to finding Christ’s love and truth in our Church.
The story of our archdiocesan seminary has been one of growth. The initial seed planted five years ago consisted of an inaugural class of 20 seminarians. In 2014, the seminary opened a new wing that includes 20 additional student rooms, an expansive library, enlarged classroom space, a new common room and an exercise room. Now phase three of the seminary’s expansion is underway, which will culminate in the construction of a new dining room and multipurpose lecture hall. But the most important growth underway is in the hearts of the seminarians themselves, as they learn to emulate their patron saint in their service to the people of God and to Christ and his Church.