Charles Borromeo and the Work of New Beginnings

Exactly 18 months ago this week, the Philadelphia Catholic family became my family, and the city became my home.  I said at the time that the challenges we face as a Church wouldn’t be easy, and they haven’t been. Many of our pastoral, legal and financial problems still remain.  So do our very serious obligations to victims of past abuse.  But it’s also true that a great deal of good has been accomplished in a short time.  We need to thank God for that, and we need to take pride in the fidelity of our clergy and our people under very trying circumstances. 

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Especially in these days of Lent, we also need to realize that no real reform happens comfortably.  It always brings some measure of pain because honestly examining our behavior hurts.  Reform means just what the word suggests.  It means «re-forming» Catholic life by becoming something more than baptized pagans.  It means pulling apart dead habits of sin, complacency, compromise, lazy worship and cynicism – at both the personal and institutional levels – and then rebuilding our discipleship with purity and zeal.  It means changing who we are into the men and women God created us to be. 

As a Church, we’ve been here before.  History never really repeats itself, but habits of human thought and behavior repeat themselves all the time.  So we can learn quite a lot from the past that has meaning for our needs today. 

One of history’s leading Catholic reformers was Charles Borromeo.  Born of a wealthy family in a time of intense religious conflict and Church corruption, Borromeo turned away from privilege to a life of personal humility and zeal for restoring the integrity of Catholic life.  He organized the final session of the great reforming Council of Trent.  He compiled Trent’s famous catechism.  As a bishop, he carried on his person a small portrait of St. John Fisher, the English bishop and friend of St. Thomas More martyred by Henry VIII.  As cardinal archbishop of Milan, he became a revered patron of higher learning and the arts.  Above all, Borromeo saw that the key to renewing Catholic life was a well-educated, holy priesthood.  That’s where he put his passion, setting the groundwork for modern priestly formation.

It’s no accident that Philadelphia’s own great seminary bears the name of St. Charles Borromeo.  And that brings us to the point of my column this week.

In naming Bishop Timothy Senior rector of our seminary last year, I gave him two main tasks: to continue and build on the good work of his predecessor, Father Shaun Mahoney; and to lead a thorough review of seminary operations and programs.  If we want to renew Catholic life in our region – and we urgently need to – then we need a new generation of well formed, intelligent, zealous priests to lead us into the future as many of our good priests today retire.  That’s a big job.  It will take time.  But the work of Bishop Senior and his colleagues is already bearing fruit in three very practical ways.

First, the seminary’s board of trustees recently approved the appointment of a Task Force to review and consider the future of the college division program.  Its recommendations are due later this spring.   Any changes to the college program will be announced in September 2013 and take effect in Academic Year 2014-15.  Chaired by Dr. Rosalie Mirenda, president of Neumann University, the Task Force will not include current seminary staff.  All members will, however, have the needed expertise in higher education, seminary formation or marketing communications.

Second, the board also approved development of a new Spirituality Year.  «Spirituality Years» have had great success in spurring vocations for the Church in Paris, Denver and elsewhere by offering men an intense time of reflection on the Church, the priesthood and their personal relationship with Jesus Christ outside the formal seminary curriculum.  The program’s placement in our current formation process is still being discussed.  But it will be required for all new Philadelphia seminarians and available to all other sending dioceses, beginning in Academic Year 2014-15.

Third and finally, the board also approved plans to anchor all seminary operations in the current theology buildings.  No new construction will take place, but renovation of current buildings will span the next five years.  St. Charles will retain about 30 acres of the upper campus.  The current college building and remaining land will be leased or sold for development to ensure the seminary’s long-term sustainability.  Renovation efforts will reflect any changes implemented for the college division and also the creation of the new Spirituality Year program.

These are major changes – and they’re not the last ones we need to make in the way we live as a believing community.  We need to reform not just our structures and programs, but our hearts, our minds and our lives.   But these changes do embody the kind of new thinking we need to restore the health and confidence of the Church in Philadelphia.  They’re a beginning.  And the future will grow from these seeds.

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Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop of Philadelphia

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