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INTERVIEW: Pope’s Visit Has Power to Revitalize Church, Says Rector of New York’s Dunwoodie Seminary

Monsignor Peter Vaccari Says in World Where ‘Mercy is Language Foreign to Common Vocabulary,’ Pope Francis Is a Revolution

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States is a historic moment, and with this in mind, New York’s future priests are getting ready.

To explore this theme, ZENIT sat down with Msgr. Peter Vaccari, the rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, often referred to as Dunwoodie because of the Yonkers, New York, neighborhood in which it is located.

The monsignor examined how the Pope’s visit to the nation can revitalize the Church and how its future priests will be front and center for New York’s papal events. 

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to the United States and Cuba will run Sept. 19-27, during which time he will spend two days in New York. In the city, Pope Francis is expected to lead Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, address the UN General Assembly,  speak to Catholic school children in East Harlem, and greet crowds on 5th Avenue and in Central Park. 

Msgr. Vaccari shared what’s new at the seminary, which has seen the presence of two Pontiffs, and how the seminarians will be participating in the papal visit.

Founded in 1896, St. Joseph’s Seminary and College is the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York. Since 2012, St. Joseph’s functions as the principal institution of priestly formation for the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre. As a complement to its primary mission, St. Joseph’s Seminary also serves the Church by offering graduate theological and philosophical degree programs to qualified students at locations in Yonkers, Huntington, and Douglaston. Graduate degree programs in the theological disciplines are offered to candidates for the permanent diaconate, lay men and women, men and women in consecrated life, and clergy who wish to deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith through systematic study, or who are called to serve the Church in roles of leadership.

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ZENIT: Msgr. Vaccari, could you please shed some light as to why Dunwoodie is important to American Catholics?

Msgr. Vaccari: This is the only seminary in the United States that has been visited by two reigning pontiffs. Both [Pope] John Paul II and [Pope] Benedict [XVI] were here. John Paul II came in 1995 and celebrated Vespers in the chapel. When Pope Benedict came in 2008, he came into the main building … the doors you came in … and he had a very moving, very moving prayer service with handicapped children and their families. The seminarians, of course, were present in the chapel. And on both occasions, as you can well imagine for the Pope’s presence, the whole property was lined with people who had come out to meet him and greet him … And Pope Benedict before leaving the building, went and greeted then-Cardinal [Avery] Dulles, who was here. So they met and then Pope Benedict left the building for the fields where they had the big youth rally.

ZENIT: How are the seminarians preparing for Pope Francis’ arrival? Are they excited?

Msgr. Vaccari: Well, as you know and you’ve reported, the focus of the trip is Philadelphia [for the World Meeting of Families]. Given the fact that he is going to Washington, he is the first Pope going to a joint session of Congress and then he is going to the UN, but all right, so the seminarians are getting ready for the New York portion of the trip. The Schola [Well known choir of St. Joseph’s Seminary] will be involved in singing… not just our Schola, but along with the archdiocesan chorale… will be singing at Vespers in St. Patrick’s. Also for the Mass in Madison Square Garden, the Schola, the Archdiocesan chorale, and perhaps others, I don’t know, will be singing.

Look, I am the one to keep the seminary operating, on focus, and on schedule, but will be allowing time obviously for the Holy Father’s visit to be taken in. This is a historic moment. And everyone wants to be involved and wants to show loyalty, enthusiasm, and support for the Church and for the Holy Father. No question about it.

And the men are working very hard at trying to maintain their regular schedule… as well as the attentiveness they have to give to the extra work because of the visit. Certainly those that are with Schola, along with those who will be going down there to serve, be ushers, guardians of the Eucharist… So the men will be there to do that. And that’s a beautiful, very powerful role.

One last thing that I would mention if I may: Last year, we have developed now what I think is a very beautiful relationship between ourselves and America magazine. The New York editor Matt Malone, the two of us have cultivated a relationship with this national Catholic magazine and St. Joseph’s seminary, with all the reputation the seminary has. And the relationship has basically been defined in terms of a lecture series. So that last year for example, we had a lecture, a symposium on the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Conner. What is the power of the imagination in the Catholic world….How did Flannery O’Conner contribute to that. That’s one. Two. Your area. Catholic media and the new evangelization. Three, again your area. Antonio Sbadaro was again invited, of La Civilta Cattolica [Italian for ‘Catholic Civilization,’La Civilta Cattolica is a long-standing periodical published by the Jesuits in Rome.] He came. We all went down to the Sheen Center where he gave a  presentation on Pope Francis … internet communications. In October, we’ll be going back down to the Sheen Center with America magazine to sponsor an evening on Latino Catholicism.

ZENIT: What is your view of the importance of this visit for the young seminarians here, for you personally, for New York?

Msgr. Vaccari: You know, I think for the Catholic Church in the United States to receive the Holy Father, to communicate to the entire world, especially given the media these days, the type of vibrancy, the role that the Church plays in the world — the presence of the Holy Father reinforces that. He reinforces the loyalty that we have that is going to be traced back to him and to the Apostolic See and ultimately to the shores of Galilee and to Jesus.  And that’s the connection that obviously we want to maintain.

Last week, all of the seminarians went down to and went through the UN. We had beautiful tours. We were received there by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop [Bernardito] Auza, who is there as the representative of the Holy Father, of the Holy See, to the UN, to the Mission of the UN.

ZENIT: Why do you believe this representation of the Church in, and particularly the Pontiff’s visit to, the UN is important?

Msgr. Vaccari: The power of the Church in the exercise of reason, in the promotion of public virtue, of the ways in which we stand for the dignity of all human people, the way in which we stand for religious liberty…The presence of the Holy See at the UN and the personal visit of the Holy Father to the United States reinforce those values. They are cherished values right within our beautiful republic. So it transcends a particular confessional perspective, still sort of preserving all that it means to be Catholic.

ZENIT: And speaking of all that it means to be Catholic, do you think this visit will help the nation realize how the Holy Father, while having a pastoral approach, is holding true to Church teaching and acting in continuity with his predecessors?

Msgr. Vaccari: It is certainly my hope that ….And I would really hope that this visit plants seeds from which we’ll be able to see a further revitalization within the Catholic Church. And I think one of the great things he is going to lead in, in this visit, is the enthusiasm that I believe is only going to grow for this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Mercy is language that is so foreign to the common vocabulary. That for this Pope to come here and generate that….that in and of itself would be monumental.

To have happy, healthy, holy priests, it is the responsibility of the seminary to work the seminarians and priests toward that which is human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. That’s the work of a seminary. And it really is. And we have an outstanding faculty that they and the bishops have put together. The men are great. They are heroic in their desire to serve the Church. And I really feel that if all those things can work, then not only cardinals and bishops will be happy, but the men–who are going to serve as priests–will be happy.

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On the NET:

Official Site of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie:  http://www.dunwoodie.edu/

About Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in four languages). She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight, and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, EWTN and Salt & Light. For 'The Other Francis': https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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