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The Lustiger Legacy in Denver
 

The Paris model and St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

 

Archbishop Charles Chaput

March 4, 2011

 

I'm grateful to be here tonight, and happy to share with you our experiences in Colorado.  But before I do that, I need to mention that we actually have two seminaries that serve the Archdiocese of Denver.  

St. John Vianney Theological Seminary (SJV) began in September 1999.  Its theology cycle affiliated with the Pontifical Lateran University in November of the same year.  Its pre-theology program affiliated with the Lateran in 2002.  SJV received its academic accreditation in 2008.  It now serves 12 other dioceses along with our our own.  So far, 63 men have been ordained to the priesthood through the full SJV formation program.  Of these, 28 were ordained for the Denver Archdiocese.  Another five SJV men will be ordained for Denver in May.

We also have a Redemptoris Mater Seminary, forming men from the Neocatechumenal Way.  That house opened in 1996.  St. John Vianney Theological Seminary provides the academic training for both of our seminaries.  But otherwise the two seminaries operate autonomously, with separate rectors.  

Coordinating the two programs obviously creates some challenges.  Nonetheless, overall, we have had very positive results.  The Way has been a great blessing for our local Church.  Since its establishment in 1996, we have ordained another 15 men for Denver from our Neocatechumenal Way seminary.  Another two men from that seminary will be ordained for Denver in May. 

In my comments tonight I'll speak mainly about St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  The reason is simple.  We began SJV explicitly in the spirit of Cardinal Lustiger and his work in Paris.

To a casual observer, that might seem odd.  The gulf between our two local Churches in language, culture and experience is striking.

Paris is heavily urban and, in every sense, one of the great capitals of the world   It has a long history, a great patrimony of art and intellect, and an ancient Catholic presence.  

Denver has been a diocese only since 1887.  It became an archdiocese only in 1941.  Barely 5 million people live in the entire state of Colorado, an area of 270,000 square kilometers.  The City of Denver is the state capital.  But it too is very young; it dates only to 1858.  A century ago, Denver still had the spirit -- and some of the rough social edges -- of America’s “Wild West.”  The racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan had great political power in Colorado throughout the 1920s.  The Klan remained active in the state into the 1950s.  

Today the city and the state are very different.  Denver is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States.  But in terms of American Catholic history, the Archdiocese of Denver is not large, or typical, or even important.  No natural affinity links Paris and Denver, beyond our common baptism.  So why would Colorado Catholics start a seminary based on the ideas of a French-speaking cardinal, in a foreign city, 8,000 kilometers away?

I will answer that question in three steps.  First, I will share some of the history and facts that shape Catholic life in northern Colorado.  Second, I will talk about Cardinal Lustiger’s thought and why it has such appeal for the Church in Denver.  And third, I will explain how the “Paris model” actually works in Denver, how we adapt it to our local circumstances, and why it has increasing value for American Catholics in the years ahead.

Let me turn to my first point: the facts that shape Catholic life in Colorado.

The Archdiocese of Denver includes the northern 40 percent of Colorado.  We cover 104,000 square kilometers, running about 600 kilometers from the Utah state border in the west, to Kansas and Nebraska in the east.  Within that territory, we have about 140 parishes, two diocesan high schools, 37 parish grade schools, five private Catholic high schools and two private Catholic grade schools, along with various private Catholic hospitals, a Jesuit university and other institutions.  To serve the pastoral needs of our people, we have about 190 diocesan priests, 108 religious order priests, 190 permanent deacons, 15 religious brothers and about 270 religious sisters.

Despite the great physical size of the archdiocese, our Catholic population is small by the standards of Los Angeles or New York.  We estimate that about 550,000 Catholics live within the boundaries of the archdiocese.  I use the word “estimate” because one of the marks of America’s western states is that many people do not officially register in parishes.  As a result, we cannot count them with a high degree of precision.  

We know that most of our people live in the greater Denver region.  But many others live in rural areas spread out across the state.  Colorado’s geography and economy are very diverse, from farming communities in the east, to mining, ranching and tourist resort communities in the west.  It takes me three to five hours to drive from Denver to our most distant parishes.  The Rocky Mountains split the archdiocese in half, and outside Denver, our winters can be very hard.  Our rural pastors often serve more than one parish.  So they deal with heavy pastoral demands and a high degree of isolation.

The religious environment of the archdiocese is complex.  One of the ironies of Colorado, given its anti-Catholic past, is that two of our three most recent governors have been Catholic.  In fact, Catholics are now the largest single religious group in the state.  Evangelical and Mormon churches also have a strong presence in Colorado.  We have good relations with both of these communities.  We often cooperate with them on public issues of mutual concern involving marriage, the family, sexuality, religious freedom and bioethics.

These sunny facts can be misleading.  About 16 percent of Coloradans living within the boundaries of the archdiocese identify themselves as Catholic.  About 45 percent of those Catholics claim to attend Mass regularly.  This rate is higher than the national average.  But it is also probably overstated.  About 29 percent of persons who consider themselves Catholic in the Denver Archdiocese feel alienated from the Church on one or more important issues.  

This is not new.  Nor is it a surprise.  Colorado, like other western states, is very far from the traditional centers of American Catholic culture.  Religion has a weak institutional presence in many parts of the western United States.  Many Coloradans have no religious affiliation at all.  If they do identify themselves as believers, many have little formal education in their faith.  

Many Coloradans are well educated and professionally successful.  But many also tend to be poorly catechized and highly secular in outlook.  Colorado's homosexual community has wealth and influence.  The state's political environment divides between conservative rural areas and the self-described “progressivism” of university towns like Boulder and Denver's urban population.

Over the past 25 years, Colorado has also seen a sharp growth of international trade and Latino immigration.  The Catholic population in the archdiocese is now 52 percent Hispanic.  Latino immigration is much less of a challenge in Colorado than Muslim immigration is in France.  The United States is a nation built by immigrants, and Latinos come from historically Catholic countries.  But that doesn’t diminish the fact of very strong anti-immigrant feelings in my country, including in Colorado.  Moreover, many new Latino immigrants have a poor understanding of their faith.  Once in the United States, they leave the Catholic Church for Protestant communities or abandon religion completely in large numbers.  So while Latino immigration is a great blessing for the Archdiocese of Denver, it also gives us pastoral challenges that we haven’t yet solved.

My point in sharing these facts is this.  The Church in northern Colorado has always been a missionary Church.  She still is.  We have always had too few resources and too few priests.  We have always been a minority.  We have never had social prestige or real political influence.  

But in looking to the future, these facts are not necessarily weaknesses.  We have no false sense of security.  We have no illusions of stability.  We’re too young as a Church to have developed bureaucratic inertia.  We don’t have a long enough history to breed bad institutional habits.  Our disadvantages have given us the freedom to think creatively and act quickly.  We’ve been forced to use our resources wisely.  Laypeople have always played an active role in the Church because they had to.  New religious communities and movements have gravitated to Denver, along with excellent seminary candidates, scholars, teachers and staff.  They thrive in our diocese because we need them and welcome them.  And our priests tend to be men of character and endurance because the demands placed on them do not allow for a life of immaturity.

This is the reality of the Church in Denver.  It leads to my second point – the reasons why Cardinal Lustiger’s thought has such durable appeal for our archdiocese, and why it continues to influence our seminary formation.

Americans love stories, and on the simplest level, the story of Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger is too good to ignore.  He is a Jew who discovers Jesus Christ.  But he never abandons his Judaism.  His mother is murdered at Auschwitz.  He survives the most horrific war in history.  But he refuses to hate and despair.  Instead, he turns to God more deeply and gives himself to the priesthood.  He has a brilliant, commanding, creative mind at ease in the modern world – but also a profoundly Catholic mind; a mind unfazed by the pretensions of secular culture.  

Most of the young men I meet hunger for examples of manliness, confidence, courage and faith.  Lustiger’s personal story is itself a catechesis – an invitation to pursue God heroically as a man fully alive in persona Christi.  That invitation has just as much power for hearts in Denver as it does in Paris.

So much for Cardinal Lustiger’s person.  What about the content of his thought?  Lustiger once said that “the only real question” facing each of us is whether we have let ourselves be grasped by Christ.  He wrote,  “Have you allowed Christ to take you over?  Are Christians the masters of Christianity, deciding what it should be -- or is it Christ, who through his Spirit, takes hold of you and leads you where you do not want to go?”

That is the key question for anyone who calls himself a Christian, no matter where he lives.  But it  becomes urgent and decisive when a young man considers the priesthood.  We cannot be free to respond to God's call until we first let ourselves be grasped by Jesus Christ.

His Eminence wrote a huge volume of material.  I want to mention just a few of his themes that took root in Denver.  They have a continuing influence on me, on our seminary formation and on the Church in northern Colorado.

Here is the first theme.  A living Christianity needs a living experience of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New.  In critiquing modern liberal exegesis, Lustiger wrote, “I realized that this way of posing the problem of understanding [the] Gospel was rooted in the hypothesis that the master of the Gospel, the master of the word of God, was not God, but human persons making themselves interpreters, judges. [But] it is the opposite that matters. You cannot have access to [God's] word, unless you let it interpret you; indeed [until] you accept that it is the word [of God] that speaks to you.”

Here is the second theme.  Lustiger warned that, “We are always tempted to transform Christianity into some kind of euphoric drug” that allows us to evade our own sins, neglect our duty as disciples and make peace with the sinfulness in the world.

Lustiger was an unsentimental realist – not only about the world, but about us Christians and our talent for creating alibis and escaping the implications of our faith.  The Church needs a great deal more of his medicine.

Here is the third theme.  Lustiger named lukewarm Christians and superficial Christianity for what they are: a congenial form of paganism.  He wrote: “Many Christians have, in their understanding, reduced the God of the Covenant to a mere idol, an idea forged by man himself . . . [But even] the simplest, purest, most ignorant soul in Christendom knows very well the [high] cost of praying to God: what renouncement and often what dispossession of self – what struggle against illusions, against fear or false images; what a conversion of our hearts -- is required for access to the living God . . . [If] we imagine we have grasped God, then in fact we have nothing more than an idol between our hands.  And then it becomes easy to reduce that idol to an idea, and declare it dead.  And it is true that it is dead, because it was never alive.” 

Here is the fourth theme.  The main crisis of modern Christianity is not one of resources, or personnel, or marketing.  It is a crisis of faith.  Millions of people claim to be Christian, but they don't really believe.  They don't study Scripture.  They don't love the Church as a mother and teacher.  And they settle for an inoffensive, vanilla Christianity that amounts to a system of decent social ethics.  This is self-delusion – the worst kind of phony Christianity that has no power to create hope out of suffering, to resist persecution, or to lead anyone else to God.

Lustiger understood that to “pose the problem of God amounts to posing the problem of humanity, which is another way of saying the same thing . . . What are human beings? . . . How can they solve the problems that we face today?  The problem of faith is the key issue of our time.

In other words, what we believe, or don't believe, about God profoundly shapes what we believe about the human person, human dignity, human rights and human destiny.

Here is the fifth and last theme I want to mention before moving to the final section of my talk.  In his books Dare to Believe, Choosing God – Chosen by God, The Promise and throughout his work, Lustiger warned that one of the deepest and oldest instincts of man is idolatry, “which always remains a temptation, in its most archaic as well as its most developed forms.  The power that man has given himself is [simply] the most subtle and most modern of these temptations.”

This is true.  I see it every day.  There are no real atheists in America.  Quite the opposite.  We have a thriving free market of little gods to worship.  Sex and technology have very large congregations.  I was especially struck by Lustiger's description of the modern state “as one of the strongest forms of idolatry that exists; it has become the most absolute substitute for God that men have been able to give themselves . . .  and it is a tyrant god, feeding itself on its victims.”

The Christian remedy to these idolatries, said Lustiger, can never simply be coerced from the outside, by stronger statements from stronger bishops.   The temptations to idolatry in our culture  “must be exorcised from the inside . . . To uproot them, we must be converted in depth.”  As a result, the Christian life, the Christian vocation, and especially the vocation of the priest as shepherd of the believing community, inevitably become a form of “spiritual combat.”

And that leads to the third and final part of my talk.

About 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christians.  Around 90 percent claim to believe in God.  About 40 percent attend religious services regularly.  Protestant Christians had a very big role in founding and building the United States.  As a result, American law has generally had a supportive attitude toward religious belief and religious organizations.  Even today, American religious practice remains high compared to other developed countries.  Many millions of Americans take their faith seriously.  And they work hard to apply it in their daily lives.

But from the beginning, American life has also had a bias toward aggressive individualism, pragmatism and an appetite for material success.  Americans distrust institutions.  They always have.  That includes the religious kind.  As religious practice weakens – and American young people today are much less “churched” and much more skeptical of Christianity than any previous generation – these negative qualities grow.  The spirit now emerging in the United States is much more secular and much less friendly toward religion than anything in my nation's past.

Denver prefigured this “new kind of America” by decades.  My predecessor in Denver, Cardinal Stafford, saw this early in his service as archbishop.  Before he left for Rome in 1996, Cardinal Stafford began the process that later led to the founding of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  From the start, the Lustiger experience in Paris attracted him.  Lustiger had a creative response to a highly secular environment.  Lustiger also seemed to understand the needs of a new and very different generation of seminarians and laypeople.  So adapting the Paris model to Denver was actually much more logical than many people first thought.

Today Denver has 126 seminarians.  Of these men, 77 are studying to be priests of the Archdiocese of Denver, with 66 of them in Denver, and another 11 in seminaries outside Colorado.  St. John Vianney Theological Seminary has served -- or is now serving -- dioceses as near as Phoenix, Arizona, and as far away as Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar.

We work very hard to make our theology and philosophy programs strong.  Academically, I think SJV now compares favorably with the best seminaries in the United States.  American laypeople expect excellent preaching from their priests, so we increased our homiletic training.   We also see a need for better pastoral and personal leadership skills in our men.  The seminary is now experimenting with special classes to provide that.

The real key to SJV’s success, though, has been its work in spiritual and human formation.

Our Spirituality Year, which began in 1998, works much like the original St. Augustine House in Paris.  Men live a year of prayer, discussion, discernment and apostolic work, together in community, before they can seek to enter the seminary. They also take a few basic classes, but they have a light study load.  

Men in the Spirituality Year have very limited access to electronic media – computers, the internet, television and so on – and only on one day a week.  This is deliberate.  The program forces them to experience silence, to examine their own hearts, and to build real relationships in close contact with brothers.  We currently have 21 men in our Spirituality Year.  This seems to be a typical annual number.

In addition to the Spirituality Year, we have five residences for SJV seminarians: our main house on the seminary campus; three parish houses each with a house Father, based on the Paris model; and one house of common life ad experimentum, called the “Companions of Christ.”  This is an innovation by the seminarians themselves.  The Companions are trying to create a closer shared life and fraternity among senior seminarians that will continue into their diocesan priesthood and endure after ordination.  Currently our rector -- Msgr. Michael Glenn -- serves as the Companions’ house Father.

The Paris experience has also shaped our thinking in other ways.  Denver has a very successful training program for candidates to the permanent diaconate.  We also have excellent Catechetical and Biblical Schools for lay adults.  We brought all these programs under the supervision of SJV.  While our structures may differ from those in Paris, Lustiger’s approach to education – what he called “the confrontation of diverse vocations” – has clearly inspired our goal of consistent, faithful, high quality adult formation for clergy and laity alike.  The Paris model also indirectly influenced the founding of the Augustine Institute, a new Denver-based graduate school for lay adults.  The Augustine Institute is independent of the archdiocese and entirely lay-run.  Its faculty and curriculum are excellent, and I enthusiastically support it.

The problems we face may be familiar here in Paris.  Our Catholic laypeople are very generous and supportive.  But seminaries are expensive.  We always need more resources.  Many of our men are “reverts” or converts who enter the seminary with a great deal of zeal, but little formal education in the faith.  Some come from broken families.  Some are prone to a new kind of clericalism, or a naďve and rigid orthodoxy.  Some have a hard time giving themselves to the poor, or surrendering their privacy, or learning to listen deeply and generously to the people they will serve.  

Some of our faculty members have trouble grasping what the “Paris model” implies, or how SJV differs from traditional seminaries and graduate schools of the past.  But the good fruit we have already harvested dwarfs these problems.

Looking back over the past 11 years, something extraordinary happened in Denver.  The seed of it was planted here.  St. John Vianney Theological Seminary survived, grew, matured and now is an engine of grace for the whole Catholic people of northern Colorado.

In his speech at the opening of our seminary in 1999, Cardinal Lustiger said, “I hope the American genius will allow you to go further than we have.  And if God lets me live long enough, my dream is to see one of you coming over to Paris to tell us about the ‘Denver model’.”

God called His Eminence home before that could happen.  But I am here today to pay a debt – to thank the Church in Paris for the witness of her son and the gift of his genius.  It has created more life than he ever imagined.

 

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