On March 18, 1847, Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh ordained Father Charles Geyerstanger, the first priest-graduate of Saint Vincent Seminary. Since that day nearly 2,300 diocesan and religious priests, including 28 bishops and archbishops, have been ordained from Saint Vincent. These graduates have exerted considerable influence in Church and society through their teaching and writing, but most of all as priests serving in numerous parishes throughout the country.
The mission, curriculum, and programs of the Seminary reflect the principles which Pope John Paul II expressed shortly after the 1991 Synod on Priestly Formation in his Apostolic Exhortation I Will Give You Shepherds. Saint Vincent is a member of the ecumenical Association of Theological Schools and is aware of the importance of a global vision. Over the last decade we have established programs and offered special courses to prepare priests for Hispanic ministry, rural ministry, and ministry to African-American Catholics. While the Seminary continues to focus its mission primarily on preparing priests, it also offers programs in monastic studies and programs for laypersons who seek deeper formation in their faith and are preparing for other ministries in the Church.
One cannot think about the Seminary today without reflecting on the significance of its founder, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer. It was he, for example, who from its earliest years began the custom of sending monks to the best universities in Europe and America to prepare them for teaching at Saint Vincent. As I reflect on the vitality of the Seminary and the contributions of its graduates, I am grateful for the tradition of learning that it has maintained. Most alumni can talk about a professor who has had a determinative impact on their lives: Father Baldwin, Father Oliver, Father Maurus. When I was a student Father Paulinus and Father Demetrius formed in me an appreciation for scholarship which carried over into my doctoral studies at the University of Louvain and beyond.
Even though Wimmer did not leave behind a comprehensive statement about the formation of students for the priesthood, his character and spirit continue to shape the life of the Seminary. I have selected a few key elements from Wimmer’s life and his writings which I consider vital to his vision, not only in founding the Seminary but for priestly formation at Saint Vincent today. Perhaps it is Wimmer’s unpretentious no-nonsense directness which gives these elements cogency and makes them a living heritage for us.
Saint Benedict teaches in his Rule that monks should “prefer nothing to Christ.” For Wimmer, too, the center of a seminarian’s and priest’s life should be faith in Jesus Christ. In a letter to young candidates who were wavering in their resolution to accompany him to America, Wimmer wrote: “You must become [priests] only to be united to Jesus Christ more closely, to follow Him more faithfully, to do more for Him and, if necessary, to suffer and endure more for Him…” Later in the same letter: “If these are your sentiments, you will never have cause to regret having followed me when you are once in America. For you are not in quest of beautiful surroundings, a comfortable home, a life of ease, but you are seeking an opportunity of carrying the cross of self-denial after the crucified Jesus to save and regain souls…” Wimmer knew from his own experience that only a steadfast faith can triumph over the inevitable trials, disappointments and failures that a new priest would encounter. To young candidates who were about to join him in his mission to America: “I do not know the future; I have nothing to show you but the cross. ‘Behold I send you as lambs among wolves,’ said Christ to his disciples. He said it to us also, and I say it to you: if you are afraid of the wolves, if you fear their howling and their teeth, then stay home.”
A second thing that Wimmer would say to seminary students is that they must commit themselves wholeheartedly to the mission of the Church. For him, doing God’s work in meeting the needs of people and bringing the gospel to them, regardless of personal cost, seem to have been the driving force of his life. Wimmer was a man of prayer trusting in divine grace, but he knew that prayer must be combined with work.
Wimmer, a man of faith, man of the Church, was also a man who was fully human. He responded to a situation with his whole being, and I believe his personality is somehow part of the enduring spirit of Saint Vincent. Learning of the hardships of German Catholics in America, he wrote that he was moved by “deep compassion and a desire to do something to alleviate their pitiable condition.” There are many indications that Wimmer was a man of deep faith and spirituality, yet he did not go about with a solemn face. One monk who thought that Saint Vincent ought to become more like a Trappist monastery complained that the abbot was “always in the kitchen where he laughs and jokes about everything.” Toward the end of his life when his own health was failing, his concern did not turn inward to his own welfare. After visiting new foundations that were experiencing difficulties, Wimmer remarked, “My chief occupation of thought and concern is for the new establishments in the South.” In regard to his own health he said, “Soon there will be no place further to go. But then, I am cheerful in the Lord, and on the whole am still quite well for my age.”
Finally, Wimmer believed that the education of students for the priesthood would best be accomplished on the same campus with a college where other students would be preparing for professions in many fields, and where a variety of recreational and educational opportunities would be available. Since the education of priests must be broad in order for them to understand the values and interests of people, seminarians may take elective courses in the College. The campus offers art exhibits, films, lectures by nationally-known scholars, plays and concerts by professional performers, and, above all, the resources of an excellent library.
Boniface Wimmer’s challenge to students preparing for their ministry as priests is simple: Believe in Jesus Christ, and prefer nothing to Him. Commit yourself to the mission of the Church. Be yourself, a truly full human being. And get a good education. Boniface Wimmer continues to challenge Saint Vincent Seminary today, not only its students, but faculty and administrators as well.
Thomas Acklin, O.S.B.