At Pope John XXIII, it’s just a step from the classroom to the laundry room.

Photograph by
James Knight

Once upon a time not all that long ago, seminarians were almost all young white men, nurtured in the Sunday schools and youth groups of congregations of the denomination whose colleges they attended and for whose ordained ministry they were preparing. Theological schools could expect their students to share some common life experiences and some common theological understandings.

The winds of demographic change have now been blowing for thirty years or more, though, and those days seem only a distant memory. Today denominational colleges have mostly vanished as effective recruiters of ordinands, and candidates for ministry more often than not have been in the grip of a spiritual journey that has led them through a number of denominations, even religions, before they ended up, usually in middle age, studying theology.

Some theological schools are still reacting in piecemeal fashion to the changes in demographics. Others have planned from their beginnings for a new approach. Although both the two schools that figure in this article are headed by Roman Catholic priests, they have little else in common. Except for this: they have studied the signs of the times and have tailored their educational programs with deep respect for their students’ life experiences.

Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, is an all-male, all-full-time, residential school that forms Roman Catholic priests for service in many parts of the United States in accordance with precise theological norms. The South Florida Center for Theological Studies in Miami is a commuter school with a variety of programs preparing an ethnically and denominationally diverse student body for a variety of ministries in the greater Miami area. The oft-repeated SFCTS tag line on doctrinal unity is: “We agree that Jesus is Lord, but not necessarily about what that means.” Each in its own way is a school for these times.

 People in This Article

At Pope John XXIII

Monsignor Francis Kelly, rector

The Reverend James Massa, professor of systematic theology

Sister Rose Clarisse Gadoury, teacher of spirituality

Doug McGonagle, student and former research astronomer

John Gawienowski, student

At South Florida Center

J. Allison DeFoor, board chair and lawyer (and M.Div. student)

The Reverend Patrick H. O’Neill, president

The Reverend Melvin Schoonover, current dean, founder, and former president

Mari Castellanos, student

Gerardo Van Dalen, student

Living Together in Diversity
When Pope John XXIII National Seminary was founded in 1964, second-career seminarians were a rarity. The Weston, Massachusetts, school was the first Roman Catholic seminary in the country designed to train men over thirty years of age to be priests. (Some of today’s students are in their sixties; the median age is the middle forties.) The current student body of seventy-five—the largest ever—includes fourteen Ph.D.s, ten lawyers, and some men who never finished college. The proportion of nondegreed students, however, is well below the maximum permitted by the Association of Theological Schools accrediting standards, according to Monsignor Francis Kelly, the school’s rector. Among the widowed students are two with a dozen children each. Another student imagines a recruiting poster for Pope John XXIII picturing these men surrounded by children and grandchildren. Inscription: “You’ve raised your family. Now are you ready for a real challenge?”

The challenge in question is parish priesthood: 85 percent of the school’s graduates have entered the parish ministry, serving in eighty dioceses and twenty-one religious orders. (The rest became chaplains, teachers, missionaries, and administrators.) The shared focus is the source of community that pulls together students with remarkably varied life experience. “There’s a lot of grieving the first few weeks,” said student Doug McGonagle, who traded in a career in research astronomy for a chance at priesthood after a long discernment process that began at the Newman Center at the University of Massachusetts. “People give up some very concrete things to come here—jobs, home, easy access to family.”

Indeed, because of the current high enrollment, some students formerly housed in a home of their own find themselves residing in a single room they share with another student. McGonagle and other students cite a week-long retreat during the first semester as the catalyst for community, the point at which they move beyond the shock of their own situation and into an appreciation of other students’ stories. It might appear to outsiders that the seminary itself is rather retreat-like—a highly structured life of study and prayer, all contained in a single nondescript building set in a semisecluded wooded area. Almost all the students have cars, but the feeling of set-apartness remains as one traverses the long driveway. The dining room is next to the chapel, the laundry room is across from the classrooms, offices and student rooms are on the same hallway. The tiny bookstore is often open but unstaffed; an honor system prevails, and payment is made to a box on the wall.

The retreat, though, is a time apart and happens off campus. It is a time to engage more fully and formally in the storytelling that has begun in spare moments. Students speak of the life journeys that have brought them to seminary. “Really hearing each person’s journey and also describing my own made it impossible to imagine we were strangers any longer,” said student John Gawienowski. “I think the sooner a community does this in the year the better.”

“We do the retreat at just the right time,” said Kelly. “After seven weeks of academics, they’re ready for a reminder of why they came here.”

Academics at Pope John XXIII are tightly wrapped around a core curriculum: students don’t have electives until the second semester of their second year. Thereafter they can choose just one elective per semester. All students, regardless of educational background and the length of time it’s been since they set foot in a classroom, take core classes together. How does such a diverse crowd learn together? With mutual support, certainly, in the form of informally organized study groups that sometimes work far into the night and that seemingly involve all the school’s students, and with the help of faculty who are committed to extra work with the less academically inclined. Courses are structured to support students’ confidence in their ability to learn. Systematic theology professor James Massa describes his approach: “My principal aim is to bring them into the conversation that is the Catholic tradition. To achieve that end, I offer them the basic terms, concepts, and historical developments that show up the importance of key articles of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church serves as a key dogmatic reference in all our doctrinal courses. Owing to its style and organization, the Catechism is readily accessible to all our students. Many of them have used it in the past while working as a catechist in the parish. Students who are less gifted academically know that at least if they grasp the basic concepts contained in the Catechism, they will be able to proclaim the gospel message and defend particular beliefs and practices of the Catholic tradition.”

Sister Rose Clarisse Gadoury teaches spirituality. In that post, said Kelly as his dark, expressive eyebrows climbed his forehead, she “fosters anima.”

Sister Rose Clarisse Gadoury: she “fosters anima,” says rector Kelly.

Fay Photo-Boston

“You can’t ignore what the students already have,” said Sister Rose. “These students know what love is, what loss is—and hard work and limitations. Whereas a first-career man might be looking to find himself, second-career men tend to be looking to be of service to others.” Her first-semester course in spiritual identity focuses on “becoming the person you were called to be, awakening to your inner loneliness, abiding with it, reflecting on it, and then looking at how you’ve been taught, what has been given you, where you have been blocked.” During the same semester, she teaches a course in the history of spirituality in which the focus is on a common vision, connecting the personal to something much larger.

There is considerable concern, especially in Catholic circles, about rigidly hyper-conservative students and the challenges they pose to faculty. While Gadoury noted that students have become slightly more conservative over the twenty-three years she has been involved with Pope John XXIII, she doesn’t see extreme cases. “Of course it’s a challenge getting some of our students to broaden—they have well-tested modes of operation,” she said.

Massa concurred, noting: “Nearly all our students seem to be struggling with the question of how best to present the richness and beauty of Catholic doctrine in a manner that is both faithful to orthodoxy and yet supple enough to find a hearing in our secular-pluralistic age. Rather than being rigid, I see them more as impatient with theological proposals that are not accountable to the fundamental faith of believers.”

“Given the age and life-experience of our seminarians,” Massa added, “it is no wonder that some of them occasionally show signs of being personally rigid. What can one expect? On the whole, one looks at the sacrifices they are making and concludes by realizing how heroic their decision really is to pursue a priestly vocation in the Catholic Church! While some of them can be rigid with respect to ordinary human living needs, more than anything else they show evidence of being exceedingly generous in the way they relate to faculty and each other.”

Monsignor Francis Kelly, Pope John XXIII’s rector.

Fay Photo-Boston

When one listens to Gadoury speak about the admissions process at the school, one begins to understand that the steadiness of the students is no accident. Recent converts are not admitted to Pope John XXIII. There is an understanding that a number of years living the faith life of a congregation are needed to provide stability of faith. Neither are recently widowed men admitted, not even those who have conferred with their dying wives about their return to an earlier dream of priesthood. “We don’t provide an immediate solution to loneliness,” said Gadoury. Of her own role on the admissions committee, she said, “I look for a certain degree of self-confidence and an ability to relate. And of course”—her eyes twinkle behind her no-nonsense wire-rimmed glasses—”my presence helps us observe how they relate to— according to my colleagues—a strong woman.”

Expecting the Unexpected
“I once saw a professor, a Jamaican-born Northern Baptist, explain to a class a subtle theological point best understood in one’s native language. He stated it in English to a Haitian Adventist, who translated it into Creole for the benefit of a Haitian Presbyterian who had been taught by (former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand) Aristide in Catholic school and whose brother is a priest at the Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. The Presbyterian in turn translated it into Spanish for the benefit of two Ecuadorian Pentecostal missionaries and one Peruvian Jew who is a member of a nine-church sect that has blended Judaism and Christianity as a result of forced conversions during the Inquisition.”

The story belongs to J. Allison DeFoor, board chair at the South Florida Center for Theological Studies. DeFoor was in the class because this busy practicing attorney is also a student at the school. “I was sitting at a board meeting,” he recalled, “when a still small voice said, ‘If you’re serious about this, you should be a student.’

“‘Well, still small voice, I’ll take Greek,’” DeFoor said he replied. “I got an A,” he added, “and I thought, ‘Oh, no!’”

DeFoor is now finishing his master of divinity studies—not sure where that will take him, but content in any case with the education he’s gotten: “The instruction is the equal of any I’ve had anywhere.”

J. Allison DeFoor

The South Florida Center has a way of pulling people into fuller participation. The Reverend Patrick H. O’Neill, the center’s president, also began his association with the school as a board member. Drawn by the center’s concrete ecumenism, he became acting president after stating his commitment to aggressively seek increased funding and accreditation for the school. After repeated pleas from the rest of the board, his archbishop allowed him to become president. There are no other Roman Catholics on the faculty. The nine core faculty members come from five different denominations, ranging from Old Catholic to Southern Baptist. Seven more denominations are represented among the adjunct faculty.

Melvin Schoonover, currently dean of the school (but only for this year, he insists), is also its founder and former president. When he came to Miami in 1983, there was no theological education available locally. By 1986 the center had started its first M.Div. class, with a commitment to an education that was indigenous, interdenominational, and inclusive. In Miami, which O’Neill describes as a “wonderful crazy turnstile that never stops,” that meant networking with a dizzying array of denominations and church structures operating out of very different cultures. (They’re not always easy to play to simultaneously. Schoonover says that the diverse faculty is handy here: “We’ve never all put our foot in it at the same time.”)

That has meant developing not only an M. Div. program, but also a diploma course for students without an accredited bachelor’s degree and those whose ministries do not require an M.Div. It is possible to complete the diploma program in Spanish. Classes in all programs are held mostly in the evening and on weekends. Special programs include a “multicultural orientation week” each September for people doing ministry in Miami: they spend the week interacting with various communities and end it with a fat stack of local resources in hand.

SSCTS presidents past and present: Melvin Schoonover, seated, and Patrick O’Neill.

Photograph by
David Schwartz

Schoonover describes the early operation as “a mom-and-pop seminary, with mailings going out from our living-room floor.” The vision caught hold, though, and now the school is well beyond survival mode and is moving toward accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools (it is currently an associate member). The school has grown to sixty-six students (forty-two full-time equivalents). It has no home of its own and no plans to acquire one. The school’s current location is at the First Presbyterian Church of Miami, in what Schoonover calls “symbolically a great location, in the heart of the city. It is, of course, a dead neighborhood except in daytime.” The church is surrounded by gleaming white office buildings and palm trees, and is easily accessible by public transportation. SFCTS is an entirely commuter school, and creating community is “well-nigh impossible,” according Schoonover. It’s up to professors to bring individual classes together as something more than a collection of individuals.

The watchword at SFCTS is respect. “Toleration is a dirty word here, because it’s something I do for you,” says the dean. “Our experience is that overlapping gifts and experiences allow for communication. Even respect isn’t enough between Christians, of course—but love takes a lot of doing. Respect is a starting point: we bear in mind that none of us has the final word. We all see in part.”

Respect doesn’t involve minimizing differences. Schoonover can be quite blunt with students whose religious perspective he finds vague. “What in the world are you doing here?” he may ask. “What can we do for you?” But he takes the answers seriously. “We don’t aim to change people’s beliefs, but we do expect them to examine them.”

This approach plays itself out over and over again in class. The current crop of six first-year students in the doctor of ministry program include a Venezuelan-born pastor of an independent fundamentalist church (with members from twenty-three countries), a Haitian Methodist, an Anglo Lutheran parish pastor, an Anglo Presbyterian who works with Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee program, an Anglo pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation, and a Cuban-American UCC candidate for ordination who arranges cultural immersions highlighting the diversity of Hispanic cultures. They spend every Monday together in classes that begin with student-led prayers that are not at all pro forma.

On a recent Monday two members of the class left quickly, on their way to demonstrations before a Dade County Commission vote on gay rights—and they were demonstrating on opposite sides of the issue. Mari Castellanos admits that the Christian Coalition scares her, and she finds it “very difficult to be in such an intimate classroom setting with one of them.” For his part, Gerardo Van Dalen says that while “I love and respect Mari as a theologian in her own right,” his reading of scripture identifies homosexuality as wrong. As one of the more conservative students at the school, he says, “I feel comfortable. Most faculty don’t agree with my point of view, but they respect it. They’re all the time asking me, ‘How’re you doing?’ And it’s not contrived. I love them in Christ. I have to. I have a commandment. But along the way, I’ve become real fond of them, too.”

Their differences notwithstanding, both students are designing projects about bridging cultural gaps: Castellanos is looking to expand the cultural immersion program she has in place, and Van Dalen is looking at the religious needs of second-generation Americans who “live, work, and study in English, but do church in Spanish.”

Trusting Students’ Wisdom

Cross-cultural learning, it would appear, flourishes in an atmosphere of respect. Teachers who appreciate the depth of their students’ experience can encourage those students to trust their wisdom. Students thus encouraged can use their shared life experience to discern what is helpful for their ministry. For all the differences between Pope John XXIII National Seminary and the South Florida Center for Theological Studies, the approach of students in the classroom is remarkably similar. After a lecture by the Reverend Gardner C. Taylor, pastor emeritus of the Concord Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York, and perhaps the premier African-American preacher of the century, the question that occupied SFCTS students was: “Yes, his preaching is an art form. But does it inspire the hearer to do anything?” When the students in an elective course in eschatology at Pope John XXIII looked at an old text about the handling of death in a monastery, one said, “I wouldn’t want to use the approach as normative. It was particular to a religious community even in that time frame. Is there something I can learn from it, though?”

What can be learned from these schools are the possibilities for lively theological education that are created when challenges of changing realities are faced head on. Do you see alarming changes in student demographics looming on your school’s horizon? Pay attention. There is no template for what a successfully adapted school will look like—as witness the differences between Pope John XXIII and the South Florida Center for Theological Education. But take heart. As SFCTS’s Allison DeFoor says, “Historically, the church has been at its best in times of crisis—look at Augustine when the barbarians were literally coming over the walls. It’s an opportunity for the church to do its best work.”

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