|Father Brian Kiely blessing new deacons at a Mass of Commissioning held this spring for the class of 2017.
Courtesy Pope St. John XXIII Seminary
"My road to the priesthood has been a lifetime in the making,” said John Maksym on the CatholicTV show Encounter. Maksym, one of 15 students set to graduate next year from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, meant it literally. Retired in 2014 after 31 years as a military litigator and judge, Navy Commander Maksym is a latecomer to professional ministry. But so are his classmates at the school he described as a “boutique institution.”
Since its founding in 1964, Pope John Seminary, as it is commonly called, has had a mission to prepare “mature” candidates for the priesthood. The average student age is 48. “We admit people ages 30 to 60, but in reality the norm is from 35 to 55,” says Father Brian Kiely, rector and president. Students accepted into seminary must be men who are free of “marital encumbrances”— either widowed, never married, or, if they were previously legally married, that marriage must have been annulled. Any sons or daughters of students must be older than 18 and financially independent.
From career pinnacle to dorm room
Students come from across the country and from a range of career backgrounds — engineering, architecture, law enforcement, business, and the list goes on and on. Many have risen to the top of their professions before dropping out to enroll in the four-year program that leads to the M.Div. degree, ordination, and parish ministry.
|Courtesy Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary
“They sacrifice a lot to come here,” says Ken Watts, the school’s vocation liaison. “In many cases they’re very accomplished and have had the kind of lifestyle that accompanies that status. They give it all up to move to campus and spend four years living in a room that’s 8 by 12 and has shared bathroom facilities. They probably haven’t encountered these kinds of accommodations since they were college students.”
The chances of going back to their more comfortable lives are slim. Unlike traditional seminarians who are young enough to pursue other careers if they decide ministry isn’t for them, “mature” candidates have made such a striking shift late in life that going back is not a real option. “They’re taking a huge risk, and they take it in faith,” Father Kiely says.
|In April of this year, John Maksym (class of 2018) was ordained to the diaconate by the Most Rev. Gerard W. Battersby, auxiliary bishop of Detroit.
Courtesy Pope St. John XXIII Seminary
Tackling a tough curriculum with wisdom
The program that awaits them when they arrive on campus is designed to capitalize on their life experiences. Classes are small and faculty members are diocesan priests. If students are nervous about returning to school after so many years, their fears are eased by the knowledge that the entire student body is in the same situation. No one is competing for valedictorian honors; in fact, the school doesn’t have such a designation. A “band of brothers” mentality emerges as classmates tackle a rigorous curriculum, which isn’t watered down in deference to their age and experience. Conversations among peers are rich and thoughtful.
“When you’re young, say in your early 20s, you tend to see things in terms of black and white,” says Kiely. “The older you get, hopefully, the wiser you become. You’re more compassionate and less judgmental because you realize you don’t have all the facts. Easy answers aren’t always the best solutions.”
Formation, both with a spiritual director and in community
Spiritual formation occurs in two ways. First, each student is assigned a spiritual director and is expected to meet regularly with him for sessions that are strictly confidential. The director can reveal nothing, regardless of what transpires in those private conversations. Second, the entire community watches and monitors the outward performance and growth of each student. Among the questions that faculty members ask are: What evidence does the student give that he is a man of prayer? Is he thoughtful and kind? Is he generous? How well does he handle conflict? Any evidence of swagger or bluster is duly noted and addressed. “If he’s self-centered, we would challenge him,” says Kiely. “A man who is self-absorbed is going to be a disaster as a priest. We set the bar really high because a priest is a public person who represents the Catholic Church.”
Following a call at a nontraditional starting age
Not every candidate makes a successful adjustment from secular to sacred life, but most do. The seminary has almost 700 alumni serving in ministry throughout the world, and a survey of graduates conducted several years ago indicates overwhelming satisfaction on the part of the priests who transitioned to ministry later in life.
This comes as no surprise to Kiely, who believes that the call to ministry can exist for decades before a man responds affirmatively to it. Case in point: John Maksym, the Navy’s long-serving judge and member of the seminary’s class of 2018. “The Holy Spirit always pursued me,” he said on the Encounter television program. “As years went by, I realized it was time. I finally had to say ‘yes.’” He added with a smile, “because sooner or later He’s going to get His way.”
Governance of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary
Thirteen miles west of downtown Boston, Pope John Seminary is an independent institution under the auspices of the archbishop of Boston, currently Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, who sits on the school’s five-member board of incorporators and chairs its 19-member board of trustees.
A mix of laypersons and ecclesiastical leaders compose both boards, with the board of incorporators naming members to the board of trustees. The rector and president, Father Brian Kiely, has autonomy in day-to-day administrative matters but meets regularly for discussion with the archbishop. The board of trustees oversees the finances, with funding coming from tuition — typically paid by the diocese that sends a student — and institutional advancement. The Boston Archdiocese provides no additional revenue. Each student’s home diocese collaborates closely with the seminary at the time of admission and throughout the student’s education.