Sulpicians mark 225 years of training men to be priests

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Will Kirk

By Christopher Gunty

BALTIMORE (CNS) — In October
1791, five men began studies for the priesthood at the first seminary in the
United States, just a couple years after the Diocese of Baltimore was
established as the first in the country in 1789.

At the time of that humble
beginning — when Bishop John Carroll, Baltimore’s first bishop, welcomed four
priests from the Society of St. Sulpice and the five seminarians — the Diocese
of Baltimore encompassed the whole fledgling nation.

Sulpician Father Phillip J.
Brown, president rector of today’s St. Mary’s Seminary and University, noted in
his welcome to commemorate that occasion that the seminarians began their studies
at St. Mary’s downtown on Paca Street a month before Georgetown University in
Washington opened, making the Baltimore seminary the oldest American institution
of higher learning.

The remark brought a chuckle of
pride from the congregation gathered Nov. 15 in the seminary’s chapel to mark
the 225th anniversary of the arrival of the Sulpician fathers in America and
the founding of St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

The prayer service included the
conferral of an honorary doctorate of divinity degree on Cardinal Marc Ouellet,
former archbishop of
Quebec and now prefect of the Congregation for Bishops at the Vatican.

Father Brown welcomed the
faculty and students of St. Mary’s and two other seminal Sulpician institutions — Theological College, the Sulpician national seminary at The Catholic
University of America in Washington; and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and
University in Emmitsburg, which was originally a Sulpician college seminary and
eventually became an independent major seminary.

“St. Mary’s has formed more
priests for the mission in parishes than any other (seminary) in the United
States,” Father Brown said.

He prayed that the Holy Spirit
would “give many more men the courage and confidence to follow the call to
priesthood for the good of the whole church so that it will be renewed and
strengthened during the time of our service and in our lifetime.”

Father Brown noted that each of
the seminarians and faculty members present that evening would receive a copy
of a new biography of Father Francois Charles Nagot, the first Sulpician
superior in the United States, who played a role in the founding of each of the
three seminaries represented at the anniversary celebration.

Sulpician Father John C. Kemper,
provincial superior of the U.S. province of the Society of St. Sulpice, said,
“The first decades or so were difficult for this initial band of Sulpicians,
yet motivated by what their founder, Father Jean-Jacques Olier, called ‘the
apostolic zeal,’ the Sulpicians pressed on.”

He said the new seminary in
Baltimore found itself to be “a launching pad for missionaries to the new land
of the United States.”

Graduates of the seminary went
off to establish parishes in uncharted and hostile areas of the country. Many
Sulpicians were called to leadership in the new Catholic Church in the United
States, including the third and fifth archbishops of Baltimore, Archbishops Ambrose
Marechal and Samuel Eccleston.

Father Kemper noted that the
apostolic zeal that Father Olier encouraged finds new expression in each age.

Cardinal Ouellet has connections
to the Sulpicians as well, having studied for the priesthood in Montreal and
learning Spanish along the way. In the early 1970s, he taught philosophy at the
major seminary in Bogota, Colombia, which was directed by the Sulpicians.
Ordained a priest for
the Montreal Archdiocese, he joined the Society of St. Sulpice soon after his
arrival there.

In his talk, titled, “Toward the
Renewal of the Priesthood in Our Time,” the cardinal said he chose the topic
given the central role the priesthood plays in any reform of the church.

After the event, the cardinal
told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Baltimore Archdiocese, that
his seminary formation was decisive for his encounter with Jesus Christ. “I
remember the seminary in Montreal was the place where I experienced really
deeply my faith.” In the 1970s, the Sulpicians sent him for further studies in
dogmatic theology.

In his talk, he quoted the
conciliar document “Lumen Gentium” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) on the topic: “Each of them in its own special way is a participation
in the one priesthood of Christ.”

Reflecting after the prayer
service, Cardinal Ouellet said that formation is as important for lay people —
perhaps even more important — as it is for priests. “I spoke of the
interrelatedness of both participations in a deep ecclesiology, which is
missing normally when we hear the speeches on that,” he said, speaking of the
common priesthood of the laity and the ministerial (ordained) priesthood.

He said that priests are so
important because they are the heart of the church. “They are in the field.
That’s why I wanted to deepen the question of the priesthood, because they are

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Gunty is CEO and associate
publisher/editor of the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of

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