Archbishop Wester: Do the Seminaries Need Reform?

Fr. Tom Reese, SJ, argues that “the Catholic Church’s U.S. seminaries need reform.” While noting some positive developments, Fr. Reese charges that “too many of the priests coming out of … seminaries have been trained to be authoritarians with few pastoral skills,” and “seminarians are not taught to listen, to delegate, to work with committees or to empower the laity, especially women.” His conclusion is that “Catholic seminaries need more than minor tinkering,” and he speaks of a “real reform of diocesan seminaries.” Pray Tell asked Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe what he thinks.

Are our seminaries doing an adequate job preparing men for parish ministry?
Yes, the seminaries we use to form our men for service in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe do a very good job of preparation. They are well versed in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council; the theological preparation is broad and deep. The seminarians are given many opportunities for pastoral service and theological reflection on that service. There is a strong emphasis on diocesan spirituality and the importance of building up fraternal support. In addition, I am impressed with the time given to human formation, ensuring that our seminarians are healthy physically, emotionally and psychologically. (Editor’s note: major seminarians of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe study principally at the Josephinum in Columbus, OH, and Mt. Angel in Benedict, OR.)

How much are seminaries giving future priests a vision of liturgy that contrasts with typical parish practice, and how will this work out?
I believe that our seminaries strike a balance between teaching our men the ideals of good liturgy as envisioned by the Church and at the same time preparing them for the realities they may find after ordination. In other words, the seminarians are helped to apply the ideals they learn in the seminary in parishes that are not able to always live up to those ideals; they are helped to bridge the gap between the ideal and the typical.

How so?
The “typical” can include a lack of well-trained musicians, poor acoustics and inadequate lay involvement (lectors, Eucharistic ministers), to name a few. Beyond the seminary and the parish experience, there are other factors that can cause a contrast between a priest’s vision of liturgy and typical parish practice. Certain Catholic media outlets and online sites promote a liturgy that more resembles pre-Vatican II norms rather than that found in the parishes. If a given priest subscribes to these factors, then there can be friction in parishes that are not willing to adapt to them.

 There are some stories of young priests dividing parishes and turning off people by the agendas they push. How much are the seminaries responsible for this?
I do not believe that the seminaries we use are responsible for agendas that may be pushed by certain newly ordained priests. Rather, it is the seminarians themselves who have their agendas that differ from the parish experience. In fact, since our seminaries have a very good connection with the diocesan experience, especially through their pastoral year programs and theological reflection opportunities, I see the seminaries as reducing the friction that may arise between a newly ordained priest and the parish.

Where do the frictions come from then?
A lack of fraternity in presbyterates and the fact that our newly ordained are made pastors rather quickly after ordination contribute more to possible liturgical divisions than seminary training.

The Council of Trent in the 16th century revolutionized formation for ordained ministry. Are we in a similar era of transition, and does the seminary system need reform?
No, I do not think the seminaries are in need of reform although I am impressed with their ability to continually grow and improve. For some time now, our seminaries have implemented the Program for Priestly Formation (PPF), thus avoiding the rigidity of the pre-Vatican II seminary formation program and the somewhat challenging years immediately after the same Council. They are also very involved with the writing of the sixth edition of the PPF currently underway.

What is the most important thing for seminaries to work on going forward?
The prevalence in our society of broken marriages that signal an increasing lack of commitment and fidelity in relationships, as well as the prevalence of consumerism and relativism (especially in the media and social communication), along with weak school systems, interpersonal isolation, sensual overstimulation and a turning away from religious affiliation have all had a tremendous influence on those who are entering our seminaries. Thus, our seminaries must be more attentive than ever in helping our seminarians to grow spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. They must not assume that basic maturation goals have been taken care of in the home and they must be able to read the signs of the times in order to tailor their formation programs to the men they are forming.

The interview was conducted by email by Anthony Ruff, OSB.


  1. Realize that no brief interview can cover a subject that is this complex or covers so many different and moving parts.
    BUT – beyond his interesting story about parish liturgies and candidates/newly ordained who may be drawn to pre-VII liturgy, the rest of this interview ignores significant areas of concern.
    Clericalism – he says nothing about this
    Seminary isolation or separateness – no comment about education or involvement in catholic university settings; no comment about studying or working with peers both male and female.
    A significant issue is the number of seminaries that water down the level of education; do not allow candidates to have the best teachers; mediocre teachers/theology/sacramental education, etc. There has been a pending movement for years to try to consolidate theologates and even college seminary/houses of study so that the best education can be provided
    Pastoral work/internships – again, little input or insights on this
    Candidate evaluation – no mention of involvement by lay people including women to work with and make evaluations on candidates progressing forward
    Psychological testing – no mention
    Cultural Sensitivity, bi-lingual education, etc. – little insights

    Finally, there is no one seminary fits all template. Seminaries are typically influenced and run according to the sponsoring bishop(s) and thus you find seminaries that literally run from Detroit’s Sacred Heart or Glennon/Kenrick to St. Meinrads/St. John’s. Seminaries are run/staffed by local diocesan or religious orders and this can have a significant impact on the program and the candidates. Seminary rectors these days are business travelers – they spend their time on the road marketing and selling bishops on sending candidates to their seminary vs. focusing on the seminary and its mission. This means that rectors have to form their seminary programs to meet the *wants* and *desires* of their sponsoring bishops – tension with what may truly be needed in the church of today.

  2. The “typical” can include a lack of well-trained musicians, poor acoustics and inadequate lay involvement (lectors, Eucharistic ministers), to name a few. Quite so. Particularly organists who can support a congregation.
    Rather, it is the seminarians themselves who have their agendas that differ from the parish experience. Because parish experience as I find it rarely comes anywhere near the vision of liturgy of Vatican II, or conforms to the GIRM. Inappropriate music, poorly performed, is the most common fault. Few of the lay people involved are even aware of GIRM, or other guidance. (Many older clergy seem to have forgotten it, they once worked out how to say Mass and never review their practice)

  3. Staying on the topic of this post – here is a much better article about reform of seminaries:
    Note – although this bishop uses the only Pontifical Seminary outside of Italy, one wonders if the seclusion and *clericalism* of this location is best for forming candidates that will serve in the archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico – yes, it does have a Hispanic Ministry certification but it also raises lots of questions.
    Note – above comment about seminaries reflecting local bishops, Josephinum has swung from Olmsted as rector to Cupich and current rector replaced a rector who touted just a few years ago that they formed a *Renaissance Priest* – whatever that means? The nuncio is the chancellor and the local bishop was just named by Francis and is the vice-chancellor. For a combined college/theologate – 150 students is not much and from fewer than 10 dioceses. It says a lot.

  4. I can say without reserve that the Josephinum does not prepare seminarians as this article states. At least not for the novus ordo parishes.

  5. The Archbishop’s responses strike me as overly optimistic & rosy, at best, & naive in the extreme, at worse. Perhaps it is because the candidates for ordination that want to serve with Wester are self-selecting (just as those drawn to the Morlinos, etc.) or perhaps it is an unwillingness to cause offense to his episcopal brothers, but if this attitude is representative of the views of “moderate” bishops, then God help us. For one thing, does he not think that this view might be one reason seminarians are so easily influenced (captured, frankly, is a more apt word) by outside Traditionalist websites & groups? In my experience, seminarians who come out as hard right Traditionalists have all been influenced in that direction by factors outside of the formal seminary formation structure, & even after ordination, have an at-best tenuous relationship with their fellow diocesan priests. Rather they prefer to socialize, travel, & be associated with similar-minded priests nationally that they have met via various national groups, conferences, etc. Does the Archbishop not think the inability of the seminary formation programs to counter-attack these influences is a problem needing addressing?

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