By Donna Sue Berry
Located in rural Denton, Nebraska, Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary is the Fraternity of St. Peter’s international house of formation for English-speakers. Young men from all over the world have been formed for the priesthood in the seminary’s intensive seven year program.
Established in 1988 by Pope Saint John Paul II, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter is a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right which focuses on the sanctification of priests through the worthy celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The Fraternity instructs and trains its priests to preserve, promote, and protect the Church's authentic liturgical and spiritual traditions worldwide. It now has over 235 priests and 140 seminarians studying in its two international seminaries in Bavaria and Denton, Nebraska. In this candid and engaging interview with REGINA’s Donna Sue Berry, Fr Joseph Lee ‘opens the door’ to his seminary in Nebraska.
REGINA: Father Lee, what is the Fraternity’s idea of a great seminary?
FATHER LEE: Every good Catholic seminary is a house of discernment and formation for the Priesthood. Since the vast majority of seminarians at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary are studying for the Fraternity, our formation program takes on a slightly different character or flavor flowing from the purpose of the Fraternity itself. As our Constitutions state “the object of the Fraternity of Saint Peter is the sanctification of priests through the exercise of the priesthood, and in particular, to turn the life of the priest toward that which is essentially his raison d’être, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, with all that it signifies. All that flows from it, all that goes with it.”
This specific objective requires and demands a specific means to accomplish it. Intellectual, psychological, social even physical elements in our formation will be colored the light and love and grace which the Sacrifice of the Mass offers us. This will hopefully permeate the spiritual air they will daily breathe in as future priests, whether they are rushing to anoint a dying person at the hospital, teaching an evening parish class or playing soccer with their youth group.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary attracts seminarians from countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Australia, England and Nigeria. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz -shown here during the Consecration Mass of the chapel – invited the Fraternity into the Diocese of Lincoln to construct the seminary in 1998.
Take for example the area of music. Music, the most subtle and immaterial of all the arts, is also the most powerful and therefore most closely approaches the liturgy in creating a conducive atmosphere. Every seminarian takes a mandatory 16 credits of music throughout our seven year program, not including meeting twice a week to practice specific pieces. Some seminarians will join one of three scholas for sung Masses held twice a week and may also participate in the polyphonic choir.
REGINA: Wow, that’s a lot of musical training!
FATHER LEE: It’s imperative that they learn the nature of music, recognize its fundamental elements and its effects on the passions. The seminarians listen, appreciate and understand for themselves how various masters have utilized and stressed different elements of music through history. Upon this natural foundation, they learn to read, sing and conduct Gregorian Chant, the Church’s very own music to suitably adorn its timeless Liturgy.
From the angle of being a Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical Right, priests of the Fraternity of St. Peter are to live in community. Life in common in the daily grind can be understandably challenging on the natural level, taking into account different personalities and interests. However, when a Fraternity priest remembers that he is indeed his brother’s keeper and does his best to take care of him, the parish will reap the spiritual benefits this unified sacrificial charity produces. This fundamental thought and desire begins in the seminary.
REGINA: Tell us about the seminary’s focus on theological studies.
FATHER LEE: The writings and thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, the universal Doctor of the Church, forms the backbone of our theological program. With the words of Pope Leo XIII, we tell our seminarians “Ite ad Thomam” (Go to Thomas).
Practically, every single Pope after St. Thomas Aquinas’s death in 1274 has recommended him as an intellectual guide. We want our seminarians and priests to be able to read like St. Thomas, write like St. Thomas, think like St. Thomas. Over the centuries, the Church has experienced that when its seminarians study St. Thomas, they advance on a sure, safe and direct route as future teachers of Scripture and Tradition.
BISHOP CONLEY OF LINCOLN VISITS DENTON: Those acquainted with St. Thomas with his academic method will remark how self-effacing while being very respectful and even gentle with those he disagrees with while never compromising a single premise in his faithful commitment to the Truth. Just as the Israelites took the gold and silver and even raiment of the Egyptians and found them useful to build and beautify the Ark, so St. Thomas takes the best and precious achievements that human literature and philosophy have to offer, elevates them and transforms them to a higher use, namely, service of Theology, the queen of all sciences.
ON CATHOLIC THEOLOGY: We are not Protestants. The Church values the goods of nature. The Church values secondary causes. Grace is clearly above nature, but in God’s Providence, builds upon it. St. Thomas takes this very healthy and balanced and holistic approach in his study of God.
We try to impress upon the seminarians that theology is much more than something apologetical in nature, wherewith our seminarians are able to crush their opponents with valid and logical arguments. We want our seminarians to join St. Thomas to simply enjoy theology, just because it is a good thing to do. Hopefully, they will pass this love of theology on to their students. We want the seminarians to wonder how God is outside of time and space, how one angel teaches another angel, how Our Lady possessed more grace than all the angels and saints together in her Immaculate Conception. Thus, even in this life, we see what joys contemplation can bring, which in turn, provides a distant glimpse of life in heaven.
Unfortunately, one is unable to really appreciate and really understand St. Thomas unless he really dives into and appreciates the works of Aristotle, or as St. Thomas refers to him, “The Philosopher”. This demands a difficult and virile discipline. The passions of the seminarian have to be ordered in addition to the faculties of his soul, the imagination and memory.
REGINA: Is this a problem for young men?
FATHER LEE: This is often quite arduous for the young man entering the seminary, whose mental powers are dormant and suffer atrophy, due to the over reliance our culture places on technology. For impoverished minds filled with a diet of often shallow knowledge of passing things, it is difficult to digest more nourishing and substantial topics such as the nature of motion since the appetitive and cognitive powers are used to intellectual fast food.
Whether it’s during the year or on vacations, our seminarians have various opportunities for pastoral experience, whether they participate in various summer camps, altar boy trainings, youth Groups and adult education classes in a parish. The ideal priest is omnia omnibus (all things to all men). He can make the elderly lady in the church feel comfortable. His talk is relevant to the young working professional attending a young adult event. The little children easily approach him and like to play a game with him. The seminarian should be placed in situations to prepare him for all of these situations.
REGINA: Besides the studies of philosophy and theology, what can you tell us about the spiritual preparation of the seminarians?
FATHER LEE: Well, keeping the Fraternity’s purpose in mind, since the primary source of sanctification for every priest of the Fraternity is the Mass, the same principle holds true for its future priests. It is our duty to permit Our Lord to transform us when He comes to us in the Mass. As St. Thomas reminds us, grace builds on nature. The Mass is our most lofty teacher, the best practical and concrete expression of both Scripture and Tradition that our religion offers to man to experience. We try to prepare our seminarians for worthy celebration of the Mass, the apex of liturgy, the public prayer of the whole church, in the name of the whole church, by one officially deputed.
We attempt to impress upon the seminarians in the first year the nature of prayer, its mental and vocal aspects, conditions which facilitate prayer or obstacles that arise. The idea is that private prayers, such as meditation, order a man, his exterior senses and interior powers of his soul and prepare him to better participate in the Liturgy. It’s possible that nature places obstacles to the flow of grace that Our Lord makes available to us. It’s imperative that with St. Francis of Assisi, we reign in ‘Brother Ass,’ as St. Francis called his body suffering from original sin. Thus, a healthy sense of the need for personal penance is taught.
Considering the title of your publication, you will be happy to hear that every year, Father William Lawrence, who specially has charge over the First Year Seminarians, promotes St. Louis De Montfort’s Total Consecration to Our Lady. Much more could be said about his method and the spiritual benefits but very briefly, it’s important that each seminarian remember that better than anyone else, Our Lady prepares us for Our Lord and the Rosary prepares us for the Mass.
REGINA: Are you seeing an increase in interest from Priests who want to learn the Extraordinary Form of the Mass?
FATHER LEE: Actually, we have. It’s quite edifying to meet these priests, usually quite busy pastors, who make so many sacrifices to learn the Mass. We believe that it has been the experience of many a priest that learning and celebrating the Extraordinary Form serves as a revitalizing and enriching element in their priesthood. Thus, after they themselves have been so spiritually nourished, they in turn are more capable and generous in tending to their own flocks. The training is quite exhausting for both the good priests who come to us and for ourselves, but it is quite rewarding. We are pleased that we can be of service to the whole Church in handing on this wonderful gift of the Mass.
REGINA: Can you tell us about their training?
FATHER LEE: Since the summer of 2007, the Fraternity has been holding five day intensive workshops for priests who desire to celebrate the Extraordinary Form. The seminary priests and deacons very much enjoy this opportunity to hand this wonderful gift which Pope Benedict XVI made more accessible for the whole Church. Following the mind of St. Thomas, during prayer, there are three objects of our attention. The first would be the first the words and actions of the prayer. The second would be the meaning of those words and actions. The third object you can pay attention to in prayer is God. One comes before two and two leads to three. With the time constraint of five days, we mainly focus on point one. We tell the priests that during the five days, we are trying to squeeze seven years of formation into five days. Repetitio est mater studiorum (Repetition is the mother of learning)! It’s been estimated that approximately 80% of the priests who have attended our Priest Training Program are celebrating the Latin Mass on a regular basis.
“I personally like to see a sense of humor. Being able to laugh has long been a manifestation of rational activity, even by the ancient Greeks. Laughter at one’s self could be a sign of humility and not just humiliation, which the seminary easily and amply provides free of charge. The seminary can be a difficult seven years, making many costly demands on our fallen human nature. Our Lord wants every seminarian and priest to give and not simply to give, but to give cheerfully. Fortunately, our Good Lord is never outdone in generosity.”
REGINA: What does the seminary look for in a candidate?
Traditionally, the elements of a priestly vocation are determined by examining a young man’s intellectual ability, moral virtue and attachment to the Priesthood. Personally, I look for common sense, maturity and a sense of humor.
REGINA: Why those three qualities?
FATHER LEE: There are a lot of things the seminary formation program can teach and offer whether it’s conducting a piece of Gregorian Chant, proving the immateriality of the soul or applying some obscure norms in the Code of Canon Law. Common sense is incredibly difficult, if not entirely impossible, to teach.
FATHER LEE: Immaturity is one of those things that’s difficult to define but easy to point out. Those who are immature grasp universal principles but the application of those universal principles in a particular situation does not happen due to problems with either the cognitive or appetitive powers. Imagine a teenager who knows he needs to get to work on time but repeatedly sleeps in due to late night partying. He knows he needs to get to work. He knows he needs to get out of bed. However, time and time again, he shows up late for work until he is eventually fired.
Regarding more serious life decisions such as marriage, the median age for marriage for men was 22. In 2011, it was 28. It’s taking longer and longer for young men to stabilize and decide on the natural level. A candidate to the seminary will suffer from this culture as he enters the seminary.
REGINA: What would you advise a young man wishing to join to do?
FATHER LEE: Visit fsspolgs.org. Get a spiritual director and pray – especially Our Lady's Rosary!