One of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson’s top priorities in St. Louis has been to boost vocations to the priesthood.
To accomplish that, his mission has been simple, yet forthright: to foster a seminary environment where men are formed to become healthy, holy and joy-filled priests.
It’s a mission that Father James Mason has heard time and again in his 26 years of friendship with the archbishop. In 2015, the archbishop named Father Mason, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., as president-rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. Before that, Father Mason served as the seminary’s director of spiritual formation and dean of students for a year.
In the past, seminaries across the United States were often defined by their intellectual prowess. But equally important are the human and spiritual sides of formation, he said. “The seminary is not dominated by the intellectual dimension alone,” Father Mason said, “but actually understands the more important dimensions of human, spiritual, and ultimately pastoral have to be given their due attention. The men in my class that left the priesthood all got As in Christology. It wasn’t an intellectual problem, it was a human formation problem, usually, or a spiritual formation problem, and that has to be addressed.”
When Archbishop Carlson arrived in 2009, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary had 115 men enrolled, a number that continues to rise. For the 2020-21 year, the seminary started with 140 men, which includes seminarians from 22 other dioceses. On top of that, Archbishop Carlson has ordained 50 men as priests for the archdiocese since his arrival in 2009.
Father Mason said that the numbers aren’t as important as the capacity of the future priest. With an overall decline in the U.S. in religious vocations, priests in particular are being called to do more earlier in their priesthood.
“They don’t have the privilege today to be an associate (pastor) for 10 or 15 years,” he said. “They’re probably going to be a pastor in five.” He shared the story of a man who had entered the seminary at 22 years old, with a college degree and military experience. He asked him: “In three years, you turn 25. What would be your responsibilities?” By then, he had anticipated being in charge of 25-100 soldiers, with three non-commissioned officers assisting.
Father Mason asked, “Do you think our 25-year-old seminarians who have been here six to six-and-a-half years, do they have that capacity? Should we have a higher or lower standard than the military? Because in five years, that man is going to be pastor of a parish.”
Soon after he arrived in St. Louis, Archbishop Carlson announced the “Faith for the Future” capital campaign for renovating Kenrick-Glennon, a project that began with planning under his predecessor, Cardinal Raymond Burke. Archbishop Carlson wrote that he was fully committed to the campaign.
The first capital campaign in the history of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary raised more than $61 million to provide for repairs, updates and physical improvements to a building that dates to 1931. It also increased the seminary’s endowment.
“We cannot allow the challenging economic situation to sway us from the critical mission of providing priests to make Christ present to the faithful,” Archbishop Carlson wrote. “The world may tell us that we should forgo this mission and seek an easier path, but we instead will place our faith in Christ.”
On the academic side, the seminary has developed an in-house spiritual direction program, has a formal affiliation with the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome to offer a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology (STB), and re-instituted the yearlong pastoral internship for men who have completed their second year of theology studies, among other programs.
The seminary also has longstanding relationships with other dioceses who send men to Kenrick-Glennon for formation, including the other three Missouri dioceses, the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Other dioceses newer to sending men to Kenrick-Glennon include Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and San Angelo, Texas.
“They’re desiring to send their men here because of what we’re doing,” Father Mason said. “In the old days, you were always going to send to your closest seminary, but today that’s not the case. They’re looking for where are their men going to be formed the best.”
Kenrick-Glennon seminarians said that Archbishop Carlson’s presence and approachability have made an impression upon them in their discernment to the priesthood. Joe Detwiler, who was ordained as a transitional deacon in May, and Bobby Tull said that the archbishop’s individual attention to people and pastoral approach are qualities that they hope to model in their priesthood.
“I want to be approachable to people and for them to know they can bring their problems to me,” said Detwiler. “He’s been a very good example to me.” When his grandfather, car dealership owner Dave Sinclair, died in 2009, the archbishop visited with Sinclair as he was dying and offered a blessing. “That’s the epitome of what a priest does,” Detwiler said. “It was very personal and meant a lot to my family.”
He also recalled a time when Archbishop Carlson spoke to seminarians about the importance of priests meeting people where they’re at in life. “He said we can have the ideal of mind, but the reality is that people are sometimes far from the ideal. We have to walk to people; we can’t just drop the truth and walk away.”
Tull met Archbishop Carlson when he was in Saginaw, Michigan; several years later he came to St. Louis as a Life Teen missionary, serving at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Ferguson, not long after the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014. Tull entered the seminary in the fall of 2016.
In getting to know the archbishop, Tull said “I’ve never met such a fatherly bishop like him. He knows the names of the seminarians, and he’s always been very intentional with checking in and seeing how I am doing.”
He gave credit to the archbishop for creating an environment at the seminary in which men are “stretched to become the best pastors and to learn how they can be in love with the person of Jesus.”