His black-and-gold Pittsburgh Steelers “Terrible Towel” – a gift from a couple in the Steel City whose wedding Mass he celebrated – is tacked neatly on the mantle of his new office at Notre Dame Seminary.
But Father James Wehner says he has told seminarians and faculty members one thing as he takes over as the new rector-president of Notre Dame: he knows very well that he lives in fleur-de-lis country.
“I remind people that the Saints and the Steelers are in two different conferences,” Father Wehner, a Pittsburgh native, said with a smile. “I told the seminarians I am open to conversion.”
When Father Wehner left the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in June after having served as rector-president for three years, he got a parting gift of a Saints’ cap from Tim Heffernan, a Josephinum seminarian whose uncle is Saints tight ends coach Terry Malone.
Even judged against the standards of the local football team’s extremely abnormal offseason, Father Wehner’s last few months have been a whirlwind. He accepted Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s appointment as rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary in March.
A fast-paced start
He worked at the Josephinum through June 30, left for New Orleans on July 1 and hasn’t had many quiet moments since. In keeping with his pledge to become the spiritual father of the seminarians at Notre Dame, he placed phone calls to each of the 70 returning seminarians, and he is preparing to welcome about 20 new seminarians this year.
He has written to every bishop who has sent seminarians to study at Notre Dame Seminary – along with vocation directors of each sending diocese – and asked them to assess the formation program “to help me understand what the needs” of the seminary are. That same assessment form has been given to the Notre Dame faculty and staff.
He has held hourly meetings throughout the day to familiarize himself with faculty members and archdiocesan staff, and he has mailed letters to every pastor indicating his willingness to celebrate Mass in different parishes on weekends so that he can get to know the archdiocese and also offer his help when pastors need a vacation break.
“The mail delivery must be very successful in New Orleans because the letter went out on a Friday, and on Saturday I was getting emails from priests,” Father Wehner said. “I thought, ‘That was fast.’ I just wanted to introduce myself and saying that I was new. I see myself as a brother priest to the priests of New Orleans, and I asked them to please invite me to come and celebrate Mass if they need the help. That word got out. That will be a way for me also to learn the city by going to different parishes.”
Meticulously organized, Father Wehner has scheduled drive-bys of neighborhoods with the aid of seminarian guides who will show him different parts of the archdiocese. He already has found his way to St. Louis Cathedral, where he found out quickly that wearing clerics will attract attention.
“I went to the French Quarter and the cathedral and spent some time there,” Father Wehner said. “As a matter of act, a tourist stopped me and there was some evangelization going on. They were not Catholic and they were asking me everything from, ‘What is that over there?’ I said, ‘That’s a confessional.’ And they looked at an image of Mary and asked, ‘Do you all worship Mary?’ So I was only there for about 15 minutes and there was evangelization going on.”
A personal relationship
Getting to know the seminarians in his care will be his priority, Father Wehner said.
“The whole point is that the title rector means one who stands in the place of the bishop for a particular community, in this case, the seminary community,” Father Wehner said. “But more importantly, it means that I’m the spiritual father of the community. I want to be sure we cultivate a relationship where they see my priesthood as a fatherly support to their discernment of their call to be a priest, and that doesn’t happen overnight. I have to be sure that that relationship is established.”
Pope John Paul II called the seminary “an apostolic community,” Father Wehner said, in the sense that “we are disciples around the Lord. This relationship provides an environment where these men can clearly discern if the Holy Spirit is directing them toward the priesthood.”
Father Wehner has been thoroughly impressed with the Notre Dame Seminary faculty.
“We probably have one of the best faculties in the country,” he said. “In the past couple of years, the archbishop has assembled scholars – outstanding professors and experts in their own fields. I have to be able to support them in a way that enables the relationship that the seminarians have with the faculty so that I can then let bishops and vocation directors know that their seminarians are receiving a top-notch, first-class formation experience.”
The bottom line of seminary formation, Father Wehner said, is that parishioners receive a priest who is “competent, effective and holy.”
“The lay faithful deserve effective, competent, holy priests,” he said. “In order to achieve that expectation, we have to be able to find and have the resources to provide to the seminarians what they need. The archbishop is committed to providing not just the financial resources but also the personnel resources to make that happen.”
Father Wehner probably will spend the first year assessing the seminary’s strengths and challenges, leading to a “lot of discernment and assessment.”
“Then decisions have to be made, and I’ll make swift, clear decisions with the support of the archbishop, and then those decisions are going to establish the direction we’re going in,” he said. “Next year, I’d like to be able to announce to the bishops, ‘Here is the direction we’re going,’ and then to convince them why, frankly, they ought to be assigning their seminarians to Notre Dame Seminary. I can’t do that much sooner because the assessment and the discernment has yet to take place.”
The seminary enrollment currently is about 90 and represents seminarians from 12 dioceses. Father Wehner said he intends to speak with bishops from the south who traditionally had sent their seminarians to Notre Dame but have not done so recently.
“I would like to bring the story to them of who we are and what we’re about,” Father Wehner said. “The goal is eventually to reach an enrollment of 120. That 120 will sustain certainly the financial dimension, but it also will reflect the quality of how a seminary ought to be operating. Having said that, it’s never about numbers. At the end of the day, we want to be ordaining the men who only should be ordained. It’s not a numbers game at the end.”
A positive vocations trend
Father Wehner said vocations throughout the United States are on the rise, particularly among recent high school graduates entering the seminary. That phenomenon may be tied to the advent of World Youth Days and the direct efforts of bishops and priests “who are beginning once again to talk about vocations with young men, even as early as grade school.”
“Those conversations are beginning to occur more regularly, even within the family,” he said. “I’ve seen the fruit of this in the last five years. Most seminaries are reporting an increase in enrollment, and dioceses are reporting an increase in vocations.”
With Pope Benedict XVI placing an emphasis on the “new evangelization” – which happens to be the subject of Father Wehner’s doctoral thesis – seminarians must understand that the church needs to be present “wherever man is found.”
“If it’s in a hospital, a rehab unit, a family, a college campus, the church needs to be right there with them,” he said. “Fundamentally today, every priest must understand the missionary dimension of their priesthood. In a sense, if you are called to be a priest, you are called to be a missionary, even within your own local culture.
“In the United States, we’ve bled religion, God and religious values out of the public discourse. So that means the church needs to penetrate the culture. John Paul II said there is no new evangelization without new evangelizers, and priests must be the first. They’re the shepherds, so the shepherd needs to lead.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.