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St. Mary's Seminary & University

Letters from the Park Returns

St. Mary’s President Rector, Fr. Phillip J. Brown, P.S.S., is happy to re-introduce his reflections to the St. Mary’s community, Letters from the Park. As Fr. Brown says in his first letter:

When St. Mary’s went all online in March 2020 I started writing Letters from the Park to keep in touch with seminarians and faculty because of our physical separation and new virtual reality. When a “third wave” began I thought of resuming the Letters, not just to keep in touch, but as a way of reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on our lives; a longer-term effort to reflect on some more important things we might want to think about in the light of how our lives have changed. I enjoy writing and this is an opportunity to fulfill an aspect of ministry not always available to me as a seminary rector. Pastors are teachers, preachers and evangelizers who cultivate holiness. These letters are an opportunity to better fulfill my role as a pastor.

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Full Text:

Letters from the Park

Letter #1

February 2022
Baltimore: Roland Park Neighborhood

Dear St. Mary’s Community,

Who would have thought two years ago we would still be contending with a worldwide pandemic? Few, other than scientists, had ever heard of “novel coronaviruses,” much less COVID-19. It swept over the world nevertheless with astounding speed and devastation. We are now in a “third wave” (Omicron). How long will it last? Will there be more waves, more variants? No one can say for sure. One thing is certain, however: we’re all in a state of pandemic fatigue.

When St. Mary’s went all online in March 2020 I started writing Letters from the Park to keep in touch with seminarians and faculty because of our physical separation and new virtual reality. When a “third wave” began I thought of resuming the Letters, not just to keep in touch, but as a way of reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on our lives; a longer-term effort to reflect on some more important things we might want to think about in the light of how our lives have changed. I enjoy writing and this is an opportunity to fulfill an aspect of ministry not always available to me as a seminary rector. Pastors are teachers, preachers and evangelizers who cultivate holiness. These letters are an opportunity to better fulfill my role as a pastor.

There have been many pandemics in history, at least five more devastating than COVID. A plague killed five million in the third century, in the sixth thirty to fifty million. The Black Plague caused over two hundred million deaths, more than one-third the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. Smallpox fifty-six million in the sixteenth, the Spanish Flu, a hundred years ago, forty to fifty million. AIDS twenty-five to thirty million to date, and COVID-19 five and a half million and counting. Though infrequent, pandemics have not been unusual. When they do occur, they cause people to ask profound questions about life and the human condition.  They reveal just how fragile our existence really is; they bring us face-to-face with life’s big questions: What does it mean to be a human being, to be part of the human race? What is the meaning of suffering, evil and death, which human ingenuity and progress have not eliminated? What are our achievements really all about, acquired at so great a price? How can we contribute more to the advancement of society? What happens after our lives on earth end? These are questions the Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) posed nearly 60 years ago.

Pandemics and other natural disasters can make us wonder if everything is coming to its inevitable end. Is it possible we may be living in apocalyptic times? The Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, once observed that a modern crisis is the extent to which people try to avoid asking the big questions by keeping busy, always distracted by other things. Yet, those questions are always present in the depths of our consciousness, however much we ignore them. A willingness to ask them, however, can lead to exploring the meaning of life in new ways. That’s what Christianity did when it appeared on the scene over two thousand years ago, a time when the world as then known seemed to be falling apart. Christian faith offered a new and more hopeful way of understanding life. In contemplating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who grasped its message came to realize and believe that the Kingdom of God had arrived and was breaking into human experience and human history. God’s grace was present, and deeply felt; it sustained people through devastating events and great human suffering: truly Good News offering hope and the prospect of new beginnings, despite trials, tribulation, and challenging odds.

It doesn’t take a pandemic or other natural disaster to raise questions about the meaning of our lives, a perennial question. Searing personal tragedies and large-scale devastation, however, bring existential questions to the fore; they need to be asked and answered. It takes courage to ask them and trust, above all, to seek answers.

Is the pandemic a sign of the end? Or does it perhaps signal that one world is ending and another being born? What if there are going to be another thousand, two thousand, or many thousands of years ahead for humanity? That is a more likely future. How should we think about what that means? Shouldn’t we ask ourselves, “What kind of world, then, would I like to leave for those who come after us? What should we be doing now to bring a new and better world into being?”

Christian faith has everything to do with these questions. Do we not pray for the world “as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever”? Pandemics and natural disasters are a reality that will no doubt continue to occur from time to time. Experience confirms they don’t mean everything will come to an end, just some things—even as others are beginning. Should we not be preparing for and creating that better world that is to come which will last long into the future?

Roman conquest ended the world of Ancient Israel just forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Roman world was facing its demise as St. Augustine lay dying in Hippo in the 420’s. Czarist Russia ended in 1917, its successor in 1989. In each case, the world did not end, just those particular worlds—as new ones emerged. I have always been impressed by how St. Augustine and his patron St. Ambrose addressed the decline of the Roman world they were so much a part of. It has been said St. Ambrose prepared the world of the Church for the darkness ahead as the larger culture crumbled. St. Augustine wrote a book—The City of God—which became a blueprint for the world to come: Medieval Christendom. They focused on “the world to come”, planned, and prepared for that world by nurturing a new one, and with it, a new kind of culture.

I would like to suggest we may be at a similar turning point—not the end of the world, but the end of one world as another comes into being, one that we are going to have a lot to do with; one that will be very much influenced and fashioned by how we imagine it, and what we do to bring it into being. I would like to explore in the next few letters not just how the pandemic has impacted us, but also what our vision of the new world that is coming to be might look like, informed by the insights of our faith and grounded in its long tradition. I invite you to reflect on this with me, as we search for a common vision, rooted in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, and nurtured by the wisdom of our religious tradition. Shall we reflect together and see where it leads?

 

The Mission of the Holy Son into an Unholy World

November 18, 7:30 pm
Laubacher Hall or via livestream

Perhaps the central word in Scripture for the reality and ministry of the Son of God is ‘sending.’  He is the One sent, by His Father into the created realm, Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  And He is sent throughout His earthly life, to do the work He is given to do, to enter into the night of the world, its chaos and indifference and cruelty, to be the world’s Light.  He is sent to the Cross, an act at once Transcendent and altogether earthly.  This talk will explore the Mission of the Holy Son under one, dominant and complex idea, that of sacrifice, which best captures the kind of ‘sending’ that characterizes Christ’s life.  The Eternal Son is the Living Sacrifice, sent to be the world’s Sacrifice.  He is the Holy One in an unholy world.  In this way, the Temple worship of ancient Israel—its cultic sacrifice—comes to life and guides the teaching of the Church in its Doctrines of the Person and Work of Christ.

The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger holds the Wm Meade Chair in Systematic Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA, where she has taught since 2002.  She was educated at Smith College, Yale Divinity School, and Brown University, where she undertook research on the great 20th century Reformed theologian, Karl Barth.  Prior to taking her position at VTS, Kate taught in the Religion department at Middlebury College in Vermont.  While she grew up a Presbyterian, and her Reformed roots still run deep, she is now a priest of the Episcopal Church, resident in the diocese of Virginia.  Her vocation is the study and writing of systematic theology.  Two volumes of her Systematic Theology on the Doctrine of Divine Attributes and of the Holy Trinity have appeared under Fortress Press, 2015, 2020.  Her current research for volume 3 is on the Missions of the Son and Spirit.  When not at her desk, Kate can be found outdoors: gardening, hiking, sailing, riding her bike, or heading to a ball game. 

To attend the event in-person, please register HERE, or attend online via livestream. Please contact Dr. Rebecca Hancock with any questions about the event. 

First Seminary to Respond to the Call

On May 18, 2021 the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame opened a webpage dedicated to an effort establishing benchmarks for sexual misconduct policies at seminaries and houses of formation.

The effort follows on a study from the Center for Advanced Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University that was commissioned by the McGrath Institute. The study revealed the need for seminaries to more effectively promote policies regarding misconduct. A study group comprised of bishops, seminary rectors and faculty, and lay experts was convened to develop the set of “benchmarks.” Seminaries and houses of formation would be invited to publicly commit to these policy benchmarks and their implementation.

As the call went out, St. Mary’s Seminary & University was the first to commit–primarily because the benchmarks reflected the already-existent policy framework in effect at our institution.

Rev. Phillip J. Brown, P.S.S., President-Rector of St. Mary’s issued the following statement after the McGrath announcement:

The McGrath benchmarks reflect St. Mary’s Seminary’s longstanding already existing policies and commitment. St. Mary’s is therefore happy to sign on to those benchmarks. The Theodore McCarrick revelations highlight three important responsibilities of seminary administrators:

  1. To thoroughly vet, evaluate and remain vigilant regarding seminary applicants and do everything possible to make sure predators do not gain admission to the clerical state.
  2. To protect seminarians from predators, especially those who seek access through association with the seminary as faculty, staff, recruiters, or board members.
  3. To educate and form seminarians in virtue and sensitivity respecting the protection of minors and other vulnerable people; especially never to turn a blind eye to signs of possible misconduct, including among peers or superiors in the seminary or clerical state.

The McGrath Institute announcement with the full list of the first fifteen seminaries to sign on to the benchmarks is available at https://mcgrath.nd.edu/about/centers-initiatives-and-programs/directors-initiatives/benchmarks/.

St. Mary’s Seminary & University Hosts Part II of “The McGivney Series” in Honor of Beatification of Alumnus Fr. Michael J. McGivney, Class of 1877

[Recording below]

On Thursday, February 25, 2021, St. Mary’s, the first Roman Catholic seminary in the United States, presented Part II of the virtual discussion series created in honor of the beatification of Blessed Michael J. McGivney, Class of 1877 and founder of the Knights of Columbus, by Pope Francis on October 31, 2020.

This second segment of the “The McGivney Series,” provides an examination of the most basic requirement of membership in the Knights of Columbus, demonstrated by Blessed Michael J. McGivney during his ministry: that of being a “practical Catholic.” The panel discussion featured:

To be a “practical Catholic” is to put into practice Christ’s commandment to “love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” The panelists explored what it means to promote and perpetuate Christ-like service in the present age—as both a means of evangelization and of serving real and persistent needs. This is not only the legacy of Blessed Michael McGivney, but also the priestly formation found in the Sulpician tradition at St. Mary’s Seminary.

During his lifetime, Fr. McGivney demonstrated uncommon pastoral zeal, Christ-like humility, care and compassion for others, and an uncompromising commitment to the largely immigrant community he served as a parish priest in New Haven, CT. From this he brought forth the vision of a new fraternal organization: the Knights of Columbus. In this, he fulfilled the vision of the priestly life for which he was prepared through the four years he attended St. Mary’s as a member of the Class of 1877.

https://youtu.be/JLstm-o55Xg

The following video is derived from Dr. Derek Olsen’s presentation for the virtual #TheologyTownHall held Wednesday, May 27, 2020. PLEASE NOTE: You may need to pause the video on some slides to allow time for reading the text. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led out by different members of the EI community.]