‘Celebration of Praise’ at St. Joseph’s Seminary Marks Five Generations of Priestly Formation

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A spirit of gratitude and joy filled the Chapel of SS. Peter and Paul, along with the fragrance of incense, as St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, marked the closing of its 125th anniversary year at a Mass March 25.

Cardinal Dolan was the celebrant at the Vigil Mass for the Solemnity of the Annunciation at the seminary. He welcomed the guests to “this great celebration of praise for 125 years of this sterling seminary.”

After the Mass, he told CNY, “We’re all part of something beautiful: the Church, the communion of saints. It started at the Sea of Galilee. That was the first seminary, and Jesus was the first rector, forming his first priests, the Apostles.” 

The homilist was Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, retired Archbishop of Baltimore, who previously was Archbishop for the Military Services USA. He studied at St. Joseph’s Seminary and was ordained a priest of the New York Archdiocese. He served twice as the seminary’s rector in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bishops and priests in white vestments filled the sanctuary, and worshippers filled the nave, including several Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre. The seminary’s Schola sang.

Marking the eve of the solemnity of the Annunciation, a painting of Mary stood in the sanctuary. Cardinal O’Brien opened his homily by asking, “Is there any moment in the Christian story more frequently captured in the cultural arts than the Annunciation to Our Lady? Paintings, music, poetry, sculpture!” He added wryly, “The world of football even acknowledges this art-making mystery in Notre Dame’s historic Hail Mary pass!” 

The quip drew laughter before the cardinal turned serious again as he spoke of the “central, inescapable place” of Mary in Christian life and prayer. He noted that Pope Francis has written that “we cannot praise God rightly if we leave her out of account.”

“Pope Francis so well asserts that devotion to Mary is not simply spiritual etiquette but a requirement in Christian life…When the Church looks for Jesus, she knocks on Mary’s door,” Cardinal O’Brien said. 

He noted that on the following day, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the pope would lead all of the world’s bishops and the Catholic faithful in prayer as he solemnly consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. “Let that be the fervent prayer of all of us during this Eucharist,” he said.

Cardinal O’Brien called Mary “the Immaculate ‘Yes,’ inspiring hearts in every generation to obey the divine call of her Son to follow.”

“So it has been here in Dunwoodie for 125 years as men have chosen to lose their lives because Someone made the seemingly foolish promise: ‘He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.’ ”

The cardinal added, “In moments of doubt or hesitation, young hopefuls in these very pews can expect to hear a reassuring whisper, as did Juan Diego at Guadalupe: “Listen and understand, my humble sons, there is nothing to distress or frighten you, nothing to disturb you. Is it not I, your Mother, who is here? Are you not under my protection? Are you not, fortunately, in my care?”

Just before the Mass concluded, Bishop James Massa, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, introduced Mayor Michael Spano of Yonkers, who read a proclamation honoring the seminary on its 125th anniversary. Noting that he had been at the seminary for three papal visits, he called it “a wonderful place of great faith.”

Bishop Massa remarked in an interview that the seminary’s “tremendous legacy” predates World War I. 

“It has been the school for the priesthood for five generations,” he said. He also noted that the training of priests has developed over the years to meet changing times and the needs of the people.

“Priests do not exercise their ministry in isolation anymore,” he said. “They work with well-formed deacons, well-formed lay catechists and other parish leaders. The seminary has played an important role in preparing them for the ministries that are so vital to the life of our local parishes.”

 He noted that the seminary is “blessed to have the participation of other dioceses.” Seminarians are now enrolled from the Archdiocese of New York and also from the dioceses of Brooklyn; Rockville Centre; Camden, N.J.; and Bridgeport, Conn.

Religious communities also are sending candidates to St. Joseph’s Seminary, Bishop Massa said, including the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who work with the poor, and the Piarists, whose ministry is education.

“It’s a diverse community of seminarians who are walking the paths of the priestly vocation, but serving in different ministries,” Bishop Massa said.  He also noted “the ethnic diversity” of the seminarians.

“This is a reflection of the Church on the move,” he said.

Thomas Piro of the Diocese of Camden is in his first year of studies at the seminary.

“It’s been very welcoming and very supportive of my vocation,” he said. “The faculty always has our backs and challenges us to be good Christian men and holy priests.” He added that the seminary leaders encourage “fraternity and spending time with each other in the chapel, in class and outside the seminary.”

Father Joe Blenkle, pastor of St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Fishkill, is a graduate of the seminary.

“The friendships you establish here last a lifetime,” he told CNY. Recalling his own years at St. Joseph’s, he added, “What the seminary opened was a door to the sacred that enabled me to do so much with the gift of my priesthood—counseling people, preparing them for the sacraments, being there in their joyful times and their sorrowful times. That’s why it was so good to be here.” 

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