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New York revamps seminaries

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

In office not quite a year, Cardinal Edward Egan is already putting his stamp on the New York archdiocese, most noticeably with a major overhaul of the New York seminary system, one of several administrative measures the new cardinal and archbishop is implementing.

There are indications that Egan may soon close six Catholic elementary schools in an effort to erase some of the red ink bleeding from the archdiocese’s multimillion-dollar deficits that were inherited from the late Cardinal John O’Connor. Egan has sent these schools a letter notifying them they have until the end of April to develop a detailed plan on how they will be self-sufficient in the years to come. Without such a plan, the schools will be closed.

The archdiocese has already announced that several of the administrative departments of the archdiocese will be reduced in size or merged with other offices so as to achieve a balanced budget for the central administration of the archdiocese.

Egan was formerly bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., where he had earned a reputation as a successful fundraiser and management whiz and also as someone who had revitalized the seminary system by recruiting a substantial number of young men to the priesthood.

Since coming to New York, he’s appointed Msgr. Peter. G. Finn as the new rector of the entire archdiocesan seminary system. It includes the major seminary, St. Joseph’s Seminary at Dunwoodie in Yonkers; St. John Neumann Pre-Seminary in Riverdale; and Cathedral Preparatory High School.

Major changes are afoot at all three schools. The Neumann facility in Riverdale will be converted into a residence for retired priests, while the seminary students who had studied there will continue their formation at St. Joseph’s Seminary. The high school students at Cathedral Prep, who attend classes at various Catholic high schools in the archdiocese, will resume their seminary formation in the philosophy wing of St. Joseph’s during specially scheduled time periods during the month.

“These moves enable the archdiocese to use manpower more effectively, and there is also a cost-saving factor involved with the consolidation of all three seminary programs to one location,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese. Zwilling said Finn had been selected to direct the archdiocesan seminary system because Egan thought he was the best man to handle the consolidation of the seminaries.

“Part of my job will be to encourage and support young men thinking about the priesthood, and recruitment will be part of everybody’s efforts,” said Finn, who, prior to his years as pastor of St. Joseph-St. Thomas Parish on Staten Island, had been director of communications for O’Connor. He made recent headlines in New York when he led a boycott against the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Staten Island because the grand marshal was a local legislator with a strong pro-choice background.

As part of the seminary shake-up, Fr. Michael Hull, who teaches sacred scripture at Dunwoodie, will also serve as dean of St. John Neumann Residence, and Fr. Thomas Lynch, a church history professor at Dunwoodie, will take on additional tasks as dean of Cathedral Preparatory High School. Fr. Joseph Tierney, currently dean of students at Dunwoodie, will be its new vocation director.

Egan has a reputation for being conservative on many issues both within the church and the culture at large. In 1996 he endorsed the Catholic Alliance, an affiliate of the Christian Coalition, political arm of conservative TV preacher Pat Robertson. Some have speculated that the shakeup of the seminary system reflects Egan’s desire to create a more conservative climate in the seminaries in New York.

Zwilling said the replacement of three of the top officials in the New York seminary system reflects the cardinal’s desire to have people already on the faculty at Dunwoodie assume new roles in administration. “For example, Father Hull and Father Lynch have been already assigned at Dunwoodie and will now also assume additional roles. Their predecessors were administrators only, and they have been given new assignments outside the seminary,” Zwilling said.

As the new dean of Cathedral Prep, Lynch said recruitment to the priesthood would be key. He envisions the formation of close ties with Catholic high school principals and teachers as well as some strong bonds with student groups in the high schools. “We’ve been averaging only about 50 seminarians a year at Dunwoodie, and they’re not all New Yorkers,” Lynch said. “But that’s part of the reality of our times.”

According to Zwilling, Egan expects to take a personal role in recruitment just as he did in Bridgeport, where many admire his making vocations a personal responsibility.

“He had an enthusiasm for the seminary that was very infectious,” said Fr. Kevin Royal, the rector of St. John Fisher Seminary, the college seminary in Stamford, Conn., that Egan established in 1989 for the Bridgeport diocese. “If he happened to be talking to a young man at school or anywhere, he would pull out a St. John Fisher card from his pocket and give it to him to read and think about,” Royal said.

“In the ’60s and later, many priests were almost embarrassed to suggest a priestly vocation to a young man. But while he was here, Bishop Egan’s approach was very successful. It’s something he’s very much committed to,” Royal said.

A canon lawyer with a reputation as a Vatican loyalist, Egan is a native of Chicago where he served for a time as secretary to Cardinal John Cody. He became auxiliary bishop of New York in 1985 and bishop of Bridgeport in 1988.

He launched a program of closings and mergers of parishes and schools in Bridgeport, where he also raised more than $43 million dollars to support education programs, members of religious communities and homes for retired clergy. When he left Bridgeport, the diocese ranked first among 35 dioceses in the Northeast in its ratio of priests to the Catholic population. In the same survey, the New York archdiocese came in 31st.

Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth said the solution to dwindling seminary numbers in New York and elsewhere will have to involve more than phasing out buildings and reshuffling priests.

“I think there has to be much more focus on the recruitment of minority students, especially in New York,” said Schuth, who is the author of three books on the subject of Catholic seminaries and who holds an endowed chair for the social-sci entific study of religion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “In other parts of the country, 70 to 80 percent of the seminarians are from minority backgrounds while just the opposite is true in New York.

“We also have to understand that American Catholics have improved their economic status so that the priesthood is no longer the only way for a young man to move up on the social scale. There are so many other attractive career choices available, and also a lot of young people have serious questions about a life of celibacy.

“Also in years past, there was a strong pipeline in the elementary schools with the sisters, who were often very encouraging on the subject of vocation, but that has largely disappeared.”

In Bridgeport, Egan took a crash course in Spanish, the language of 36 percent of his parishioners. He is fluent in Latin, French and Italian and is said to be an accomplished musician.

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001