'God is not done with the Josephinum'
A Pillar interview
Father Steven Beseau became rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum, a Columbus, Ohio, seminary, in July 2019.
The Kansas City priest, a professor of moral theology with long experience in campus ministry, took the helm at the Josephinum during a period of declining enrollment, and shortly before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
While Beseau has received some accolades for his work at the Josephinum, dwindling enrollment that began in 2014 has led to speculation that the seminary - a unique pontifical college - could face the prospect of closure.
In an extensive interview with The Pillar, Beseau talked about the seminary’s future, and the challenge of discerning its charism.
“Why does the Josephinum exist?” Beseau asked. It’s an important question, and one the rector says he hopes to answer - with help from alumni, faculty, board members, and Divine Providence.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Father Beseau, the Josephinum is something of a unique seminary in the United States, because it is a “pontifical seminary.” Can you tell us a bit about what that means?
The Josephinum was founded by Monsignor John Joseph Jessing in the 19th century.
He started an orphanage — he was a German immigrant and he started an orphanage for young boys. And while they were in the process, a few of the boys said they’d like to become priests. So he started a seminary, and that became Josephinum.
The Josephinum is a pontifical college. There are pontifical universities — CUA is a pontifical university, for example. But from what I understand, we are the only pontifical college outside of Italy, which sets us apart.
The other American seminary which is a pontifical college, the Pontifical North American College in Rome, is different from the Josephinum because it is a house of formation, but classes are taken elsewhere. The Josephinum offers both coursework and the other aspects of formation.
We offer coursework here, that’s right. We have an integrated program here: All four dimensions of priestly formation - human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral - are offered in-house at the college and theologate level.
Who owns the Josephinum? It’s not a diocesan seminary, nor sponsored by a religious institute. So who is responsible for what happens at the seminary?
The Pontifical College Josephinum is overseen by our board of trustees. They have responsibility for the seminary’s mission and operations.
The apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, is our chancellor. The Bishop of Columbus is our vice-chancellor. But the seminary is “owned” and run by a board of trustees.
As rector, I am appointed by the Congregation for Clergy. The nuncio appoints and approves the priest faculty and a couple of other administrative positions. And our constitutions, our governing documents, are approved by the Congregation for Clergy.
We’re designated as “pontifical” because Msgr. Jessing gave the Josephinum to the Holy See as a spiritual gift, and in return Pope Leo XIII granted the seminary pontifical status in 1892. So that status is really a spiritual reality.
A lot of people wonder, but we get no funding from the Vatican or anything like that. The pontifical status is a spiritual reality for the seminary, which signifies that we’re close to the pope.
As you mentioned, the Josephinum is not a diocesan seminary, or the apostolate of a religious order. How does that shape the character of things here?
In many ways it makes the job of rector much more challenging, because we don’t have a diocesan bishop or an abbot who oversees the seminary, nor a bishop or an abbot who, in a sense, provides its foundation. So that’s the challenge of a place like the Josephinum.
Now, I think the advantage for sending dioceses is that we’re not trying to form priests in the mold of a particular archdiocese or religious order — so I think all the bishops who send men here have a lot more opportunity to contribute to our approach to formation. We’re able to hear them and be responsive.
Father, the Josephinum’s enrollment has been on the decline for a few years, and that’s led to questions about whether the seminary might be closing.
And of course, there is often a conversation these days about whether there are just too many seminaries in the U.S. to support the number of seminarians.
Can you address that?
Sure. I’m glad to talk about the enrollment challenges we face. But to give away the ending of that novel, we really aren’t in danger of immediately closing at the Pontifical College Josephinum.
I do agree that there are too many seminaries, and I think everybody involved with priestly formation would admit that right now. But within the Josephinum, it’s clear that our internal mission is strong, and our financial position is good. In the last two years, we have made substantial improvements on the financial side: we’ve cut costs, we’ve repurposed funds, we’ve gone out and raised money, doubled the advancement staff. We’ve taken a lot of steps on that front.
But you have seen a decline of enrollment that began several years ago - enrollment peaked in 2014, and has since mostly declined steadily, with a major drop of 39 men between 2018 and 2019.
There were 217 seminarians in 2014, and there are 49 in 2022.
Why has that happened?
Well, first of all, I would say that declining enrollment numbers are not unique to the Josephinum. This is a phenomenon at seminaries across the U.S. I heard about one seminary whose population is 103 men, down from 225 six years ago. Covid has impacted recruitment, among other things, and so a lot of seminaries have the experience of lower numbers.
But at the Josephinum, enrollment has decreased by 15 to 20 men every year in recent years, and then between 2018 and 2019 we lost more than 30.
The numbers continued to decline, to 54 men in 2021 and now 49 men in 2022.
We’re seeing the rate of enrollment decline slow down, but we’re still in something of a spiral.
Faculty members who were here before I arrived say the decline began when our numbers were so high that we outgrew our capacity for the kind of formation we wanted to provide.
We experienced growth for several years, and as enrollment even passed 200 men, a lot of bishops loved the vision that was presented here — that’s very clear.
But what I think happened — once again, I wasn’t here — is that we grew so fast that we weren’t able to provide the proper number of formators for that many students.
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And so do you think that bishops began pulling their seminarians because of scandal?
I hear three things from bishops about our enrollment decline.
And I’m from Kansas, so I am very plainspoken about this:
A sense from bishops that we didn’t know their men, or had become inattentive.
A concern about continuity of formators, formation, and faculty at the Josephinum.
We are taking very seriously the issues which contribute to scandal, and that’s not currently an issue here. The seminarians here are good men - they wouldn't be here if they weren’t - but they are, like all of us, still sinners, so we have to be aware and vigilant about our responsibilities on that front.
We have addressed the issue of formation faculty ratio. We know our men very, very well here.
But the third thing - the continuity - still remains an issue, and I appreciate that concern.
The issue of continuity at a place like the Josephinum is a real question, because we don’t have a bishop or an abbot who is responsible for ensuring continuity on the seminary faculty. Here that comes down to the rector, and it’s hard to do. I’m not a bishop, I can’t assign men for studies, or an abbot who can put a monk under obedience to study.
And bishops also wonder how long I will be here as rector, and how long our other formators will be here.
But again, let me say that the scandal and the formation question are no longer issues.
And in fact, I would put our formation up against any seminary in the country.
What has changed?
Scandal is really hard to overcome. And one of the most important aspects of a seminary is reputation. So the only way we’re going to change our reputation is by sharing what we’re doing, and also by sending forth men who are going to be great priests.
And it takes time to build a reputation. It takes years. Really, you can destroy a reputation in about three weeks, but building one is a much longer reality.
So when I arrived, all the right pieces were here. We just didn’t have enough priests doing formation work.
For example, when I got here, there was one priest who was holding five roles, plus teaching. He’s heroic, and a great priest. But we needed more men. So we spent time trying to find enough priests, which we have, thanks be to God.
We have been able to build a team, and we have seen some guys who were already here change positions and try different things, which has been fruitful.
And we also spent time revamping the formation program. We republished a formation handbook that had not been given out to seminarians since 2015; our men weren’t sure where they belonged in formation. So we’ve addressed that.
How did you build that team?
I’m not necessarily the most pious guy, but I say this in all honesty — St. Joseph has made a big difference.
I think St. Joseph has been here a lot — because you look at some of the people we have here now, and they were not on my radar at all. But St. Joseph has just helped bring them together.
And then the apostolic nuncio has been very supportive and helps with building awareness. He is very generous with his time here.
Kind of willing, as chancellor, to champion the Josephinum a bit?
Yes, he really has been willing to be generous with us.
And as to relationships with dioceses and bishops?
That’s a question of communication with vocations directors and bishops. So if there’s an issue — not a minor one, like someone oversleeping for lauds — but if there is a more serious issue, I am on the phone with the vocations director that day, so that he’s going to know what’s going on right away, and have an input in the decision about how to address it.
And when bishops and vocations directors come here, they meet with the rector, the vice-rector, and the formators responsible for their men, in a very open meeting.
And then they have my cell phone — they can call me — and I tell them that if they want to talk to formators without the rector being present, that’s fine too. And I think that makes a difference.
Vocations directors say now that we know their men. And what we see in their men, they see too. And so we’re communicating and being present. And the priests here are so much a part of that. I just can’t say enough about them. They’re great men.
You mentioned this issue of continuity here at the seminary. You are a priest of Kansas, City, Kansas, and could be assigned to another ministry.
What is your expectation for your own time at the Josephinum?
Well, I am two-and-a-half years into a five-year term. So eventually there will be a conversation involving me, and the board, and Archbishop Naumann, and a discernment about where we are and what the seminary needs for the next five years.
We have gone through a really tough time these last few years. Not only because we have a new rector, but also Covid, the new Program of Priestly Formation that will eventually be released, and then the issues that any college today is facing with demographic collapse.
All colleges are facing a drop in the college-age population, and a significant decrease in the number of men who even consider attending post-secondary schools. Seminaries are no exception to that.
So I think [at the conclusion of my term] we will have an honest discernment about what the needs of the seminary are, and whether I continue to be the right man, or if there is another set of needs for the seminary by then. But we can think about continuity in lots of ways that go beyond the rector.
You have talked a lot about the Josephinum on a positive trajectory, in terms of positive relationships, building reputation, and even development.
What vision do you cast about the Josephinum’s mission and identity?
You know, right now the vision is not complete. We’re still trying to answer that question.
The board began before Covid to address this, and it was put on pause by Covid, and discussion only restarted in October.
We have been going through a revitalization process here at the Josephinum. And one of the key questions is “Why do we exist?” “Why does the Josephinum exist?” “What is the charism of the Josephinum?”
At the beginning it was very clear. We were a seminary for German immigrants, and to serve German parishes. Over time, that became more to serve mission dioceses — so guys came here without dioceses and they ended up ordained for mission dioceses.
But then in the ‘60s and ‘70s we just became another seminary. And you had lots of numbers, and so it didn’t really seem to matter — there were plenty of seminarians at that time, and just being a seminary seemed like enough.
But now it’s not enough for a national seminary. We need a vision, and we need the vision to last beyond a rector.
When our numbers went up to the 200s, there was a vision that was very attractive to bishops and seminarians, but it did not last beyond the rector, and that’s not sustainable.
So to build a great seminary, we have to continue working to get the right people together, and then we’ll try to discern and understand a more lasting charism.
For much of the history of this seminary, we had “lifers” here — guys who came here when they were 12, were ordained, and never left. They became teachers here, and they were buried here. They lived their whole priesthood here. So there was an institutional memory and identity that went along with them.
That is no longer a reality — anywhere.
But in light of that experience, one thing I have considered is that it might be a good idea for a society of apostolic life or religious order to come to the Josephinum — to invite them to be a part of the Josephinum — to help us create and identify a consistent charism.
It sounds like you’ve tried to involve a lot of people in discerning this question of the Josephinum’s identity.
I have tried to do that. When this process began, we had meetings with staff, with faculty, with seminarians, with the board and alumni of course. That’s very important.
You know, the Josephinum can go between two extremes, both of which we’ve seen in our history. One is where the Josephinum is a very hierarchical reality, and leadership has not been especially attentive to listening. The other is where the Josephinum is a shared endeavor, but lacking a decisive leadership.
And really, the Josephinum is both a hierarchical reality and a shared endeavor. And it’s my job to make sure that we are thinking about both of those things and living both of those things.
And so I encourage the board to both ask questions and to demand answers of me and the staff. And then I need to take that leadership seriously as rector, but also to make sure that everyone else knows they have a place, and a role, and a voice, and are part of this endeavor.
You are talking about a lot of discernment about the present and future of the Josephinum — about central questions of mission and identity.
Do you see those questions impacting the men in formation right now?
I think the low enrollment certainly has an effect. It raises questions like “Is this viable?”
And as you said, a lot of people have asked that question about the Josephinum.
We are not in danger of immediately closing, we have endowments and growing development, and no deferred maintenance liabilities. So we don’t have the major financial questions that some places do.
But will we run out of mission before we run out of money? That’s the question.
It’s up to the board, the faculty, the staff, to identify and articulate charism for the Josephinum.
And the next step of that, I believe, is to look at whether a society of apostolic life or religious order has a place at the Josephinum. They would commit to the Josephinum, and we would commit to them as well.
It sounds like 217 men wasn’t the right number of men for the seminary, but 49 doesn’t sound like the right number either.
How many men should the Josephinum have?
I have always said a maximum of 120. Financially, we don’t need that many. Financially, we need a dozen or 20 more than we have right now.
So 65 would be a sweet spot in the short term.
But it really comes down to mission: you need a community big enough for diversity, and opportunities for formation and friendship — but not so big that you can’t pay attention to each individual seminarian. We’ve seen what happens when seminaries get too big.
You have two issues on this question: finances and mission. Finances will be fine. But on mission, if we went to 120, I’d have to see a lot more formators, and that means we need to see bishops interested in what we are doing and willing to share more priests with us.
We’re not facing immediate financial pressure. But with our mission, I have to make an accounting to the Lord, and we’re preparing men to serve the People of God. That’s the most important thing. And if we can’t do that adequately, then we shouldn’t be doing it.
I’d like to mention something I hear from young priests and seminarians these days: A desire for far more fraternity in priesthood than, I suspect, priests of your generation experienced when they were ordained.
Is that something that the Josephinum can enable, and speak to, and address as it prepares men for priesthood now?
Yes. It’s one of the things that we are really starting to pay attention to. I have seen that these men at our seminary love community. It’s very important to them.
And when I was in seminary, I loved being with the guys, but I didn’t have this love for community. They want community on steroids. But then, of course, going into the diocesan priesthood, there is usually little or no community.
And so it seems clear to me that we need to help the men move from community into fraternity. Because community is not a reality in the diocesan priesthood, at least for the next 20 years. But fraternity is non-negotiable.
If you want to be a fruitful priest, you have to have fraternity.
So we are asking the men here about their friendships, and encouraging them to develop friendships here that last into priesthood. Because fraternity in the priesthood really flows from the fraternity of the men we knew in seminary.
Fraternity is a non-negotiable. So, if we have a guy who has no friends, we need to ask him about that. And maybe he doesn’t know how to make friends. And that matters and we can address it with him.
Have you had discussion about what a propaedeutic year could look like here at the Josephinum? Adding one will be a big change for a lot of seminaries.
We have internally. The bishops started discussing this in earnest in November, and nothing is definitive right now, because we’re waiting on the new PPF to be released.
But we know that a propaedeutic year is non-negotiable, not an option, and it’s 12 months.
We have an advantage here to build something great, but we really will need more priests to staff what is essentially a third formation program — theology, college, and now a propaedeutic stage.
I think by and large that bishops and formators are in favor of the propaedeutic year.
Beyond the propaedeutic year, and these questions of fraternity and community, what factors in the life of the Church and the world influence your decisions about formation, mission, and vision?
We have something we call our positioning statement. It says that “the Josephinum seeks to prepare holy, generous, adaptable, and resilient priests for the 21st century and to serve the pastoral needs of the Church.”
We have seminarians here who are 18 years old. Their 50th anniversaries of ordination are going to be in 2080 or so. And that’s impressive— I think about that, and how different things might be for them.
And I think about those four words: holy, generous, adaptable, and resilient.
Obviously, holiness encompasses so much. And these young men that we have are generous — they want to pour themselves into everything that they do. But I want to make sure we emphasize these ideas of adaptability and resilience too.
I am trying to prepare men for the postmodern world. We are in this time where moderns are still running the Church, but they won’t be for long. We have a new postmodern reality. And we need to help these men who are going to be ministering to moderns in a postmodern world, and to postmoderns in a Church run by moderns. And that’s, perhaps, a bit theological for this interview, but we need to be thinking about these things.
They also have to be prepared to be a poor Church. You know, as priests, we’re going to be poor in the decades to come. And that’s not a bad thing, but we won’t have the resources that we once had.
How have you seen Providence in your work at the Josephinum? You said it has been a rough couple of years — where is the Lord in all of that?
In little gifts and big gifts that are unexpected.
The priests who have joined us for formation, the consolations that we’ve received in prayer in the year of St. Joseph, when we all did the consecration to St. Joseph, and the spirit in the house changed. And then, changes in some dioceses — because of Covid, one vocation director was able to spend some time with his seminarians, and they created a beautiful plan of life for their men, and the men changed.
Are there frustrations? Absolutely. This has been a difficult job as rector. But there are so many blessings that have come to us, and unexpectedly.
God is not done with the Josephinum. That is absolutely clear. And we don’t know what it’s going to like, but that’s exciting, because the Lord is here. I really believe that. And I see it.