Pope's 1995 visit to St. Mary's in Baltimore a `magical moment'

President of seminary hopes legacy will bolster ranks of priesthood

A World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 06, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

When Pope John Paul II visited St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park in 1995, he spent about 15 minutes at the final stop of his Baltimore visit praying silently in the back pew of the seminary's cavernous, dimly lighted chapel.

Though the pope said little to the students and faculty at the nation's oldest Roman Catholic seminary, the Rev. Robert R. Leavitt recalls the visit as "one of the most magical moments of my priesthood," adding that the pontiff's peaceful presence awed and inspired seminarians.

"He knelt in our pews, bowed his head and prayed like any other Catholic would do," said Leavitt, president of St. Mary's. "He wasn't going to just say a few words and leave; he recognized the significance of this place. I feel he has left something of himself behind here."

Leavitt expects the pope's legacy to encourage young men to commit themselves to the priesthood, despite decades of declining numbers of priests in the United States.

Since his death last week, the pope has been lauded as a statesman, an advocate for social justice and a charismatic figure who championed the core values of the Catholic faith, a legacy that Leavitt thinks will endure and perhaps spark a revitalization of the American priesthood.

"When a figure of this unusual historical dimensions dies, it releases historical forces; when Jesus died, it created the church," Leavitt said. "I fully expect over time we are going to see people who say, `I'm here because of John Paul.' Maybe it will take 10 years, but it will happen."

For now, the numbers tell a different story.

In its heyday of the 1940s and 1950s, St. Mary's enrollment exceeded 300 students. Today, 62 are enrolled.

Founded in 1791, St. Mary's began as a neo-Gothic chapel downtown on Paca Street. It moved to its current home, an expansive stone structure off Northern Parkway, in 1929.

St. Mary's is one example of the national shortage of priests. Nationwide, the number of priests shrank from 58,632 in 1965 to 43,304 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The shortage is one of many challenges for the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, which also faces the priest sex-abuse scandal and a decline in attendance at Mass even though the number of Catholics is growing.

The pope's conservative view of Catholicism differed from the views of some U.S. Catholics, who question the church's position on such issues as divorce, abortion and contraception.

Leavitt thinks the priesthood will begin to appeal to more Americans despite its struggles. The church's reputation of being stuck in the past is inaccurate, he said.

The pope adhered to conservative religious doctrine but embraced other faiths and took liberal positions on social-justice issues, Leavitt said.

Silvester Kim, 30, who is in his sixth year at St. Mary's, said not everyone understands the priesthood. His family was skeptical, he said.

"They were afraid," he said. "They said, `This is a lifetime commitment. Do you know what you're doing?'"

He gradually became more confident about what he described as a calling and looked to the pope for inspiration, he said.

"We all respect that he has been a rock for us," said Kim, who grew up in Baltimore and visited the pope at the Vatican last year with a group of seminarians. "I think he taught for us not to be afraid and to embrace the calling."

Joe O'Connor, 27, said the pope's emphasis on youth, such as his World Youth Day celebration, have influenced many young people.

"There was a time in the '50s when you prayed your son would be a priest. Then, in the '70s, you prayed that he wouldn't," said O'Connor, who is in his fifth year at St. Mary's.

"Now, I think our culture is changing. I think some people are not content with a society that's about getting rich. They are asking themselves if there might be a deeper meaning to all this."

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