Mentor to priests steps down

As head of St. Mary's since 1980, the rector has guided the Catholic seminary through tremendous change

Sun profile

June 30, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

The responsibilities of a Roman Catholic priest have changed over the last quarter-century - and so have the expectations at St. Mary's University and Seminary, whose president-rector, the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, is stepping down after nearly three decades of leadership.

"When I began, the seminary was a kind of serene world apart from Baltimore, from the lay people, from the ecumenical, interfaith world," says the theologian, who starting today is taking a year's sabbatical from the nation's oldest seminary. Today, "the seminary is at the heart of a much bigger world than it was when I was beginning. There are a lot more challenges; it's a lot more exciting but also a lot more demanding."

"I really feel I've created a condition for a real renaissance at St. Mary's. I really think that having come through what people consider one of the most tumultuous periods in church history, that we're laying the foundation for something new to begin," Leavitt says.

FOR THE RECORD - A profile of the former president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University in Saturday's editions misidentified former students of Johns Hopkins University archaeologist William Foxwell Albright. The Rev. Raymond Brown at St. Mary's had studied with him.

St. Mary's, based in a palatial institution off Northern Parkway in Roland Park, now spends a good deal of time teaching administration, leadership, "helping seminarians to know what real life in parishes is like," says the school's academic dean, the Rev. David B. Couturier. Seminarians also complete "residencies" at the archdiocese's parishes, a model similar to that of doctors at teaching hospitals, and can take management workshops on human resources and finances.

"They can actually watch excellent pastors at work as role models and be able to connect," he says.

Leavitt, himself a graduate, plans to dedicate his time to academic research set aside during his tenure as the longest-serving rector in the seminary's history.

The Rev. Thomas R. Hurst, a former vice rector and faculty member at St. Mary's, has been named the new president-rector. Hurst was the rector of Theological College, the seminary at Catholic University of America, and was a member of St. Mary's board of trustees. He praised his predecessor for leading the school for more than 25 years with vigor and energy.

"I have great respect for Father Leavitt's intelligence, deep faith and deep commitment to the priesthood," Hurst says.

Most of Leavitt's tenure as president-rector overlapped with that of Pope John Paul II. "I've tried to take the seminary in the direction that John Paul II took the church ... connected it with people who are concerned about God and faith and the world."

The 64-year-old priest grew up in a family that wasn't particularly devout; no other male relatives had served as priests. His grandfather, who was Protestant, always used to poke fun at his entering the seminary, he says.

"I kind of learned to respect the sort of teasing about my vocation that sort of said, `Not everybody's going to think this is a great thing you're doing with your life,'" he recalls.

Leavitt entered St. Thomas Seminary high school mostly because there were no Catholic high schools in his hometown of Hartford, Conn., and his mother wanted him to continue his Catholic education.

His pastor wanted him to be open to pursuing a vocation if it seemed right. "I didn't have to say I wanted to be a priest; I just had to say if the desire somehow goes my way, I would not refuse," he says.

Leavitt was amazed at the credentials of his teachers at the seminary, priests who were highly trained academicians knowledgeable in philosophy, Latin, Greek.

"I ended up just identifying with the priests, my professors and ... wound up studying for the priesthood here," Leavitt said.

He arrived at St. Mary's Seminary just as the Second Vatican Council began. Faculty members were advising Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, then Baltimore's archbishop and one of 12 council presidents.

Leavitt was inspired to become a seminary professor by faculty who "would come back in December and tell us what was going on in Rome, and we were reading about it the week before in Time magazine," he says. The faculty would "fill in information about the personalities and what was going on behind the scenes."

He was ordained almost four decades ago. After completing his term, several faculty asked him to stay, and his bishop in Hartford released him from duty. "It was very unusual to do that. I think they were interested in having younger priests study for doctorates," Leavitt says. "I walked out the back door and came back in the back door after a summer."

The priest began deeper study of theology, working with the renowned biblical scholar Raymond Brown at St. Mary's as well as William Foxwell Albright, an archaeologist in Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

Later, he studied at the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne in Paris with French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whom Leavitt described as a world-class theologian and intellectual. The priest was impressed by Ricoeur's openness to truth, wherever it was found - religion, hard science, myths.

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