Notre Dame rector to start July 1
For Father James A. Wehner, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh who has served for the last three years as rector-president of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, the prospect of becoming the new rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary grew stronger during several months of personal discernment.
That discernment resulted in the appointment of Father Wehner as the new rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary, effective July 1.
At the Josephinum, Father Wehner had directed efforts to make a good seminary even better, as manifested by several important benchmarks. Enrollment increased 53 percent in the last two years, from 117 to 185, with the recruitment of seminarians from 10 new dioceses. The seminary completed its latest accreditation in 2011 with flying colors. And Father Wehner enhanced the Josephinum faculty by adding several well-respected priest professors.
A quick study
“Three years ago, significant work needed to be accomplished in order to move the seminary in the right direction,” Father Wehner said. “One of the faculty members said, ‘Jim, it’s like we’ve done eight years of work in three years.’”
When Archbishop Gregory Aymond wrote to seminary rectors around the country last November to ask if they could identify any candidates from among their faculty to succeed Father José Lavastida as the new rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary, Father Wehner decided to give it some thought himself.
“I had heard of Notre Dame Seminary for many years and I knew it had gone through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina,” Father Wehner said. “I heard amazing things about Archbishop Aymond and the current rector, Father Lavastida, committing their energies and resources to make Notre Dame one of the top seminaries in the country. Then when the archbishop shared with me his vision of how to take it to the next level, I found that vision very exciting.”
Father Wehner said he was “reluctant to leave” the Josephinum because of the progress he had seen.
“I was wondering if this was the time,” Father Wehner said.
But Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik reminded Father Wehner of the time in 2002 when he left the pastorate of the largest parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to become the rector of St. Paul Seminary in Crafton, Pa., where he served for six years before going to the Josephinum.
“I was at the parish for eight months when the bishop knocked on the door,” Father Wehner said. “You always have to be open to divine providence if it is meant to be.”
Father Wehner said priestly formation has three major thrusts.
“Every seminary must articulate clearly and emphatically the vision that a seminarian has to be able to pursue,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘I want to become a priest.’ He has to understand why, what’s the purpose, what does the church need today? Here at the Josephinum, we clearly articulate what Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said as universal pastors of the church, asking the whole church to consider the new evangelization.”
Second, he said, seminarians must understand what is meant by “spiritual fatherhood.” Celibacy is viewed as strange by a Western culture that already has difficulty with the concept of fatherhood.
“Third, there is the whole idea of the renaissance priest,” Father Wehner said. “By that I don’t mean going back to the past. By that I mean they must clearly understand how faith and culture are not enemies of one another. Priesthood is meant to be incarnated within the local culture, not to be distant from it.”
Father Wehner said his goal for the first year will be to get to know every seminarian on a deep level.
“I take very seriously my role as pastor of the community,” he said. “That first year I need the seminarians to know I am deeply concerned about their spiritual life, not just an administrator or a remote bureaucrat. They will know I am a very hands-on type of person. I don’t see myself doing much traveling in that first year. I want to be continually present.
“In the second year, I would like to take the story (of Notre Dame) to other dioceses that maybe used to send seminarians to us so they can hear the wonderful things happening here.”
The Josephinum comprises a College of Liberal Arts and a graduate School of Theology. Both the college and the theologate were reaccredited in 2011. In the past three years, the seminary has undergone $1.7 million in capital improvements, and a $2.2 million renovation of the college seminarians’ residence is underway.
Father Wehner was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in June 1995. He earned a doctorate in sacred theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.