Educators are pillars of society, says 2023 ‘Teacher of the Year’
February 1, 2024
Education behind prison walls
February 1, 2024

Seminary celebrates 80 years of forming priests, and now laity

In a recent interview on Altos, Fr Jason Boatswain, the Rector of the Seminary of St John Vianney & The Uganda Martyrs at Mt St Benedict offered insights into the institution’s remarkable 80-year journey. As the custodian of the Seminary’s mission, Fr Boatswain discussed its historical significance, the challenges faced, and the evolving role it plays in shaping not just priests but also the laity in the Caribbean.

The Seminary’s impact is evidenced by the fact that “nearly every archdiocese in the region” now has a bishop or archbishop who studied there. He explained why this matters: “It means that our leader[s]…would have experienced their formation in the context of the Caribbean, which is fundamental for their understanding of the Church.”

Addressing the need for Caribbean theologians to be deeply rooted in the realities of the community, Fr Boatswain explained the Seminary’s approach to forming men and women for service. He noted the importance of contextualisation and pastoral outlook in the formation process.

“We try to make it more pastoral in its outlook, and more contextual by inserting them and having them reflect on the Caribbean experience.”

On the issue of the shortage of priests, Fr Boatswain pointed to ongoing vocations efforts in collaboration with ‘Generation X’. He also highlighted that “the Seminary continues to try to be more present for the region, highlighting the need for priests.”

The priestly model for seminarians today, Fr Boatswain emphasised, is “a pastor…with a pastoral heart” who can “accompany the people”. Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon envisions priests as “missionary disciples” who tangibly communicate Christ’s message.

“And therefore, the formation of the Seminary…is really to be men with a pastoral heart of Jesus, who can be close to the people, to accompany the people, and to work with them. To walk with and journey with the people, pronouncing and announcing the message of Christ in the way in which it becomes a lived experience.”

Fr Boatswain confirmed that those discerning a vocation are always welcome to “come and see” seminary life firsthand and speak to seminarians about their experiences.

A mandatory “pre-seminary” programme also allows men to explore priesthood while determining if it is truly their calling. “All dioceses must have a pre-seminary,” he said. “The men enter there and as they enter into the pre-seminary, it functions as a place of discernment.” At present there are four men in the pre-seminary stage.

However, he noted that the Seminary has a “twofold” mission – forming priests and laity. He explained that “Archbishop Jason has given a mandate for the Seminary to pivot towards the formation of the laity.” Aligning with the Church’s synodal vision, the goal is “to empower the entire laity” as “missionary disciples.” Many courses are now offered online to increase accessibility.

Fr Jason confirmed “once someone does a degree at the Seminary, that degree in fact is recognised by The University of the West Indies.”

The Seminary has not just contributed bishops and priests over its 80-year history, but also many prominent lay leaders in various fields across the Caribbean. This includes educators, theologians, musicians, community organisers, and more serving in diverse roles. Many parishes have also benefitted from lay ministry training programmes offered through the Seminary over the years.

There have been painful periods as well, such as the past closure of the Seminary programme requiring students to be temporarily sent abroad. Yet challenges prompted critical reflection and reimagining the Seminary’s purpose and direction.

Detailing the seminarians’ packed schedules, Fr Boatswain described a day starting with 6 a.m. morning prayer and Mass, followed by classes and meals interspersed with prayer times.

In addition to academics, seminarians contribute manual labour, currently “feed[ing] themselves” through agriculture projects like growing lettuce and raising rabbits. Evenings are mostly reserved for study.