It’s both surprising and sad that a prominent national seminary, our oldest abroad, with a distinguished history and many prominent alumni, can simply disappear. But such is the case. In June the American College of Louvain in Belgium will close its doors.

In one sense, though, it’s not a surprise. There were too few students even in my time more than twenty years ago, and there have been recurrent rumblings among the U.S. bishops for as long as I can remember. With the arrival of each fall newsletter, I was grimly amused by how succeeding rectors would attempt to make the few new matriculating seminarians sound like a lot. The favored approach was to speak of “the community,” which included philosophy students and priests in residence as well as actual seminarians. 

But in an official communiqué released this past November, there was no beating around the bush. The current rector, Msgr. Ross Shecterle, and the ACL board chair, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, summed up the American bishops’ reasons for shutting the theologate: “small enrollment numbers; the significant challenges in peer formation in a small seminary; the shortage of priest faculty; and a small number of sending dioceses.” The bishops also cited “stewardship of priestly and financial resources considered from a more universal church perspective.” 

If the Louvain closure is understandable, it is also regrettable, not only because the seminary’s record of service will come to an end, but because there will also be a further narrowing of options for priestly formation. So the question that remains is one the bishops themselves raised: What does good stewardship involve when preparing future leaders of the church? 

The American College of the Immaculate Conception, its official title, was founded in 1857 with a twofold purpose: to prepare European men to serve the young church in the United States, and to offer American seminarians and priests a place to “perfect their education” in Europe. The nineteenth-century surge in immigration had swollen the number of Catholics in the United States but not the number of priests. In the eyes of church leaders, this left the faithful vulnerable to “Protestant proselytism and the contagion of infidelity.” In A Favored Portion of the Vineyard (2007), former rector Kevin Codd vividly portrayed the college’s early years, when founder Peter Kindekens begged men from the Belgian bishops and money from the American bishops. The similarities between then and now were not lost on Codd, who described his multitasking predecessor as literally trying to “keep out the rain” while preparing an international student body for missionary work. (The earliest students came from Belgium, Holland, Prussia, and Ireland. Recent classes welcomed students from Europe and the United States, but also from Asia and Africa.)

The foundational priorities included a dual emphasis on intellectual formation and pastoral sensitivity. Fr. Kindekens’s idea was that Americans studying in Louvain would receive “a superior ecclesiastical instruction and solid clerical training.” What made this comprehensive formation possible was the new seminary’s close ties to the Catholic University of Louvain, renowned for its faculties of philosophy and theology.

By the time of the inception of the American College, the Catholic University of Louvain (known today by its Dutch title: Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) was already in its fifth century of providing theological education. The last non-Italian pope before John Paul II, Adrian VI, taught at Louvain (from 1491 to 1515), as did many other influential (and at times controversial) theologians, including Desiderius Erasmus, Michael Baius, Cornelius Jansen, and Bernard Jungmann. More recently, Louvain’s theology department was noted for its emphasis on the historical-critical method and for its scholarly contributions to Vatican II. While emphasizing the need for a thoroughgoing awareness of the tradition, the faculty was a standard bearer for theological renewal. During the council this was evident in the areas of ecclesiology, liturgy, biblical studies, and ecumenism. A classic example of the postconciliar era was moral theologian Louis Janssens and his explorations of personalism. In keeping with the emphasis on the human person found in Gaudium et spes, Janssens developed a holistic model (“the human person adequately considered”), which continues to serve as a useful antidote to vague, reductionist, and sentimental thinking about personhood.

Throughout its history, the American College enjoyed a close collaboration with the university, drawing not only on its faculty but also on one of the world’s best theological libraries. Seminarians pursued theological studies at the university (which offered canonical degrees) and received their liturgical and pastoral training at the seminary. If, in my own experience, the expectation to cram facts into your head was burdensome (we more or less memorized two hundred pages of notes for each oral exam), the value of having a lot of information at your disposal did become apparent. After class we would tromp back up the cobblestone Naamsestraat to give the pastoral and spiritual dimensions their due. The celebration of Mass at the college was both serene and robust, and I was happy to put in time at a local soup kitchen, to keep it “real.”

One of the strongest arguments for sending seminarians to Louvain was the exposure it offered to the church universal. Not only has the theology department become a magnet for lay and ordained students from around the world, the history of the church is written in the town’s very stones. St. Damien of Molokai is buried there, and the central St. Peter Church features masterworks like Dirk Bouts’s triptych of the Last Supper. Louvain also proved an easy point of departure for other Catholic destinations in Europe, and it functioned as a kind of Catholic hub in Western Europe. Retired Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark, New Jersey, and Avery Dulles, SJ, both resided at the College when I was a student. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels was a frequent visitor, and any number of other bishops, priests, and theologians passed through.

If there has been an implicit “ideal type” of priest produced by the Louvain system, it was probably best embodied in two priests who pursued graduate studies there: Fulton Sheen, the early “televangelist,” and Timothy Healy, SJ, former president of Georgetown University and later director of the New York Public Library. Both were pastorally sensitive Catholic intellectuals who were “worldly” in the broad, positive sense: they knew how the world works and how to get things done. The church in my own Pacific Northwest was built by Louvain graduates of the same mold. Several of the region’s earliest bishops—including Junger of Nesqually, Lemmens of Vancouver Island, Glorieux of Boise, Riordan of San Francisco, and Seghers, the “Apostle of Alaska”—were products of the American College. And that tradition of down-to-earth proficiency is still visible in the college’s most recent contribution to the episcopacy, Auxiliary Bishop Shelton Fabre of New Orleans, and in countless other priests (like Msgr. Tom Ivory, co-founder of RENEW International), professors, and lay ecclesial ministers of my acquaintance.

Of course, if the Louvain system had been perfect, it wouldn’t have closed. The small size of the college proved to be a real disadvantage. Recent incoming classes typically numbered seven or fewer. At a larger seminary, students find more opportunities to enjoy the mutual support of their peers. The difference became clear to me when I traveled to Rome with my first-year classmates to attend an audience with Pope John Paul II. Our host was the North American College. Besides marveling at its fifty orange trees and private soccer field, I also wondered what it might be like to study in the presence of so many like-minded students, all dressed in clerics and nourished by a more “old school” formation.

Rector Shecterle admitted that size had been a problem, and not only because of peer formation. In order to pay the bills, the college had to scramble to find new sources of income by running multiple programs—including graduate study and sabbatical programs—alongside the seminary formation. All this stretched the staff thin, and simply finding staff became a major challenge. Bishops were reluctant to release their ever-scarcer priests for service abroad. Alumnus Mark Moitoza, vice chancellor for evangelization for the Military Archdiocese, noted that frequent turnover of the staff was one of the downsides to his own, otherwise very positive, formation experience. On the other hand, some alumni said the small size and financial precariousness of the college proved to be an important part of their formation. “Because the college was a modest facility, often in need of paint and repair, students regularly contributed to kitchen work and indoor and outdoor maintenance,” recalled Fr. Tony Bawyn, judicial vicar for the Seattle Archdiocese. “That sense of ownership and making-do created a loyalty and love for the institution and gave me a realistic perspective on life in the parish.”

Though size, staffing, and money were the official reasons for closure, we should not overlook other rumored reasons, expressly denied in the seminary’s communications: the current crisis in the Belgian Catholic Church, and the dialogue underway at the Catholic University of Louvain itself regarding its Catholic identity. The unspecified “crisis” in the Belgian church alludes not only to the scandal of widespread sexual abuse and cover-up, but also to the drastic decline in church practice among Belgian Catholics over the past four decades. Obviously these would be matters of concern to the U.S. bishops. Seminarians studying in Louvain found themselves in an increasingly secularized environment. To the north, the former Catholic University of Nijmegen had changed its name to the Radboud University of Nijmegen, while the Catholic University of Louvain considered dropping “Catholic” from its title. Some U.S. bishops were concerned about an overreliance on the historical-critical method; others seemed to have a preference for a Roman pedigree.

Louvain’s advocates argued that the dangers were overstated. Yes, over the years there were professors who raised eyebrows, but they were a decided minority and were outshone by well-regarded professors such as Raymond Collins, Reimund Bieringer, Marc Vervenne, and Terrence Merrigan. They demonstrated how the historical method, grounded in faith, can be an effective tool for pastoral service. Msgr. Shecterle pointed to the value for seminarians of having to confront the reality of advanced secularization and how this growing awareness led to suitable new forms of evangelization.

Apart from the loss to the U.S. church, Shecterle sees one for the university and for the Belgian church as well. The presence of the American priests and seminarians had its own pastoral impact on the surrounding community, thanks in part to their liturgies, intellectual contributions, and pastoral service. The end of that presence means one less resource for keeping Louvain in touch with its historical faith. Still, come June the American College will wrap up its final year of priestly formation.

During the next two years, the U.S. bishops conference will be studying U.S. seminaries in six regions. I hope the closure of the American College is not a sign of things to come, with only the largest or most rigorously “orthodox” seminaries allowed to continue. Fr. Paul Minnihan, director of worship for the Diocese of Oakland, California, credits Louvain with inculcating the quality and catholicity of his own vocation. “I am a man of the church,” he says, “and Louvain has helped me to be a thoughtful man of the church.” He worries about a tendency in the younger generation of priests to fixate on rubrics and small-scale, formal orthodoxy at the expense of the bigger picture. That’s something a true Louvainist would never do.

Timothy P. Schilling writes from Utrecht, the Netherlands. This reflection opens his memoir, Lonesome Road, which will be published by Wipf and Stock.

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Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: View Contents
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