Seminary Formation in the Age of Francis: Q&A with Monsignor David Toups

Very Rev. Monsignor David L. Toups, S.T.D., is the Rector and President of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. He assumed this post in 2012, and was subsequently named as a monsignor, after serving as pastor at Christ the King parish in Tampa.

Ordained in 1997 for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Monsignor Toups holds a B.A. in philosophy from St. John Vianney College Seminary, Miami; an S.T.L. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; and an S.T.D. in theology from the Angelicum, Rome. He previously served as parochial vicar, seminary professor and dean of students at St. Vincent de Paul and served as the Associate Director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of numerous articles as well as the 2008 book “Reclaiming Our Priestly Character,” published by the Institute for Priestly Formation.

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On Aug. 19, I interviewed Monsignor Toups by email about the impact of Pope Francis on U.S. seminary formation.

How has U.S. seminary formation changed under Pope Francis thus far?

It is certainly still early in the pontificate, but his focus on servanthood and simplicity have certainly affected my own priestly heart and consequently the entire formation program.

Has Francis made any observable impact on the seminarians in your formation program?

Pope Francis is calling every person in every walk of life to a deeper conversion and is challenging us to a more radical commitment to the Lord. Because of the importance of our witness and the role of shepherding in the church, priests and seminarians are being called to particular accountability. In fact, he even reminded religious and seminary formators that we need to be careful not to create “little monsters” – men who want to “be served and not to serve” – the exact opposite of Christ’s vision of discipleship. The Holy Father’s words and actions are most certainly already playing a role in houses of formation around the world. I think we will see the "Francis effect" in full swing in the years to come as more and more young people are inspired by his logic of love and from his tremendous prophetic gestures to those on the periphery. The church is already experiencing an increase in vocations and I can only imagine that this growth in priestly and religious vocations will continue through the inspirational personality of the Pope. Young people want to be challenged and he is certainly calling all of us to evangelical greatness.

What have you done to incorporate the insights of documents like Evangelii Gaudium into the curriculum and life of the seminary?

Certainly in the area of the church's social teaching there is direct applicability. But also in the broader sense of all four dimensions of priestly formation (the human, spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual) the pope is making connections for us and heightening our awareness for a deeper integration in the life of the seminarian and the priest. An example of an extracurricular activity deeply inspired by Pope Francis was a mission trip to Haiti that 17 of us from the seminary participated in during spring break. The Holy Father is opening our eyes to the reality of poverty in our own backyards as well as a sense of global solidarity. The pope is softening our hardened hearts and at times closed minds to the reality of poverty all around us. In addition, the art of preaching is being integrated into various courses so that the proclamation of the Word and the New Evangelization is understood by our men as part and parcel of their mission as future priests.

Have you made any practical changes at St. Vincent de Paul since taking over as rector in 2012?

The bishops of the Province of Miami have allowed us to build a great faculty; a collaborative team of priests, religious, and laity that are building up and strengthen the institution. I am very proud of this team and grateful for their saying "yes" to the noble task of priestly formation. I am very conscious that we are most certainly building on the foundations laid by our predecessors who faithfully labored here for the first 50 years of our seminary. And speaking of building, we also embarked on the expansion and renovation of our facilities – both new and renovated dorms, renovated community center, and a guest wing for continued education of clergy which will make our institution truly viable for another 50 years. I'm humbled by the generosity of the people of God who have gotten behind this project and made it possible. It is quite remarkable and beautiful to see this campus renewal so close to completion (the seminarians will move into the new dorms in December).

What are some bright spots in seminary formation right now?

As I mentioned earlier, there has been a significant increase in the number of vocations in the last five years. Our seminary has gone from 56 to 92 during this period of time – the largest number of theologians in our history. These are great problems to have! Thus the need for the expansion of our facilities and renovation of the aging infrastructure. This increase in enrollment brings with it a momentum as 90+ men unite in a common mission and desire to be priests. There is a great zeal and excitement to serve Christ and discern His will for their lives. I am so proud of our seminarians who are open to being formed after the Heart of the Good Shepherd.

What’s the greatest challenge for seminary formation today?

These wonderful men I was just speaking about are by no means perfect men (nor is their rector and faculty for that matter!). Seminarians are products of our culture and come into the seminary at times wounded from their family of origin and in need of healing, and then there are the modern addictions to technology and noise which can hinder discernment and growth, as well as other basic areas of human formation that at times need remedial work – our job is to truly form them into the saints and servants needed for the church of tomorrow – we need healthy wholesome Christian gentlemen.

How do you see U.S. seminary formation evolving or changing over the next few years?

As I attend meetings with other seminary rectors and personnel, I am impressed with the quality of the programs of priestly formation throughout the country. I think for the most part our academic programs are solid, spirituality is seen as integral to the whole, we have for the most part well-rounded human formation programs and the emphasis on pastoral application grounds the seminarian in the reality of future ministry and service. Granted, improvement and growth in these four dimensions is always needed, but we are building on very solid foundations, as across the country faculties are being strengthened and curricula tightened up. Two areas that I know are a concern to all of the faithful are preaching and leadership training. We are constantly looking at ways to improve and implement into the core curriculum more effective tools to bolster these two important areas. Our preaching program for instance is very solid in and of itself with lots of hands on practical experiences, but it is also linked among interdisciplinary lines so that it is "cross pollinated" into other classes. For instance, in the course on the sacrament of Holy Matrimony an assignment would be given to deliver a marriage homily which would then be reviewed by professors in systematics, scripture, and homiletics. Regarding leadership training, our men take a course in parish management, and in addition we are also beginning to host workshops by the Catholic Leadership Institute called Good Leaders/Good Shepherds to help prepare them for their future roles. It comes as no surprise that the church wants good homilies and effective leaders and these are areas of constant improvement.

As a graduate of the IPF program at Creighton University, you’ve drawn consolation in your own prayer life from Ignatian spirituality. How do you form men spiritually at the seminary?

The Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University has impacted the seminary system throughout the United States in profound ways through their summer spirituality program (about 50% of our men attendant some point during their studies here at St. Vincent de Paul). In addition, the IPF does training and formation of faculty and spiritual directors. The message is really very simple – we must know and love Jesus if we are to serve him! A rich spiritual life keeps one connected to Christ. Ignatian meditation is a wonderful "tool" to help us encounter the love of the Triune God. The IPF has certainly helped me as well as many of our seminarians deepen this love which leads to a greater sense of service.

How do you understand diocesan priestly identity?

The parish priest finds his truest identity as a spiritual father to the family entrusted to his care. He espouses the Bride of Christ, the Church, and lives a committed life of love through prayer and service. The diocesan priest does not have a "rule of life" like a religious, but the church's expectations keep the priest grounded in the reality of who he is: daily Mass, recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, availability to serve, the call to a simplicity of life – basically, the identity of the diocesan priest is the person of Christ – our model and ideal. In all of our imperfections, we strive to make Christ present through our life and ministry. The diocesan priest also finds himself in a unique position with the local bishop and his brother priests. We are striving to instill within the seminarians a sense of fraternity and teamwork; they cannot be lone-rangers, but must learn to come together in the shared mission of building up the Body of Christ.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I want your readers to have a sense of hope for the future – in a post 2002 scandal ridden church, we should be at an all-time low, but we are not! As St. Paul wrote "where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more." God indeed is providing for our needs – be not afraid, be at peace, be filled with hope for the future. And finally I ask your readers to pray for the health and holiness of our seminaries and for the continued increase in vocations to the ordained ministry and religious life to serve our families in the decades to come.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a regular contributor at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 11 months ago
What David Toups is doing is of monumental importance. I especially am encouraged that he gets what Francis says about developing "Monster priests." who want to be served rather than serve. That alone would be revolutionary.

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