Photo by Chris Rogers
Third-year St. Thomas Aquinas seminarian James Golightly enjoys the sun in the seminary's raspberry patch. The only U.S. seminary of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X has been in Winona for 25 years and recently announced plans to move to Virginia in 2015.
Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary will leave Winona
Sightings of cheery young men in black cassocks are rare in Winona, but they may soon disappear entirely. The black-robed students of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (STAS) and their priestly instructors will be packing their bags for Virginia by the fall of 2015. Construction is well underway on a grand, $40 million new facility in Buckingham County, Va., that will house the swelling ranks of the only U.S. seminary of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The SSPX is not deemed an official branch of the Roman Catholic Church (though the society would disagree). It protests the Second Vatican Council, and has a history of controversy, including denial of the Holocaust (see sidebars).
Local hotel owners, who have grown used to their facilities being booked every year for the group's ordination ceremonies, will be sorry to see the seminary go, as will other local businesses that have benefitted from the seminary's six-figure budget. The close to 200 faithful that come to the increasingly packed STAS chapel for Mass every Sunday will likely miss the seminary, as well, though STAS officials assure that the building will still be used by the SSPX, perhaps as a retreat center, and will continue to offer mass.
Seated on the crest of a ridge south of Saint Mary's University, a former Roman Catholic Dominican monastery has been home to STAS for 25 years. The seminarians and their instructors live a simple, communal life on the hill. "The focus is the formation of the man and the formation of priests," explained third-year seminarian James Golightly. "All the aspects of daily life here try to implicate the presence of God." For Golightly and his comrades, days consist of intermittent periods of prayer, silent mediation, study, meals, chores, and recreation. Silence is a foundational part of STAS life. Talking is allowed between classes, during recreation periods, meals, and after dinner. Prayer and meditation is crucial to drawing close to God, Golightly says. Silence makes that possible.
STAS also manages several acres of farm land, a large garden, an orchard, and hundreds of laying hens. The seminary harvests all of the fuel for heating its buildings from woodlots on the property. Seminarians are responsible for nearly all of the these daily operations, so a walk around the STAS grounds will include passing a cassocked youth driving a massive lawnmower, waving to future priests hauling truckloads of logs, and admiring another seminarian's beehives.
Former STAS Rector Richard Williamson said the seminary farm was meant to "bring home some hard lessons of reality: food does not come from McDonald's and the life of man on this earth is not to seek pleasure, but to work by the sweat of his brow."
When asked why he joined the seminary, Golightly said it was always a thought in the back of his head, since he attended a SSPX school. What sealed the deal was a realization that he wanted to devote his life to helping people. "The best way to help people is to bring them to Christ," he said. "A life without Christ, without religion, is an empty one."
A new home
The halls of STAS are bustling with activity. Black-robed figures are constantly coming and going. A hive-like buzz is a fact of communal living, but STAS is little fuller than it would like.
"Our capacity is 67 people and we're at somewhere around 90," explained Golightly. Recently, STAS was home to more than 100 seminarians. Golightly points out chapel pews where seminarians have begun to crowd the faithful, and explains how sleeping quarters designed for two men sometimes hold four. For young men who are trying to spend most of their days in silent contemplation, having three roommates can be problematic. "It's nearly impossible sometimes," Golightly said.
It is not a bad problem to have. SSPX seminaries and masses have surged in numbers while the Roman Catholic Church has seen a decline in Europe and American, Asher points out. "I think seeing so many young men devoting their lives to the priesthood is very encouraging for the faithful," Golightly said. The new seminary will have room for more yet — it is planned to hold 135 seminarians and priests and 44 visiting guests, with each seminarian getting his own room. That will really help in practicing silence, Golightly said.
Artist's renditions of the new seminary are absolutely stunning. Massive stone rotundas and towers sparkle at the peak of an Appalachian rise. A quiet courtyard is ringed with a peaceful cloister for seminarians to walk and pray their rosaries.
"It looks kind of like a castle," Golightly smiled, still a little astonished at the place that will be his new home. He calls it a "monument to Catholicism." Asher says the grandeur of the new building has the advantage of setting a resolutely religious tone. "This building," Asher gestured to the walls of his Winona office, "you could park school buses around it and you'd think it was a school building." The new facility, he continued, "You could park tanks around it and you'd still know it was a religious building." That is important, he said, because "we are affected by our environment."
Relocating to central Virginia has other perks. Weather for one, Asher said, though the seminary's many passionate hockey players may miss the ice and snow. "Another reason for moving to Virginia was to get to an area where there was more culture, where there was more history," Asher explained. The new seminary will be within a short drive of Washington D.C. and Civil War sites. "They can have that culture experience and that can be part of their formation without being lost in the midwest." Asher added, "We don't want to form hay seeds, but we don't want to form intelligensia either."
"It's a huge decision, but it's really a necessary one," Golightly said when asked what he thought of the move. "We're formed so much by our surroundings. Having that architecture will speak to the presence of God."
Still, Golightly says he will always have a sentimental connection to the Winona area and the place where he began his formation as a priest.
A controversial history
The Society of St. Pius (SSPX) is not an official part of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, its leaders were excommunicated in 1988. The Vatican recalled those excommunications 2009. The society’s leaders have also caught worldwide attention for denying the holocaust and calling Jews “enemies” of the state. The root of their division with the Roman Catholic Church stems from opposition to attempts to modernize the church under Vatican II.
The relationship between the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and the Vatican is contested. Canon law—the legal system that rules the Roman Catholic Church—separates (or connects) the two. The SSPX is not officially sanctioned by the Vatican. SSPX leaders say the society is a canonical irregularity. According to the society, the group was founded legally but later declared illegitimate, a decision SSPX leaders claim was influenced by political sabotage. To this day the society maintains a legal dispute with Rome over whether the society is operating within its canonical rights.
Theologically, the divide between SSPX and the Roman Catholic Church is over the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which marked a historical change for the church, a move to modernize the church and make it more relevant and accessible to lay people. Vernacular language masses, nuns and monks in street clothes, priests facing the congregation, were some of the visual changes to the church after Vatican II.
The SSPX takes issue with what they see as an exaltation of liberalism and religious liberty following Vatican II. “To say that people need to be free to practice whatever religion they want, that is not something the church has always taught. The church has taught that the men have an obligation to embrace the truth,” St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary Vice Rector Thomas Asher explains.
Asher points to Vatican II as the cause of a recent decline of the Roman Catholic Church in American and Europe and points to soaring SSPX numbers as evidence of people’s desire for truth.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI invited the SSPX to return to the church and embrace the authority of Rome. Asher explained that while “we would love to be normalized,” the SSPX would only return to the church if Rome gave up some ground on Vatican II.
Anti-semitism and the SSPX
The SSPX is perhaps best known outside of Catholicism for infamous anti-Semitic comments by its leaders. Most infamous of all is Bishop Richard Williamson, who led the Winona seminary for 15 years. Numerous sources report that during a 1989 speech in Canada, SSPX leader and St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary (STAS) rector Bishop Richard Williamson said, “There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies.” In 2009 interview with Swedish television program Upprag Granskning, Williamson indicated that he made this statement, explaining, “The historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a policy of Hitler.”
The current leader of the SSPX, Bishop Fellay, called Jews “enemies of the Church” in a recent speech. When asked what he thought of Fellay’s comments, STAS Vice Rector Thomas Asher said, “I think what he said is true insofar as our Lord said, ‘If you’re not with me you’re against me. They are not friends of the Catholic church; they do not have the Catholic church’s best interests at heart. If you look at the people who are happy about Vatican II they are [Jews, Free Masons, and modernists]. If you are happy about my demise then you are not my friend.”
He continued, “They say that [Christ] was an impostor, they say that he was a deceiver of the people, they say that he was a lot of bad stuff. If they say that about the head, then it applies to the members.”