As they have since the Saint John Paul II Seminary opened in 2011, this year’s group of seminarians stood together on its front step for a group photo, joined by the archbishop of Washington and by the seminary’s resident priest faculty members. But the group photo for the 2020-21 school year for Saint John Paul II Seminary had a much different look this year, as the seminarians, priests and Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory all wore face masks, reflecting a key safety precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.

Just before the group photo, Archbishop Gregory had celebrated an Aug. 26 Mass in the seminary’s Mary, Mother of the Church Chapel to mark the opening of the school year.

At the beginning of the Mass, Father Carter Griffin, the rector of Saint John Paul II Seminary, welcomed Archbishop Gregory, greeting him as the seminary’s “spiritual father,” and he added that they were especially grateful to come together and start a new school year in the seminary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can see the joy on our faces,” Father Griffin joked, because all the seminarians and priests were wearing face masks as the archbishop celebrated the Mass.

Archbishop Gregory offers the opening prayer at the Aug. 26 Mass at Saint John Paul II Seminary marking the beginning of the school year there. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Paul Fetters)

Later as he began his homily, Archbishop Gregory congratulated the seminarians for passing their first tests of the new school year, which were not academic tests, but tests for COVID-19. The Mass had been originally scheduled for the previous week, but had been delayed as the seminary awaited those results, and none of the 45 resident seminarians or four resident priests tested positive for the virus.

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted how Jesus in that day’s Gospel challenged the religious authorities of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees, to live authentic lives. Those examples of Jesus showing tough love and speaking truth to power are relevant today, the archbishop said.

“He is speaking to all of us now in this chapel, from the archbishop himself to our newest seminarian, and to our faculty as well,” he said.

The archbishop noted that “Jesus had little patience with pious hypocrisy in His world or in ours. He was not impressed with external displays of smugness that ran counter to the reality of a person’s heart.”

He added, “We are all called to be transparent men of holiness of life, and public piety without sincerity of heart just doesn’t cut it.”

Archbishop Gregory pointed out how too often people in public life are discovered to be living a lie. “Our own beloved Church as suffered this indignity to our shame and to the shame of those in Church leadership,” he said.

He praised Pope Francis as a man whose actions reflect his words, reflected in the pope’s encounters with the poor and immigrants.

“He is a man of transparent sincerity – and he invites and expects bishops, priests and seminarians to follow that same pattern of honest living,” said the archbishop, who encouraged the seminarians to live authentically as Jesus did.

Prayers at the Mass were offered for those who have suffering during the pandemic, that they might know the healing power of Christ. Archbishop Gregory also encouraged the seminarians to pray for people living in Gulf Coast states as Hurricane Laura was about to make landfall.

Father Carter Griffin, the rector of Saint John Paul II Seminary, removed his face mask briefly as he read the Gospel reading during the opening school year Mass on Aug. 26 at the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Paul Fetters)

In addition to Father Griffin, the concelebrants at the Mass included Father Kevin Regan, the seminary’s vice rector; Father Chris Seith, the director of spiritual formation there; and Father Mark Ivany, the archdiocese’s director of priest vocations who also serves as the director of pastoral formation and an adjunct formation advisor and spiritual director at the seminary.

In an interview the next day, Father Griffin noted that life at the seminary for this school year is “more the same than different.”

“The work of formation goes on. The intention of men here is to be formed as Christian men, as Christian disciples and to be in an environment where they can discern the priesthood, and none of that changes,” he said.

The 45 seminarians at Saint John Paul II Seminary this school year include 17 of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 67 seminarians. The 28 other seminarians living there come from the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the dioceses of Arlington and Richmond in Virginia; Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia; and Bismarck, North Dakota.

Since their COVID-19 tests were all negative, the seminary community is living together like a family in a household, so inside the building, they don’t wear face masks, the rector explained, adding that they do wear face masks when they leave the building, or when someone else enters it. When asked if that was akin to the “bubble” that NBA players, coaches and officials are living in together in Orlando, Florida, as they complete their season, Father Griffin said, “It is like that, actually.”

Key differences for this school year include fewer interactions with other students and faculty members at the nearby Catholic University of America, where the seminarians are taking classes, either in person or on-line. Father Griffin also said, “We have to be more careful about visiting family and friends back home.”

The rector said “the spirit of the house is really good” as the new school year is beginning.

Seminarians pray during the Aug. 26 Mass marking the beginning of the school year at Saint John Paul II Seminary. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Paul Fetters)

Days begin there, as they have in the past, with morning prayer followed by Mass and breakfast. The seminarians have meals together in the refectory.

After a two-week period of quarantine when all Catholic University classes are online, the freshmen seminarians will walk to classes on campuses, while the other seminarians will be gathering in groups in some common areas, as their classes are projected on the walls or as they follow along on their computers.

In between classes and studying, the seminarians are free to play sports like soccer, Wiffle ball and Frisbee together. Late in the afternoon they gather together for Eucharistic Adoration in the chapel for one hour, followed by evening prayer and then dinner. The evenings typically include a talk or choir practice or a house meeting.

Father Griffin noted, “The main thing I’m trying to instill in the hearts of these young men is what the world needs more than anything else in these difficult times is an encounter with the love of God. That means their formation and their vocation is more important and more needed than ever.”

The seminary’s rector added that their witness of faith “is a tremendous sign of hope, that we have courageous young men today who are willing to step forward and discern this beautiful vocation. It’s an honor for me to be a part of their journey.”

A seminarian prays during the Aug. 26 Mass at Saint John Paul II Seminary marking the opening of the school year. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Paul Fetters)