The responsibilities of a Roman Catholic priest have changed over the last quarter-century - and so have the expectations at St. Mary's University and Seminary, whose president-rector, the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, is stepping down after nearly three decades of leadership.
"When I began, the seminary was a kind of serene world apart from Baltimore, from the lay people, from the ecumenical, interfaith world," says the theologian, who starting today is taking a year's sabbatical from the nation's oldest seminary. Today, "the seminary is at the heart of a much bigger world than it was when I was beginning. There are a lot more challenges; it's a lot more exciting but also a lot more demanding."
"I really feel I've created a condition for a real renaissance at St. Mary's. I really think that having come through what people consider one of the most tumultuous periods in church history, that we're laying the foundation for something new to begin," Leavitt says.
St. Mary's, based in a palatial institution off Northern Parkway in Roland Park, now spends a good deal of time teaching administration, leadership, "helping seminarians to know what real life in parishes is like," says the school's academic dean, the Rev. David B. Couturier. Seminarians also complete "residencies" at the archdiocese's parishes, a model similar to that of doctors at teaching hospitals, and can take management workshops on human resources and finances.
"They can actually watch excellent pastors at work as role models and be able to connect," he says.
Leavitt, himself a graduate, plans to dedicate his time to academic research set aside during his tenure as the longest-serving rector in the seminary's history.
The Rev. Thomas R. Hurst, a former vice rector and faculty member at St. Mary's, has been named the new president-rector. Hurst was the rector of Theological College, the seminary at Catholic University of America, and was a member of St. Mary's board of trustees. He praised his predecessor for leading the school for more than 25 years with vigor and energy.
"I have great respect for Father Leavitt's intelligence, deep faith and deep commitment to the priesthood," Hurst says.
Most of Leavitt's tenure as president-rector overlapped with that of Pope John Paul II. "I've tried to take the seminary in the direction that John Paul II took the church ... connected it with people who are concerned about God and faith and the world."
The 64-year-old priest grew up in a family that wasn't particularly devout; no other male relatives had served as priests. His grandfather, who was Protestant, always used to poke fun at his entering the seminary, he says.
"I kind of learned to respect the sort of teasing about my vocation that sort of said, 'Not everybody's going to think this is a great thing you're doing with your life,'" he recalls.
Leavitt entered St. Thomas Seminary high school mostly because there were no Catholic high schools in his hometown of Hartford, Conn., and his mother wanted him to continue his Catholic education.
His pastor wanted him to be open to pursuing a vocation if it seemed right. "I didn't have to say I wanted to be a priest; I just had to say if the desire somehow goes my way, I would not refuse," he says.
Leavitt was amazed at the credentials of his teachers at the seminary, priests who were highly trained academicians knowledgeable in philosophy, Latin, Greek.
"I ended up just identifying with the priests, my professors and ... wound up studying for the priesthood here," Leavitt said.
He arrived at St. Mary's Seminary just as the Second Vatican Council began. Faculty members were advising Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, then Baltimore's archbishop and one of 12 council presidents.
Leavitt was inspired to become a seminary professor by faculty who "would come back in December and tell us what was going on in Rome, and we were reading about it the week before in Time magazine," he says. The faculty would "fill in information about the personalities and what was going on behind the scenes."
He was ordained almost four decades ago. After completing his term, several faculty asked him to stay, and his bishop in Hartford released him from duty. "It was very unusual to do that. I think they were interested in having younger priests study for doctorates," Leavitt says. "I walked out the back door and came back in the back door after a summer."
The priest began deeper study of theology, working with the renowned biblical scholar Raymond Brown at St. Mary's as well as William Foxwell Albright, an archaeologist in Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
Later, he studied at the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne in Paris with French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whom Leavitt described as a world-class theologian and intellectual. The priest was impressed by Ricoeur's openness to truth, wherever it was found - religion, hard science, myths.
"I was studying with somebody who had no fear of any philosophical world view. That shaped my approach to Catholic faith," Leavitt says.
He stayed at St. Mary's as a faculty member, continuing one-year teaching contracts until the end of the 1970s. By then, the seminary's board of trustees decided the seminary's president and rector should be combined in one position. He was chosen for the post in 1980.
At the time, Leavitt was still a diocesan priest, not a Sulpician - a member of the religious order whose mission is training priests and operates St. Mary's. But although he didn't have the title, by that point he had spent nearly two decades in a Sulpician institution. So he completed the admission procedures and assumed the role as rector.
Over the years, he has led fundraising campaigns that raised $35 million for the school's endowment, leaving it 15 times the size it was when he started.
"He has been able to relate to community leaders about the importance of the seminary program," says Cardinal William H. Keeler, St. Mary's chancellor and chairman of its board. "They have accepted his vision in a marvelous fashion."
Under his care, the seminary created the Center for Continuing Formation, a site for priests to refresh their education. Leavitt also guided the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, which enriched the seminary program. "It allows the seminarians to see in miniature the world they're going to be ministering to," the priest says. "They get that sense of the reality of ministry in a pluralistic society."
"I feel like I've really had enough time to do something that can endure," Leavitt says. He's also "had enough time to see what mistakes I've made and correct the mistakes."
One goal - develop priests who embody the ideals despite the credibility lost during the sexual abuse scandals.
"I take a lot of pride in building priests of character," Leavitt says. "I think that one of the things I would want to make part of my legacy is that character and strength and moral courage becomes a trademark of the priesthood again. It would take a lot of people to win that reputation back in the minds of the public at large."
Enrollment at St. Mary's peaked at 350 in the 1960s, but it fell to 150 when Leavitt became rector and has been cut in half since then. Not all of those clerics remained in the priesthood, Leavitt says.
These days, about 60 seminarians are enrolled in St. Mary's priestly formation program, which usually takes about six years. In the 1990s, graduating classes got as small as six or seven, Leavitt says, but now recruitment is better, perhaps inspired by Pope John Paul II. This summer, 13 seminarians were ordained, and classes have numbered between 13 and 16 for the last six or seven years.
"The guys today ... the classes may be smaller but there's a much better ratio of perserverence than there was in the past," he says.
Within a few years of leaving the seminary grounds, many of the priests find themselves leading parishes. "We want to train these guys to be really good managers of parish communities, stewards of their resources, honest, upright, smart, practical men," he says. "We've got to aim for that sooner than we have in the past."
"If they're going to be good managers and good leaders, they have to be men of prayer and interior life," he said.
Vice Rector Rev. Gladstone H. Stevens says Leavitt also delivered the best homilies Stevens says he had ever heard, representing an immense amount of learning and theological acumen.
"You can tell these are born of prayer," he says. "Nobody can preach that well that's also not praying."