St. John’s Seminary has been a sacred place for some 75 years, inspiring, forming and educating men who are called to serve the Church as priests of Jesus Christ. I am blessed to have spent my formation years there, and am grateful to God for that graced opportunity.
In a special way, I am grateful to the Vincentian priests who were our spiritual guides, our teachers, and our inspiration over those years.
However, in addition to the overall formation and education, I feel blessed in being introduced to two unique aspects of priestly ministry which have remained a special passion of mine over the past 52 years: an introduction to serving the poor, especially the poor migrant workers who labor in the fields and orchards of California; and a focus upon the liturgical life of the Church, and a special joy in celebrating the various Sacraments and Liturgies of the Church.
Serving the poor
Beginning in our first year of the high school Seminary, we were taught both the Spanish language and the culture of the Mexican-American peoples who lived in our midst. I recall being introduced to a love of these people by Father Charles Barr, C.M., a Vincentian priest deeply committed to these people. He not only taught us the language, but he developed within us a deep love for the people themselves. As he often remarked, “What is most important is not that a priest use precise Spanish grammar; rather, that his heart is with the people.”
This spirit obviously reflected the vision and mission of St. Vincent de Paul, the French priest who founded the Vincentian Community to serve the poor and to educate men to serve the Church as priests. While at times Father Barr’s teaching techniques seemed a bit unusual, nonetheless he instilled in me a deep longing to bring the love of Jesus Christ to these beloved people.
When I arrived at St. John’s Seminary in the fall of 1956, the one institution housed the junior and senior years of Seminary College, as well as the four years of Seminary Theology. Throughout these six years, we took Spanish and eventually specialized in Pastoral Spanish — equipping us with the knowledge and vocabulary to celebrate Mass, administer the Sacraments, and to serve the pastoral needs of the people in their own language.
We were ably served through the dedication of two wonderful priests: Monsignor Augustine “Gus” O’Dea, and Father Harold Beutler, C.M. Monsignor O’Dea, a priest of the Archdiocese, came several days a week to teach us Spanish. He was the priest in residence at Our Lady of Zapopan Mission Church on Lankershim Boulevard at the northern edge of North Hollywood. He served his Hispanic parishioners with zeal and kindness. Since our family lived in North Hollywood, I was able to visit that Church from time to time and to assist Monsignor with Sunday Mass.
Father Beutler was the Spiritual Director at St. John’s during my years there, and also taught Spanish. In addition, Father Beutler would go out to the various farm labor camps in Ventura County to celebrate Mass for the farmworkers living and working there. Because of labor shortages during World War II, the United States and Mexican governments agreed upon a guest worker program entitled the Mexican Farm Labor Program, but popularly known as the Bracero Program — Spanish for “workers.” This program, Public Law 45, lasted from 1943 to 1964.
It was obvious to us seminarians visiting the bracero camps that the men were treated unjustly in so many ways: low wages, inaccurate accounting of their hours, no worker benefits, charges each week to rent essentials such as cots, plates and cups, laundry, and so on. I recall seeing braceros with checks for six days of long and grueling hours of work that totaled $3.85.
The plight of these farmworkers awakened in me a great interest and compassion for their well-being, as well as a deep desire to correct the disregard for their human dignity and the injustices which they suffered. No seminary course could have given me this first-hand encounter with men treated so poorly, but the opportunity provided by St. John’s to visit and assist the priests ministering to these men took deep root in my life and ministry.
The plight of braceros was highlighted in a book by Ernesto Galarza entitled “Strangers In Our Fields,” published in 1956. That book fueled a national outcry against the entire Bracero Program, and would help lead to its cancellation in 1964. Indeed, many braceros around the country actually went on strike to protest the inhumane and unjust conditions. Ernesto Galarza, Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez took initiatives to organize the braceros and to publicly protest the criminal ways in which so many were being treated.
Mr. Lee G. Williams, the officer with the U.S. Department of Labor in charge of the Bracero Program stated publicly that this program was nothing more than a system of “legalized slavery.”
The Catholic Church became very deeply involved in the plight of braceros across the country, and joined forces with many organizations to work for the cancellation of the program. I was ordained a priest in 1962 just as this effort was getting underway across the country, and was able to participate in those efforts which eliminated this tragic abuse of workers from Mexico.
This concern and care for migrant workers became deeply entrenched in my desire to help them throughout my ministry, and led to my transfer to the Diocese of Monterey-Fresno where many thousands of resident and migrant workers worked.
This passion for working with the poor, with migrant workers, and today with undocumented peoples took root in my life and ministry through the dedication, compassion and service of priests at St. John’s Seminary, and gave me a life-long focus which I still live out with enthusiasm.
Love of the Church’s Liturgy
We were blessed to receive the inspired teaching of Father Charles Miller, C.M., who guided us through courses in liturgy and in homiletics over my years at St. John’s.
It was not his teaching techniques nor learning strategies which captivated me. Rather, his personal and deep love for the celebration of the Eucharist and all of the Church’s liturgies motivated me to understand the liturgy as the living action of Jesus Christ in our midst and in his Church, not simply the technical correctness of celebrating a ritual.
This special focus upon the liturgy would be given extraordinary impetus with the promulgation of the first major document from the Second Vatican Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963. Now in my second year as a priest, this document would become my personal liturgical “bible” for all the years to come.
Father Miller’s emphasis had a consistent message: The Church’s liturgy is intended to connect people with God’s generous love and mercy, and to always be an expression of prayer for all who participate. This attitude helped me prepare for Mass and the other liturgies in a prayerful manner, and celebrate liturgy with a pace which leads us closer to God in and through Jesus Christ.
As seminarians we were introduced by Father Miller and by Father Bernard DeVries, C.M., a theology professor, to some of the most famous liturgical theologians of the time, with most of their thinking and ideas becoming part of the Second Vatican Council. Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, a French Dominican theologian, opened up the broader spirituality of the liturgy in the lives of Catholics. While he did not advocate a particular renewal, his principles served to underpin the renewal of the Council.
Dom Prosper Gueranger, the abbot of Solesmes Abbey in France, wrote nine volumes of The Liturgical Year — the first in 1841 and the ninth in 1875, the year he died. Other monks completed the final six volumes following his original outlines. This commentary on the liturgical year, day by day, stands today as the singular classic work on the meaning of the liturgy in our lives each day. Although not required to read the volumes, we were encouraged to become aware of early liturgical renewal through Gueranger’s works.
Another new scholar for us was Father Romano Guardini, the author of “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” issued during the First World War. It is likely that this work did more to prepare the Council Fathers for a new liturgical renewal in the Church than anything else. The name Guardini was synonymous with a new and forward thinking about the role of liturgy in the Church. Pope Paul VI so esteemed Guardini that he offered to create him a Cardinal in the Church; Guardini declined.
I am not aware of any seminary in the country which helped prepare us for the coming liturgical renewal for the Church. St. John’s stood alone.
While not articulated in the same language as the final version of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the following principles became increasingly evident through the efforts of our professors:
—The Church’s Liturgy was about to take on a more vital and central role in the lives of all Catholics.
—The full and active participation of everyone in the Liturgy would become a norm; the Liturgy would no longer be a pious backdrop for people to pray the Rosary or their other devotions.
—Sacred Scripture would assume a broader role in the Liturgy, with a fuller offering from the Bible during the year.
—The homily would continue to become fully integrated into the Liturgy, so that God’s Word proclaimed would become the basis for the homily.
—A renewed emphasis upon the Church’s “common prayer,” or prayer of the faithful, would be encouraged.
—As seminarians, we all served the individual and private Masses of the priests on the faculty. These were private celebrations, devoid of any participation. Signs were already pointing to the renewal of concelebration of the Eucharist.
—A renewed emphasis upon consecrating the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at each Mass for those participating in that Mass was foreseen as the preferred method, rather than constant trips to the tabernacle for previously consecrated hosts.
—Hints of allowing Communion under Both Kinds were beginning to emerge.
There was great excitement among us seminarians as we looked forward with eagerness to the full renewal of the Church’s Liturgy. Father Miller and Father DeVries were both instrumental in steering us in this new direction.
For Father Miller, the signs and symbols of the liturgy needed to inspire and to be clear. When the rite called for sprinkling the people with holy water, he made sure we understood that this did not simply mean tossing a few drops of water here and there. No, it meant sprinkling as many people as possible with this sign of their own Baptism. The use of incense, genuine beeswax candles, worthy vestments, sound music and hymns, good lighting and sound — all these elements needed to form a liturgical all-embracing prayer experience.
We were probably better prepared than seminarians from any other seminary in the country to receive, implement and celebrate all called for in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
My life and ministry as a priest of Jesus Christ has been built upon a sound, firm and visionary formation and education at St. John’s Seminary. For this I am deeply grateful, and I pray that through the continuing intercession of St. John the Evangelist future generations of priests may be similarly blessed.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, graduated from St. John’s Seminary College in 1958 and was ordained from the Seminary Theologate in 1962. He served as auxiliary bishop of Fresno (1975-80), bishop of Stockton (1980-85) and archbishop of Los Angeles (1985-2011), and was created cardinal in 1991.