It’s been six weeks since the installation Mass marking Msgr. Ross Shecterle’s succession of Sacred Heart Fr. Jan de Jong as president-rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology (SHST), where priesthood candidates for the Milwaukee Archdiocese and other seminarians study for the priesthood.
In an Oct. 3 joint interview with your Catholic Herald at SHST in Franklin, the former and current rectors assessed the change in command.
“The transition has gone marvelously,” offered Fr. de Jong, who retired after four and a half years as president-rector at age 74. “I’m excited about the future.”
“It was extraordinarily easy,” said Msgr. Shecterle, 52, citing Fr. de Jong’s ongoing accessibility for consultation and the “extraordinarily competent and very gifted staff and faculty” Fr. de Jong left behind. The archdiocesan priest noted that his approach to leadership will be collegial.
Owned by the Priests of the Sacred Heart, whose SCJ initials abbreviate the Latin words for Sacred Heart of Jesus, SHST is an 80-year-old institution. The physical plant dates to 1968, a year before Fr. de Jong joined the faculty. Msgr. Schecterle is the first non-Sacred Heart priest to lead the seminary. While not a unique situation – Msgr. Shecterle cited a similar circumstance involving a seminary in Oregon – it is unusual for a religious order’s seminary to be led by a priest from outside that community.
“To turn a major apostolate over to a non-SCJ” is a significant occurrence, Fr. de Jong reflected.
“I’m really humbled and grateful of that trust the Priests of the Sacred Heart have given me,” Msgr. Shecterle said.
In a column in a recent SHST alumni newsletter, he expressed “a strong desire to hold up the SCJ charism at the seminary” and noted that Sacred Heart Fr. Byron Haaland had been appointed vice president for mission and entrusted “to ensure we infuse all we do with SCJ spirituality.”
The SCJ charism embraces commitment to the Eucharist and social justice, as well as a pastoral approach to church leadership. The SCJ charism is “very congenial” to diocesan priesthood, according to Fr. de Jong, and the social justice aspect is particularly popular with bishops who send seminarians to SHST, one of the country’s few seminaries specializing in educating candidates pursuing the priesthood as a second career.
Including Milwaukee – whose seminarians’ spiritual formation takes place at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis – nearly 30 dioceses send students for the priesthood to SHST, as do a handful of religious orders.There are academic programs for non-seminarians as well, bring SHST’s enrollment to approximately 150.
The age variance among students and the professional backgrounds – business experiences, etc. – they bring to SHST are appreciable strengths for the seminarian, according to Fr. de Jong. The outgoing rector also mentioned the caring atmosphere that he finds prevalent at SHST.
“I love the school,” he said.
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Msgr. Shecterle, who became acquainted with numerous bishops during stints at other seminaries, said that encouraging more bishops to send seminarians to SHST is high on his to-do list. He has been working with colleagues,, including vice rector Fr. Thomas Knoebel and communications director Jonathan Drayna.
Msgr. Shecterle and Fr. Knoebel, a fellow archdiocesan priest, recently spread the word about SHST at the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors in Oakland, Calif.
The monsignor, who was assigned to vocation ministry early in his priesthood, said that a sizable number of diocesan vocation directors were his students at one seminary or another. Besides Saint Francis de Sales, where he served as professor, dean and vice rector, Msgr. Shecterle was involved in seminary work while a priest-graduate student in Baltimore; was director of counseling services at the Pontifical North American College and professor of pastoral psychology at the Angelicum, both in Rome; and was rector of the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium, for four years until it closed in June due to financial and staffing concerns and a dwindling number of students.
“It is important for us to be intentional about forming men that are holy, zealous, human and happy priests,” Msgr. Shecterle said in discussing his “primary goal.” Fr. de Jong expressed similar sentiments.
The monsignor added that SHST needs to be “helping men learn to really be holy, to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.” Seminarians, he said, “have to recognize it’s not about them. It’s about their role and responsibility as priests for others.”
A licensed psychotherapist with a doctorate in pastoral counseling, Msgr. Shecterle noted that his pre-Louvain “experience was all about human formation.” He indicated that the Belgian rector’s post introduced him to fundraising and enabled him to gain administrative (“hiring, firing, recruiting”) proficiency, as well as clarifying for him the position of the seminary in relation to the larger church.
He called the Louvain seminary, “a holy, faithful place,” and said that its closing was difficult to experience, personally and spiritually.
Then again, the monsignor’s favorite Biblical quote expresses words attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the Cana wedding feast: “‘Do whatever he tells you.’”
In response to this admonition, Msgr. Shecterle suggested people should regularly ask the Lord where he wants them to go and what he wants them to do.
“God will answer us as we’re engaging in the world,” he said.