Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Pontifical College Josephinum

Columbus, Ohio, USA

November 10, 2010

This essay, Pontifical College Josephinum, is the companion piece to A Shortage Of Monks.

I am indebted to Reverend Monsignor William Cleves and to Deacon Joaquin and to Tracy Becker and to Father Shawn McKnight and to Father Avram Brown and to Deacon Farley and to Father Jarrod Lies and to Jesus M Garza II and to the staff and to the seminarians and to the alumni of the Pontifical College Josephinum who inspired this conversation.

Pontifical College Josephinum - Columbus, Ohio, USA - New window opens if not already open
Pontifical College Josephinum

It's as true to say "I discovered this place" as it is to say "This place called me  to it.". Or perhaps the latter is truer.

One of the benefits of my career leading technical seminars is I've really seen  these United States. I've traveled to all but eight of the fifty states on assignments. The days are pretty intense. I'm on my feet eight hours a day for up to five days straight either verbally presenting material, or working hands on  demonstrating how it's deployed in computer operations. In the evenings after work, I get into my rental car, look at the local map to see where there are fewest  roads, then head in that  direction. Away from the freeways, off the beaten track is where you really discover real  America.

And so it was one evening during a winter snow storm in Columbus Ohio when it started getting dark and I looked around for a place with some local flair where I could eat. Intently watching the road ahead, willing  the snow to clear (driving in snow isn't something I enjoy nor have a lot of experience with), I first saw it in my wing mirror as I negotiated a lane change. I saw its tower bathed in light ... and then it was gone, obscured by a passing truck. Clearly it wasn't a church's steeple. It was too robust to be a steeple. It was almost gothic. It wasn't so much that it seemed out of place  in this middle American  village. It's that whatever it was commanded  attention.

What's that?  I wondered. What ... was ... that?

As soon as I could, I turned in its direction, driving to where I estimated it must be - I could no longer see it, and neither the softly falling snow nor the now dark night was helping me any.

Suddenly there it was again - in front of me, the focus of my attention. Now I could see the tower was one of many hewed stone buildings on a huge forested campus. It occurred to me it looked like a medieval monastery, dark and foreboding and yet at the same time beckoning  and warm. I find a gate, slowly drive through it towards a massive wooden front door set in a stone arch, park and walk up to it. The sense of expectation is palpable. I have  to know what this place is. I just have to ...

There's a doorbell. I ring it. I hold my breath.


A man with an open face and an intent yet welcoming stare, wearing a black robe which almost touches the floor, escorts me in. He introduces himself (appropriately, as it turns out) as Jesus  which he pronounces "Hay-zooz  ... but you can call me Jessie.".

Named after its founder Monsignor Joseph Jessing nearly one hundred and ten years ago, the Pontifical College Josephinum  as Jessie tells me it's known, is the only seminary in the world outside the Vatican which is immediately subject to the Holy See (the Pope, the pontiff) to prepare Roman Catholic priests. That's why it's the pontif-ical college.

We're in a vast entrance hall exquistely paneled in dark wood, furnished sparsely yet richly with antique furniture. Displayed on the walls are rows and rows and rows of carefully framed photographs of the men who have prepared for the priesthood here and who are now its alumni. It takes me a while, as I slowly walk along the rows, taking in each face, to get  what they all have in common: they're radiant, they're glowing. The next thing I notice is their extraordinary mode of clothing. These men clearly aren't "suits"  working in a government bureaucracy.

I'm usually not a dress up  guy. I'm most comfortable in a casual long sleeved cotton shirt, Levis, and my favorite pair of Chinese artisan  steel toed boots. To be sure, I clean up pretty good when it's appropriate. I can wear Ferragamos  well, and I appreciate haute couture. Still, I'm not big on fashion. That said, what these priests are adorned with is simply gorgeous. Scarlet sashes, robes, capes, and occasionally skull caps of linen and satin of the most subtle yet vivid, brilliant  hues give life to the phrase "men of the cloth". They also explain why, if a priest is decomissioned and his vestments  are taken away, he is said to be de-frocked. These photographs show men young, old, tall, short, chubby, skinny, of all races. What moves me is what brings each of them here: their calling to serve God.

My reverie  is interrupted by Jessie asking if I would like him to take me on a tour of the college and its cloisters and chapels. Would  I? I thought he would never ask.

Hallowed Halls

Over the years I've returned here many times. This isn't an open doored  museum you can simply approach, buy an admission ticket for, and come in and look around. I've maintained relationships with the seminarians here who've kindly allowed me to visit when I'm in town. When my connections have graduated and moved on to pastures anew  (if I may say it that way), they've introduced me to new seminarians who'll host me next time.

Some places you visit are places you just walk through and look around, almost like watching a movie. While captivating, it's superficial and temporary. The Pontifical College Josephinum isn't like that. When you visit this place, you're in the middle of something about to happen. You're aware there's something going on here, something profound. Being here is an immersion  into something, rather than a view of something.

This is my sense as I walk around. Each building on the campus is interconnected by a series of corridors. The corridors, mostly empty except when classes and services are over, are pleasantly heated against the winter cold. Through windows I can see the snow storm outside. I have a sense of being cozy and protected in here. There's another interesting feature: the corridors are unlit, dark until silent movement sensing switches turn the lights on as we walk through.

A special temperature controlled room stores a collection of priceless antique bibles. Seminarians whose work entails studying them are required to wear gloves to prevent skin oil and perspiration from touching their ancient paper thereby accelerating their decomposition and demise.

The cloisters within the complex are paved or grassed from stone wall to stone wall. Some of them have simple fountains. Others have statues of, I assume, Father Joseph Jessing and other founding faculty. Many if not all have plain benches, elemental places to sit and contemplate, to meditate, to inquire, to pray.

I'm shown to the priests' quarters: comfortable yet spare. They each have a bed, a closet, a desk, and shelves for books and study materials. These are places of learning, reflection, and rest. What they facilitate is managing basic physical comforts in support of the seminarians' intentions to transform themselves from lay  people into priests. This course, this path  isn't easy. It's designed to filter out those who don't have the right stuff. It will ordain those who do.


It's a privilege to be invited to attend vespers, the evening service.

A deacon escorts me to the chapel. He asks me if I would like to meet the Monsignor, which I do. We walk up the stairs just as he's entering the chapel to lead the service, so I don't get the chance to meet him and to thank him in person. Later I contact him by e-mail. A generous exchange ensues.

The walls are punctuated with stained glass windows. Towering vaulted ceilings draw your experience upwards, an architectural feature of most houses of prayer which supports the intention, which forwards the action  - in other words, which works. Light from spotlights and candles has been perfectly aimed and placed. There's an exactness  here, an immaculateness, an impeccability I can relate to. There are texts written on the walls in a language I don't recognize, and in a script  I don't recognize. I guess the language could be Latin? Could the script be Hebrew? 

The service is marvelous. There's a long duration of silent prayer at the start. I calculate it's close to a half hour although I don't wear a watch. It's very deep and profound and powerful. When it ends, the service proper begins. Some of it is in English. Some of it is responsive reading. There's some chanting  which, when in English and I understand what's being said, is transportive. But even when it's not  in English and I don't  understand what's being said, it's still  transportive. It's the sound  of the chanting rather than its meaning  which touches a place in me beyond any specific language. It occurs to me it's similar to other chanting I've heard in other religious orders, the Tibetan Buddhist order, for example. There's something profoundly similar  about what the chanting brings out for me in both orders.

I'm moved by the way the Monsignor, a big  man, leads the service. He gets down on one knee a lot, just as people entering and leaving the chapel get down on one knee. It's says devotion, respect, and adoration. But it's more than that actually. Although it doesn't happen when I'm here, I've seen photographs of the service when the priests are ordained which show them laying fully stretched out face down on the ground, a full prone position which speaks total  surrender.

It's very pious and deeply reverent. And again I notice it's mostly joyful. You can go to church to atone, to be absolved, to be forgiven. Certainly that's going on here also. But the overriding sense I get from the people here is they're happy  to be here. This is where they want  to be. In fact this is the only  place they want to be - at least for now, until they go out into the world to serve their communities. The passion and commitment is palpable. It's inspiring to be around.

Peace. Be Still.

The drive away from here back to my hotel is inevitably a peaceful, still, quiet affair. You don't see every day what I've been invited to witness here. You may see the results  of it in churches on Sundays. But you don't often see the melding  of it. You don't often get inside the forge  in which it's shaped. You don't often get to witness the process.

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