by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Father Steven Beseau of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas was installed as the new president and rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, last October, he thought his greatest challenge would be getting to know people.
Little did he know.
This past December and January, Father Beseau began to hear about a new illness that had broken out in China and had spread to Europe.
“With friends who are from Italy and who live in Italy,” said Father Beseau, “I was much more up-to-date with what was going on there. I knew it would come to the United States at some point, but I was still not overly concerned that it would disrupt what we were doing.”
Things changed rapidly in March.
By then, decisions were being made on the city, state and national levels to deal with a rapidly spreading worldwide pandemic. Father Beseau and his leadership team had to make decisions, too.
The seminarians had been on a retreat from March 6-11, and afterwards, were allowed to go home. Then, on March 14, they received an email to return to the Josephinum.
“It was on March 10 that I made the decision to bring all the guys back on campus in lockdown,” said Father Beseau. “We would self-quarantine as a campus. Any professors uncomfortable teaching on campus could do it remotely.
“We would move the classes to larger rooms . . . so there would be plenty of social distancing. In the [dining hall], there would be three guys to a table. We thought that would work.”
Father Beseau was at one last meeting in Florida when it became apparent that even this wasn’t going to work.
“At about 2 a.m. . . . on March 14, I woke up and realized, ‘Nope, we have to send the guys home,’” said Father Beseau.
“We thought that this virus was so contagious everyone is going to get it,” he added. “We didn’t have the capabilities here to take care of 20, 30 or 40 guys getting violently ill. And some families were nervous about having their sons so far from home.”
The “exile” was announced right after night prayer on the same day the seminarians had returned.
“Father Beseau held a rector’s conference with all of us in the main chapel,” said Douglas C. Hess, a third-year seminarian from the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. “He just laid everything out. The communication was, on our end, excellent, and much appreciated. He laid everything out on a timeline . . . and was relaying it to us, and what it meant for us.”
Seven seminarians — men from Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda — and five priests remained at the seminary. So, too, did Father Beseau.
Arrangements were made for the seminarians to continue their studies remotely. The seminary’s technology department swung into action and helped professors adapt their lessons from classroom to remote instruction.
The seminarians themselves were asked to establish a place at home for prayer and study, and to maintain a prayer schedule. Classes via the internet resumed on March 23.
The seminarians and priests at the seminary had, for the first time in decades, a full schedule of Holy Week liturgies. Normally, everyone would have been home during Holy Week and Easter.
“Father Beseau has continued to email the entire community with updates . . . with encouragements and prayers for us, keeping us connected as a community,” said Hess.
“It’s been awesome to see him maintain that leadership over the entire community, pastoral as well as administrative, doing a good job with communication, which is exactly what you want with a rector,” he added. “You want a pastoral father who is also making sure everything is flowing as smoothly as it can in this situation. He makes sure we’re connecting with our formators and spiritual directors.”
There is no instruction manual on how to run a seminary during a pandemic. Even so, the Josephinum has managed. It has a history of going through tough times and difficult transitions.
“It’s been a very challenging time,” said Father Beseau. “We have overcome that initial experience of being in a new reality. It was not so much difficult as odd.”
Oddly, the seminary is nearly empty, but he isn’t coasting.
“A rector’s [typical] day is just filled with appointments and meetings and preparation for talks,” said Father Beseau. “I just cleared my calendar — I went through my calendar and deleted almost everything for a month.
“At that point I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be great.’
“I even went to the library and checked out 10 or 15 books. I could finally read — and what a great time!”
But it was not to be. Even during a pandemic, apparently, a rector’s work is never done.
“My calendar,” he said, “had never been emptier.
“But I’ve never felt as busy!”