By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
Forming young shepherds for the Catholic Church is something Father James Swift has been doing for the better part of his 36 years as a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, otherwise known as the Vincentians.
“I love being a priest and I love doing seminary work,” Father Swift said. “It’s just that simple.”
Still, accepting an offer from Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell to become the next rector of Holy Trinity Seminary on June 1 wasn’t quite as simple.
The oldest of three children, a native of Wichita, Kan., and faithful servant of the Archdiocese of St. Louis for over three decades, Father Swift said moving to Dallas was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. But after Msgr. Michael Olson, the seminary’s previous rector, was installed as bishop for the Diocese of Fort Worth last January, Holy Trinity was left with a significant vacancy at a time when its student body had become its largest in years.
“Father Swift was sought after by many other dioceses in the country and by many seminaries,” said Bishop Farrell, who began the ultimately successful task of convincing Father Swift he was the right man for the job. “He’s a man who has over 30 years of experience in dealing with young seminarians and teaching them. He is just a wonderful asset.”
Seven years ago, Holy Trinity Seminary was home to just 23 students. Today, the seminary is nearing its capacity with 75 students from 15 dioceses across the country.
Next year, Holy Trinity will turn 50, and the seminary’s facilities have begun to show their age. Over the last two summers, major renovations included the installation of a new air conditioning system and irrigation system, as well as repair of the seminary’s sewer lines — at a cost of over $1 million. Next summer, administrators hope to replace the seminary’s exterior windows, clean its façade, replace its guttering system and make structural repairs to the building’s columns. Estimates stand between $1 and $2 million for those upgrades.
“That’s all part of what goes into a seminary program, and of course with that comes the ever-present challenge of money,” Father Swift said. “We need to raise the kind of money we need to keep the place going so we can give the church the kinds of priests that it needs.”
That need is growing rapidly, something Father Swift said he immediately noticed about some of the area’s parishes.
“I was shocked to see parishes with 3,000 or so families and only one or two priests,” Father Swift said. “I’m getting used to wrapping my mind around that and how fast the Catholic population is growing here in Dallas and next door in Fort Worth. You put the two together and you have over 2 million Catholics.”
Ordained in 1978, Father Swift has since filled a number of roles, including seminary professor, spiritual director, administrator, and provincial superior of his order’s Western Province.
During Saint John Paul II’s very brief visit to St. Louis in 1999, Father Swift was named to the Papal Visitation Committee and put in charge of organizing the papal Mass at the Trans World Dome.
But for him, nothing compares to seminary work.
“St. Vincent de Paul, who founded the Vincentians, once said something along the lines that there is no greater work in the church than the forming of priests,” Father Swift said. “But then on another occasion he said that almost all the ills of the Catholic Church can be attributed to the priesthood — the lack of good priests. That’s a real motivator for me. We want to give the church the very best priests we can possibly give her.”
To that end, Father Swift said he was impressed at the caliber of students coming through Holy Trinity Seminary, which partners with the University of Dallas in the education of seminarians.
“It’s a small college seminary, but it’s a powerhouse,” Father Swift said. “The strengths of this place are, first of all, the people. I’ve been around college seminarians before. This is an outstanding group of college seminarians and they give you life every day.”
But, for Father Swift, academics and the intellectual life are only part of the equation when it comes to forming men into good priests.
“When a priest knows he is loved unconditionally by God and knows who he is standing before the Father as a truly beloved son of the Father, it gives him an enormous amount of personal interior freedom, including the freedom to give himself over entirely to the church,” Father Swift said. “His ministry becomes joyful. That, to me, would be a great gift to the church.”