After 19 years at Sacred Heart, Msgr. Lajiness looks back with profound gratitude

As seminary rector prepares for new assignment July 1, he reflects on ‘tremendous blessing’ of helping students find identity in Christ

DETROIT — Blessed Solanus Casey once said gratitude “is the first sign of a rational, thinking creature.”

No one could ever accuse Msgr. Todd Lajiness — since 2012 the rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary and a member of its faculty since 2002 — of being ungrateful. Or of failing to think. 

As he prepares to depart from the place in which he’s served for 19 of his 26 years in the priesthood, Msgr. Lajiness said he’s overwhelmingly thankful for the opportunities God has given him to lead others on their journey with Christ.

“The very strong sense I have right now is gratitude,” Msgr. Lajiness told Detroit Catholic in a recent interview. “Gratitude for being assigned here, gratitude for the way in which the students, the staff, the faculty have accompanied me in my work. I think I’m a much different priest than I was 20 years ago. Thanks be to God.”

On July 1, Msgr. Lajiness will hand over the reins of the seminary to Fr. Stephen Burr, Sacred Heart’s 14th rector, as he moves to his new assignment as administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth.

After 19 year at Sacred Heart Major Seminary — first as a theology professor, director of undergraduate formation and dean of studies and later as rector from 2012-21 — Msgr. Todd Lajiness will begin his next assignment as administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth on July 1. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic) 

While he’s looking forward to returning to parish work — Msgr. Lajiness’ last full-time parish assignment was his first, as associate pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Northville from 1995-97 — he said he’ll miss being a daily part of the seminary’s Christ-centered culture of formation.

“It's been a tremendous blessing to have this kind of an assignment with the focus of forming leaders for the Church,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “This is a very particular kind of priestly work when you're involved in the accompaniment of a student as they discover God's call, as they explore how that call is taking root in their life.”

Sacred Heart educates and forms seminarians for 16 dioceses and religious communities, including the Archdiocese of Detroit. Last fall, 114 seminarians were enrolled.

During his tenure, Msgr. Lajiness oversaw record enrollment — including record-breaking lay graduation classes in 2018 and 2019 — campus expansions and improvements, new online programs and the seminary’s centennial celebration last year.

More importantly, he’s fostered a culture in which seminarians and lay leaders can thrive, growing in their relationship with Christ through their coursework, regular Eucharistic adoration, daily Mass and countless opportunities for spiritual formation.

“I am deeply grateful for these years in which Msgr. Lajiness has so generously served at the seminary,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said. “Above all, I praise his steady-handed zeal and attention to that which was at the center of all he did: creating a place where missionary hearts are formed in our future priests.”

The seminary’s goal, Msgr. Lajiness said, isn’t just to form priests to serve in the Church, but to form disciples according to the heart of Jesus Christ first and foremost. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Msgr. Lajiness’ heart is close to the seminary’s namesake — and he’s not shy to make his devotion known.

Asked to describe his formation philosophy, Msgr. Lajiness said he thinks the seminarians might laugh, “because the very first word that comes to mind is ‘heart,’” he said.

“It's a word I use probably too often — the men often joke about that — but the seminary is dedicated to the Sacred Heart,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “As we form someone, it’s not just in an emotional way or a skill-based way or an intellectual way, but we’re really forming the whole person.

“That’s the uniqueness of Catholic formation in a seminary setting. That’s the gift that has been given to us,” he added. “It’s the reason I say ‘heart,’ because it’s an integrated image for us. It’s mind, body and spirit. It’s the very core of our identity as baptized and beloved sons and daughters.”

Sacred Heart is known for its devotion to the new evangelization — the seminary was one of the first in the country to offer a licentiate program in the new evangelization in 2004 — but it’s not just a theory to Msgr. Lajiness.

Seminarians who graduate from Sacred Heart take with them unique pastoral learning experiences, from a two-month, full-immersion Spanish-language program in Mexico or Latin America to a 30-day silent retreat and summer work camps during which seminarians learn to live and serve alongside others.

Msgr. Lajiness pulls a lawnmower in a vacant lot as the seminary’s spires are visible in the background as part of Life Remodeled, a neighborhood revitalization project, in 2017. (Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic) 

The retreat follows a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome for first-year theology seminarians, during which they’re immersed in the “fifth Gospel” by prayerfully walking in the footsteps of Jesus in places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Capernaum.

“It opens their eyes and their minds to a totally different world,” Msgr. Lajiness said, “something that’s new to them, but something that’ll be really important for them in their future ministry. They begin to really, truly solidify that relationship they have with God.”

Msgr. Lajiness said any leadership position comes with its share of challenges — navigating through an unprecedented pandemic last year certainly was one — but more important than dealing with what he called “temporal” challenges are the spiritual roadbumps every community must endure, he said.

“Especially when a community is really committed to the new evangelization and to bringing the light of Christ to the world, the evil one does not like that at all,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “The evil one can really start gnawing at a community.”

It’s in those moments of spiritual discouragement that it’s critical to turn one’s whole mind and heart to the Lord, he said.

Not everyone who enters Sacred Heart as a seminarian is called to be a priest, Msgr. Lajiness said, but no matter which vocation a man discerns, it isn’t wasted time.

Seminarians chat in the courtyard in the middle of the seminary’s campus. Regardless of whether a man ultimately discerns the priesthood or another vocation, their time at Sacred Heart isn’t wasted, Msgr. Lajiness said. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic) 

“Our goal is to help a man clarify how God is calling them now,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “If a man at a certain point says, ‘You know, I think actually God is calling me to be a husband,’ then our work is successful, because to embrace a vocation is really to embrace with great joy and freedom what God wants me to be.”

Besides educating and forming seminarians, Sacred Heart also forms hundreds of lay leaders for ministry — the fruits of which Msgr. Lajiness will see firsthand in his next assignment.

Just as he’s grateful for the chance to be a spiritual father to seminarians, Msgr. Lajiness said he’s excited to walk alongside the clergy and lay leaders at Our Lady of Good Counsel — and, next year, other parishes in a newly formed “family of parishes” — to be a spiritual father to families.

“I’m really looking forward to getting my feet planted and listening and learning about the story of the parish,” he said. “I’m excited about family ministry, walking alongside and leading and accompanying families in the faith, because there are so many challenges families face today.”

As he leaves Sacred Heart, Msgr. Lajiness said he’ll miss some of the seminary’s traditions — the annual priests-seminarians basketball game, and a Christmas luncheon in which seminarians act out skits parodying the faculty and staff included.

“The students take great delight in imitating us,” Msgr. Lajiness smiled. “It’s at that moment you realize all of your little quirks.”

He’s grateful to the world-class faculty and staff for making the seminary a place where Christ is made manifest day in and day out, adding Sacred Heart will be in great hands when Fr. Burr, currently vice rector, takes over.

Msgr. Lajiness said he’ll miss being part of the seminary’s culture of formation, but he’s confident he’s leaving Sacred Heart in capable hands as Fr. Stephen Burr, the current vice rector, takes over. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“Fr. Burr is an exceptional priest, and he’s a good friend, too,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “He’s unflappable and calm, and he has so many characteristics I think lend themselves to being a good shepherd, a great leader. He’ll bring that kind of prayerfulness and trust and confidence in God to the position of rector.”

Asked to name his proudest accomplishments, Msgr. Lajiness characteristically deflects the question.

Not proud, he says, but grateful.

“Gratitude is an antidote to a cynical world,” Msgr. Lajiness said, “to a world that might be skeptical of so many things. We need to be grateful and recognize how God’s grace is working every day in our life.”

“We have to be humble before the Lord,” he added. “Humility isn’t in opposition to boldness. I think the two go hand in hand. Humility has an incredible boldness to it. There’s a strength to humility. There’s a confidence, a joy to humility, and that’s really a key part of what it means to be a priest today.”