A Summer Visit to the Seminary

This time of year, you and your son may be thinking about making a visit to a seminary.  He may be accepted for the fall term or still thinking about it.  After so much talk and talk about what seminary would be like, my son and I went for a visit in late June prior to his entrance in the fall.   I did not want to see the place for the first time when he was moving in.   I think I needed to take some of the mystery away so I could envision his life there.

We went in the summer to get a first look and had a very nice guy entering 4th college show us around and answer questions about seminary life.   It was good to visit during the summer because we were able to tour all areas of the seminary.  If school had been in session, our tour would have been more limited as some areas were off limits for the privacy of the seminarians.

Our tour guide introduced us to everyone from the cafeteria ladies to the dean.  Everyone was happy to meet my son and welcome new men 2welcome him.  Our guide would introduce him as one of the “new men”.   I was not accustom to hearing my 18 year old son called a “man”.  But I have come to see that if you call them men and expect them to act like men, they will respond.  I can guarantee you that at the tour for the state university, male students were never referred to as new men, but incoming freshman.  The cultural expectations of a freshman in a traditional college are a far cry from the expectations of the new men in the seminary.

If you want to visit the seminary, call ahead and make arrangements.  It was great to have another seminarian give us a tour and answer our many questions.  He was candid and provided lots of little details and suggestions from bringing a fan and an extra lamp to how the refrigerator in the common room was shared.  He told us about the opportunities for intramural basketball and other sports when we stopped at the gym.  Since it was just the 3 of us, we could stop and ask questions when we had them.  I am sure my son was rolling his eyes at my practical and possibly “politically incorrect” questions, but the answers put my mind at ease.

If the seminary has an open house or orientation day, you may have the opportunity to meet faculty, administrators and other seminarians.   During an orientation day in August, we were welcomed by seminarians and faculty at an informal coffee and donuts session.   Then, we went on another tour with other parents and new seminarians.   I was impressed with the other seminarians there to assist in welcoming the new guys.  They were friendly, outgoing, joking around, joyful, sincere, helpful, kind and empathetic.  I know it sounds like boy scouts, but they really seemed like great guys.  Some were in “clerics” and others in t-shirts and shorts looking like they were going to play basketball after they finished giving the tour.  This may not have been what the seminary wanted our tour guide to wear, but it made him seem more real, approachable and a regular guy.  He was easy going, encouraged questions and answered candidly.  There were no taboo topics or questions.  Some parents on our tour asked him questions on the side.

By the end of both of these visits to the seminary, I felt much more comfortable seeing and experiencing the seminary environment.  Sure there were a few tears when we said good bye, but I did that when we took the older siblings to college.   Taking them to a state university, I worried they would not get to mass on Sundays.  In this case, I knew this son would be at mass 7 days per week.  One less thing  to worry about.

Discernment: How long is this going to take?

I don’t know how many times I have heard the word “discern ” or “discernment” in the last 2 years. Even so, this word still has a vaguely mysterious quality.  It seems that it requires a certain amount of openness and getting  comfortable with some level of woman-watching-hourglassuncertainty.  As a parent, I don’t like uncertainty.  I get it, but I don’t like it.  You may be thinking, “When will he know for sure? How long is this going to take?”

How long…. is a relative question.  Discerning a vocation is not like deciding between going to one college vs another. That kind of decision weighs pros and cons and evaluates data like student/faculty ratios and graduation rates. Discernment is completely different. It is not a once and done decision.  I was surprised to learn that the individual discerns one year at a time in collaboration with his Spiritual Director and Vocation Director.  Discernment is taken one step at a time with input from experienced mentors who want your son to make the decision which is right for him.

Michael Bollinger is a college seminarian at St Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.  Below is a portion of a blog post on the seminary website on the reality of a “timetable” for discernment..

Easily the most misunderstood thing about seminarians is why we are at the seminary. More times than not, when a Catholic comes up and talks to me, knowing that I’m a seminarian, he or she speaks as if I’m undoubtedly going to be a priest.

However, the reality is that guys go into the seminary precisely because they don’t know if God wants them to be a priest or not. They’re at the seminary to figure that out. I first learned that the hard way when I first entered seminary this past fall.

It was a Friday night, and I went out to dinner with four or five older guys (seniors in the college seminary) and as the conversation got going, I asked each of them if they “knew” that God was calling them to the priesthood (expecting a resounding “yes”). To my surprise and embarrassment, as they went around the table answering the question, the answers were a repeated “no”.

The fact is, I had the perception of most people—I figured guys that had been in the seminary for two, three, or four years had a fairly firm understanding of God calling them to be priests. But that’s just not the case.

Click here to continue reading the full article St Charles Seminary blog: Wait, We’re Discerning?

wasting timeIt is understandable for a parent to want some kind of assurance or timetable on their son’s discernment path.   Whatever your age, it seems the older you get, the faster time goes.  We may see time passing quickly.  Is the time in seminary going to be wasted?

Consider this: your son will probably live well into his 90’s or longer without any serious illness or injury.  Taking a few years in seminary to determine if he has a religious vocation is not a long time considering it will provide an opportunity to develop virtue, self-discipline, a deeper knowledge of the faith and a strong prayer life.  Which one of these things do you not want for your son?  These are all benefits for men who have spent time in seminary and discerned out to discover their true vocation.

Please know that the contributing authors of this blog pray for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.

How to Discern: For Young and Old Alike

Discernment can seem almost like a foreign word at first.  It is not a term you hear everyday.   As parents, you probably have heard this word thrown around quite a bit.  What exactly is discernment?   How is my son going to know if he has a vocation to the priesthood?

How to Discern  is a  7:30 video by Fr. Mike Schmitz, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in Duluth Minnesota.   Fr.Mike provides some basic truths to keep in mind when discerning what is God’s will for you.   Then he describes 3 simple practices to follow  in order to “never miss God’s call for your life.”

These are simply good spiritual practices for anyone.  So although this video is focused on discerning a vocation (married, single or religious), I can see these practices being a useful tool for anyone who is trying to know what God’s will is in any given situation of life.  So if you are a younger person discerning God’s will for your life or a more “mature” person trying to decide how to spend your retirement years, these practices can be used to bring God into any decision throughout your life.

If you would like to hear more from Fr Mike Schmitz, look for him on You tube as well as the University of Minnesota at Duluth Newman Center website where he posts homilies at www.bulldogcatholic.org

5 Myths and Facts about Discernment or Isn’t there a book about this somewhere?

When my son first told me he thought God was calling him to be a priest, I had no real family meetingunderstanding of the discernment process.   Being a cradle catholic, I was surprised to realize that all of my questions and concerns were based on misunderstandings, false information or myths.  Within 2 weeks of my son’s announcement, I found a book that answered all my questions and some I had not thought of yet:  “To Save a Thousand Souls” by Fr. Brett Brannen. Although the book is written for the young man discerning, I found it gave me accurate information, interesting anecdotes and a better understanding of the discernment process. Here is how Amazon.com describes it:

In what has been hailed as “a groundbreaking work” Fr. Brett Brannen compiles all the wisdom of a master VSave a thousand soulsocation Director into one volume. Using powerful and entertaining stories, the book explains in down-to-earth language how to discern a vocation to diocesan priesthood.

The book has received universal praise from bishops and vocation directors: “Fr. Brannen’s book is tremendous—inspirational, imminently practical, and amazingly comprehensive. It is a clearly written ‘how to’ manual filled with solid advice for men discerning the priesthood. A marvelous work of immense value.” – Fr. Len Plazewski, President, National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors

Fr. Brannen has since published another very good book to specifically address the concerns and questions of parents, “A Priest in the Family”.  Here is a description:

“A Priest in the Family is a comprehensive resource for the parents …. thoughtfully addressingPriest in Family common questions and concerns about seminary, celibacy, and the life of a priest. Whether you’re uneasy or elated about your son’s interest in the priesthood, this book is for you.”


Like his previous book, To Save a Thousand Souls, Fr. Brannen’s new book for parents is filled with humor, anecdotes, and dramatic stories from his own life as a priest. In twelve short, easy-to-read chapters, he explains priesthood, seminary, celibacy, and how a man discerns his vocation—all while keeping in mind parents’ legitimate concerns.

Readers have praised A Priest in the Family as an entertaining read that manages to allay parents’ fears and show them how to support their son, while offering a few laughs and a dose of inspiration along the way.

If you are struggling to understand what is going on with your son or have some questions that are just too embarrassing to ask,  I urge you to open up a new window in your browser and go to  vianneyvocations.com  and order one or both of these books today.  Until you can read these books for yourself, here is a brief summary of what I learned:

 5 Things I Learned about the Discernment Process:

Once you enter seminary, you are pretty sure that you will become a priest.
Discernment is a long, gradual process that is ongoing. Many people are involved with helping an individual during the discernment process: spiritual director, vocation director, seminary faculty and others.

Once you enter seminary, you are expected to go all the way through to ordination. Leaving seminary is a failure, shameful and humiliating. Everyone will be disappointed if you leave.
“Discerning out” of seminary is actually a good thing. A few rough weeks in seminary is not a reason to discern out. The decision to “discern out” is made in conjunction with the Spiritual Director, Vocation Director and others involved in his discernment process. It means the man has determined that priesthood is not his true vocation. For the rest of his life, he will not need to wonder if he should have been a priest. This is not considered a failure or an embarrassment. Others at the seminary are actually happy for the man to be able to pursue his true vocation. Guys do not sneak out in the middle of the night. The seminary community, faculty and peers wish him well. The time spent in seminary is not wasted. The growth and maturity in his faith can only be a benefit to a young man as a future husband or single man.

You are too young to go into college seminary right out of high school.
The Father calls men at many different ages and at different times in their life. If your son feels called, he should take the time to discern if this is his vocation.  There are significant advantages in going to college seminary right out of high school that are outlined in the book for parents by Fr Brannen.  A post on this website also addresses this: Advantages of Going to Seminary

You need to go to college, date more and live in the “real world” before you go to seminary.
If your son is feeling called now, it is best to discern now rather than try to put it on the back burner or push it away. Going to seminary is not leaving the “real world.”   Seminarians do have a more structured, healthy environment than a typical college. This environment allows more opportunity to focus on courses, strengthen their prayer life, increase knowledge of the faith and self-discipline. These are all good things for any young man to learn. Seminarians still hang out with friends, go to movies and parties, work summer jobs, drink beer and play sports. Finding the” right girl” is not a “remedy” for discerning a priestly vocation.

You should go to college and get a degree first. Then you can go to seminary if you still want to.   If this priest thing doesn’t work out, you’ll have something to fall back on.

Priesthood is a vocation that God has designed for the individual  where he will find the most happiness in his life. It is not something that “works out.”  He will find he either has a priestly vocation or he doesn’t. You can’t put discernment on hold for 4 years just so he can have something to “fall back on”.

Forest road. Landscape for backgroundAlthough this post is all about getting factual information, please do not let gathering data be your only method of understanding. As a parent, you will never be able to understand this with only your head.  You must take your concerns and questions of the heart to prayer consistently until you find some peace which the Father will give you.  Please know that the contributing authors of this blog pray for all parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.

How long does it take to become a priest? Part 2 or How does the average high school graduate adapt to academic life in the seminary?

When we first learned that the undergraduate degree at college seminary is Philosophy, I was surprised. Educationally, I understand the need for an in depth knowledge of philosophy as a framework to build the graduate Theology coursework.Guy with books But my first reaction was “Philosophy? Really?” It sounded like a very tough course of study. I knew this kind of degree would require an enormous amount of reading and writing as well as being able to express your thoughts cogently in discussions by having an in depth grasp of the subject. Would he be able to handle it?

I must digress here to tell you a little about my son’s academic history.

My son has never been what I would call a “scholar”. Since grade school, he was the one who would “forget” that he had homework, or “forget” it at home, or “forget” to turn it in. This was a constant battle all through grade school and even high school. We like to joke that as soon as he learned there was no math in being a priest, then he was all for it.

My husband and I are voracious readers. Our children have grown up with books and magazines in every room of the house. Truly, from infancy we were reading to them. We had vinyl books for the bathtub and the touch and feel books like “Pat the Bunny.” As they grew up, we would snuggle up on the couch after bath time in pajamas to read from the Little House book series. Our other 2 children developed a habit of reading for pleasure and had no difficulty keeping up with reading in college. Somehow, this son never learned to read for pleasure.

Many times as he was growing up, I would take him to the bookstore to find something, anything, that would spark an interest in reading. I tried every book series from “The Magic Tree House” books to Harry Potter. Nothing worked.

So imagine my surprise to hear that the next 8 years of his life would be filled with reading. Not novels or interesting case studies, but philosophy and theology books. Many of these seminal works have been written hundreds if not thousands of years ago. At this point, my son was just starting his senior year in high school and I did not know how his new focus on attending seminary would impact his school work.

In his final year of high school, he did his homework without reminder, worked on long term projects and brought home mostly A’s and a few B’s including an A in Latin. He would complain if a course was boring because it was so easy. This was a complete reversal in behavior and attitude. It seems that once my son knew what he wanted to do, he developed more focus and a reason to strive to do well in his classes.

Once he started at the seminary, he would come home on his monthly weekend off campus ready to quiz us on concepts in Theology and Philosophy. This was a new experience to see our son so interested in a subject that he would talk about it outside of school.

As any parent knows, motivation and desire can only get a student so far. Clearly, the environment in college seminary is a contributing factor to academic success. In contrast to the state university where my son  would have attended, seminary actually had a “curfew” 7 days per week, no visitors in the dorms, and a strict zero tolerance policy on drugs or alcohol.

Although there are plenty of diversions and recreation available on campus, seminarians are not overwhelmed with 100’s of options to divide their time on any given day. School days are structured and predictable to allow for sleep, mass, prayer, class, study hours, recreation and just hanging out. Weekends even have structure with free time from after morning prayer and mass in the morning until curfew. On weekends, students can leave campus to shop, go to a movie, visit friends or go out to eat. The curfew is reasonable and is what I probably would impose if my son was living at home and going to a local college.

The freshman class had 12 students and the entire college seminary had less than 50 students. This means that if you cut class, oversleep and miss morning prayer or mass, it will be noticed and addressed. You can’t fly under the radar in seminary. Class sizes are small so the faculty actually get to know the students. Most freshmen are taking the same classes so it is common to study together and help someone who is struggling. Obviously, this is worlds away from the state university with 27,000 students on campus.

Based on my experience, I can say that an average high school student can adapt to the academic rigors of college seminary with the right motivation and attitude with environmental structure and support.

How long does it take to become a priest? Part 1

Mundelein Seminary in Chicago has posted a video on the academic steps to become a priest: from College Seminary or Pre-Theology to Major Seminary to Transitional Diaconate to Ordination.   This is a very clear explanation of the process.

Being an Educator for 25 years, I was very interested in reviewing the coursework my son would take as part of the intellectual formation in seminary.

After  reviewing the curriculum, I was struck by how well educated our priests are through this process. I always knew priests had a graduate (Masters) degree, but the course work seems longer and more in depth than most Master’s degrees.   Most full time graduate programs such as an MBA, MHA, MSW, MSN are only 2 years beyond a bachelor’s degree.

Typically, a priest graduates with a Masters in Divinity degree.  Some students also take course work to earn an additional graduate degree in Theology.  It is not uncommon for a priest to be sent for further education to earn a degree in Canon Law or a doctorate by his bishop.

When learning about the academic road to priesthood, some people have commented that it seems like a long time to go to school “just to be a priest.”  Others have expressed dismay that it would take so long with an air of “is it really worth it?”  In my experience, these people identify as Protestant or Evangelical where bible college, mission trips and service projects may be the extent of the formation process.

Other well respected career options can take as long or longer than priestly formation. The road to become a doctor is 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school and then at least 2 years or more to complete a clinical Residency. A Surgical Residency is at least 6 years!  That’s a total of at least 14 years without further specialization.  Lawyers spend 4 years in college and 3 years in law school. No one seems to mind how long it takes to be a doctor or a lawyer. Scientists, college professors and others spend many more years doing research to earn a PhD.  The length of academic preparation for these careers is respected for its perseverance and advanced knowledge. These careers are attained through mainly intellectual “formation” and skill application.

For seminarians, intellectual formation is only one of the four pillars of formation.  The road to priesthood also requires the development of  personal maturity, knowledge and skills in the spiritual, pastoral and human pillars of formation.  Progress in these 3 pillars tends to develop slowly as behavior, judgement and skills become integrated into one’s personality. The 6 – 8 years required for priestly formation is a growth process that is far more than learning an advanced level of content and skill application. It is a highly structured program of comprehensive development of the entire person. The bar is set high for our future priests  which is no less than what the people of God deserve.

I will post Part 2 soon on how an average high school student adapted to the rigors of academic life in the seminary.

This is just a phase… or… I don’t want another trumpet in the attic.

As a parent, how do you know if your son’s  interest in discerning a vocation is the real thing or is it just a phase?  When he is  young, it is  hard for a parent to believe this could be for real.  I always thought this kind of decision took years of struggle.  How could this happen so fast and still be real?   Is this just a whim?  An idealized fantasy?  Is this going to be like the trumpet lessons that he was so desperate for and then lost interest within a few months?  Here is a little bit of my son’s story and how I came to understand that this was a serious desire and not just a phase.

When my son first told me he thought God was calling him to the priesthood, he was  17 years old and finishing Junior year. About 3 months before this, he attended a Kairos retreat held by his catholic high school.  When he returned, I knew something was different by his attitude and behavior.

Within the first week after the retreat, the group decided to all go to 7 am mass every day before school.   Now, any catholic mother would be pleased to see a teenager do this.  For my son, something else made it significant.

Prior to this, I could hardly get him out of bed to get to school.  Normally, we had to leave home by 7 am to get to school by 740.  It was common for me to check on him at 630 am…still in bed, 645 am… still in bed.  “I’m up , I’m up”…  then still find him in bed at 7 am.

Going to 7 am mass meant that he would need to get up at least an hour earlier to get to school.   Since I was driving him, getting to school by 7 am meant that he had to be ready to leave the house by 615 am.  It was significant to see him up and ready to leave at 615 am and worried if I would make him late.

This change in behavior was surprising to me, based on his love of sleeping.  But I still thought, “This is  great!   But I know my son, how long can this possibly last?  This is a phase.”  On the weekends, my son could sleep in as late as noon or 1 pm if I was not home to get him up.   By the first weekend, I was surprised to hear that he was planning to go to morning mass on Saturday and meet some of the Kairos kids there.  That gave me pause, but I still thought,  “This is a phase.  I’m glad he is doing this, but I don’t see this lasting for any length of time.”

As the weeks wore on, he continued to go to the 7 am mass at school even when no other Kairos kids were attending.   Right after the retreat, the group would meet in the chapel after school to say the rosary or just to pray together about 2 – 3 times per week.   Gradually this petered out about 6 weeks later.  My son either stayed after school to go to the chapel, or he would get in the car and ask if we could stop at our parish church on the way home.  Although surprised, I was happy to do it.

The first time he asked, I said, “Sure, how long do you think we will be there?  I have to get dinner in the oven.”  His response was “I don’t know, it is not up to me”.   “Okay,” I thought  “I’ll just respect the time he needs and not push.”  This happened at least 3 times per week during the next few months where he would stay between 30 – 45 minutes.

At this point, my attitude was pleased, but still watchful and waiting to see how long it would last.   My son  was different is some ways, but not others.  He seemed much more pleasant and cooperative at home for a typical 17 year old boy. But he would still fight with his brother, grumble over taking out the garbage, and leave wet towels on the bathroom floor.

At this point, he did not have his driver’s license, so whenever he wanted to go to church, confession or daily mass, he had to have someone drive him.  Most of the time, it was me.  This meant that during that first summer, I went to mass with him every day, including Saturday.

Sometimes we would sit together and sometimes we wouldn’t.  After mass we would go out for coffee and talk about this idea of being a priest and applying to seminary.  This was a very special time for me to be able to listen to his concerns, fears and excitement.  If he had been able to drive, we would not have had that time together.

Prior to these events, getting his license was not a big issue.  Now he became much more aggressive trying to get enough hours of practice in so he could get his license.  Once he did, it seemed he asked to use the car to go to church frequently. I admit, I did think this was a ploy to get to drive more, but at least he was going to church.

During the summer, he would drive to confession once a week.  I have never gone to confession once a week in my life.  Again, I was impressed as he always had a better attitude when he returned.   By the end of the summer, he was going to confession on Wednesdays and Saturdays; twice in one week.  I think this was the point that I knew this was serious and not just a phase.

Please know that I am not as cynical and callous as this story may sound.  Remember, I have 2 older children who went through their own phases of interests and passions which typically gave way to the next new thing.  Certainly, my son’s increase in a devotion to his faith was not something I had ever seen before.  But the sudden onset and fervor seemed to fit the pattern of other phases I saw in his older brother and sister.  It honestly never seriously occurred to me that his behavior would only increase over time.

My take away bit of advice for other parents is this:  Look at the behavior changes:  Is he changing his priorities, his friends, his schedule, his hobbies?  How long has this been going on?  Has it been sustained or even increased over time?  For me, seeing these sustained changes  in my son over time was what helped me realize that this was not just a phase, but a serious interest in pursing further discernment.

I hope this can help other parents who are wondering if this is just a phase for a son or daughter or is it a serious desire that needs exploration.

Mom: A New Contributing Author

I am very happy to find this blog as a place for parents and other family members to discuss the discernment and formation process.

I have been looking for a place to share what I have learned in the past 2 years.   In that time, my son started discerning a vocation to the priesthood (age 17), applied and was accepted to our diocese as a seminarian and started his first year in college seminary (now age 19).

The parents who started this blog have a son who is in formation in a religious community, while my posts will focus on a son discerning diocesan priesthood.  By contributing on this blog, I hope readers will have a view of the similarities and differences of the our experience as parents  as well as our sons in discernment and formation.

As a cradle catholic, I attended catholic school from kindergarten through high school as well as graduating from a catholic college in the early 80’s.   Based on my background, I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on all things catholic. But, I was in for a surprise to realize that what little I did know about seminary, discernment and the priesthood was completely wrong, misinterpreted or based on urban legend.

When my son first told me he thought God was calling him to the priesthood, I had most of the common concerns and objections.    You’re too young…. Go to college first…  Get some life experience….etc.

Over the next few weeks; it took finding the right resources and a lot of prayer to come to a better understanding of the elements of discernment.   By contributing to this blog, I hope to shed some light on these issues and the ongoing discernment process and seminary formation for diocesan priesthood.

I was shocked and saddened to find out that 48% of newly ordained priests reported that they were discouraged from considering the priesthood by one or more persons.  This data from CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) has remained at 48% for the 2014 and 2015 reports on newly ordained priests.  Remember, these are the ones who actually completed seminary and were ordained!   How many others never made it very far without the support of their family?    This fact alone has motivated me to find a place for parents to discuss issues and encourage each other during their son’s journey wherever it leads.

I have searched the internet for resources or advice or personal experiences from other mothers/parents of seminarians, but have found almost nothing. Everyone I ask about this tells me it is needed.  If we are truly trying to “create a culture of vocations”, then the feelings and experiences of parents and other family members should to be a part of the conversation to open up the exploration of religious vocations in our families.

I welcome your questions and feedback.