Pope Francis on Formation

At a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy, Pope Francis shared a few thoughts on the formation and role of priests.

One thing that he said struck me as particularly important:

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”

The idea of that priests are in need of human formation is important and I think that many people don’t see priests as human.  Each priest is a man who has his own particular set of limitations and talents.  Some are great homilists.  Others are gentle and thorough confessors.  Others have the gift of communicating the Gospel to a wider audience.  Still others toil quietly in administrative jobs behind the scenes.

Whatever their gifts, these men need to take the time to understand themselves and find their place as servants in God’s kingdom.  Pope Francis’ words on human formation emphasize that formation goes well beyond theological training and the practicalities of being a priest and pastor.  The process of formation — in a way that doesn’t seem to exist in secular training — addresses the totality of the person being formed.

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Priestly Formation: Basic Supervised Ministry

When we started this blog, one of Evan’s seminarian brothers commented that there’s a lot to write about at the beginning of the journey and a lot more at the end — but not much in between.

There’s some truth to that.  After the novice year, it’s mostly about being a graduate student.  Like all graduate students seminarians have books to read and lectures to attend and papers to write and tests to take.  Some of the content is what you’d expect; close readings of scripture and a good understanding of Christian history.  Some of it, though, is more practical that you might realize.

Students preparing for the priesthood at CUA are required to take a two semester course called Basic Supervised Ministry.  This course is practical in every sense of the word.  Much like the clinical rotations of those training for health care, the Basic Supervised Ministry course gives those in formation the opportunity to learn and practice the skills involved in being a minister.

The course descriptions sums it up this way:

652A: A student spends a minimum of four hours each week at a designated ministerial placement and two hours in a supervision seminar. Through the use of verbatim presentations, the seminar explores communication skills, interpersonal dynamics, theological reflection on issues raised, and the student’s emerging pastoral identity. Students receive a written evaluation at the end of each semester.

652B: Building on TRS 652A, the seminar explores how to communicate the gospel in an appropriate, pastoral, caring way. Through the use of verbatim, video and role-play, attention is given to the process of theological reflection on ministerial encounters. Students receive a written evaluation at the end of each semester.

In simple terms, this means the student is assigned to go into a pastoral setting such as a hospital to minister to those in need.  After each encounter, they document and reflect on their experience in writing so they can discuss it later in a classroom setting.  As the course descriptions note, they also use video and role-playing to further hone their skills.

It sounded pretty intense to me and, I expect it can get that way at times.  I was encouraged, though, by a recent blog post from Msgr. Charles Pope.

As a younger priest I felt a lot of pressure to “have the answers” when tragedies occurred or when people experienced persistent setbacks in their lives. In more recent years I’ve learned to say less and to be more willing to sit quietly with people in their pain. To be sure, we have some answers, but explanations are poor substitutes for understanding and acceptance. Whatever explanations I can offer still leave even more things unexplained.

This seems consistent with the two principle texts that Evan is using; Availability and The Good Listener.  In the end, it seems, the beginning (and perhaps end) of ministry is the simple act of being mindfully present to those who are suffering and need a companion on the journey.

Objection Series: “He will be so lonely!” or The difference between being alone and lonely

Priests are surrounded by people all the time.  Their entire role is to interact with people.  A priest can be so busy with people that it may difficult to carve out time alone for personal prayer each day.

Everyone feels lonely at times in the course of any vocation.  How you perceive it and utilize an established network of resources can influence having a negative or a positive experience of being alone. Knowing that you have established strong resources in friends, family, peers and mentors can go a long way when feeling “lonely”.

Being alone does not necessitate feeling lonely. Everyone spends time alone at work and at home.  In a busy life, time alone can be viewed as either an oasis or a burden based on your perception.

alone in a crowd

You can feel lonely even when surrounded by people if you do not feel connected or engaged in the relationship.  There can be plenty of loneliness in marriage while sleeping in the same bed.  Every parent has wanted even a few minutes alone and found that the bathroom is not even a refuge when you have small children.   Some mothers get up early just so they can have some time alone before the chaos starts.

A Network of Support

sems cheering

Suppose you spent between 6 –  8 years in college and graduate school with everyone having the same major and career goal.  Your school was small enough that you got to know the guys who are ahead and behind you.  In this school, you sems prayingspent a lot of time together in class and studying together since everyone took the same courses over the years.  Your school had a very structured schedule so students were able to spend quality time with each other several times a day at events everyone found  meaningful.   You would have a pretty wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Depending on your personality, you would have built some strong friendships.

Now suppose that every year, many graduates are hired by the same company.  Over time, many guys you knew in graduate school are working for this company.  They may be located at different offices in the same area, but you are all doing the same work, have the same challenges and concerns as you grow in your new role, learn new skills and begin to master challenging assignments.

fraternal meetings

Suppose your employer asked you to meet periodically with some of your peers to support and encourage each other.  You also are expected to meet periodically with a more senior member of the staff as a mentor.

How connected would you feel to these colleagues whom you have known for years?

Feeling connected with others who support you is a significant benefit when someone is feeling lonely, whether alone or surrounded by people.

Not many people have these built- in opportunities for support and fraternal relationships in their career.  The closest I can compare this to is the military.  The people you go through boot camp with and then deploy together always have a special bond.  It is easy to see how these people would stay in touch and reach out to each other in times of need.

2 priests

Besides the relationships with family and friends, a brother priest can provide support and understanding on a different level when needed.  One  needs to know when to ask for support from the right resource.

If you are a little puzzled by this analogy, here is the key to the terms in bold:

College and Graduate school program =  Seminary

Career goal = Priesthood

Quality time = Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, sports etc…

Company  = Diocese

Offices =  Parish assignment

Employer/Boss  =  Bishop

Meeting periodically with peers  = Fraternal events, formal and informal gatherings

Mentor =  Spiritual Director

Colleagues/Peers = Brother priests

Please know the authors pray daily for parents of discerning sons and daughters to find understanding and peace.

A Proper Reason?

Picture courtesy of Matthias Ulrich via Wikimedia CommonsThere have been a number of reports of a surge in vocations for priests and other religious.  The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reported that an estimated 595 priestly ordinations in the U.S. in 2015.  That’s a 25% increase over 2014.  That’s a good growth no matter how you slice it.

Naturally, when people hear about the increase they tend to wonder what’s up.  Dominican brother Dominic Bouck, O.P. has certainly heard the questions.  In a recent blog post he says:

One thing that I’ve heard from several people when I mention the surge in Dominican vocations (and the surge of many dioceses and orders male and female) is “Oh, it must be the recession.”

That’s a natural reaction — particularly for us in America who tend to evaluate a person’s success in terms of professional or material accomplishments.  It also has a whiff of “well, he can’t make it in the real world so he’s going to retreat into religious life.” Except, as Dominic explains, those perceptions are completely wrong.

Truly, I have not met one religious who set aside marital joys, self-determination, and wealth because he or she couldn’t find a job.The man who sets aside his personal dreams to more perfectly subject himself to God is not primarily saying “no” to the world, but saying “yes” to a renewed life with God … there are over fifty of us studying for the priesthood or preparing to live life as a consecrated brother, about to be joined by fifteen more on July 25.

Among those roughly 75 men are lawyers, a medical doctor, a congressional staffer, professional musicians, a radio host, several PhDs and professors, a particle physicist from Stanford, a former Google employee, a dean of admissions at a medical school, Ivy Leaguers, Golden Domers, and more who were successful in the world, but sought a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and desired to serve his people.

A similar phenomenon is taking place among religious sisters.  Another CARA report (cited as part of the Global Sisters Report) points out that the age of women professing final vows is creeping upward.

In 2010, 47 percent of women professing final vows were aged 40 to 59. Another 26 percent were between 30 and 39. The median age for the class was 44.

Those numbers have steadily changed in the years since, reflecting an increase among younger women: By the class of 2014, only 27 percent of women taking final vows were aged 40 to 59 and those younger than 30 had increased from 18 percent to 25 percent. The median age of the class had dropped to 35.

But 75 percent of the class was still 30 or older.

The report tells the story of Marie Racine.

Marie Racine was well established, a software engineer for 17 years, when something happened.

“We had a meeting, and all of the sudden when they introduced the new projects, I just wasn’t interested anymore,” Racine said. “It just no longer mattered to me.”

That awareness propelled Racine onto a new path — and into an emerging trend about women committing to religious life: Racine entered a Benedictine monastery the day before her 40th birthday and made her final vows seven years later, in 2007.

All of this is consistent with what I’ve seen among the Paulists.  Among the students and priests in the Paulist Community we’ve met Financial Advisors, Mechanical Engineers, Park Rangers, and an actor. Some of them entered formation after they had established themselves in “respectable” careers and (to a worldly point of view) were on a successful path.  Yet, for all of them, God’s call drew them into a new venture which allowed them to use their gifts in service of the Faith.

When you’re looking at your son or daughter who is in discernment and you’re wondering what’s going on with them — set aside your notions of success and consider the work that God may be doing in their life.

— Dad of Evan

A Series of Objections

I will be posting a series on common objections parents have surrounding a son’s interest in discerning a vocation to priesthood or religious life. I will take one objection and go deeper on the topic. Some of these objections are things you man-explaining-woman-arguing-living-room-young-men-women-40422131may have already discussed with your son, while others may be too embarrassing or politically incorrect to say aloud or even admit to yourself.

I hope to pull back the curtain on these concerns and help parents reflect on why they may have these objections. Understanding the reality behind an objection with concrete and accurate information can help you gain some perspective on the concern.

In a critique of Fr. Brett Brannen’s book: A Priest in the Family, the reviewer acknowledges that the concerns of parents are legitimate:

…he [Fr. Brannen] explains priesthood, seminary, celibacy, and how a man discerns his vocation—all while keeping in mind parents’ legitimate concerns.

I found this very comforting when I read that. I am not being unreasonable or reactionary in my concerns. They are legitimate and deserve respect, information and time to address.

Every one of the objections below is addressed in either one of Fr. Brett Brannen’s books: To Save a Thousand Souls or A Priest in the Family. These books give good basic information along with stories of how seminarians and their families handled common objections.  These books are introduced in the post HERE: 5 Myths and Facts about Discernment or Isn’t there a book about this somewhere?

I plan to blog on each of these objections over the next few weeks, but from a mother’s point of view. Some of these objections did come out of my mouth early on as I struggled to understand. I will own up to which ones I did say or at least think and how I dealt with them.

Objections:
• How can you know what you are giving up when you haven’t even lived yet? You are so young, you don’t know what this means

• What if he is falsely accused?  People will be suspicious of him. He will always be under a microscope. People are so critical of priests.

• It’s such a hard life

• He will be lonely

• He will be so overworked

• I just want him to be happy! Part 1: What is happy anyway?

• I just want him to be happy Part 2: Where do my objections come from? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why am I so angry, frustrated, or emotional about this?

• How/Why did this happen in our family? We aren’t even that religious.

• How can this be real when it has happened so fast: See the post This is just a phase or I don’t want another trumpet in the attic HERE

• What will _____________ think or say?

• I will never see him, especially on holidays

• I will never have grandchildren

If you have an objection or concern that is not addressed here, just leave a comment and we will address it.

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

Objection Series: “He’s Throwing His Life Away!”

Although this statement sounds pretty harsh, you may have heard this about your son’s interest in priesthood or religious life.  Maybe you worry that you are going to hear it from a family member, a friend, a co-worker, your spouse or even yourself.

I heard variations on this comment a few times from acquaintances when they first heard the news that my son was going to college seminary right out of high school. Among the variations were:

car off bridge1

Why would you let him throw his life away like that?

I would never let my son throw his life away!

Why does he want to throw his life away?

But he’ll never have a normal life with a wife and children!

At first I was shocked at how rude these comments were.  Once the news was out, I had heard some negative and less than supportive comments, but this was the most severe response I heard.   The first time I heard it, I was taken aback and managed to stammer, “Oh, no, we’re very happy with his decision and proud of him.”  Then they would give me that ‘Are you crazy?’ look or just roll their eyes.

None of these negative comments came from Catholics.  I heard nothing but positive comments from the people in our parish and other Catholic friends and relatives.  The phrases “wasting his life” and “throwing his life away” have given me a lot to think about.  How is it that some people view the very idea of a young man considering becoming a priest as so terrible that they liken it to wasting his life?  Are these people so materialistic and achievement focused that they view a life of service to others as a waste?

After I got past being judgmental, I began to have empathy for these people who have so little awareness or appreciation of the spiritual needs of others and serving these needs. Then it occurred to me that I should pray for them to come to an understanding of the value of spirituality in their own lives.

Other comments have not been as overtly negative, but have an undertone of disapproval or express a lack of value in my son’s choice.  Over time, I began to see that the comments I received gave me an indication of the individual’s misunderstanding about the priesthood, religious life and seminary.  I got to the point, that when I heard a comment, I was able to counter with a little bit of information to provide some reality to their false assumptions.  Here are a few samples.  Help yourself to any of these responses when you find yourself on the receiving end of a less than enthusiastic comment.

Comment: “What happened to computer science?  He would have a great career if he stayed in computers.”

Response:  “If he is called to be a priest, I’m sure he will have the opportunity to do many different things in his life.”

False Assumption: Only a career with a high income and career opportunities are valuable and worth pursing.

 

Comment:  “I thought he went to the prom with Susan?  She was gorgeous!  What happened?”

Response:  “They went to the prom as friends and still are friends.”

False Assumption:  Going to seminary means you can’t have any contact with girls.

 

Comment:  “Couldn’t he get into the state university?”

Response:  “As a matter of fact, he was accepted into a computer science program at State, but he decided not to go.  Actually, it was much harder to be accepted as a seminarian for the diocese and the college seminary than getting into State.”

False Assumption:  Guys who go to seminary are those who can’t get into a regular college.

 

Comment:  “You mean, no sex? Ever? And you’re okay with that?”

Response:  Okay, you try explaining the gift of celibacy in 2 minutes or less. I tried. I think I went with “…if he does have a vocation to priesthood, he will be given the grace to be able to handle it…..” and  “Yes, I am okay with that if he does become a priest. It’s part of the package.”

False Assumption:  Living a celibate lifestyle is impossible.

 

Comment:   “Is he gay?”

Response:  “No, that has nothing to do with it.  He is going to seminary to determine if God wants him to be a priest.”

False Assumption:  A healthy male attitude toward girls cannot be compatible with going to seminary.

 

Comment:  “Doesn’t he like girls?”

Response:  “Of course he does.   He has lots of friends that are girls.”

False Assumption:  A healthy male attitude toward girls cannot be compatible with going to seminary.

 

Comment:  “Don’t worry, he just hasn’t found the right girl yet.”

Response:  “I’m not worried.  He is just trying to figure out if God wants him to be a priest. If he doesn’t, I am sure the right girl will find him!  If he does determine he is not called to be a priest, he will be a great catch!”

False Assumption:  The “right” girl is an antidote to these thoughts of being a priest.

 
Please leave a comment if you  have had any experiences like this and had a good response or if you did not know what to say!  We will help you come up with a response.

Please know that the authors of this blog pray every day for parents of discerning sons and daughter to find peace and understanding.

What is a Vocation Story?

I have heard my son give his “vocation story” many times in different settings.  This is the story of how he decided to go to seminary and how he felt that God may be calling him to the priesthood.  I have heard many variations depending on the person asking and the situation.Asian man giving speech

The first time I heard my son give this talk in public was from the pulpit during a seminary appeal weekend for the diocese where the seminary is located.  It was interesting to hear him describe our family and how he grew up.  In that situation, I was surprised to hear something I did not know.

He explained that the first time the thought of priesthood came into his head was in 5th grade at the weekly school mass.  He said “I thought to myself:  A priest?  I don’t’ want to be a priest.  I want to get married and have a wife, kids, a family.”  Then he promptly dismissed the idea.  I had never heard that little detail before and realized he never spoke about it while in grade school.

When a friend or acquaintance meets my son and hears that he is in seminary, it is common for them to ask him “How did you know?”  When he is in a situation where it is not really appropriate to go into a long explanation, I have heard him say:  “Well, there was this burning bush….”  Then he pauses just long enough to crack a mischievous smile and say “Just kidding.”

My son’s first serious idea of a vocation started at a high school retreat during his Junior year.  In this retreat program, the Juniors from the previous years can act as student leaders the following year.  By the spring of his senior year, he was applying to the diocese.  Only a small, close circle of friends knew about his plans.  He did not want to make the news public until he was accepted by the diocese.  As a student leader at the retreat, I am sure it took no small amount of courage to tell his story to his peers who had no idea this was in the works.

I was there when my son told my mother about his plans to enter seminary.  He gave great detail and answered her questions.  I was sure my mother would say what she always did about priesthood: “It is such a hard life” with an extremely heavy sigh.   She didn’t.   She just cried and said how happy she was for him.  Of course, she said it to me, right after he left the room.

I was there when he told his Aunt, my sister, who is his godmother and confirmation sponsor.  She cried through the entire story and kept asking him “Really? Are you sure?”  This is where more information about the discernment process was needed to clarify. “No, he’s not sure, that’s why he is going to seminary.” (Note: Aunt Becky was crying because she was happy for him!)

Listening to your son talk about his vocation story gives a parent new insight into his mind and heart.  You may be surprised by what you learn as you hear his story repeated over time.

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

Advantages of Going to Seminary or What is the Next Right Step?

If you are reading this, most likely, you and your son have had some contact with the vocations director for your diocese or religious order.  There is talk of applying to seminary, but it seems like such a dramatic step at this point in his life.

Mt St Mary's Sem.

This post will describe the significant advantages for any young man to go to seminary to continue to discern his vocation.

 

2 sems talking to priest

Do you think he will be wasting his time if he discerns that he is not called to the priesthood?  I can assure you, that no time spent in the seminary is ever wasted.  It has been said that there should be a lot more former seminarians.

 

The advantages of attending seminary for any length of time will last a lifetime for your son.  If he determines he is not called to priesthood,the time spent in seminary will make him a better man, husband and father.  If your son has been thinking about the priesthood and is not sure, he will never know for sure outside of a seminary environment designed to support him on this path of discernment.  The goal here is to help your son determine if he is being called to the priesthood.  Your son can only discern young-man-praying-church-handsome-41152818to a point outside of a seminary environment.  Inside, there are significant opportunities and advantages to help him come to an understanding of whether or not he is called to priesthood. The advantages of seminary described here can help you understand that going to seminary may be the next right step Those who do not take this next step may spend the rest of their life wondering if they were called to be a priest.  No one wants their son to live with a lifetime of questions and regret.

So what are the advantages of going to seminary?

Spiritual Direction

The opportunity to have a Spiritual Director walk with your son through the discernment experience may be the biggest advantage in going to seminary.  A Spiritual Director is a trusted mentor who cares about your son and helps him grow over an extended period of time in faith, virtue and maturity.  This is an enormous advantage that seminarians are priest talking to manprivileged to experience.  You can think of it as coaching in order to determine what God wants you to do with your life and become a better person.  The environment at seminary is conducive to this discernment by having the time and resources available in a structured, positive environment.  Every year, seminarians come to the decision, with the assistance of their spiritual director that they are not called to be a priest and decide to leave the seminary.  Some refer to this as “discerning out.”  When they leave may have more to do with finishing the semester to finish academic credit than anything else.

The vocation director is not a recruiter trying to talk your son into this.   A spiritual director will not coerce or brainwash your son into “signing up”.  No one, not the vocation director, your bishop or the seminary wants your son to continue in seminary if he is truly not called to it.  This is not like an Army recruiter who is trying to get as many recruits as possible to meet a quota.  Besides growing up in your family, this may be the only time in life where your son will be surrounded by people who only want what is best for him and determine what God wants him to do with his life.

The Environment

Several aspects of the seminary environment itself provide advantages to a young man discerning.

“Everybody gets it”

The summer before starting seminary, my son would frequently say that he couldn’t wait to get there so he could stop explaining himself to people all the time. He said “Everybody there gets it.  Everyone is there for the same reason.”  In seminary, no one thinks you’re crazy or strange.  No one gives you that questioning look when you tell them what your major is.

men taking selfie

 

It is true that having a group of young men live together with a common purpose is a positive environment.  They study and learn together, pray and attend mass together, play and eat together or just hang out like any other guys their age. Sounds sort of like a college fraternity without the  girls, alcohol, drugs and other near occasions of sin.

Accountability

Seminary has a structured environment designed to grow your son in self-discipline, prayer, virtue, and knowledge of the faith.  Which one of these do you not want for your son?

The environment at seminary is not as austere as you may think.  Seminarians play sports, watch TV, go to movies, hang out with friends playing footballand drink alcohol in moderation if over 21 years old.  They aren’t roaming  the halls singing Gregorian chant.  They do have mass every day and pray the liturgy of the seminarians in churchhours together and have curfews.  Faculty take note if someone is not in class and they look into it.  You can’t hide in seminary.   Even as his mother, I am not allowed in my son’s room if he needs something from home.

Does the seminary environment have boundaries, requirements & expectations?

Yes.

Is this a bad thing?

No

Compare seminary environment with a typical college environment today

As a parent, you may remember the way that college was back in the day.   There were curfews, at least for freshman, and dorms were single sex.  Boys were not allowed on the girls’ floor or in the girls’ dorm at all.  Students signed in and out of the dorm on weekends and evenings.

Today, it is a complete free for all.  No curfews and all dorms are co-ed, so there is no need for rules about “visitation”.  In the name of frat partyconfidentiality, parents have absolutely no right to knowledge about the
student’s grades, academic progress, attendance, health care issues or even situations involving campus or local police.  The typical college environment today requires a significant level of self-discipline to manage all the competing activities and opportunities available.  It is common for students to “crash and burn” when they cannot manage so much freedom with no accountability.

Sending my older 2 children off to a state university, I had many worries and sleepless nights.  When you send a son to seminary you may have different concerns, but you will not have to worry about the following:

I am not worried:

       That he will get mixed up with the wrong kind of girl.

       That he will end up at a drunken Frat party at 2am.

       That he will never go to mass on Sunday.

       That he will never go to confession.

       That he will cut one too many classes and get behind.

       That he will have too many distractions on campus and most of them a   bad  influence.

Even one year in college seminary can provide your son with a lifetime of perspective on his vocation, an increase in his faith and prayer life as well as personal maturity and character.  Every year increases these benefits exponentially.  If your son is thinking about going to the seminary, these advantages can help you have more peace about taking the next right step with your son.

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

Come and See!

Pam’s post about visiting the seminary with her son reminded me that I’ve never mentioned the “Come and See” weekends.

A “Come and See” is a retreat which offers discerners the opportunity to taste religious life.  The Dominican website OpCentral.org describes it this way:

Information is always helpful, digitally, in print, or otherwise, but there is no substitute for a real human encounter. That’s why a Come and See Weekend is a must for anyone seriously discerning their vocation. Dominican Come and Sees are a sixty-four hour immersion experience into the very rhythm of religious life. It’s that “gut” experience which offers the visceral clarity that is the goal of discernment and the only true test of whether or not your home is here.

Fr. Larry Rice, the Vocations Director for the Paulists, confirms this:

When a man is contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most of the discernment is internal work: prayer, reading, prayer, spiritual direction, and prayer. This is a good and necessary process. But it can also feel a bit isolating, as if no one else is wrestling with these issues and questions. And it can also take on a hypothetical and imaginative quality. What will life in the novitiate be like? Is the seminary a strange place where I’ll feel uncomfortable? Will I be out of place, surrounded by people who are so much holier than I am? Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Come and see. That’s the invitation that the Paulist Fathers make three times each year. Come for a visit. See and experience our common life. Pray with us. Dine with us. Come to class. Come to the chapel. Have a soda or a beer, and ask your questions.

Evan participated in a couple of these weekends early in his discernment.  He came back enthused about the community and taken with the beauty of the liturgy of the hours.  Each visit increased his conviction that he needed to pursue the call.

Now that he’s a member of the community, Evan gets to experience these weekends from the other side.  Meeting potential seminarians is a great opportunity for him to share part of his journey and to remember his early days of discernment.

“Come and See” weekends are pretty common.  A quick Google search turns up a long list of possibilities.  Some of them are associated with particular communities like the Dominicans, Paulist and Mercedarian Sisters — yes, there are “Come and See” retreats for women discerning religious life as well.  Some of them are associated with diocesan seminaries.   All of them follow the same basic pattern of welcome, prayer and participation.

The point, I guess, is that discernment is something to be lived.  That means actively exploring religious life.  Don’t just sit in a pew and say “I think God is calling me”.  Get up and answer the call.    Find a “Come and See” weekend, talk to a vocations director, immerse yourself in experiences that will let you encounter God.  You might be surprised at what you learn!

— Dad (Evan)

Dinner with a Side of Answers

meat-569073_320Want to know what seminary is like?  Ask someone who’s been there.  Ask a priest.

Cathy and I stumbled into this accidentally a few months after Evan told us he was in discernment with the Paulists.  Our pastor, Fr. Clarence, had invited Fr. James DiLuzio, CSP to come to the parish to present the Luke Live mission.  A couple of weeks before the mission date, the parish office put out a call for people willing to feed Fr. DiLuzio a meal.  If circumstances had been different, we might have glanced past the notice and hoped that somebody stepped up to help out.

As it was (and since Fr. DiLuzio is a Paulist) we jumped on the opportunity and scheduled a lunch and a dinner with him.  The lunch was Saturday at noon, so Evan came down to join us.  At lunch we talked about the seminary, the discernment process, and life as a priest.  We continued the conversation over dinner a couple of nights later.  It set our minds at ease on many of the questions we’d been asking.

Since then, we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to dine with visiting priests.  We’ve talked Star Trek with a geek priest, interfaith politics with a priest who worked at the Vatican for ten years, genealogy with a priest who has traced his family back to the Mayflower, life in the Holy Land with a Franciscan, formation with a man who attended minor seminary (high school seminary), travel with a retired priest from California and seminary with several.  We’re learned about their backgrounds, how they were called to the priesthood and what their formation was like.

To a man, they’ve all been good company and we’ve enjoyed our time with them.  Getting to know them has given us insight into Evan’s journey and let us see the human side of the priesthood.  Those informal conversations have been a real blessing for us and I imagine they’d be a blessing for you as well.

So…next time you have a visiting priest in your parish, offer to take them to dinner.  Oh, and don’t forget your pastor as well.  You’ll be surprised at what you can learn from him.

— Dad (Evan)

P.S.

We took the Franciscan — in full habit — to a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating.  The habit got all of the looks.  In Utah (where the LDS church makes up the majority of the population) you just don’t see men in habits that often.

— D

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.”

and

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:

Myth:
Once you enter seminary, you are pretty sure that you will become a priest.
Fact:
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.

Myth:
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.
Fact:
“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.

Myth:
You are too young to go into college seminary right out of high school.
Fact:
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

Myth:
You need to go to college, date more and live in the “real world” before you go to seminary.
Fact:
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.

Myth:
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.

Fact:
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.

E-mail and a Note about Discernment

This week a lovely note landed in the Seminarian Parents inbox.  It came from the Mum of a seminarian who…well, since she graciously offered permission to share her letter, I’ll let her tell the story.

Three years ago our 19 year old son entered a Diocesan seminary.

While not shocked – we were initially quite surprised and unsure that this was a good idea for someone so young.

At the time my husband and I tried to encourage him to ‘live’ a little before he entered. Maybe gain a bit more maturity, and life experience.  To his credit he was not to be deterred by our initial reticence and lack of enthusiasm : he was sure of his decision. He proceeded initially to ‘pre-seminary’ for a year and then the national  seminary.

And of course we supported him, loved him and were proud of him.

As parents we have always tried to support our children (he has an older brother & sister) – and when necessary offer guidance – in their life choices. University, and overseas travel for the others was a more familiar path for us  – but the seminary and priesthood was an altogether different scenario – and one I assumed other people’s sons would follow – not ours!

I desperately wanted to talk to someone in my situation who understood what I was going through – another mother of a seminarian. There seemed to be no one around – I assumed that they must all be very holy – too busy praying and going about the Lord’s work – and would have no understanding of my feelings, fears and worries for my son and his future!

I quickly became aware that the role and relationship of parents and their seminarian son is at times different than that of our other children. (Not better or worse – just different)

Because of this unique role, the opportunity for the parents and families of our seminarians to meet and get to know one another (for both support & friendship) is important.  Whether the family are heavily involved in ‘church’ – or not at all – the procedures, processes and emotions are usually uncharted territory for everyone. But nothing seemed to exist – at a local level or online.

Towards the end of last year, our son decided to leave the seminary  – I didn’t want him to enter – but now I found I didn’t want him to leave! More uncharted waters – and once again, another parent to talk to would have been great.

While he has learnt a lot in these 3 years in the seminary – I know we as parents have as well.

In immersing himself in all things ‘Catholic’ – much has also been absorbed by us too. There have been many conversations as we talked with him before he entered – and in holidays when he was home

(I am a ‘cradle Catholic’ though I think the term ‘cultural Catholic’ would have been a better description. I loved the culture and familiarity of being catholic – the nitty gritty of my faith was largely ignored. )

For me I know my knowledge of catholic ‘stuff’, liturgical matters, seminarian studies and subjects, canon law, has increased – but above all this superfluous information, my Faith has deepened and (I think) matured. For that I will always be thankful and grateful to my son  – for testing my understanding of my faith, challenging my assumptions and encouraging me to seek and develop a more personal relationship with God.

This letter was encouraging to all of us.  We recognized our own questions, fears and concerns in this mother’s story.  Cathy and I chuckled at her assumption that the parents of prospective priest must somehow be above-average on the holiness meter.  We certainly aren’t, but we are trying to improve our relationship with God.

One of the concerns she had was her son’s age.  Cathy shared that concern and … well … I’ll let her explain:

Worry about Evan being too young was a big concern of mine as well. I spoke to the formation director of his order and he offered me an interesting perspective. He stated that they encourage men to explore the priesthood as early as possible (as soon as they hear the call). If it doesn’t work out there are no hard feelings, on the contrary, they often remain friends of the group for life. If they discern that the ordained life isn’t for them, they are still young enough to enter into the secular life and have a full career. If they wait till their late 30’s, for example, they are in their forty’s when they go back to their careers and it can be difficult.

All of which brings me to a brief point that I’d like to make about the discernment process.

Discernment is a process.  Some people think that discernment is sitting around, praying for Divine guidance and getting a lightning bolt from the sky in response.  Prayer is definitely important, but prayer needs to be accompanied by action.  A great post over at Verso L’alto talks about the danger of “passive discernment.”

People tend to talk about a priestly vocation as if entering seminary is a final decision with ordination as a foregone conclusion.  That isn’t the case at all.  You might as well start making wedding plans the first time your son takes a girl out on a date.  Yes, it could lead to marriage, but it might not.  It’s important to live through the process — it’s a journey, not a destination.

When young people perceive a call to religious life, they should explore it.  That means investigating seminaries and talking to vocations directors.  It probably means entering the seminary.  Whatever happens — that time in seminary is part of the journey.

I’d be so bold as to say that active discernment is good practice for all of us.  If you think God is calling you to something — a ministry in your parish, some task in your neighborhood or your workplace, or even more prayer and study — don’t sit back and think about it.  With openness to the Spirit, jump in and listen to God through your actions.