Lessons from the Seminary

The always excellent Word-on-Fire recently posted an essay by Diocesan Seminarian Joe Heschmeyer titled 10 Things I Learned in my First Year of Seminary.  The whole essay is worth reading, but I wanted to share his tenth point because I found it particularly encouraging.

Perhaps nothing exposes one’s lingering faults quite like seminary. It is a group of Christian men who are serious about sanctity, and have cultivated an attention to detail. Furthermore, we are encouraged to engage in “fraternal correction,” on the theory that iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), and we have a moral duty to look out for one another. But fortunately, God is there through all of this. Where I succeed, it is due to His grace. Where I fail, He stands ready to pick me up again. No matter how big my failings, faults, and sins, God’s Mercy is always bigger. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux is said to have said, “everything is grace.” 

The first year was quite a journey, but it’s one that I was humbled and thrilled to take.

I don’t know if Joe’s experience is universal for seminarians, but I have to imagine that a year spent in prayer and contemplation with a focus on spiritual growth couldn’t help but bring about a change.  And, even more encouraging is Joe’s reminder that God is always there to pick us up when we fall.

— Dad (Evan)

Advertisements

What’s Life Like in the Seminary

A couple of weeks back Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble linked to this video on her blog.  It’s a nice peek into life in the seminary and well worth your eight minutes.  (In case you’re curious, the video comes from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California.)

Brotherhood from Adspectus on Vimeo.

On a related note, Sr. Noble’s blog is also worth your time.  And she’s written a terrific book called “The Prodigal You Love.”  It’s a great resource if you want to help lapsed Catholics find their way back into church.  And — spoiler alert — the book says you’ll need to start by changing yourself.

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.

Welcoming a New Contributor

Just a quick note about this post.

It has always been our hope and prayer that this blog would become a place where those discerning and their parents came for information and encouragement.  Pam contacted us on Easter Sunday to let us know she’d found the blog and to inquire about our experience as seminarian parents and bloggers.  It was clear from her e-mail messages that she was a great writer and had a different perspective.  Our conversation naturally turned to asking her to contribute and we’re thrilled that she accepted.

As she notes, her son is in a college seminary and entered shortly after high school.  This is different from our experience, but is an experience shared by many, many parents.

In the coming months, you’ll see posts from all of us as our individual journeys continue.

As always, we want your questions.  Feel free to e-mail us at seminarianparents@gmail.com.

— Dad of Evan

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.

What is a Spiritual Director?

Mid-remodel. Yes, it is a mess.  Thank you for noticing.It strikes me as funny that we Americans often take a “do it yourself” attitude to spiritual development.  By contrast, we are willing to pay vast sums of money to small armies of consultants, advisors, and coaches.

When Cathy and I remodeled our home, we hired professionals to hang the cabinets, update the wiring and connect the plumbing.  (Safety pro tip: Never – EVER – enter a building where I have personally done any of the wiring or plumbing.)

When we remodeled, we were concentrating on the interior of our house — taking what we already had and improving it.  We wanted a more functional space and a more comfortable life.  I guess you could say that we wanted our house to be more of what we knew it could be.

It would be a mistake to reduce the work of a spiritual director to a mere remodeling of the soul, but there are some useful similarities.  As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You wouldn’t think of building a good house to live in here on earth without an architect. How can you ever hope, without a director, to build the castle of your sanctification in order to live forever in heaven?”

William A. Barry, SJ, clarifies a bit in his book The Practice of Spiritual Direction when he notes that spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

The work of a spiritual director is done in a series of private meetings between the individual seeking direction (sometimes called a “directee”) and the the director.  An article on the OSV website explains the process this way:

Since the goal of spiritual direction is to deepen your connection and commitment to Our Lord, sessions are always deeply personal. In general, you will meet with your spiritual director on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly, but not less frequently than every two months. In your session, you will talk about your desires and struggles in the spiritual life — not confessing sin per se, unless your spiritual director also happens to be your confessor — and trends and tendencies in such areas as prayer and self-control. Your director will make suggestions for reading or devotional exercises, and help you find answers to your spiritual questions. Often you will end the session by praying together.

A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist.  The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.  The Ignatian Spirituality website lays out four key points about spiritual direction:

Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.

Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.

Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?””

The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.

All seminarians — in fact all religious — are required to have a spiritual director.  All of the Paulist Novices and Students have one.  As do all sisters, brothers, priests and deacons.  Interestingly, while all religious are obliged to have a spiritual director, spiritual directors themselves are not obliged to be religious.  In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor by the name of Jan Tyranowski.

More importantly, anyone can have a spiritual director.  Anyone who is seeking to improve their relationship with God, to better carry out the mission of their Baptismal call, or to deepen their spirituality can engage the assistance of a spiritual director.  Fr. John C. McCloskey reminds us:

During his pontificate, Benedict XVI several times urged faithful Catholics who desired to pursue holiness and grow closer to God to make use of a spiritual director: “We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. . . .We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.” By this means, he explained, we can avoid being limited by our own subjectivist interpretations of God and what he might be calling us to do, as well as benefiting from our guide’s “own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.”

After.  Much nicer, isn't it?If you are interested in finding a spiritual director, a good place to start is with your parish priest.  Not that he would necessarily become your director, but he probably knows you well enough to steer you in the right director and he should be familiar with the resources available in your parish and your diocese.  Once you’ve identified a director, you’ll begin to meet with them to pray and discuss.  You may have a defined “trial” period to see if the relationship is a good fit for both of you.  You will certainly be introduced to new readings and (possibly) new devotions.

Along the way — if you are open — God will be speaking to you and helping you grow to become more of what He knew you could be.

— Dad

Eighteen Months and Counting!

We’ve been posting thoughts here (off and on) since June of 2013.  For those of you who have followed from the beginning, thank you!  For those just joining us, welcome.

Looking over our logs, the links below represent some of our most popular posts, serve as a great overview of our adventure, and answer the most common questions we’ve received.

As always, we welcome your questions.  If there’s something you’d like to know, we’ll do our best to answer.  E-mail us at SeminarianParents@gmail.com

— Dad

Media Alert: Paulists InFormation

Quick post to let you know about a new video series being produced by the current crop of Paulist students.  It’s called “Paulists InFormation”  and it will be exploring what it means to be called to the priesthood.  The on-camera hosts will be interviewing various priests to learn about their vocations stories along with other interesting conversations.

The first teaser video is up (and embedded below).  You can follow this project on social media at:

CSPInFormation (Twitter)
PaulistsInFormation (Facebook)

— Dad

Back to School

200px-Logo_of_The_Catholic_University_of_America_svgThe Paulist students — along with a host of students from other orders and those preparing for diocesan ordination — headed back to school this week.  Ever wonder what (and where) they study?

St. Paul’s College is the formation house for the Paulist order and it’s located just a few blocks from Catholic University of America.

CUA is a private university and also a pontifical university.  This means that CUA has been approved by the Holy See itself and is authorized to grant degrees following the European system sacred faculties.  (More about that in a minute.)

The university mission statement nicely sums out what CUA is all about:

As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See, The Catholic University of America is committed to being a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church. Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.

CUA was originally founded in 1887 and is the only higher ed institution founded by the U.S. Bishops.  When it began life in 1887 as a graduate research center, it was approved by Pope Leo XIII.  In 1904, it began offering undergraduate degrees and has been in continuous operation since then.

Its location — the Brookland neighborhood of DC — is sometimes called “Little Rome” due to the significant number of Catholic institutions located there.  (Some students jokingly refers to the area as the Catholic ghetto.)

The University offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.  Evan and the other students are all working on their Masters degrees — specifically the Master of Divinity.  This is the typical path for those discerning the priesthood.  When I asked Evan to give me some taste of what he might be studying, he sent a list of some of the typical courses; History and Method of Theology, Pentateuch, Synoptic Gospels, Intro to Christian Moral Life, Theology of Sacraments of Initiation, Preaching, and Basic Supervised Ministry.

(Smart aleck that I am, I expressed the hope that this wasn’t the first time students had experienced “Into to Christian Moral Life.”)

The CUA web page for the M.Div degree gives a somewhat broader picture of the requirements:

The M.Div. degree requires a minimum of 90 credit hours of graduate courses distributed as follows: systematic theology (18), moral theology (12), biblical studies (12), and one course each in canon law, church history, liturgical studies, and spirituality (12), academic electives (12), pastoral ministry (18), and the ministry seminars (6). All students are ordinarily required to take six credits of Basic Supervised Ministry. At least one course must be taken in a non-Catholic ecclesial tradition through the offerings of the Washington Theological Consortium.

All students entering the program must take the following courses in the first fall semester: Proseminar for Masters Students, Introduction to the History and Method of Theology, and Foundations of Christian Moral Life. Of the 500 level courses, only some may be taken by M.Div. students in fulfillment of degree requirements.

This is the usual path for students in discernment.  There is, however, another.  Because CUA is a pontifical university, it is authorized to offer sacred faculty degrees.  Students can opt to pursue an STB degree; otherwise (confusingly) called the Bachelor of Sacred Theology.  Despite the name (confusing, right?) this is a masters degree in theology.  It offers more depth in theology and prepares students to pursue an STL (Licentiate of Sacred Theology) and an STD (Doctor of Sacred Theology).

CUA offers a combined M.Div and STB program for students who want to pursue a more academic track.

Evan started his classes this week and seems to be enjoying them.  It sounds more-or-less like a typical grad school experience.  He’s in classes with a wide variety of students; some of them from other orders, some of them pursuing diocesan ordination.  It’s a good mix and he’s enjoying the intellectual challenge.

On Thursday they had a school-wide Mass at the Basilica in DC.  The students from all of the various orders showed up in the clerical garb appropriate to their order and Archbishop Donald Wuerl celebrated.  A significant number of priests con-celebrated and Evan said it was quite the experience.

And…to my mind…it seems like a great way to kick off an M.Div program.