Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Life of a New Seminarian

Divine Mercy

Through a post on Father Donald Calloway, a priest of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception who has an incredible story of conversion and who is now vocations director, I met John.

John has been kind enough to keep me updated on his discernment to the priesthood. It is with his permission that I share the following:

Dear friends and family,

You’re receiving this email because either you’ve expressed interest or I thought you may be interested in receiving periodic updates from me regarding my continuing discernment for the Catholic priesthood. I look forward to keeping you updated on this exciting new adventure in my life!

Just a disclaimer: since this email is going out to a very diverse group of Catholics and non-Catholics, please forgive me if I write anything that seems very rudimentary or obvious.

It’s now been nearly two months since I “moved in” with a Roman Catholic religious order, the Marians, in order to discern whether I’m called to be a Catholic priest.

When one is discerning for the priesthood, it quickly becomes apparent that one must figure out which “track” is right for him, meaning the diocesan priesthood or the religious priesthood.

A diocesan priest is a priest of a diocese. A diocese may be defined as a geographical “district” of the Catholic Church. With over a billion Catholics in the world today, there are thousands of dioceses throughout the world. Diocesan priests are under the obedience of a local bishop and for their formation they typically attend a Catholic seminary that belongs to the diocese. Sometimes dioceses send seminarians elsewhere to study (Rome, for example) but after their studies they almost always come back and serve that diocese.

A religious priest, on the other hand, is a priest of a Catholic religious order. A Catholic religious order is an association of priests, brothers, monks, friars, sisters or nuns (or combination of these) that is dedicated to a particular mission for the sake of God and the Church. Each order varies in its origin, mission, activities and size (from dozens of members to multiple thousands). Religious orders also have a global scope and are typically segmented into “provinces” throughout the world. Religious orders first arose in the Church about a thousand years ago and there are still hundreds of them today. Collectively they have had a major impact on world history, particularly in the area of education. At the risk of sounding corny, I like to think of them as a garden of full of flowers, no single flower alike, some huge, some small, some wilting and some growing.

Religious orders frequently work in partnership with dioceses but are not directly under their authority. Members of religious orders have an immediate chain of command that runs up to the superior general of the order, who in turn is under the obedience of the Pope (bishops, of course, are also under the obedience of the Pope). Religious orders also decide where to send their seminarians and often run the seminaries themselves.

Catholic religious orders show up fairly often in popular culture and the media. Some of you may have seen the 1986 movie “The Mission” with Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro and Liam Neeson, which depicts the activities of the Jesuit religious order in South America during the 1700s (I highly recommend it!). Another well-known (though very young) religious order is the Missionaries of Charity, which was founded by Mother Theresa in 1950.

I began having feelings for the priesthood in the spring of 2007, and by fall of 2007 I had discerned the religious order track as more appropriate for me. I feel this is mostly due to the way my spiritual journey has evolved. Since I was not baptized into the Catholic faith and didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t feel any ongoing connection with a particular diocese. In addition, the majority of experiences through which Catholicism impacted me occurred when I lived and studied abroad in Mexico and Chile during my university years. I came to know people from several religious orders during those times and was very inspired by them.

I began my discernment with the Congregation of Holy Cross, which is a French religious order best known for founding the University of Notre Dame. I had attended Notre Dame as an undergrad and Holy Cross priests were the first priests I had ever met. But the direction of my discernment changed in late 2008 when I discovered the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, a Polish religious order founded in 16. Almost immediately after I attended their vocations retreat and visited their seminary in early 2009 I decided it felt right to apply...

I arrived in Ohio on July 31st where I am now studying philosophy at Franciscan University until mid-May. I am officially a postulant, which is technically not yet a seminarian. Postulancy lasts for a year and intended to test whether one is cut out for religious life. I wouldn’t call it spiritual boot camp, but it approaches that I suppose. There are four of us postulants: Joe, 32, a former banker from Iowa: Abel, 44, a former computer programmer from Texas: Chris, 26, a former home builder from Michigan: and me, 29, a former too-many-random-jobs-since-graduation-to-merit-mentioning from Minnesota.

Almost immediately after arriving in Ohio, we left for Washington, DC, which is where the Marians have a large residence on the campus of Catholic University of America. I met many Marian priests and seminarians, including some from Poland and Brazil (nossa!). All of us also did a five-day silent retreat, which was a great experience though I was still somewhat restless given the novelty of everything. I had the pleasure of seeing an old college friend ... while I was in town. I spent about 10 days there.

From DC we left for Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which is the site of the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, which is operated by the Marians. This shrine receives tens of thousands of pilgrims every year and might be the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the Northeast. “Divine Mercy” is a very important phenomenon in the Catholic Church and is very connected to the Marians...

After arriving in Stockbridge we rookies were promptly put to work in order to help prepare for Encuentro Latino, a major pilgrim event for Hispanic Catholics from the region. About 4,000 pilgrims came for it, many from as far away as Chicago. My duties consisted of weeding, cleaning toilets, parking lot duty, crowd control and preparation of a few Spanish translations for the Mass. The Mass refers to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and is the highest and most important form of worship that Catholics offer to God. To plagiarize from Wikipedia, “It is also Catholic belief that in objective reality, not merely symbolically, the wheaten bread and grape wine are converted into Christ's body and blood, a conversion referred to as transubstantiation, so that the whole Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the Eucharist.”

The Marians also asked me to read general intercessions during the Mass. That’s a part of the Mass where prayers are offered to God on behalf of everyone present for specific intentions. I had never spoken in front of several thousand people before and was quite nervous! But when I got up to the podium I felt strangely at ease. I had prayed to God to calm me down but didn’t expect Him to actually do it! Encuentro Latino was a very powerful and special day for all of us. I encourage you to read this write-up of the event from the Marians’ website, which captures the beauty of the day much better than I could.

Immediately after Encuentro Latino we returned to Steubenville to begin classes (and for us postulants, begin religious life). It felt good to finally get settled into the rhythm of religious life, which I must say I have really grown to like.

My new routine basically consists of studying, praying, eating and sleeping. What’s not to like? On a typical weekday I get up at about 5:30 or 6 and do morning prayers in the chapel in the house I’m in (there are 9 of us living in the two houses in the attached picture: two priests, two seminarians, one brother and four postulants). Morning prayers refer to the Liturgy of the Hours, which is an ages-old tradition in the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours refers to a series of hymns, scripture readings and prayers that are prayed at different times throughout the day. In our community we pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and in the evening.

Immediately after morning prayers we offer certain prayers that are specific to the Marians. The prayers vary by day, but they are prayers for us, our loved ones, our benefactors, the deceased, and many others. These prayers are quite beautiful. Many of them are composed by priests who were instrumental in the founding (and survival) of the Marians...

Immediately after these prayers we jump right into the Holy Mass, and then have breakfast.

At noon we gather in the chapel and perform an examination of conscience, in which we contemplate where we’ve fallen short in our behavior (in comparison to the Ten Commandments, etc) and resolve to improve our conduct with God’s help where we’ve fallen short.

At three in the afternoon we gather to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, a fairly recent Catholic devotion that is deeply connected with the Marians. It is a prayer of supplication to God the Father asking for mercy on the whole world while invoking and meditating on the Passion of Jesus Christ. This devotion is primarily intended for the dying.

At 5:20 pm we gather to pray a rosary together, which is the most popular Catholic devotion. It is a prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for her intercession before God while simultaneously meditating on one of eighteen key events in the life of her Son (and two events that having to do with her). So for example, on Tuesdays and Fridays we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, which focus on five events: the agony suffered by Jesus in Gethsemane, the scourging of Jesus ordered by Pilate at the pillar, the crowning of Jesus with thorns, the ascent up Calvary with the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus at Golgotha. We Catholics believe that powerful graces for the conversion of sinners are released by God in response to this devotion (dido for the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and dido most of all for the Holy Mass).

In between those times I study, go to class, spend time praying by myself or play bubble hockey with Chris in the basement on breaks. The closest skating rink is in Pittsburgh, so that’s the best this former hockey player can do!

On Sundays I visit the elderly at a hospital in West Virginia with a group of Franciscan students but other than that, my schedule doesn’t deviate much from the routine I outlined above. Friday and Saturday evenings we’ll watch a movie or play hockey together.

I have class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. All my classes are philosophy classes: metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of the human person. I really enjoy them. The Vatican requires a boatload of philosophy classes before one is able to begin the theology classes that major seminary consists of. There are a few different reasons for this (which I won’t go into since this is turning into a book of an email). Many people view philosophy strictly as an ivory-tower profession but that’s nonsense. Vladimir Lenin and Pope John Paul II were both former philosophy professors.

Ah, almost forgot to mention the dress code (we dress up in black and whites every day as shown in the attached picture). So by the third year a guy gets to wear the collar that Catholic priests are recognized by worldwide, but until then we are dressed as you can see, all the time except for evenings. The classic Catholic school dress code I never had! Yes, that’s been a big adjustment. My first week, a delicate little freshman philosophy classmate stared at us postulants as we walked into class together. “Excuse me…excuse me…EXCUSE ME…who ARE you guys?” Her consternation was hilarious. I almost said, “We’re invading Mormons.”

The impact of all of these changes has been pretty profound. Overwhelmingly positive. I’m surprised and a little disappointed in how difficult it’s been for me to settle down and study for extended periods. It’s as though my attention span is completely shot. It’s been over six years since I’ve been in school. At my last job I became decent at completing many tasks in a day as rapidly as possible so I’m sure that’s part of the reason behind the adjustment. Philosophy is a different cup of tea, to be sure…

It wasn’t hard to give up my Blackberry..., but it has been hard to cut back on Internet and email checking. I now check my email once a day and allow myself maybe 20 minutes or so a day to catch up on news at my favorite sites. That’s down quite a bit from before.

I feel completely confirmed in my decision to join the Marians so far. I’m 99% positive that I want to move onto the next stage, which is novitiate. My discernment thus far has been full of what-the-heck-do-I-do-now-God moments, but God has proven again and again that He will take care of me. My trust in Him (and wonder) continues to grow.

I want to thank those who have supported me in this endeavor, and give a special thanks to all who have offered prayers for my sake. They are precious to me and I constantly draw on them for inspiration.

I've attached a picture of a bunch of us when we were in Stockbridge at the National Shrine.
Group Shot
If you’ve received this email, you are in my prayers! I will send another update in six months.

God bless you!

John N.

Please keep John and all the young men discerning the priesthood in your daily prayers.