The province of Florida recently received thirteen men as newly ordained deacons–deacons in transition to the priesthood. The Mass was beautiful and the men quickly began blessing crosses, water, and chihuahuas with their newfound “deacon powers.”
They were one class ahead of my own in the seminary, so I know these guys well. They welcomed me back with open arms and there was much joy in our reunions. Since Jackie was in San Diego, they were all grateful that I wasn’t “that guy” who left seminary and returned with a beautiful girl on the day that they all vowed celibacy (there’s always one). Throughout the weekend, I reflected upon what I strangely missed about seminary, namely the formation, the fraternity, and the prayer.
First of all, I wouldn’t call my three years in formation for the Catholic priesthood the “happiest” of my life, so the fact that I am writing this post is a miracle in itself. I entered the seminary in my mid-twenties, a point when I wasn’t necessarily looking for curfews, regimented scheduling, and (of all things) uniforms. But surprise! My life was no longer my own, and I didn’t always handle it in the best of ways. I was often a brat, showing up barely on time for morning prayer (the guys knew not to try and converse with me before 9:00am), complaining instead of making a difference, and actively avoiding the guys that annoyed me.
The “cemetery” was an unintentionally astute name little kids would give me when I would ask where did priests go to learn how to be priests. Seems they were onto something… You go to seminary to die, in a multitude of ways. It’s not about you anymore, and that can be a hard pill to swallow. This cross is often carried in simple ways: going beyond comfort zones, breaking out of routines, and facing down the narcissistic sense of entitlement that infects us all. The fact that I was trying to imitate my life upon a God-man who embraced the cross of his death was often lost on me.
As my first rector loved to remind us all, formation was found “in the stretch”–and stretch I did. Getting over yourself is never easy, but only by dying to ourselves can we give life to others. The “seminary” literally means “seed bed,” for this is where men go to become the fertile ground out of which spiritual life can grow. But, thanks be to God, that you’re not walking alone through this purification.
I didn’t have many guy friends growing up, so I valued the few I had in high school and the deepening bonds I made in college. But in seminary I finally encountered guys wanting to be men after the heart of Christ, and this love of God coated our conversations and guided our activities. We formed a seminary band, did triathlons and Mario Kart competitions, and established a group that weekly discussed John Paul II’s teachings on love and human sexuality. Not surprisingly, many of my classmates (and I included) attributed our openness to the priesthood in no small part due to the influence of now-Saint John Paul II, the only pope many of us had ever known.
Living in close quarters with 50+ other men is a purifying process in many ways. You quickly learn the patterns, peeves, and quirks (and smells) of your brothers. Like two stones in a river, the abrasive quality of community life tests and purifies you, ideally smoothing out your rough spots, but not always. The grace was having 50+ other guys united in a common goal of discerning Jesus Christ’s call for ordained ministry. Every man had the same questions and the same self-doubts, and we challenged each other to become better men.
These brothers walked with me through time of trial and times of joy. When my body strangely began shutting down three years ago, the guys all lifted me up in prayer, visited me in the hospital, and made me depressing mixed-CDs to get me through my illness. About a foot of my intestine had to be removed because of severe diverticulitis, so there was no way to live down the onslaught of colon jokes that were to come. My seminarian brothers make little-to-no monthly income, and yet these are the men who traveled cross country for my wedding. To see some of them now reaching the end of their vocational journey brings me great joy. These guys are brothers for life.
Great attention and time are given to prayer in the seminary, an aspect that can easily be taken for granted. Counting altogether daily Mass, the liturgy of the hours, and a personal holy hour, I would spend minimally two hours a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Trying to swing 30 minutes in prayer now as a working, married layman isn’t always easy or convenient, and I don’t always prioritize it like i should. But having tasted that depth of quality prayer from seminary, I do miss it and realize how often I took that time for granted.
There are many things about seminary that I do not miss, namely the curfews, the formal evaluations, and the unholy nature of praying before coffee is consumed in the AM. Nor would I trade the lovely pregnant woman sitting next to me (as I type this…gulp) for the world. But I cannot deny that seminary made me into the man, husband, and now father, that I am. The priests and formation directors who all walked with me helped to mold in me a priestly heart, a heart that could not have been formed properly if Christ has never called me to follow him in this special way of priestly discernment.
Jackie and I have a special place in our hearts for all young men and women trying to discern God’s call for their lives. We were both there, discerning God’s will through vocational trials and dating woes, but now “on the other side” we can see how God faithfully weaves all our choices together for his greater glory.
If you’re thinking about following God in a more radical way, I can only echo the beautiful cry of Saint John Paul II, “Be not afraid!” Christ takes nothing away from who you are, but rather gives you everything back. And that pearl of great price is worth everything.