Show them the way

It wasn’t my best moment as a pastor supervising a seminarian. “What. Are. You. Doing?” I said with an irritated edge as we gathered around our rectory table for dinner with our new summer seminarian. “What?” he said with shock and shame in his voice for whatever he was doing that elicited my rebuke. He was a consummate overachiever in high school and college. Smart, athletic and personable, he was eager to serve the Lord and to make a good first impression with the priest who was to mentor him as he began priestly formation. What had gone awry in those first minutes?

There he sat at our table, having speared an entire chicken breast with a fork and was gnawing on it like a medieval king! It just caught me off guard; thus my stern reaction. As this was his first glance into the life of diocesan priests, I hated that I led with such a tone. Why hadn’t his parents taught him such a basic thing as table manners?

Mustering an awkward laugh, I slapped him on the arm and said, “Come on! Put the chicken breast on the plate and use a knife and a fork.” He blushed. I changed the subject.

On another occasion, I invited a different seminarian (a college graduate) to dinner with our teaching sisters and an assortment of laypeople. I had informed him about our 5 p.m. dinner, but didn’t think I had to include a dress code. I took it for granted that he could put it together himself. Wrong.

At 5:10 p.m. I yelled down the stairs to his room. Within seconds, he came bounding up the stairs. The first thing I noticed was his wrinkled, white T-shirt and a near fatal case of bedhead. Come on! I waved him back down the stairs as our guests waited. I got a blank stare as I suggested that perhaps a collared shirt was in order.

Filling the Void

I could go on about the array of discerners who have been assigned to my parish and to me. Some are from our parish, while others have been assigned for the summer or even a yearlong internship. Still others have stopped by on their way from one place to another, identifying our rectory as a safe place to lodge, pray or spend the night. Some have been ordained, others not.

For years our diocese had just a handful of seminarians who seemed to come and go from formation. But some years ago a steady stream of seminarians began to flow into our diocese. But it left a serious question: Now what do we do with them? Where do we assign these young men to receive pastoral formation, support and mentoring?

Stephen Yusko, a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., prays during a Holy Hour for vocations Jan. 20, 2017, at St. Patrick Church in Bay Shore, N.Y. The service, which invited teenagers and young adults to pray for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, was sponsored by the vocations office of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

After that dearth of seminarians, it seemed, as in many dioceses and religious communities, there were few priests willing (too busy, too tired, or just disinterested) to take on the task of mentoring and encouraging young men who aspired to the priesthood. Some priests remind me of parents who have jettisoned kids into adulthood and really don’t want to be bothered by the needs of any aspirants to our priestly life. That these aspirants would invade his privacy or disrupt dinner at the rectory seems the final straw.

Yet this is about the future of our beloved Church. This article then isn’t just about the perspective candidates and seminarians exclusively; rather, it is about the ordained men whom they long to emulate as well. How do we reach these young people, support them and, with God’s guiding help, form them into worthy priests to whom we can pass the baton?

A Beloved Son of the Father

Not long after I made the decision to enter the seminary in the late 1980s, a mentoring priest introduced me to another priest at a major seminary. My mentor explained that I would be starting my studies in the fall. In those initial stages of formation, everything seemed like a test of this crazy idea that I was called to be a priest. I looked for signs that this was the right thing, and as I met this first “seminary priest,” I wanted him to express joy, warmth and excitement. I wanted the secret handshake that would welcome me into the brotherhood of priests. I got nothing. He was cold, even disinterested, as if he was missing something on television or was late to dinner.

I learned from that. I think of my attitude toward penitents who have been away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a number of years. As opposed to making them feel guilty about their “sacramental absence,” I focus on God’s delight and my joy over their conversion and that God is working in their lives. I go out of my way to welcome them home and let them know that God is pleased by their return. That sense often catches people off guard, who expect some sort of stereotypical sternness that they have seen in the movies. I give them the opposite: “Praise God that you are here!”

I think aspiring seminarians deserve the same from us. Author John Eldredge wrote a book called “The Way of the Wild at Heart,” about mentoring, that for years was required reading for our seminarians. In the book he outlines the steps that a boy has to take to become a man. Based on my experience, Eldredge was spot-on as I thought of some seminarians whose fathers often were too busy, absent or disinterested to be bothered with mentoring their sons.

Eldredge’s first step in a series of maturing steps for the boy is to convince him that he is the beloved son of his father. Although idealistic, many discerning young men do not have this sense of being beloved. This is where priests, as spiritual fathers, need to step up and take delight in the birth and progress of a priestly vocation. This, of course, takes time and effort, and so many of us have convinced ourselves that it is someone else’s work.

Give Seminarians Your Time

Aspirants to our way of life (seminarians and discerners alike) need time. They have tons of questions, and they need random — as well as scheduled — times with you. I have had more pizza and hamburgers than a priest should ever have with discerning young men. I offer up those hours in reparation for my sins, as these young men sit across from me drilling me with questions. (Surely I have eked my way into purgatory by now!)

During those same conversations, I have challenged young-adult discerners to live up to their idealism when a gap exists between who they say they want to be and who they actually are. My experience is that most of them really want to be God’s beloved sons.

I also have found that many discerners need someone to help them understand past hurts. It is a tough world, and there are many ways that pain can pour into a young man’s life today. It is my experience that they need spiritual fathers to guide them to the healing touch of Jesus Christ.

Many times, I also have found that discerners need me to put words to what their inner feelings are when considering the priesthood. Just say it: “I think you would be a good priest.” During those same conversations, when a young man is sitting on the fence for way too long, I remind him that the call is an urgent one and that Jesus is a gentleman and will stop asking him to accept a calling if he delays his “yes.”

Go Out and Tell the Good News

An ideal seminarian needs to be trusted as a Catholic and a man. In addition to mundane tasks, he needs the opportunity to make concrete contributions to the life of your parish and then to be affirmed for it. He needs to be able to leave his mark, perhaps, by leading a Bible study or organizing some meaningful event such as a father/son gathering or a youth meeting.

I remember, in one of my first parish experiences, a group of young priests and seminarians organized a successful Catholic young-adult conference that continues after 20 years in one form or another. I believe that this movement triggered a springtime of vocations in the life of our diocese.

I also remembered how naive we were that young adults would come rushing to sign up for our conference. It was hard work as we pulled together this conference and begged Catholic young adults to attend. We also received the satisfaction of a job well-done, as the number increased from 70 to as many as 200 in our small, rural diocese. At the same time, we developed some street credibility with our young-adult Catholic peers.

Incidentally, I also remember that few priests took the time to affirm what was being done, often taking exception to some aspect of the program. Affirming words from priests make all the difference to young people. An affirming priest will inspire greater discipleship.

Discerners and Seminarians, Pray with Me

Discerners and seminarians want to be invited into your prayer life. I remember a priest allowing me to pray a Holy Hour with him and how much that meant to me. I also was so taken when a priest introduced me to the Liturgy of the Hours. When I was well into the process of discernment, a priest even bought me the four-volume breviary set that changed my prayer life and permanently changed my life’s trajectory.

Pope Francis: Formation 'is a work of art'
Pope Francis, in November 2013, urged a change in the culture of forming priests, asking those responsible for their formation to be more open and joyful.

A while ago, I hired two Catholic college students to help me do some heavy lifting as I helped my sister’s family move to a new house. On the way to return the moving van, I handed one of them my cellphone and asked him to help me fulfill my prayer commitment by leading evening prayer. After nearly 25 years of priesthood, I have many of the psalms memorized. As I prayed along by memory, I realized that I had lost my sense of awe of the gift of priestly spirituality. They were amazed about something that is commonplace to many of us.

This invitation to prayer allowed me to talk to these young men about our diaconal promise to pray the breviary and how it helps me to live the demands of the priesthood. I told them that it makes me stop and refocus on why I do what I do and how Jesus brought me to this life, and that if I stay close to him in prayer, he will sustain me. Both of these young men can’t articulate it yet, but they are discerning. Praying the Divine Office with them was a simple way to lift the veil from our priestly life and invite them in. Both of them downloaded the breviary app as we rode along. With this simple tool, I am anxious to see how God will work!

The Well-Rounded Seminarian

I have noticed that many young-adult discerners are missing a well-rounded perspective on life. Something often is missing about their human formation that is a result of our modern world. Most often, I believe, it is because they have been forced to “specialize” as a young person. Gone are the days when a child received a smattering of experiences, such as sports, music, leadership and faith.

So if a teenager wants to play high school basketball, more and more he has to specialize, beginning as a first-grader. If he wants to be a soccer player, he has to join a travel team, spending nearly every weekend on the road. If you want to play the tuba or sing in the choir, it has to become your way of life.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that if a discerner/seminarian has been specializing in some activity in an attempt to succeed, we need to be thinking about what he has missed in the process and open him to new experiences. Our seminarians do all kinds of things — 30-day retreats, farm experiences and exposure to immigrants and the poor at our food pantry. Our summer seminarians have a weekly duty to meet and dine with a parish family. I know a priest who takes discerners and seminarians to plays, concerts and museums to help them grow culturally. I know another priest who has encouraged his summer seminarian to take up a musical instrument.

Goals and Objectives

Once a seminarian has moved into your rectory, it is critical to set up expectations and goals. He cannot read your mind. I know some priests who see seminarians as an extra set of hands to get some work done around the parish. While I don’t think it is a bad idea for seminarians to occasionally pitch in (painting, cleaning, etc.), we have to remember that many of our seminarians are coming from professional backgrounds. Try not to insult or deflate them by making them the summer janitor.

Father Bobby Krueger, pastor at St. Leonard Parish in Berwyn, Ill., visits with young people Jan. 3 during a conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students in Chicago. CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic

Usually I meet our seminarians at the beginning of an assignment and give them an array of ministerial ideas. I ask them to put together a calendar of activities/ministries that we review at the beginning of the summer. Sometimes in their zeal they “bite off more than they can chew.” That’s OK. Far from being a deal-breaker, it becomes an opportunity to guide them to be realistic about their future ministries. Good goals and objectives will lead to solid opportunities for feedback, which will help seminarians progress at the end of an experience and keep them accountable.

You Are a Public Person

I have found that many seminarians haven’t a clue about what it means to be a “public person.” I remember the day my pastor introduced me to the widows group at my home parish. I was 22 years old and a recent college graduate, and I squirmed uncomfortably when 80-year-old women were calling me “Father” as I left the meeting. Frankly, it scared me; but it also taught me a valuable lesson. Like it or not, people would be watching me with expectations about my public behavior and would even judge the Church by my actions.

There is certain anonymity and freedom that millennial seminarians sometimes think they have because they are not yet ordained. Perhaps this is based on the illusion of anonymity that they think they have on social media.

A discerner/seminarian needs to be held to a high standard and reminded over and over to be prudent online and in life in general. Their language, their music and movie choices, as well as the tendency to thoughtlessly forward online content and off-the-cuff opinions, are being watched and should be reassessed as a public person. Likewise, the rigidity that is often characteristic of seminarian “first fervor” can cut like a knife. Perhaps a social media fast during this initial stage of formation might be helpful.

I remember once that the peers of a perspective seminarian showed me a long thread of his off-color tweets replete with four-letter words. I made a copy and called him into my office. Because I go out of my way to affirm young people, I think he was expecting a pat on the back for one thing or another. I slapped the copy of tweets on the table and made him read them out loud to me. I directed him to the confession schedule and sidelined him from serving Mass for a month. He was mortified, but I am certain that he learned a valuable lesson.

Seminarians have to realize that their peers “living in the world” are watching their actions and making judgments about the Church. There is no better time than the present for discerners/seminarians to get this into their heads.

Surprisingly, I have seen this ignorance of a seminarian’s role as a public person in the actions of those who discerned to leave formation. I still owe them mentoring, as one never knows what the future will bring. After all, many ex-seminarians return to formation.

I have been amazed at the imprudence of seminarians who “discern out” of formation one day and begin dating a girl (whom often they met as a seminarian) the next day. I have come down hard on more than one man, and I tell them that they have become a source of scandal. I am amazed at the blank stares I get in return.

Even if a seminarian has “discerned out,” I owe it to him and to the Church to tell him that it is unfair to expect the People of God to adjust so quickly. It does not work that one day he was serving at the altar in a cassock or alb and the next day he is sitting in a pew with a girl. Even as an ex-seminarian, I have explained to more than one candidate that the thousands of dollars spent on their formation and the love that has been given to them as seminarians dictate that they behave better.

A Call to Healthy Living

On occasion I have been asked to host a seminarian for the summer who eats like a seventh-grader and prefers the couch to the treadmill. Again, a seminarian is a public person. If a priest cannot or will not be a good steward of his own body, how can he be trusted with people’s souls?

Seek Help in Mentoring
The USCCB summarizes the findings of the Third Continental Congress for Vocations, which suggests that mentoring those discerning a vocation should fall to the parish community as a whole. Here are some suggestions:

With this in mind, on more than one occasion I have had painfully honest conversations with seminarians and facilitated meetings between dieticians and even offered personal trainers to seminarians who need it. I also talk to them about what pain they are sedating with all the extra food.

I also share with them my own struggles to be healthy as a busy priest and how crucial it is to set the tone as a seminarian for how they will take care of themselves as priests. I have talked to seminarians about my family’s history of addiction and why I choose not to drink because of my genetics. I talk to them about my own health struggles, such as my propensity to overwork and, most especially, to stay up too late. I have quoted a friend who challenges me to consider that nothing good happens for a priest after 10 p.m. — overeating, impurity, mindless web searching and so on.

Seminarians at the Altar

Seminary prospects and seminarians alike need to be invited to serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and altar servers. Summer seminarians also are required to function as sacristans so they become familiar with the ordo and the sanctuary.

With some serious guidance, seminarians who have a little formation under their belt are invited to function as masters of ceremonies during Holy Week or during the Eucharistic procession on Corpus Christi. When seminarians are nearing diaconate ordination, I invite them to compose the general intercessions at Mass. As formation progresses, I also tell them that I have a “hands-off” policy with the Roman Missal — that is, they are in charge of setting the missal and turning to the right page during Mass.

Of course, this requires some serious patience on the part of a celebrant who wants things to go well. It also means that a theologically sloppy petition must be corrected and liturgical mistakes need to be reviewed with an eye toward helping the seminarian improve. A seminarian needs both positive and negative feedback.

A new priest, right, receives his vestments from a priest as Pope Francis celebrates the ordination Mass for 10 priests for the Diocese of Rome in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on May 7, 2017. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Ordination Day

As I write this column, I recall the 18 young men and women (toward religious life) from my parish that I played some role in mentoring toward their vocations during the past 12 years, including a young man who was ordained in June 2017. I was honored to vest him for his ordination. I was proud of him, but I also took a deep breath of satisfaction that somehow, despite my many flaws, the Lord has used me to bring about his will. In my mind, there is no greater compliment than when a young person points to my priestly guidance, example and vocation as somehow helpful to their own!

FATHER RICHARD DOERR is the pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Carmel, Indiana.