In December, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy issued the document Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis that mandates an initial period of formation — the propaedeutic stage — where men spend a period of discernment even before entering the seminary.
Some colleges and dioceses already have similar programs in place. The Priestly Discernment Program (PDP) at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is one of the oldest and most successful. The idea was generated in 1982, when an increasing number of men on campus were approaching priests for guidance about vocations.
From that grew a pre-theologate program to prepare young men for the seminary and fulfill the academic and spiritual criteria outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The program officially began in 1985 with four men, two of whom became priests.
“Since then, over 250 men have been ordained, with over 150 in the last 10 years,” said Third Order Franciscan Father Gregory Plow, director of the PDP.
Participants live in one of three households according to their undergraduate and graduate years at the university.
“We offer a deliberate formation in five dimensions: human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and communal. The level of attention more than accounts for the propaedeutic stage,” Father Plow said. “Part of the success of the program is that the young men take their discernment and potential calling seriously while simultaneously experiencing the joyful life of a college student at our dynamically Catholic university.”
St. Joseph’s Hall at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, opened in 2011 as a formation home for faithful young men who are considering the priesthood and for those who want to take their faith seriously.
“It’s a formation of presence,” said Jerome Richter, vice president for public affairs at the university. “Father Joshua Waltz, the vocations director for the Diocese of Bismarck, lives there and meets with the guys, has dinner with them and has Holy Hours. Just his presence of being with them, like hanging out and watching a football game, invites a young man to wonder if he might want to be a priest.”
Since the program began, more than 20 young men entered the seminary, but not all of them remained.
“The seminary is a place for full discernment,” Richter said.
Former St. Joseph’s Hall resident Jarad Wolf was scheduled to be ordained a transitional deacon in Rome on Sept. 28. He was the first in the residency program to do so.
Three years ago, UMary opened St. Scholastica Hall with two Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation in residence.
“Their very presence will help young ladies to consider a religious vocation,” Richter said.
The search for meaning
The Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, in 2013 founded a discernment residence at the University of Florida in Gainesville not necessarily for men who were on track for the seminary but for men who were asking the question: What is God’s will for my life?
Father David Ruchinsky, director of the Office of Vocations for the diocese and director of the Catholic Center at the university, wrote up the rules, rented a house and ran with the idea. The concept inspired a faith-based housing initiative at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
|'Becoming a Christian Man'
Isaiah Schick of Isanti, Minnesota, is in his fourth year in the Priestly Discernment Program at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
“The experience of true brotherhood that I got here with its joys and its struggles is what Christian life in its fullest sense is supposed to be, whether it’s the married life or the priestly life,” he said. “Living in a spiritual family developed my longing to be a true Christian and a spiritual father to others.”
Schick, 21, a senior majoring in philosophy, theology and catechetics, feels called to the vocation of a priest in the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, where his mother is from.
“I highly recommend the program to anyone who is serious about pursuing a Christian life and who is open to discerning the priesthood but might not be ready to enter a formal seminary,” he said.
“I don’t know anyone who regretted their time here, even if they ended up dating or getting married. The formation here is better than anything I have found for becoming a Christian man.”
The program has become more formal in response to the Vatican document, and the goal remains the same: to help young men develop in their faith and human formation so that they can make a better decision about vocation.
Father Ruchinsky sees that as a valuable interim in the face of the “widespread phenomenon of extended adolescence” and the high level of anxiety and depression in the current generation, he said.
“A big part of that is that young people are having trouble finding the meaning and significance of life, and this isn’t just from a religious point of view,” he said.
One former resident just completed his first year of formation with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. Another young man didn’t feel at peace with everyone telling him that he should be a priest.
“I told him, ‘Look, go date that girl you really want to date and see where it leads, and don’t think that you’re going to be disappointing God,’” said Father Ruchinsky, who ended up officiating at their wedding. “This was a success story for the discernment house.”
Residential program in Oregon
At the house of discernment in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, men can stay with Father Jeff Eirvin, director of vocations, for up to one year.
Four men participated last year. One entered seminary, one left and is married and two are still discerning. There are currently no residents while the program transitions to men who have applied to the diocese but still need some time for pre-seminary formation. They will be expected to work in a parish, have a part-time job and be fully active in the house with prayer, dinners and discernment events.
“If a man is open to this work, he will persevere and enter seminary,” Father Eirvin said. “If he is closed off to formation and does not want to look deep into his interior life, he will most likely not last the year. It all begins with our desire to open ourselves up to God and to the Church who discerns with us.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.