Seminarians unite in prayer, labor and brotherhood

What do pulling weeds, chopping wood and building trails have to do with becoming a Catholic priest? More than you might think.

That’s what the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., taught almost 20 of its seminarians this past summer through two innovative formation experiences: the St. Joseph Program, which gave seven young men the chance to spend nine weeks working on an organic farm, and Wilderness Outreach, which took 13 seminarians into the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California for two weeks of manual labor. Their goals were simple: Help boys become men and classmates become brothers.

Building leadership skills

As Father Raymond LaVoie, vocations director for the diocese, explained, intellectual formation, spiritual formation, pastoral formation and human formation are considered “the four pillars” of priestly formation. But not all receive equal time.

“The majority of time in seminary is devoted to intellectual formation, with some time for spiritual and pastoral formation,” he said. “The system we’re in makes it difficult to get at the human formation piece, which is the most difficult and intense to navigate.”

“A couple generations ago, fathers were in the home, teaching their sons how to work hard, show respect and disagree with someone without blowing up,” Father LaVoie said. “That’s not the case anymore. The breakdown of the family and the absence of so many fathers, not to mention media technology that can hamper interpersonal communication, means men enter seminary lacking fundamental skills and formation experiences that should have happened, but didn’t.”

That’s why, for the past two years, Father LaVoie and the late Bishop Joseph McFadden looked for ways they could work more directly with their seminarians, helping them become mature, masculine Christian men capable of exercising spiritual leadership. The plan they eventually devised was two-fold. First, they selected 10 seminarians to participate in the Wilderness Outreach initiative. Founded in 2006 by Catholic layman John Bradford, Wilderness Outreach gives groups of men the opportunity to bond as brothers while facing the trials of labor and life in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

The Harrisburg seminarians spent two weeks building and repairing trails in the Sierra Nevada. Operating out of a primitive base camp, they rose every morning before dawn, prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and participated in a Mass celebrated on an altar they built. They then spent the rest of the day swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes as they put up retaining walls, constructed a water bar and removed rocks from trails. With no access to technology, electricity or plumbing, everything they did — from building the fire over which they cooked to finding drinking water — hinged on hard work and cooperation. In that, the men learned lessons one can’t learn in a classroom.

“On the hike in, we were carrying 40 pounds of equipment,” recalled Daniel O’Leary, who is in his third year of theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. “The elevation was so high that it makes it tough to breathe. Some guys couldn’t do it. Those who could had to make sure they were OK and get their packs for them. So, there were guys with packs on their back and front, then others switching off with them.

According to Father LaVoie, those lessons are essential to successful priestly ministry. “Often, when a priest struggles, it’s because the fraternal bond that should exist with his brother priests isn’t there,” he said. “We’re called to hold each other accountable, call each other out when there are problems, and ask one another if we’re praying. If a bond of brotherhood isn’t there, that doesn’t happen.”

Bond of brotherhood

Seminarians work to build a cross to be used at their worship site in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Photo courtesy of the Diocesan Office of Vocations

The need to create that bond was addressed in a more intense way through the diocese’s St. Joseph Program. For the first nine weeks of the summer, seven seminarians lived with Father LaVoie on a family farm in Adams County, Pa. The Oyler family, who own and operate the farm, gave the seminarians the use of a home on the property, and the young men, in return, gave them a summer’s worth of labor. That labor included weeding and planting, thinning apple and pear crops, preparing fields for tilling, and feeding cattle and chicken, as well as the more mundane tasks of meal planning, grocery shopping and house cleaning.

The days on the farm were intense by design, with hard labor and close living quarters bringing the seminarians’ virtues and vices to the fore. That gave Father LaVoie the chance to see where his seminarians struggled most: How they handled conflict, coped with failure and reacted to stressful situations.

“They’re going to fail in a parish,” he said. “We all do. They’re also going to be challenged in a parish. Priests who can’t handle failing or being challenged are nightmares. We want to prevent that by working through those issues now, before they’re ordained, helping them respond in a healthy way. What we’re saying to them is, ‘Before we entrust to you the responsibility of a parish, go pull weeds together. Let’s see if you can handle that first.’”

They also learned “how to see work not as a burden, but as a sacrifice,” said Bennett Smith, who is finishing up his pre-theology at St. Charles Borromeo and spent his summer on the farm. “When it was hot, I tried to think about how hot it was when Christ carried his cross, and how much heavier his burden was than mine,” he said.

Even more fundamentally, added Sean Warfield, a first-year theology student at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, they learned about themselves.

“The goal was to beat us down so that we could see who we were and others could see who we were, then we could help each other work through the kinks,” he said. “It worked. Things you came in thinking you were good at, you discovered you weren’t. And things you didn’t think you could do, you learned you could.”

That, said O’Leary, was the greatest burden and greatest blessing of the summer.

“Dealing with my own shortcomings was by far the hardest part,” he said. “Ten hours of weeding was nothing compared to asking the hard questions: Am I mature? Do my manners, words and actions reflect who I want to be? What does it mean to be a man?

“But that was the point,” he concluded. “It helped me grow up. It took everything seminary has given me and tied it together, helping me become a more mature Christian man, hopefully capable of receiving the gift of the priesthood.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.