Local Religious life

Seminarians choose a different road to success than many of their contemporaries


by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Do seminarians pray all the time? Are they allowed to leave campus to visit “the real world”? Do they run around in the hallways speaking Latin?

Just what do seminarians do in the seminary?

Before he went to the seminary, Father Johnathan Dizon had a lot of questions and a few misconceptions.

“Before I even entered [the] seminary, I was able to visit Kenrick-Glennon a year before,” said Father Dizon, associate pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka.

“Before that trip, I had a different conception of what the seminary was,” he continued. “I thought it was like a monastery — it would be like monks praying alone in their cells, and there would be monastic silence.”

While he was there, he went to Mass with the seminarians and sat in on a few classes.

“I saw guys in cassocks carrying laptops and coffee mugs,” he said. “After lunch, we played basketball.  I thought it was cool.”

It’s all a big plot — sort of

For many Catholics, seminaries are a bit of a mystery.

“I would say that most Catholics don’t have a broad knowledge of what goes on in a seminary,” said Father Scott Wallisch, archdiocesan vocations director. “They see the seminarian poster, and maybe they see someone they know slowly work their way up the poster, but what it is that person is learning, they rarely know very well.”

The words “seminary” and “seminarian” come from the same Latin word, “seminarium,” which means “seed plot.” The establishment of modern seminaries came about from the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

However, the “seed plot” imagery might be a little misleading. After all, seminarians aren’t grown like potatoes, nor are they seed-like. Many men enter the seminary already with a college degree, or after a career or military experience.

First, a seminary is a place where men are educated and formed for the priesthood. Second, the seminary is the place where men discern whether or not they are being called by God to become a priest.

“You come with the sense that God has called you into the seminary, but God can also call you out of the seminary,” said Father James Mason, rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

If you discover you are not called to the priesthood, continued Father Mason, “you’ve received a level of formation that you could not have received anywhere else. Praise God, you’ll now be a healthy, holy, joy-filled husband, father, layman aiding the church in various ways as an active member of a parish. You’ll use that formation to bring others to Christ in a different way.”

Since 1992, American seminaries have been run according to the Program of Priestly Formation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now in its fifth revision, the program speaks of four dimensions of seminarian formation, also called four “pillars”: academic/intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human.

Seminaries look for men who have a sense they might have a call to the priesthood, and are men of prayer. They must possess a level of maturity appropriate to their age and some academic ability.

“The most important thing is that he is ‘malleable’ — that is, he is open to formation,” said Father Mason.

Seminaries look for a man with a desire to serve God.

“That’s manifested by their life of prayer and their participation in their parish and the life of the church,” said Father Brendan Moss, OSB, president rector of Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri. “We look for an open heart, someone who is able to seek God’s voice, to listen and to follow God’s will for them.

“That doesn’t mean they come to the seminary already answering the question — ‘Yes I’m called to be a priest.’”

“But are they open to considering if the life of a priest is something [they can see themselves] living?” he said.

Where shall we begin?

Despite having the same purpose and operating according to the same four “pillars” of seminary formation, seminaries are far from identical to each other.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one important reason is that not all men who enter the seminary are the same.

“Everyone who is ordained a priest has finished four years of theology in a major seminary, but what they did before those four years depends on the education they received before they applied for the seminary,” said Father Wallisch.

If a young man enters right out of high school, he will be sent to a college. There, he will study philosophy and typical general education classes. Those students graduate in four years with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a minor in some other field, such as     communications or history.

If a young man already has some college experience, he might start college seminary at a higher level than as a freshman. He won’t have to take all his general education classes over again, but he would have to take two years of philosophy.

If a young man already has a degree when he enters the seminary, he would take two years of pre-theology at a major seminary. Pre-theology includes two years of philosophy plus a language (Latin, Greek or Hebrew) and some theology.

If a young man has finished college seminary or pre-theology, he goes on to his actual theology studies at a major seminary, which usually takes four years.

Depending where you start, a seminary education might take between six and eight years . . . or even more.

“Most of our seminarians either go to college seminary at Conception or Glennon and then go to a major seminary for theological studies,” said Father Wallisch.

The archdiocese sends men to six institutions: Conception Seminary in rural northwest Missouri, a college seminary; the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary near Chicago, a major seminary; Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, a combined college and major seminary; St. John Vianney in Denver, a major seminary; Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, a major seminary for older men; and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, a residence for men who attend a major seminary in Rome such as the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Most archdiocesan seminarians go to Mundelein, Kenrick-Glennon or Conception.

“Every seminary has its own flavor, its own culture,” said Father Wallisch. “Some guys will do better at one seminary than at another. We try to take into account a guy’s personality, what he needs in order to grow into a good and holy priest, and then we try to match them with a seminary that will be best for him.”

Men may express a preference, but where they go is ultimately up to their bishop.

Forming the complete man

Like secular colleges and universities, seminaries have academic advisers.

But the seminary isn’t about simply making the grade, but forming “spiritual fathers.” Seminarians also meet with spiritual advisers, mentor-priests, spiritual directors and psychologists.

The seminarian, however, must also form himself, said Father Adam Wilczak, an associate pastor at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe who went to Mundelein.

“Mundelein and their approach was very much reliant on the student taking full advantage of all the opportunities given to them and taking ownership of their own formation,” said Father Wilczak, who graduated and was ordained in May 2014.

“[The seminary] gave you everything you needed to succeed and more,” he continued, “but there was definitely an expectation that you’d be proactive in your formation, and they weren’t going to hold your hand as you went through the process.”

The seminarian’s day is filled with everything from the profound (prayer) to the mundane (laundry).

Anthony Mersmann, a first year theology student at Kenrick, lives a typical seminarian’s life. He’s up at 5:30 a.m. for coffee and to get ready for the day. He heads for the chapel and makes a Holy Hour from 6 to 7 a.m. That’s followed by morning prayer and daily Mass. Next, there’s breakfast and then off to class.

At noon, there’s lunch and maybe some afternoon classes. In the evening, there’s an optional rosary at 5 p.m., evening prayer at 5:30 p.m., and dinner at 6 p.m. Evenings are free.

When a student isn’t in class, he’s either studying, doing things like laundry, exercising or playing sports, watching television or going off campus to do some shopping. Sometimes, a seminarian may have an on-campus job.

And, no, seminarians do not spend four years learning how to celebrate the Mass.

“It happened in the fourth year, near the end of our formation,” said Father Dizon. “We had mock confessions and practice Masses.”

Nor is their education limited to the campus.

An important part of every seminarian’s formation is his apostolic work, sometimes also called field work or pastoral work. How this is done varies from seminary to seminary.

It could consist of weekly or weekend work at parishes — teaching religious education or participating in a parish ministry. Sometimes, seminarians volunteer at food pantries, soup kitchens or homeless shelters. It can also consist of visits to nursing homes.

“My first year, I visited homebound elders in downtown Chicago,” said Father Wilczak. “My second year, I worked with a confirmation program in a small parish. My third year, I had a six-month internship in the archdiocese with Father Pat Sullivan.”

During the summers, seminarians can undergo intensive spiritual formation, work in a parish, study overseas or engage in other work.

“The pastoral work is where ‘the rubber meets the road’ of ministry,” said Father Brendan. “Am I able to serve others as they need? It’s good to expose men early to this in their seminary life.”

Fun and formation

Seminary is serous business, but do seminarians have fun?

You bet they do, said Father Wilczak.

“Absolutely we did,” he said. “On my hallway, we made sure every week we watched a movie with quite a bit of junk food. It gave us opportunities to goof off and have fun. We grilled out regularly. We enjoyed sports. Mundelein had lots of great opportunities for athletics. We’d go out occasionally to get dinner and drinks, or go to a local parish to join in their festivities.”

Seminarians are just regular guys, said Carter Zielinski, a second-year theology student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

“Many might think of a seminary as a dark, cold and dull place devoid of fraternal joy and seeking to punish any and every wrong,” he said. “In reality, seminaries are good places, staffed by priests and monks that truly desire at the deepest level to provide Mother Church with good and holy priests.”

“In addition, seminarians are real guys,” he continued. “They are young men called to leave behind previous pursuits and follow Christ in a radical way.

“As a result, there’s a bond of fraternity that can be found in few other places and which is centered on a love for God and for the church.”

How can a man make the most of his seminary experience?

“I’d tell him to keep an open mind,” said Andrew Gaffney, a third-year theology student at Conception. “Don’t be close-minded about different areas and how you think they should be.

“Give yourself over to formation and don’t fight against it. If you fight against what your chaplain, your spiritual adviser and character formator are trying to tell you to do, and you do what you want to do, you won’t last very long.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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  • I desire to be a priest and I am ready to join the seminary formation In order to fulfill this dream. Please reply.

  • good morning Father
    I am Peter Cao Chung Nghia and I am vietnamese. I am a new catholic. My family is Khmer and buddhist.
    so when I become a catholic I can greatly ùnderstand about the desire and thirst the love of God of non- catholic
    I would like to ask and search for a full scholarship for priesthood vocation support for asian seminarian.
    please consult me more. I am cocerning a two years period studying philosophy and further four years theology.
    so that I can become a priest in the future and do missionary.
    Thank you Father