When I was discerning where to enter seminary, the community life of religious orders was the one thing holding me back from diocesan life. I talked a bit about that decision when I first entered. For a while I had the perception that parish priests live lonely lives alone in a rectory while the religious hang out all the time with their best friends. I’ve come to learn that both of those views are pretty skewed. Parish priests need community just as much as religious; they just have to work harder to maintain it.
There are too many good things about seminary to pick a best, but high on that list would be my experience of brotherhood with my fellow seminarians. Community and friendship have always been near to my heart, but seminary has really driven home how essential it is to a holistic, healthy, holy life. The formators here are emphatic about our need to develop friendships both inside and outside of seminary. Fr. John Nepil explains this very well with the emphasis that deep, supportive community requires vulnerability, and not simply transparency:
“Sadly, priests are the first to say they don’t need it, “and besides we are really busy.” Most priests I have met who have left the priesthood were isolated and didn’t pray; all of them lacked vulnerability in prayer and in relationships. But for some reason few have realized that the grave privation of constancy in relationships, at the source of so much destruction. Unless our relationships are consistent, deep trust cannot emerge and vulnerability becomes impossible. Vulnerability does not exist on its own; it is always the fruit of commitment.”
The formators recognize the tendency to isolate and speak about it often. In the seminary, we are encouraged to have both close personal friends and tight diocese/class groups. The formators go so far as to make comments such as (always moderated and in context), “In 7 years you won’t care if you got an A or a B in that class, but you will continue to need the support of your brother priests. If doing worse on an assignment allows you to spend time and build supportive friendships, do it.” They are trying to drill into us how important community is so that we’ll be ready when we do live alone in a rectory .
At the seminary, Austin brothers and Pre-The 2 classmates are my primary community.
Every Wednesday we have “Keep Austin Weird Wednesday”. We all wear our diocese polos, squeeze into a breakfast table, and share good times. Recently we started adding in “High, Low, God moments” (I learned it on my Spring Break mission trip to the Dominican Republic) in order to get a better grasp of what we are struggling with and where God is moving in prayer. Moments like those are the foundation and fruit of vulnerability in community. We have learned that we can trust each other with failings, doubts, and struggles.
Diocese Brother (DB) nights happen once a month. They usually involve a meal away from the seminary and some activity. Some examples include bowling, ice skating, city park exploring, C-League Basketball (Austin Spurs!), and chili cookoffs. Most recently we had our end of semester db night in which the graduating class organized a last hurrah of prayer and reminiscing. We gave out Austin Weirdo Awards, shared memories based on prompts Jimmy created (ex “I remember at DCYC when… Remember that time we ended up at a baseball game… The best part of the Korean BBQ restaurant experience was…), spent time in silent prayer, shared ‘where am I at right now’ updates, then took turns individually affirming each brother on the ways we have seen God’s action in their life this year. It was an incredible night. I’m blessed to continue on with these guys and see them throughout the year even away from seminary (Convocation is one annual gathering).
The Pre-Theology class is my other primary community. After our fifth classmate left early in our first semester, we’ve stayed strong through many struggles and joys. I consider each man to be a best friend. We share classes, weekly class outings, and unplanned class meetings in the hallway. These guys have been great to journey with as we learned the ropes of seminary and post-college life. Because we have semi-similar backgrounds (all graduated from large state universities), we’ve learned together how to think philosophy, deal with younger seminarians, temper our passion for pastoral ministry with seminary life, and balance time spent between old and new friends. We’ve also had lots of fun – road trips to Mexico and New Mexico, more chilli cookoffs, board games, bubble tea, etc.
Friendship is always a hard thing to quantify, but I think these guys have given me the best glimpse of what a close-knit community looks like. They go out of their way to support each other – sacrificing time and personal desires to build up the other. Moreso, it’s a group of men that truly share life and self with each other. I knew we had arrived when last semester we were out for coffee and one guy made the comment, “Hey so I know this thing really bothers you. How did you respond when that came up in class today?” Comments like that are now pretty standard – “Are you feeling ok after that lecture?” “Did that talk clear up your anxiety?” “I finally understand now when you speak about your perpetual frustration.” They don’t require effort or prompting, they just happen spontaneously as we spend time together. Quoting one more time from Fr. John Nepil:
“Transparency, the rendering of one’s interiority manifest to the other, is a good in itself. But this is not vulnerability. The former requires no risks, is safe because we remain in control. Vulnerability is the greatest of risks, because we can experience the greatest of rejections. Transparency is when the friend manifests their life to you in such a way as you are not invited into it, where exhortation or encouragement is not permitted. Vulnerability requires that I manifest my life in such a way as I become capable of being wounded (vulnus in latin is wound). I have to expose my life to you in such a way that permits you to enter into it, and not merely observe it.
I maintain many close friendships from before entering seminary, but never experienced the closeness in a group of friends that I currently have. That group intimacy carries with it opportunities to be “called out” and challenged by the same men that are walking with me as I struggle to grow. We began at a level of transparency, willing to speak about ourselves but not inviting the others to be a part of it. Vulnerability is something I’ve had to learn, but the learning has brought such an abiding joy that I don’t know how I lived without it. I now have a group of men who can listen to my issues, “I really hate X. This thing is pissing me off. I’m not sure how to deal with that teaching. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that as a priest,” hear me, and intelligently respond. That’s community – Brotherhood, not bromance.
As I enter finals week and start packing up my time at HTS, I am deeply grateful for these men who have made it such a transformative time. I’m confident I would not have made it this far in formation without them.