I’m spending this summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University. I’m here with 175 seminarians from across the country (and Canada!), including 4 classmates from Austin. This summer program is dedicating to building up the spiritual lives of seminarians. I’ve only been here a week, but it’s already wonderfully evident that IPF exists for one reason – to teach me how to pray. The goals of the program speak for themselves:
A few weeks ago I finished my last class at UD and moved out of Holy Trinity Seminary. In August, I’ll move to Houston and begin studies at St. Mary’s Seminary. It was a fantastic two years and I am incredibly grateful for the education I received. I don’t talk about classes too much, simply because I’m reading and learning so much I would have no idea how to compress it all down and tell you anything intelligible. That said, intellectual formation is a major part of priestly formation, so I’ll branch out of my normal style and, for those interested, drop a list of all the classes I’ve taken, the major texts we read, and the titles of essays I wrote (that I could find). If you like lists of books, this one is for you.
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.
On my way back to my room from the library, I ran across Bishop Kelly coming home from the front doors. Slightly surprised, I offered an “Oh, Howdy Bishop” and came straight here to reflect on another of the unique circumstances of living in a Seminary.
When I moved into the Seminary last year, Bishop Kelly was simply Monsignor Kelly. He served as the vicar for clergy for the diocese of Dallas (kinda like a personnel manager for all the priests) and lived at the seminary so he could stay close to the future priests. He is an alum of HTS, previously served as the campus chaplain at UD, and recently completed a short stint as interim rector of the seminary. He celebrated Mass every few weeks and always gave the best homilies. I’d sit with him at meals and talk about formation, classes, sports, or local news, and ran into him every morning at the newspaper table.
Over Christmas break, we heard that Msgr Kelly had been appointed Auxilary Bishop of Dallas by Pope Francis, and in February we attended his ordination. Before his ordination, he gave a homily at the seminary in which he described his emotions immediately after receiving the appointment phone call. He described a few days in which he couldn’t believe what was being asked of him but ultimately found consolation in the belief that the same Christ who had sustained him in priestly ministry would continue to sustain him in Episcopal ministry (specifically quoting psalm 55). Choking back tears he said:
“I never wanted this… but if the Holy Father desires it I will say ‘yes’. I will accept it as the path to holiness God has chosen for me.”
Now, I live in the same building as a Bishop in charge of the souls of the ~1 million Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas. In fact, he lives about 30 feet down the hall from me. It’s not unusual to sit down in the chapel for prayer at night and find him sitting in the pew right behind me, or, like tonight, run into him at night when he returns from a day of Bishop-ing. Every time we cross paths he greets me with a smile and a kind word. I’ve never seen him angry. He loves people. What did he do on Easter Sunday? Celebrate mass at a hospital because the Chaplain was out ill.
In a semester that has been marked by my realization of the difficulty of ecclesial obedience and an ongoing struggle to trust that the men in charge of the Church really are guided by the Holy Spirit, Bishop Kelly is a constant source of consolation. Praise God, and please pray, for the holy shepherds he provides.
School Update: I just finished my last paper of the semester (epistemology – 5 pages on how the systems of Descartes and Hume both end in skepticism of the external world). It’s nice to be finished after a three week stretch during which I completed four papers totaling about 30 pages of writing. I wrote more in this past month than in my entire undergrad. Thanks UD.
Update 3/15/17 – Here’s a more recent reflection on another Bishop who made a huge impact on me. – Priest, Bishop, Father
One of the most difficult things for me to grow into as a seminarian has been the identity ‘Seminarian’. I remember in my first few months being very frustrated by what I saw as a shift from being “Colby who is a Seminarian” to “a Seminarian whose name is Colby.” That’s not just semantics. This shift is apparent in many situations. As a random 20-year old dude walking into a new parish, it’s pretty rare for me to be greeted or talked to by a stranger after Mass. But, put on a cassock and people line up to shake your hand, take you out to dinner, and ask your opinion on pressing life questions. As a regular dude talking to someone about life and faith at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, they usually ask a few questions and move on. But, tell them you’re a seminarian and get ready for a long conversation.
It doesn’t bother me that people want to talk to me, ask for advice, or have substantial conversations. I love talking to people, hearing about lives/fears/struggles/joys, and sharing life with them. These encounters are usually the highlight of my day. The difficulty is feeling that I’m being engaged not because of who I am but because of a title I have or clothes I wear. I want it to be normal for everyone at the parish to talk about prayer and faith struggles, and not just with the seminarian/priest because ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do’. I want to be asked questions because I’ve won people’s trust or given them a reason to listen to me, not because of a misperceived sense of clerical power.
Interestingly, I gained a great deal of peace and clarity on this issue while watching Hunger Games: Mockingjay (thanks sister!). Bear with me here; this could be good.
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Katniss – “Don’t film me in there. I can’t help them.”
Producer – “Just let them see your face.”
Rando 1 -“ Katniss? What are you doing here?”
Katniss – “I came to see you.”
Rando 2 – “Are you here to fight with us?”
Katniss – “I am, I will.”
*Cue inspiring music, people filled with hope, and a hand gesture that means more than its simple, physical action*
The Mockingjay is a Symbol. When the people look at her, they don’t see a simple girl from a poor district who unintentionally became the center of a power struggle. Instead, they see a girl who fought against oppressive power and brings hope that the future will be better. She is in their midst and points to a movement. She hasn’t done anything for them individually. She’s broken, messed up, and not deserving of power. She isn’t a good fighter and has no idea how to lead a government. She can’t heal wounds and is in no place to offer strategic advice. She struggles the entire movie with being granted a following she doesn’t want.
But the people don’t care – They just see the Mockingjay.
People need symbols to express deeper realities, and this isn’t a weakness; it’s part of who we are as human beings. We are physical beings animated by a soul, and praise God that He gives us physical things to express the reality of grace in our lives. True Symbols aren’t just pointers; they embody the thing they signify. In this true sense, Sacraments are symbols, the Church is a symbol, Marriage is a symbol, and the Seminarian/Priest is a symbol. The priest doesn’t just represent holy things, he is truly tasked by God to convey grace and forgive sins.
I’ve come to see this identity as a good thing and am learning to more deeply internalize the reality that Seminarian IS who I am. It’s not just something I do. Rather, the life of a priest is one of taking on a new identity – Alter Christus – another Christ. The beauty of the priesthood is that people don’t have to ask, “can I trust this person?” They see a priest and know that man will treat them as Christ would. They know that the seminarian IS someone they can talk about prayer and faith struggles with. Yes, they can do it with others as well, but the Church has given people a symbol – a guarantee that this person, regardless of their personal failings, can be a bridge to God. And this isn’t just a front or a ruse, he spends years training for the task and is given the grace to fulfill it at ordination. The personal identity, Colby, isn’t diminished, it’s integrated and subsumed.
Maybe people should be more open to talking to strangers and not feel that clergy are the only arbiters of spiritual sharing, but that’s a tragic failing of Christian community rather than an issue of the priesthood as such. So I’m learning to stop questioning why the person in front of me wants to talk, overcoming bitterness that I’m singled out because of my collar and not my name, and growing into the identity that will be sealed in a few years at ordination. Now, I’m celebrating the fact that God is giving me these opportunities to enter into people’s lives so that I can learn to give them Jesus, and not just “Colby who is a Seminarian.”
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this year on situations where outcomes are out of my control. I’ve had lots to reflect on because I’ve had abundant experience in such situations this year. I spend two hours at the hospital each week, visiting patients. I realized very quickly how much I hate being asked to be present to something which I can do nothing to help. There’s a real feeling of inadequacy when sitting with a woman whose husband is about to die or with a man who had a heart transplant but is now unable to walk. My words and prayers often feel empty in the face of such pain and grief. I’ve learned that much of ministry is like that.