At St. John’s: Acquiring ‘a ministerial identity’
Many students ease off during the summer months, but at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo there is constant activity for those who would be priests --- a valuable lesson itself as to what the priesthood will entail.
Some seminarians participate in summer immersion experiences in parishes, hospital ministry or practice their foreign language skills. Others engage in a month-long “Intensive Period of Spiritual Formation” (IPSF-A) following their first year of Theology, or they begin IPSF-B, following year four at the seminary and an internship (ten months of parish ministry experience).
Next month, the archdiocese will ordain to the transitional deaconate those men to be ordained to the priesthood in June 2012. One of them, Eben MacDonald, is likely to have more experience with priesthood than any other man in the class of 2012, with two younger brothers already ordained (Father Tim for the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, and Father Adam, who will soon be doing vocation work as a member of the Society of the Divine Word).
That, combined with the formation he has received at St. John’s, makes Eben feel he knows what lies ahead and he is ready.
“I think I’ve gained a ministerial identity,” he said this summer, during a break from working at the seminary earning money to help pay for the costs of his seminary education (making beds, cleaning rooms, helping in the kitchen).
“Not that I didn’t have it before. But I’ve been able to identify much more with the role of priest. I always had a sense of the ministry of the priest, but now I’ve come to my own sense of my own ministerial priesthood of Christ.”
For MacDonald, a summer internship at St. Bernardine of Siena Church in Woodland Hills and his 10-month intensive internship at Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster made a huge difference.
“That really cemented it for me,” he said. “Watching the priests here at St. John’s and my own experience in parishes really told me that the priesthood is where God is calling me. It answered a lot of questions I had --- like, ‘Did I have the skill for this?’ --- and it answered the question of loneliness in the priesthood. I wasn’t lonely for a second. The people invited me into their lives and that met my need for companionship. I gained confidence; I can do this. God is calling me and I have gifts to offer.”
To assist MacDonald and his fellow seminarians, St. John’s ensures that they receive guidance in the four basic components of their formation process: spiritual, human, academic and pastoral. This program is based on the “Priestly Program of Formation” written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and revised five times over the years.
Staff and faculty members are charged with handling various aspects of these and utilize a team approach to assess the progress each candidate makes.
Among them is Sister of the Holy Faith Mary Glennon, former Vicar for Religious for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who as a Human Formation Advisor serves as an integral part of the Human Formation Team with Father Leon Hutton, director of human formation and evaluation and professor of history.
Sister Glennon has been at the seminary for ten years, having returned to Los Angeles after serving in a leadership capacity in Ireland for the Sisters of the Holy Faith. When she came back to Los Angeles, she intended to get back into retreat work, but was approached about coming to the seminary.
Watching the priests here at St. John’s and my own experience in parishes really told me that the priesthood is where God is calling me.
In her role, Sister Glennon works closely with the seminarians as they come back to the seminary after internships, both their summer experience and the intensive 10-month experience, to discuss what they’ve done, how it impacted them, and how it will affect their formation as priests.
After they return from their extended internship in the parishes, the men receive additional formation in Diocesan Spirituality while completing their course work and preparing for ordination to the transitional diaconate (and additional parish service).
The goal, said Sister Glennon, is that when a candidate has completed his seminary formation and is ready for ordination to the priesthood, “He is a man for the people of God.”
“I’ve had a wonderful experience of formation here,” MacDonald said of his seminary education. “I feel I am very solidly prepared theologically, spiritually.”
He would like to have, he says, more formation in presiding at liturgy (“If we are expecting full, conscious, active participation of the people, then it needs to start with the priest”), and in parish administration (“With the reality that we are all going to be called to be pastor sooner rather than later, I think we need more formal training”).
“But,” he adds with a smile, “the challenge is, if you add something, what are you going to take away? These years have gone by so fast. When I first entered, six years sounded like forever, but it’s flown by.”
MacDonald, as all who have been ordained to the priesthood would attest, notes that no seminary formation process could possibly prepare any candidate for all of the challenges and realities that one encounters after ordination. Certainly, the parish leadership component is an aspect that often is as much learned on the job as it is taught.
“The most difficult part for me is dealing with the demands,” he admitted, reflecting on his internship experience. “With fewer priests, there is a lot more being asked of them. It is highly likely that I’ll be asked to be a pastor even before I’ve finished my first assignment.”
That is one reason the archdiocese has made available the “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” formation program (see The Tidings, Oct. 21) to its priests, several dozen of whom are currently enrolled in the 18-month process. The hope is that formation in helping to identify one’s own strengths, as well as those of those involved in parish leadership (lay, religious or clergy), will enable the ordained to better serve their communities in collaborative ministry.
Msgr. Craig Cox, rector of St. John’s Seminary and a supporter of “Good Leaders,” believes the men recently ordained from St. John’s and the seminarians currently in formation are well-prepared not only to be good priests, but are also eager to receive the necessary on-the-job skills that today’s parishes require.
“These men inspire me and give me great hope for the future,” he says. “They come with a deep faith and a hunger to grow spiritually. They come with an intense desire to serve. Many have made major sacrifices to pursue discernment and formation. The formation here is very demanding and comprehensive, yet they give themselves to that formation very openly. They will serve us well in their initial decades of the 21st century.”