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Friday, August 8, 2008

"Seminarians immerse themselves in parish life"

Future priests learn to balance rigors of ministry, prayer life

From the Catholic Sun (Pheonix)
By Andrew Junker

CHANDLER — Deacon Will Schmid stood at the ambo in St. Mary Parish July 29 and preached.

It was the feast of St. Martha. She was a friend of Jesus who had Him over for a visit with her sister Mary.

While Martha busied herself preparing the home, Mary sat at Christ’s feet and listened to Him. Martha complained to Jesus, who said that Mary had chosen better in spending quiet and untroubled time with her Lord.

“As Americans, it’s really easy for us to identify with Martha,” Deacon Schmid said. “But there are times when we just need to put aside all the things we want to do or think we need to do and just be with Jesus.”

Balancing quotidian activity with time for contemplation is a struggle most Christians share. But the lesson of Martha and Mary is especially salient for seminarians like Deacon Schmid, who spend their summers at local parishes learning how to foster a strong prayer life amidst the sometimes-hectic schedule of a priest.

For Deacon Schmid — who is scheduled to be ordained next June — this is his fifth summer of parish work. He spent previous summers at St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Theresa parishes, as well as spending some time learning Spanish in Guatemala.

“I think it teaches you who the people of God are that you’re called to serve,” he said of the summers. “The seminary can give you good examples, but they can’t give it to you fully. It’s nice to be able to be at a parish and just get to know the people.”

Deacon Schmid has also been getting some on-the-job sacramental training from St. Mary’s priests. He’s baptized children, assisted at burials and led the vigils that happen the night before a funeral.

“It’s the opportunity to take what we’ve been learning at seminary and make it concrete — to live it so that it becomes part of who we are,” he said.

From learning to action

The years spent in the seminary prepare future priests in the finer points of philosophy and theology and give them ample time and structure to form their prayer lives.

But when they begin their priestly ministry, they’ll have to take what they’ve learned and apply it to real parishioners in all sorts of real situations, while at the same time maintaining a strong personal commitment to prayer.

Spending time with pastors who can manage both the parish office and the Divine Office — or Liturgy of the Hours — is the best kind of classroom for seminarians, said Fr. Paul Sullivan, assistant director of vocations.

“Firstly, it’s for their own spirituality. It gives them a sense of the prayer life amidst the work of the parish. Second, they get to see the work of the priest, the hospital visits, the Masses, the time spent hearing confession — just the daily schedule,” he said. “The third thing is that the parishes get to know the seminarians and the seminarians get to know the parishes.”

This last point struck Kurt Perera, who recently completed his first year at seminary. He spent his summer at St. Thomas the Apostle and got to know parishioners of all ages through his work with the parish’s vacation Bible school, youth group and assistance at Mass and funerals.

He’s also shadowed various staff members whose duties might include finance or sacramental preparation just to get a flavor of all that goes on in a day at a parish.

“I have come to see that it is a lot more than just praying and celebrating Mass and the sacraments each day, though those are very vital aspects and are at the core of the priesthood,” he said.

Brian Rollo agreed.

“You definitely have to have a sense of administration, to organize well, to be open to your staff so they feel like they can come to you,” Rollo said.

He’s also recently completed his first year of seminary training and is spending his summer at St. Anne Parish in Gilbert. He was impressed by how far ahead the pastor, Fr. Greg Schlarb, plans.

“There’s a lot more that goes on than I ever suspected,” he said. “It amazes me how much coordination is needed between everyone to make it go smoothly.”

That’s the kind of realization you just can’t get in the seminary, Fr. Sullivan said. The summers spent at local parishes can highlight the administrative duties of a diocesan priest, but they should also prepare the seminarian for his own responsibility toward prayer.

“You need to maintain your spiritual contact with Christ in the Eucharist despite the environment you’re in,” said Fr. Sullivan. “A spiritual life based on the Eucharist is not really an option.”

This can get played out in different ways, said Deacon Schmid. Some priests prefer to set aside prayer time in the morning, before Mass. Others like to end their days with a long visit with the Lord in adoration. Still others might slip away for an hour after lunch.

What’s important, he said, is that all the priests he’s worked with have recognized and imparted to him the absolute necessity of quiet prayer in the life of a priest. It’s what helps them grow in holiness and spiritual fatherhood, he said.

“People always ask seminarians, ‘Does it depress you at all knowing you’ll never have any children?’ And being at a parish reminds me how much a priest is such a spiritual father, to see the people as his children,” Deacon Schmid said. “That’s just a beautiful thing to me.”

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