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A Seminarian's Life: Prayer, study, service and trust in God


Story by Rich Reece; photography by Craig Pittelli

When Bishop Burbidge speaks to high school students, he often acknowledges a question on their minds: “What do I want to do with my life?” Then he encourages them to consider a slightly -- or perhaps radically -- different question: “What does God want me to do with my life?”

For the 25 men in priestly formation for the Diocese of Raleigh, in Philadelphia, Boston and Mexico City, that question is part of each day. And that desire to learn God’s will brought them to seminary.

For the young men who enter after high school, life can be surprisingly like that in a regular college. “It’s very down to earth,” said Nikolai Brelinsky, a second-year college student at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia. “It’s not like a monastery.”

For the collegian, life is about study and exams. Free time is given to sports, music, video games and the outdoors, as on any college campus.

One difference is the curriculum, which requires Latin classes and is heavy on courses in philosophy and theology. Nikolai takes two philosophy classes -- logic is his favorite -- as well as English Literature and Biology.

The distinguishing trademark of seminary, though, is the centrality of a spiritual life. Nikolai and the other men at St. Charles begin each day with meditation, morning prayer and Mass. They finish with evening prayer.

“I have a lot of opportunities to be faithful,” Nikolai said. “The Liturgy of the Hours has improved my ability to stick to a regular prayer cycle. And two or three times a week I’m able to do Eucharistic Adoration.” Like his classmates, Nikolai meets every two or three weeks with a spiritual director.

One challenge Nikolai cited was patience. “You may feel like you want to know God’s will today,” he said. “But you need to take it slow.”

Nikolai’s classmate Joshua Arteta, a first-year college seminarian at St. Charles, also spoke about the spiritual discipline of life in formation, calling it “helpful in pursuing spiritual projects, such as praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet.” Compared to a regular college, he said, seminary could seem more “regimented, perhaps a loss of freedom, but in fact you come to see it as more freedom to grow closer to God.”

Like Nikolai, Joshua stressed patience. “You can put too much pressure on yourself,” he said. “But the point of seminary is just to discern what God wants of you, whether He is calling you to the priesthood or away from it.”

Since coming to the seminary he has been impressed by the strength of fraternity and cohesiveness engendered by the common spiritual life. The seminarians from Raleigh have dinner together every Monday night, and weekday evenings often involve group study.

Like Nikolai, Joshua has four days of class each week. His courses include Western Civilization, Oral Communication, Latin and Metaphysics. He also studies Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas.

On Thursdays, the seminarians engage in an apostolate, or service activity. Younger students might engage in an in-house apostolate, such as cleaning the common areas. “The older guys,” Joshua explained, “do service in the surrounding community.”

One of these “older guys” is Tyler Sparrow, a fourth-year collegian at St. Charles. Community apostolates -- which are part of pastoral formation -- might involve visiting hospitals, hospices or local parishes.

But spiritual formation remains paramount. Tyler begins his day with silent meditation, followed by morning prayer and Mass.

“Before, my prayer was very rigid. I followed the words as they were written in a prayer book,” Tyler said. “Now it’s much more meditative and receptive rather than active.” His goal is to be open to all that God wants to say to him. “But the Liturgy of the Hours is also great preparation,” he said. “It’s the prayer a priest does every day.”  

Tyler acknowledged that the increasing demands of his classes (Philosophy, Language and Music Theory) and spiritual schedule can make it hard to find personal time. But he does enjoy playing soccer and other sports.

Post-graduate theology

When a seminarian begins his four years of post-graduate theology, his schedule will increasingly incorporate practical aspects of the priesthood. Marlon Mendieta is in his third year of Theology at St. Charles and hopes to be ordained in 2018.

“The college years are more about philosophy,” Marlon said. “In college you learn how to think; in Theology you learn what to think. It seems a little more real.” To illustrate, he lists his current courses: Canon Law on Marriage, Catholic Social Teaching, Pastoral Psychology and Counseling, Moral Theology and Diaconal Homiletics

Diaconal Homiletics involves study and practice to become an effective preacher. His mentors, echoing Pope Francis, have advised him to keep homilies fewer than 10 minutes and avoid notes.

“I recall one priest telling me,” Marlon said, “’If you can’t memorize what you’re going to say, how can you expect your congregation to remember it?’”

The Thursday community apostolates, which occupied three of four hours during his college years, now consume an entire day. Last year Marlon helped teach Theology at Archbishop Carroll High School. This year he’s enthusiastic about his involvement with the Newman Center at Temple University.

The day at Temple begins with Mass, then meeting students. On Thursday night, the center hosts a free spaghetti dinner. We have 60 to 80 students who show up,” Marlon said.

In addition to his academic, pastoral and spiritual activities, Marlon has also served as captain and coach of the seminary soccer team and president of his class.

As his days have become busier, Marlon has discovered the importance of scheduling regular prayer. “It’s better with a group,” he said, “so last year a few of us began meeting for coffee at 5:30 a.m., then having a Holy Hour at 6 and morning prayer at 7.”

Post-career seminarians

Another Raleigh seminarian at the Theology level is David Miller. After 30 years in the military, David was accepted for formation and assigned to Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb.

St. John XXIII is a seminary founded to form men with second-career vocations. Its mission is “the human, spiritual, academic and pastoral formation of candidates aged 30 and older.” The Diocese of Raleigh has three men -- David Miller, Chris Koehn and Michael Coveyou -- studying there.

David, who entered the Catholic Church in 2008, attended college before his admission to the seminary. But he was required to do one year (for some men two years are needed) of Pre-Theology in order to catch up on philosophy and basic theology.

As a second-year theologian, his daily schedule is much as it would be for his younger counterparts at St. Charles: morning prayer and Mass each day, classes five days a week and study in the evenings. His current pastoral assignment takes him each week to a nursing home, where he participates in a Communion service and visits residents.

Asked if anything about seminary life surprised him, he smiled and said, “It brings you back to reality.” The housing, sharing a small room with another seminarian, reminded him of the barracks in the early days of his military service. The sharing creates a bond among the men, though, he said: “There’s a lot of fulfillment from community. And because we’re older, you are in formation with doctors, lawyers and nuclear scientists, so you meet a really interesting spectrum of men seeking the priesthood.”

In one respect, seminary for David (and Chris and Michael) is exactly the same as it is for the men at St. Charles: “The Eucharist is central,” David said.

Seminarians in Mexico

In addition to the three seminarians at St. John XXIII, one seminarian at a parish and the 17 at St. Charles, the Diocese of Raleigh has four men in priestly formation in the Spanish language program at Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Mexico City. That makes 25 men with the same goal, answering the most important question any of us can ask: “What does God want me to do?”

Erik Reyes, a first-year theologian at Seminario Hispano, expressed it for all our seminarians: “Answering God's call is the best thing you can do with your life.”

A day in the life

Seminarian: Deacon Jim Magee

Status: 4th Year, Theology, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary  

Undergraduate work: Elizabeth City State University, History Major

5 a.m. Wake up, drink coffee and check the news, especially the sports page (Go Mets!)

6 a.m. Holy Hour of prayer, meditation

7 a.m. Morning prayer

7:30 a.m. Mass (Every third week he preaches for brother seminarians)

8 a.m. Breakfast/social time in common room

9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Classes

(He takes four classes, two each day. Courses are: Liturgy Practicum, Bioethics, Gospel of John and Early Christian letters and homilies)

1 p.m. Lunch

2 – 5 p.m. Free time for midday prayer, school work and exercise such as walking trails near campus

5 p.m. Evening prayer in Main Chapel 

6 p.m. Dinner, on campus or out to eat some nights (Raleigh seminarians eat together every Monday night.)

7 - 9 p.m. Board games, such as Pandemic, or video games on Wii U. “When I came here I realized there were more games than Monopoly,” Deacon Jim laughed. Basketball and soccer are popular ways to spend time, too.