No phones, no Facebook, no Amazon, no Netflix.
When Fr. Josh Mayer entered St. John Vianney’s Seminary in Denver, his first year looked a little more monk-like than what some might expect.
“It had to do with getting weaned off of the damaging effects of media, and then being able to see them for what they are when you come out on the other side of that,” Mayer told CNA.
Besides fasting from their phones and the internet, the seminarians also went on a commerce fast, where they were not allowed to make purchases. The only day the men did not observe these fasts was Saturday, when they could call friends and family or buy things they needed.
The year was also peppered with spiritual direction and counseling, as well as spiritual retreats, culminating with a 30-day Ignatian retreat. There were classes, but no grades. Book assignments, but no reports.
In January, after Christmas break, the men were sent out two-by-two for 30 days, with about $80 and a backpack, heading to unbeknownst-to-them mission destinations, for what is known as a poverty immersion. Mayer can’t say where he went, so as not to ruin the surprise for other seminarians, “but I can tell you that it was awesome.”
These experiences were some of the key parts of Spirituality Year – the introductory year of the seminary program at St. John Vianney in Denver that is designed to give men a break from academics for a more intense focus on their spiritual and human formation.
“They call it a year of the heart,” Mayer said. “So a year to focus on your relationship with the Lord and to engage in deeper prayer than probably anybody who’s in spirituality year has ever engaged in before.”
When Mayer entered his spirituality year 10 years ago, the Denver seminary was one of the only ones in the United States with such a program. Today, more seminaries throughout the country are looking to St. Vianney’s program as a model for their own “propaedeutic,” or preparatory years.
The authority in the Church that governs the formation of seminarians is the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, which provides its guidance for formation in the Ratio Fundamentalis Instituionis Sacerdotalis (or “Ratio”).
Following this “Ratio,” each country’s bishops’ conference then prepares their own “Ratio Nationalis.” In the U.S, this document is entitled “The Program of Priestly Formation.” The current edition of this document suggests a “propaedeutic period” for seminaries, but the U.S. bishops’ conference told CNA that the document is being updated, and such a period will become the norm in U.S. seminaries with the new edition.
According to the Vatican’s 2016 Ratio, the purpose of such a period “is to provide a solid basis for the spiritual life and to nurture a greater self-awareness for personal growth.”
“It must always be a real time of vocational discernment, undertaken within community life, and a ‘start’ to the following stages of initial formation,” the Ratio states.
Pope John Paul II wrote in the 1992 document “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (I Will Give You Shepherds) of the growing need for propaedeutic years for seminarians, due to the rapidly changing cultural, technological and ideological landscapes of the modern world.
“[T]here is spreading in every part of the world a sort of practical and existential atheism,” he wrote, in which “the Individual, ‘all bound up in himself, this man who makes himself the center of his every interest’…even as a wide availability of material goods and resources deceives him about his own self-sufficiency.”
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver noted in a recent document, “New Men in Christ,” that it was such an observation that motivated St. John Vianney Seminary to provide a spirituality year for the past 20 years.
“Coming from an environment of that promotes self-centeredness, our young men are given the daunting task of hearing and responding to their vocational call. In many cases, they receive and respond to their call with decidedly marginal resources – having an underdeveloped knowledge of themselves and their relationship with Christ,” Aquila wrote.
“Like the apostles, prior to entering the intellectual and pastoral formation stages of seminary, our young men need a time for their hearts to be formed by Jesus. This human and spiritual formation allows them to live with Jesus through prayer, away from the
cacophony of the voices of the world,” he added.
Fr. John Kartje is the rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which just started its second year of a spirituality program.
Kartje said while the program took a lot of its inspiration from Denver, including the media fast, one of the ways in which it differs is that it is “housed deliberately not on the seminary site.”
“It really is in the nature of the year itself, that you’re sort of stepping away. You’re stepping outside of that busy-ness of the life you’ve been living,” he said.
Furthermore, he said, it disengages the men from some of the “dramas” of seminary and Church life, and allows them to dive deeply into community life with one another.
“It allows the men to disengage a little bit from, for lack of a better word, the drama that sometimes can go on in the Church today,” Kartje said. “‘Bishop X said this.’ Or, ‘Did you see what was in that blog post?’ Dialogue is important, but there’s a toxicity in the Church today – by no means is it pervasive, but it’s there. And for someone who’s just exploring a vocation, the evil one can really take advantage of those kinds of things and just completely take us off focus.”
The men live together in a house with one full-time priest, and other priests who come for spiritual direction or to give talks. The men are fully in charge of the house’s day-to-day duties like cooking and cleaning, Kartje said, which gives them an opportunity to grow.
“It’s the men living together in community, which is much more than getting along with your roommate or something like that. It really is having that common bond as a disciple of Christ, as a man who is discerning this vocation and learning what it means to be the body of Christ in the truest sense of the word,” he said.
“But also, it does mean to take responsibility for your share of the work, to collaborate. Men in a presbyterate are not best friends primarily. They may have a good friend, who’s a priest in the presbyterate. But how do we all get along? How do we respect each other? How do we handle fraternal correction? All those kinds of things.”
Echoing the sentiments of Pope John Paul II as well as the Ratio, Kartje said that men who enter seminary are often coming from environments that are antithetical not only to prayer and the Christian life, but to any kind of quiet in their lives, which is another thing the spirituality year aims to provide.
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