How seminarians look to God on their road to priestly vocation

by Paul Braun | New Earth

Deacon candidates Riley Durkin and Jered Grossman are received by Fargo Bishop John Folda at their Transitional Deacon Ordination Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral on June 1. (Kristina Lahr | New Earth)

Four young men from Shanley High School in Fargo get out of the car after a day of travel, eager to see what their discernment weekend has in store for them. They just arrived at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Nebraska, where the Diocese of Fargo sends men who have a call and desire to eventually become priests of the diocese. Accompanying these young men is the Vocation Director for the Diocese of Fargo, Father Kyle Metzger. His goal is to help dispel the myths surrounding seminary life and calm the anxious fears of the students that are in his charge during their weekend visit.

“Many high school guys have a misconception of what seminary is,” said Father Metzger. “When I was in high school, I thought seminary is where you go to die! There was no life, there was no joy, there was just this low-grade complacency. But one of the great consolations for many young men discerning a vocation is the chance to actually visit a seminary in order to dispel a lot of these wrong ideas. There’s a lot of life, there’s a lot of joy, there’s a lot of laughter, there’s a lot of fun in a college seminary. They have outings, they go bowling, they go hiking, so there’s a lot of social activity.”

St. Gregory the Great Seminary, where Bishop John Folda was serving as rector until he was appointed as bishop to the Diocese of Fargo, is home to about 75 young men who are in their first years of seminary. Termed “minor seminary,” the seminarians take general and core courses in “College I through IV” to earn their degrees in philosophy before moving on in their formation to the priesthood.

However, before applying to seminary, a young man must develop a stable prayer life and discuss his discernment with a trusted priest. Young men interested in the priesthood are encouraged to discuss their potential vocational calling with their local pastor, who can help guide and counsel them to discover if their calling is genuine before sending them to the diocesan Vocations Director.

“A man applying to seminary must have a substantial prayer life,” said Father Metzger. “The prompting to enter seminary must be something that came up in prayer and not one’s own personal aspirations, nor solely the recommendations of family and friends. It might begin there, but ultimately entering seminary must be something that you believe the Lord has asked of you in your prayer. That is a non-negotiable for someone who may be considered for the seminary.”

Although all young men face the same scrutiny by the diocese, not all enter seminary right out of high school. In fact, the vast majority of seminarians already have some college or have earned a college degree in a field other than philosophy. For these men, the philosophy curriculum is condensed into a two-year program. Once they graduate with their philosophy degree, men move on to their “major seminary” formation, this time concentrating on graduate theology. This is referred to as Theology I through Theology IV. It is during this time that a seminarian concentrates more deeply on his vocation and formation.

Bishop Folda lays hands on Deacon Candidate Jered Grossman at the Transitional Deacon Ordination Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral on June 1. (Kristina Lahr | New Earth)

In Theology I, a seminarian is considered a candidate while he continues his graduate studies. As he progresses, he is given new titles and responsibilities. Before entering Theology II, a seminarian is installed as a Lector at a solemn Mass and takes on the duties of publically proclaiming scripture, much like a lay lector. Next, upon entering Theology III, he becomes an Acolyte and may formally distribute Holy Communion, similar to an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Formation during major seminary continues through the summer months when seminarians are assigned to a church and are given practical training under the watchful eye of the local pastor. Father Metzger says a pastor feels his fatherhood in a unique way during this time because he’s able to mentor and train a future priest. It is often an edifying experience for both seminarian and pastor.

After Theology III, a seminarian must face himself and his formation, to determine if the priesthood is the vocation God is calling him to. It is at this point that he must decide if he is willing, or if he is being called elsewhere.

“We want a man to approach ordination freely, and to do so there has to be the flexibility during discernment to leave. Believe it or not, that is a success story,” said Father Metzger. “He hasn’t failed; he has discerned well. He will leave seminary a better man. He will be a great catechist, he could be a great youth minister, he could be a great Catholic school teacher. His formation would even benefit a field unrelated to ministry. The skills and virtues he developed in seminary will definitely be used in the future in some capacity.”

Transitional deacons

For those who continue, there is ordination to Transitional Deacon. On June 1, Riley Durkin and Jered Grossman were ordained deacons. The duties and responsibilities of a transitional deacon are identical to those of a permanent deacon. A transitional deacon has the authority by his ordination to perform certain sacramental duties that he couldn’t do otherwise. He becomes an ordinary minister of Baptism, he can witness marriages, and he can proclaim the Gospel and preach homilies in the sacred liturgy. According to Father Metzger, the ordination to a transitional deacon is a permanent decision.

“Most priests will tell you that their ordination to the transitional diaconate was a more powerful decision than their ordination to the priesthood, because their ordination to the priesthood was already assumed,” said Father Metzger. “His diaconate ordination was his irreversible commitment to sacred ministry. There’s no doubt it’s a challenging decision every man comes to. At the same time, it’s a decision that comes with great peace, because there’s confidence that this is the Lord’s will, and he no longer needs to go back and forth on whether to stay or go. Now discernment is over, and that’s a great relief to most seminarians.”

A field behind St. Catherine’s in Valley City provides a great spot for some seminarian baseball. (submitted photo)

Deacons Durkin and Grossman will now spend their fourth and final year of theology graduate studies learning the practical duties of a priest. They will practice liturgies, hear scripted “confessions,” and otherwise learn the role they have accepted to be priests of God. A year from now, we will be able to call them Father Durkin and Father Grossman when Bishop Folda will once again lay his hands on them, and they are ordained priests of the Fargo Diocese.

“The ordination of deacons and priests is one of the greatest joys of my service as bishop,” said Bishop Folda. “Each new priest and deacon is a sign of God’s grace and his love for his people. He calls them forth to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments, and through them he assures his own living presence within the Church. I remember feeling very humbled the first time I celebrated an ordination but also exalted by the great privilege of this responsibility. It is always wonderful to see the beautiful work that is done by the priests and deacons I’ve ordained for the Diocese of Fargo.”

May God’s blessing be upon Deacons Durkin and Grossman as they continue their journey, and may he bless all young men in seminary or discerning if God is calling them to Holy Orders.

A prayer for vocations:

O Lord, my God,
You renew the Church in every age by raising up priests outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of Your unchanging Love.
In Your Plan for our salvation You provide shepherds for Your people.
Fill the hearts of young men with the spirit of courage and love that they may answer Your call generously.
Give parents the grace to encourage vocations in their family by prayer and good example.
Raise up worthy priests for Your Altars and ardent, but gentle servants of the Gospel.
Give the Church more priests and keep them faithful in their love and service.
May many young men choose to serve You by devoting themselves to the service of Your people.
Amen