Above: Spokane seminarian Nick Sund (center) pictured with family and relatives.
By Fr. Kyle Ratuiste
“Support seminarians,” sounds like a self-evident maxim for people who desire to see more priestly vocations and for those who have a friend or loved one in the seminary. However, what is helpful and what is not? Beyond the more obvious points of praying for seminarians and even contributing to their formation and material needs, here are some do’s and don’ts that you may not have considered when it comes to speaking and being in relationship with seminarians.
Don’t presume. Do give thanks.
When a young man and woman you know start dating, you normally don’t jump to planning for their hypothetical future marriage and family. That would be premature. Similarly, speaking to seminarians – especially those earlier on in their formation – as if they will certainly become priests is premature and even unhelpful. The first years of seminary, especially the Propaedeutic and Discipleship Stages, are precisely about discerning a priestly call. Therefore, talking in a way that does not reflect the fact of a man’s discernment can undercut the process of seminary formation.
As a corrective, some people simply add the preface “God willing,” as in, “God willing if you become a priest. . .” Even that can miss the mark, because an over emphasis on how God may or may not manifest His will in the future, can give the impression that discernment is wholly based on the arbitrary action of God, leaving no real basis for decisions and action in the present.
Rather than trying to predict the future or stumbling over how we can’t, I recommend focusing primarily on the present. This takes the form of giving thanks. We give thanks for what God is doing right now in the life of this man. We give thanks for what this man is doing right now. Through God’s providence, he has made the courageous, counter-cultural step to enter seminary and deeply consider a life-long call to priesthood. Regardless of the outcome, that in itself is worth celebrating.
Don’t pressure. Do affirm.
Aside from the risk of jumping the gun on discernment, seminarians are also prone to feeling pressured. There is a “priest shortage,” so seminarians can feel the need to fill the gap. Problems afflict the Church, so seminarians can feel the need to be “part of the solution.” The perception or reality of others placing the weight of their hopes and the needs of the Church on seminarians can compound this unhelpful pressure.
Instead of focusing on external needs (which are real), I recommend highlighting personal signs of a call. This takes the form of affirmation – sincerely and reverently sharing with a seminarian the positive and priestly qualities you see in him. These qualities are no guarantee that a man will or should be a priest. However, it can be encouraging and clarifying for a seminarian to know that others see something in him that is worth bringing into his own prayer and discernment.
Don’t pigeonhole. Do anticipate changes.
Sometimes enthusiastic supporters (or suspicious detractors) “pigeonhole” seminarians by imposing on them idealistic caricatures or simplistic stereotypes. For instance, people may pigeonhole a seminarian as the “de facto Catholic apologist,” the “resident prayer leader,” the “liturgy expert,” and so forth. Some people may mistakenly think a man loses his identity under the label of “seminarian.” However, seminarians do not become radically different people overnight, nor are they suddenly infused with church-related skills and knowledge.
Nevertheless, men do change and mature while in seminary. Notably, a man engages in formation as himself, grappling with the rigors and stretching of seminary with the full breadth of his personality, history, strengths, and weaknesses. Therefore, it is helpful to anticipate changes that arise from seminary formation while remembering that formation is a unique and personal process for each man. One example of a change that all seminarians must navigate is integrating their prayer life when they are back home for breaks. After unlocking new dimensions in his relationship with God while at seminary, how does a seminarian balance prayer and reconnecting with loved ones when he returns to his old stomping grounds? Being attentive to this and other changes that come about from formation goes a long way in supporting seminarians.
Don’t pry. Do make room for deep conversations.
Done right, seminary formation requires a man to go deep, encountering parts of his background, personality, and the story of God’s action in his life that he didn’t even know existed or maybe preferred to forget. This is hard, beautiful work. It is also highly sensitive. As much as we may be curious about what God is doing in the life of a seminarian, especially one with whom we are close, we ought to be careful not to pry. A man needs the emotional space and time to process what he is experiencing in formation and to gain the vocabulary to articulate what he has come to know.
At the same time, as seminarians progress in their formation, they develop a hunger to talk about meaningful things. Therefore, I encourage you to make room for deep conversations, especially if you are a friend or loved one of a seminarian. By “deep conversations,” I mean conversations that touch on values, faith, big questions, and desires of the heart. This is more than simply rehearsing the dictates of Church teaching or the intricacies of philosophy and theology. Rather, these are moments of interpersonal encounter graced by the light of God’s beauty, truth, and goodness. Our culture does not train us to talk about deeper things and instead favors superficiality and novelty, so these conversations can feel challenging, even uncomfortable. Despite this, deep conversations can be immensely rewarding and profound occasions of encouragement for seminarians.