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Companions to All

by Darci Swisher

Canadian religious community enjoys dynamic formation at Sacred Heart while bringing ministry of presence to archdiocese.

The Companions of the Cross believe the hand of the Lord delivered them to Detroit, where their community has flourished and grown.

Seven years ago, the Ottawa, Ontario-based communityfounded in 1985 and established as a society of apostolic life in 2003was searching for the best academic formation program for its seminarians. The Companions have four spiritual pillar—Magisterial, Eucharistic, Marian, and Charismaticand their charism of advancing the New Evangelization.

According to Fr. John Vandenakker, CC, the Companions of the Cross are theologically conservative but pastorally progressive.

We were at a loss as to where to go, says Father Vandenakker, a formational leader of the community. A phone call from Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron brought the Companions a new path.

Welcome to Detroit

An interesting chain of events led to that call. A director of an Archdiocese of Detroit chancery department asked Michael Trueman, the archdiocese's chancellor, about a Canadian religious order from Ottawa. Already familiar with the Companions, he called his mother, as her parish in Canada was staffed by the community. Mr. Trueman learned from her that a Companion who had been a fellow student and friend of his at St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ontario, was assigned there.

Soon, a connection was made between then-general superior of the Companions, the now-Bishop Scott McCaig, CC, and Archbishop Vigneron and Msgr. Robert McClory, moderator of the curia.

It all happened quickly, within a matter of days, and all would agree that it seemed like the conversations were ordained to occur, that the Lord had already prepared them to happen, Mr. Trueman says.

Archbishop Vigneron had been seeking a community to take pastoral responsibility of St. Scholastica Parish in northwest Detroit, which the Silvestrine Benedictine monks had previously staffed for decades. Continuing the Benedictine religious order's rich ministry at the parish was of first interest for the archbishop.

We see the hand of the Lord in this, Father Vandenakker says. We immediately felt not just welcomed but energized.

A member of the community was installed as pastor of St. Scholastica in August 2011, and three Companion seminarians were enrolled at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. Currently, twenty-four Companions live at the former Benedictine monastery and adjacent convent on the parish grounds. Six are priests serving at the parish, Wayne State University, and Sacred Heart. The remaining eighteen are seminarians receiving academic formation at the seminary.

The Companions continue to have a presence in Ottawa, as well as in Halifax and Toronto, and in Houston, Texas. Their membership totals forty priests and twenty-three seminarians. Wherever they serve, their goal is to make our parishes lively centers of Catholic communion, liturgical life, and outreach.

For years, the Charismatic Renewal was hidden away in the basement of churches, Father Vandenakker says. We want to bring it out of the basement and into the center aisle.

Setting Hearts on Fire

Fr. Michael Scherrey, CC, is the current pastor of St. Scholastica. The large church was built to hold more than a thousand worshippers but now sees around ninety between all weekend Masses, he says.

In an effort to approach his predominately African American congregation where they were at, Father Scherrey spent his first year at St. Scholastica simply getting to know parishioners. You pray with them, you walk with them, you journey with them, he explains.

His own prayers for the parish included which Bible study program to begin with, and Father Scherrey felt the Holy Spirit led him to Jeff Cavins's Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study. Although he had used the series successfully at his last assignment in Houston, St. Scholastica's parish council members were doubtful he could get more than a few parishioners to attend.

To their surprise, thirty-one people signed up for the twenty-four-week class and at least twenty showed up each session. I kind of twisted arms a bit, Father Scherrey admits. I used, just come for three weeks' on a lot of people.

When the class concluded, and Father Scherrey suggested moving on to the next series on Matthew, it was the parish council's turn to surprise him. The entire group asked to repeat the Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study and let it soak in, he says. It's so good, they told him.

That core group did repeat the class and are now embarking on the Matthew series. And when the parish hosted The Encounter, a ten-week series featuring Deacon Larry Oney and Gerardo Hernandez from New Orleans-based Hope and Purpose Ministries, more than a hundred people attended from St. Scholastica and other parishes.

Most people think they're doing just fine, Father Scherrey explains. In some ways, your heart has to be on fire. Being a Catholic is not something to doit's something you are. You're called to live it. If you're not living it, you're not really being Catholic.

Reaching Out to College Students

Similarly, the Companions work with Wayne State students has centered on intentional discipleship, says Fr. Jim Lowe, CC, the university's Catholic chaplain. He and Fr. John Fletcher, CC, staff the Newman Catholic Center in the student center on campus.

In addition to celebrating daily and Sunday Mass and hearing confessions, the Companions use the campus ministry to lead students to a personal encounter with Christ. You're forming disciples so they can go out and make disciples themselves, Father Lowe says. It's telling ordinary students that they can go out in their ordinary lives and encounter other ordinary students, and they can evangelize, lead them into an encounter with Christ themselves.

The Companions are currently taking about forty students through the Catholic Christian Outreach Faith Studies series. Each of the five levels takes six weeks to complete, and then the Companions invite students to move on and help lead the next session.

Father Lowe says students are also encouraged to discover their own charisms. People have gifts of the Holy Spirit that are given to them by God. Unless they're given opportunities to exercise those in the Church, they may never discover them.

Case in point: One day while Father Lowe was in the Newman Center chapel placing the new crucifix, a student came to stand beside him and admire it. Leya Maliekal then began telling him about her desire to go into the streets and work with the homeless. He asked her to write a report and, as a result, a group of students traveled with Father Lowe to John Carroll University in Ohio to learn about the Labre Project and begin the ministry at Wayne State.

Every other Friday, we make food and go out into the streets, says Leya, a sophomore. Already, we know people's names. It feels like a mutual friendship.

She adds that the Companions try to get to know all students in a non-pressuring way. Father Jim loves to talk, and he loves to listen, Leya says. He allows people to see that he's there for them, and when they're ready for the next step, he's there to guide them.

Active in the Community

Each Sunday, the Companions' seminarians are assigned to parishes the community is associated withwhich besides St. Scholastica and the Wayne State Newman Center includes Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, where one of the Companion priests often assists. After serving in the sanctuary during Mass, the seminarians participate in a ministry of presence and fellowship, says Daniel Ramos, who is in his second year of Sacred Heart's pre-theology program.

We try to get to know more of the parishioners on a personal level, he explains.

Father Scherrey confirms that the seminarians' presence at each Sunday's Mass at St. Scholastica is valuable. Our congregation loves the seminarians, he says. They really touch the hearts of the people.

The experience of living in Detroit has not been void of opportunities for the men studying a Sacred Heart. The seminarians serve at soup kitchens and in prison ministry, assist with retreats, participate in pro-life events, and give talks at parishes on topics like evangelization and the Charismatic Renewal. These experiences complement their academic formation, according to the seminarians.

Studying the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart and then applying what I've learned in concrete pastoral contexts has helped me to become both a better student and a better minister, says Alex Colautti, who is completing his fourth year of study at the seminary and preparing for diaconal ordination later this year.

Bonds of Brotherhood

Seminarians for the Companions comprise nearly twenty percent of the men studying for the priesthood at Sacred Heart. Although they live in community at St. Scholastica and are only at the seminary for academic formation, the men have formed bonds with their classmates working toward ordination to the priesthood for Detroit and other dioceses and religious communities.

We all share a love of the Lord and a desire to give our lives completely over to him, says Isaac Longworth, who is in his second year at Sacred Heart. He and his fellow Companions spend time with fellow students outside of the classroom setting, such as at basketball games, prayer meetings, and ministry outreach, and simply hanging out after class.

As a Companion, I've felt very welcomed by the other seminarians, Isaac says. I know that the Holy Spirit is doing great things here, and it's exciting to be a part of it. It's not uncommon for us to pray with each other between classes, or get together on a Saturday night for praise and worship.

I love these guys a lot, and it's great to have them as we all go forward in our vocation.

The feeling is mutual, according to two men studying for the Archdiocese of Detroit. The fraternity that forms between the diocesan and Companion seminarians is a gift, says Ryan Eggenberger, who has enjoyed spending time with Isaac and other Companions during recreation time, outside of the academic setting. These lasting friendships will be a blessing for our future ministries as priests, in that we will hopefully be able to call on one another as companions' in evangelizing and pastoring God's people.

Corey Baumgartner recalls a class when Companion classmates led praise and worship and then stayed after to pray for fellow students with physical injuries.

This is the type of blessing the Companions are, Corey says. They truly desire the Lord to touch everyone.

Study is Greater Calling

Academically, Sacred Heart's focus on the New Evangelization lines up perfectly with the Companions' charism. It has been a real complement to our own community formation to learn about evangelization from renowned Church leaders who are on the cutting edge of the Church's mission in the world, Alex says.

A culture of evangelization fills Sacred Heart and its classes, especially philosophy, Daniel adds. Discussions often revolve around real life applications and are always colored by a desire to bring Jesus to others.

Our learning is never simply for the sake of learning but is always in light of our greater calling to serve the Church, Daniel says. I find that having this culture of evangelization permeating through our academic formation is helping prepare me for the real' life after seminary, where, God willing, I will be evangelizing as a Companion of the Cross priest.

Sacred Heart is blessed with the Companions' presence, relates Msgr. Todd Lajiness, rector and president of the seminary.

In a particular way, we are blessed by their commitment to evangelization, he says. They bring a whole range of ideas and experiences that enhance what we do, and I think we also have initiatives and well-developed programs that assist them and bring a freshness to what they do.

Father Vandenakker, who teaches theology at Sacred Heart along with fellow Companion Fr. Pierre Ingram, credits the community's growth to its decision to move the formation of their seminarians to Detroit. While only a few seminarians made the trip from Ottawa to Detroit in 2011, more than twenty will be enrolled at Sacred Heart next academic year. To assist in their spiritual formation, Fr. Charles Orchard has just been reassigned to St. Scholastica after doing ministry at the Ottawa and Toronto foundations.

God is finally entrusting us with more vocations because they have a good place to go, Father Vandenakker says. Its such a blessing to have our men formed in a place that's so faithful and dynamic.

Darci Swisher

Darci Swisher is a freelance writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Sacred Heart Major Seminary prepares candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit and for dioceses nationally and internationally. We are a leading center of the New Evangelization forming priest, deacons and lay ministers who are prepared to bring the truth of the Gospel to an increasingly secularized world.