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Priestly Formation During a Pandemic

Jesus has called men to become his priests even the first apostles followed him. Through wars, economic uncertainty, and now through the COVID-19 pandemic, men are being formed through the heart of Christ to shepherd and serve the people of God in a post-coronavirus world.

by Editorial Team

“In its deepest identity the seminary is called to be, in its own way, a continuation in the Church of the apostolic community gathered about Jesus, listening to his word, proceeding toward the Easter experience, awaiting the gift of the Spirit for the mission.”

~Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 60

Like nearly all organizations, Sacred Heart Major Seminary had to quickly adjust its formation and learning process when the seminarians had to vacate the building to ensure the health and wellbeing of its entire community.

As men discern their call to the priesthood, the Sacred Heart community is committed to forming the entire man for ministry. In his role as Vice Rector, Fr. Steve Burr is responsible for ensuring the four related dimensions of priestly formation – human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral – continue despite the separation, by coordinating the seminary’s efforts with the faculty and priest formation team.

According to Fr. Burr, “The physical distance between the formation staff priests and our seminarians was initially challenging, but thanks to technology and the goodness of God, we could protect the wellbeing of our men and continue their formation. We’re humbled and energized that during a time of crisis we could innovate and relate to each other and to God in new ways.”

Fr. Burr added, “What has impressed the seminary’s priests from the first day we sent the seminarians home – whether to live a modified life of prayer and study in their parents’ homes or to diocesan rectories, was the men’s commitment to make this new education and formation reality their own.”

Prior to March, faculty and the formation team could conduct ongoing evaluations based on observation and interactions. At the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and knowing that liturgical worship and prayer routines would differ, the formation team sought the seminarians’ input on how they’d adjust. Seminarians were asked to determine a pattern for their daily schedules and to set goals and objectives to finish the semester well, to remain close to the community, and, importantly, to remain close to Christ. 

Each seminarian submitted his horarium (daily schedule), and set an intellectual, spiritual and self-care goal; self-care is an important aspect of the human formation dimension. “The wellbeing of each man was our primary concern, and we encouraged exercise and other ways to maintain physical and mental health,” Fr. Burr said. “Community, with the apostolic community as a model, is a key element of priestly formation, so we looked for other ways to interact with each seminarian as well as ways to virtually meet as classes.”

When entering Sacred Heart, seminarians are assigned both a formation advisor and a spiritual director. The priest formation team — eight priests each for the college and theology seminarians — normally meets monthly with each seminarian in his care, but when the seminary building closed, priest formators began meeting weekly with their advisees to maintain a close connection.

“As one of the formators,” says Fr. Burr, “I am responsible for 21 men, so much of my week is dedicated to telephone calls and Zoom video conferencing sessions. To see their goodness and dedication to their vocations and formation, in a time such as this, has challenged and refreshed me. Like a parent, you work hard, and pray one day you will see the payoff – and the payoff is the success and flourishing of each man. Our priests are seeing this payoff through the faithful resilience and determination of the men in our care.”

Each seminarian also has a spiritual director, who is a priest in active parish life, who formally meets with each man twice a month. Like the formation advisors, spiritual directors are working more closely with those in their care. Spiritual growth is growth into full maturity in Christ. This dimension has been the most challenging, as seminarians who returned home don’t generally have access to the liturgy and sacraments. However, a pattern of holy hours, which is central to the prayer life of seminarians and clergy, has been maintained.

Normally, the seminary community would pray together during Lent and joyfully celebrate the Lord’s resurrection at Easter. To maintain this practice while distancing, every seminarian voluntarily participated in a Triduum retreat consisting of two online talks each day by Sacred Heart’s spiritual directors and formation advisers. These reflections offered a theme for their prayer, and the retreat continued with daily talks during the Easter Octave. “This was a powerful and unique experience,” Fr. Burr said. “I attribute the unexpected success to the Holy Spirit’s movement during this uncertain time.”

“We’ve heard stories of families who have observed their sons in prayer, whether through the Liturgy of the Hours, praying the rosary, or other means, and have occasionally joined their sons. Many have experienced an enhanced prayer life through the witness of their sons. Families are now intimately connected to their seminarian’s formation in a way they could not be before the pandemic. Jesus has become a vivid and real member of these households. I believe God is nurturing a new wave of vocations during this time. He always blesses evil and unfortunate circumstances, “Fr. Burr said.

Summer months for seminarians – from college to theology – are different for each class. Unfortunately, due to physical distancing guidance, the annual assignments at the Camp Sancta Maria youth camp, the Holy Land pilgrimage and the Spanish language immersion trip were canceled. However, even though the 21 first-year theology seminarians were unable to travel to Israel, they are still able to participate in their 30-day retreat program this summer. The second-year theology seminarians, who finished their courses online, are now working at their parish internship assignments. When they return to Sacred Heart in the fall, they’ll be evaluated for their readiness to continue on the path toward ordination to the transitional diaconate next spring.

For the 11 men who have been or will be ordained to the transitional diaconate this spring, they are continuing their ministerial internships at parishes. Pastors have welcomed the Church’s new deacons who are helping with pastoral work such as celebrating graveside services, conducting wakes at funeral homes, making communion visits, witnessing marriages and baptizing new disciples. These valuable parish assignments help form the hearts of our future priests, especially considering the pandemic’s new parish environments.

Fr. Burr reflected on this journey saying, “Missionary training is advanced when you throw a seminarian into a never-comfortable situation. The coronavirus pandemic is such a situation. As a priest, we are always being reinvented in the Lord. Personally, I’ve become a better priest during this time and more open to God’s movement.”

by Editorial Team

Editorial Team

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.