Propaedeutic year prepares men for life
The following story appeared in the June 9 Idaho Catholic Register.
Diocese of Boise seminarians who attend St. Paul Seminary, recently gathered for dinner at the home of friends of Bishop Peter Christensen. The friends, former parishioners of Bishop Peter when he was the priest at the nearby Church of the Nativity, served the dinner exclusively to the seminarians and Bishop Peter as part of a gift to the Bishop. From left are Connor Brown; Father Nathan Dail (vocations director); Ryan Olenick; Cameron Englesby, who is enrolling at the seminary this fall; Mónico Heredia; Zach Mackeller and Bishop Peter Christensen. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
By Gene Fadness
ST. PAUL, MINN. – Connor Brown, a Diocese of Boise seminarian, said a favorite pastime for some of the men who lived during the last academic year in a restored convent near St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., was to drive somewhere not too far from the convent, drop a few men off, and see who could find their way back the quickest.
That might seem like an odd activity in these days of Google maps, but not when you realize that these seminarians were getting accustomed to life without cell phones and without social media. For 20-somethings who grew up attached to a cellphone and wouldn’t know a McNally Road Atlas from the Yellow Pages, finding your way around a strange city becomes a scintillating challenge.
Finding the “Way” also serves as an apt metaphor for Brown, Ryan Olenick and Joseph Patti, who have just concluded their propaedeutic year at St. Paul Seminary. A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document says the year should be a preparation stage to “allow the seminarian to lay a foundation for a new ‘way’ of life centered in Christ … ”
All three seminaries that enroll Diocese of Boise seminarians – Mount Angel in Oregon, Bishop White in Spokane and St. Paul Seminary – are at different stages of incorporating the propaedeutic year into their formation program. St. Paul Seminary, a nationally recognized leader in getting its program off the ground, just completed the second full year of its program. Five Diocese of Boise seminarians were at St. Paul over the last year – two in their propaedeutic year. To date, two more are scheduled to join them this fall.
The one-year “fast” from social media – no use of cell phones or websites except for a brief period on Saturday afternoons – is just one component of a program designed to help young men acquire the self-knowledge to discern their life’s vocation.
“It begins with self-understanding, then self-acceptance and then being able to give of oneself,” said Zach Mackeller who, last year, was a member of the first class of seminarians, affectionaly called “Propa-Dudes,” by their older classmates.
Father John Floeder, STL, the priest-formator who lives with the men 24/7 (yes, the Propa-Dad), puts it this way: “In priestly formation, there is a progression from self-knowledge to self-possession to self-gift,” he said. “First, you have to know your-self, then you can get on to the real work of healing so that you can then love and minister to others in a way that is a real self-gift.”
“People confuse seminary training with professional training. But it is not just an academic program; it is meant to be an integrated, holistic training where we look at the whole man. This is not merely a training for a set of skills or ideas like you would train for any job, but this should be a time for a man to know himself and know the Lord,” Father Floeder said.
pro-pae-deu-tic [ proh-pi-doo-tik ]
comes from the Greek, meaning ‘To teach beforehand’
The preparatory year “calls for patient and demanding work on the person, who is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. Its purpose is to form a priestly heart.”
--From Ratio Fundamentalis,
The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, 2016
The propaedeutic year helps aspirants discern where God wants them to grow and detox from the culture, he said. “The year is to really help ground them and to help them be able to do some real interior work and human work, but without feeling like they’re on a conveyor belt being moved toward priesthood.”
The entrance to St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. The seminary has been home to a number of Diocese of Boise seminarians. About one mile from the seminary is a restored convent that houses the men who are in their propaedeutic year, which, from the Diocese of Boise, has included Zach Mackeller, Connor Brown and Ryan Olenick. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
Mackeller, a Diocese of Boise seminarian who is applying with the Archdiocese of Military Services to become a military chaplain, said the 2021-22 pro-paedeutic year was transformative. He freely admits he is not an academic and was not ready for the rigor of academic life in the seminary. That made him a perfect fit for the propaedeutic year because, according to directives from the Vatican and from the U.S. bishops, an academic regimen is not a component of the year. In fact, U.S. seminaries are precluded from offering any more than 9 credit hours, if that, and those cannot be in advanced theology or philosophy.
Instead, the time is spent in some scripture study – though without assignment and grades – and lots of self- and group-introspection and spiritual discernment.
“How can you focus on that (the spiritual discernment) when you are overwhelmed with 20 credits of philosophy or 20 credits of theology?” Mackeller said in an earlier story in the Idaho Catholic Register. The propaedeutic year was key to helping Mackeller prepare for his Pre-Theology 1 year in the major seminary, which he just completed.
The name of a document issued by Pope St. John Paul II, “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” is inscribed over the doors of the entrance to the administration building at St. Paul Seminary. It means, “I will give you shepherds.” (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
SEMINARIES IN Europe have had something similar to the propaedeutic year for centuries, Father Floeder said, but it has not been a requirement and certainly not a staple in U.S. seminaries.
The modern version of the propaedeutic year started with Pope St. John Paul II’s 1993 document, “Pastores dabo vobis” (“I will give you shepherds”), words emblazoned above the entrance to the administration building on the St. Paul campus.
“John Paul II said a priest has to develop a truly human personality in order to be a bridge to connect the faithful to Christ, but if our human personality is malformed or broken in some way or is off-putting to others, then we won’t be successful in pastoral ministry,” Father Floeder said. “Some priests who are struggling today in their ministry are probably not at a place of real self-knowledge and self-possession.”
The modern age of broken families and a loss of real connection to others, due in part to social media, has made it even more of a challenge for young men to be sufficiently mature and well-adjusted to offer their lives to others in priestly service, Father Floeder said.
“In our current day and age, youth and young men face a myriad of challenges that were not present in past generations,” said Bishop Peter Christensen in an Idaho Catholic Register article in 2021 about the propaedeutic program at Bishop White Seminary in Spokane.
In that same article, Bishop Tom Daly of Spokane said, “Many men aren’t coming from intact Catholic families or Catholic environments as they did in the past. As a result, these well-intentioned men are often lacking in basic Christian values and knowledge. Before they start studying for the priesthood, we need to fill in the gaps.”
“Gone are the days when you’re coming from a family of 12 kids and three of the brothers are going off to seminary because your uncles were priests and two aunts were in religious orders,” Dr. Christopher Thompson, academic dean at St. Paul Seminary, told the Idaho Catholic Register.
So, in 2016, the Vatican, with its document, “Ratio Fundamentalis” (“The Gift of Priestly Vocation,”) required a propaedeutic stage at all seminaries. The U.S. Bishops’ response, the sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, requires the program to become effective in all U.S. seminaries by fall of this year.
Bishop Peter Christensen, formerly a rector at the nearby St. Thomas College Seminary, recently celebrated Mass at St. Paul Seminary. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
Bishop Peter said he is pleased with the progress made at all the seminaries attended by Diocese of Boise seminarians. While, of late, Boise sends more men to St. Paul, he anticipates that as Mount Angel and Bishop White programs continue to advance, more will attend there as well. “We tell the young men about all of the programs, and let them choose.”
Bishop White Seminary last year launched its project for an upgrade of McGivney Hall near the Gonzaga campus to house its propaedeutic program called “Cor Christi,” or “Heart of Christ.” Four Diocese of Boise seminarians are in Spokane, some still at college level, not yet ready for the propaedeutic year. All propaedeutic
“aspirants” must have at least an undergraduate degree.
Also required is that the propaedeutic men not live at the major seminary, though in the instance of all three Diocese of Boise seminaries, the men are nearby.
At St. Paul, 16 men live in a restored convent near St. Mark’s Church in St. Paul, just blocks away from the seminary.
Unlike the men at the seminary, the propaedeutic men do not have private rooms, and they live in community with their formator, Father Floeder.
“I’m right in the mix with them,” said Father Floeder, who, with a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, has been a seminary professor and formator for a dozen years. “I pray with them, celebrate Mass with them every day, and some days have three meals with them,” he said. “This is spiritual fatherhood in a way I have not experienced in my priesthood because of the close quarters and the way we are living life here together.”
THE DAY STARTS at 6:30 a.m. with a holy hour, followed by breakfast and then 90 minutes of study or apostolic works. Study includes scripture study with Dr. Jeff Cavins, founder of the Catechetical Institute and co-host of the popular “Bible In A Year” podcast.
On the day this writer attended class, Cavins was teaching the seminarians about the Old Testament King Samuel and the people of Israel’s desire for a king.
The hoped-for outcome of the Bible study is not academic, but to awaken a thirst for God’s word. “We are not attaching grades and papers to it,” Father Floeder said.
Later in the morning on two days a week, the men participate in human formation where they meet with a staff psychologist to discuss a wide range of issues dealing with their family life, conflict resolution and integration of purity and chastity.
Once a week, they meet in process groups – typically about eight men in each group – where the men share their personal work and growth and discuss what’s happening in the house. Charitable, but honest, feedback from the group is key in order to make the men more self-aware of their human failings. “We don’t know what we don’t know, so sometimes we need others to charitably point out those areas where greater spiritual and human development is needed,” Father Floeder said. The sessions are attended by a psychologist who keeps the discussions focused and constructive.
Jeff Cavins, known worldwide for his “Bible Timeline” series and podcasts, teaches scripture classes to seminarians in their propaedeutic year at St. Paul Seminary. In the photo, Cavins is pictured with Ryan Olenick, left, and Connor Brown. Another Diocese of Boise seminarian in his propaedeutic year, Joseph Patti, was out of town at the time the photo was taken. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
Boise seminarian Connor Brown said the group sessions have helped him to have the courage to bring up difficult issues, something every priest will need to master as he navigates a parish with multiple personalities. “We live in a culture that is conflict-avoidant and, sometimes, that is not helpful,” Brown said.
Ryan Olenick, a University of Idaho graduate and Pocatello native, said the process groups have not devolved into nitpicking because the goal for all is the same. “We all know we’re pursuing the same thing, so we just want to love each other and help each other grow.”
Twice a week the group will also meet to read and discuss great literature, from Homer to Dante to German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. Mackeller – the one who says he is not an academic – read 40 books during his propaedeutic year.
Afternoons, for the most part, are unscheduled time; however, Father Floeder is quick to emphasize the difference between “free” time and unscheduled time. During this time, the seminarians may be reading or partaking in apostolic works, like working with underprivileged youth or with Hispanic immigrants. The key is to develop the discipline to use unscheduled time wisely.
“The end goal is to be configured to Christ in the way we live our life here,” Father Floeder said. Consequently, the “growth is faster and deeper than I have experienced in other places. And I think a chief reason for that is, for this first year, we’re not trying to do academic classes, as much as we are personal work.”
A statue of the missionary apostle, St. Paul, watches over the plaza at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
During the program’s first year at St. Paul, 16 men were accepted. (There is an extensive vetting process and a full psychological assessment to be accepted.) Of those, only four did not go on to major seminary, a much higher retention rate than, for example, college seminary, where half or more men will discern out rather than continue.
Mackellar believes the formative year saved his vocation. A veteran, Mackellar suffers from PTSD, but not from his military service. It dates back to “bad school experiences,” that resulted in a fear of failure and rejection.
His propaedeutic year helped him process those memories. “I was able to find that healing that I so badly needed,” he said. “There has been some pretty intense suffering, but through it all, the Lord’s call has been constant.”
You wouldn’t detect trauma or suffering from being around the joyful seminarian who drives a car that often sits alone in the seminary parking lot, as if other vehicles fear they might catch whatever ails Mackeller’s car if they get too close. When it’s not parked, Mackellar relishes taking visitors around St. Paul, giving passengers a close-up feel of each of the city’s infamous potholes.
His time at the seminary, he said, has only increased his desire to share the gospel, and that enthusiasm is palpable. “I’m a lifelong Catholic, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that I really appreciated it. There is so much truth and depth and beauty to the faith! Why isn’t that taught more?”
MACKELLER WAS in St. Paul’s first propaedeutic class; Olenick and Brown were in the second, and each maintain the year has profoundly changed them.
“My family and friends back home say they notice a difference,” Brown said. “They say I am a lot more confident.”
Both say the year was not what they expected.
“Father Nathan (Dail, vocations director for the Diocese of Boise) told us not to put any expectations on seminary, but to be open to formation,” Brown said. “This went way beyond my expectations.”
The same is true for Olenick. “I expected a lot of free time and thought it would be one big retreat. Instead, it has been a challenge both interiorly and exteriorly. I’ve grown more in the last eight months than in my whole life. I’m the same man, but improved.”
Neither missed their cell phones and social media as much as they thought they would. “I don’t really need social media,” Olenick said. “I’m not even sure I’ll go back to it.”
Brown and his family have discovered the lost art of letter writing. “My sister is the best letter writer. I really looked forward to getting her letters.”
At year’s end, neither Brown nor Olenick have any hesitation about going on to their first full year in seminary this fall.
The seminarians’ famous scripture instructor, Jeff Cavins, is a firm believer in the necessity of a propaedeutic year.
“Men sign up for seminary, but often they haven’t addressed the first question, and that is not, ‘Are you called to be a priest?’ but ‘Are you called to be a disciple?’ If you try to become a priest without being a disciple, it will be just a job for you. We want priests who say, ‘I was first a disciple, and out of that discipleship-relationship, I said yes to the calling of God to become a priest in the Catholic Church.’ ”
Even though the program has been in place only two years, St. Paul’s rector and vice president, Father Joseph Taphorn, can see a difference in the men who have completed their propaedeutic year.
“I see it in their level of engagement, their vulnerability, their honesty,” Father Taphorn said. “They are able to start off the bat at seminary, a process that previously might have taken a couple of years. Their pump is primed, and they understand this is serious business.”
At a dinner attended by this writer with older priests who serve as spiritual directors at the seminary, each one said the seminarians of today are better prepared than the seminarian of the 1960s and 1970s. “It will change the face of the Church,” one said.
One, a monsignor, recalled his own formation. “We went to high school seminary, then college seminary, then major seminary. It was just expected you’d be ordained whether you were ready or not. There was little or no vetting as to whether we were truly ready.” Consequently, many left the priesthood or, worse, were causes of scandal.
Today, however, young men enter the seminary already having established relationships with their vocations director and their pastor, notes Dr. Thompson, the academic dean of nearly 20 years. “There’s been a certain amount of curating of the candidates we get, and there’s been a certain amount of mentoring, so we’re not getting random applications.”
“In some ways, ironically, the culture provides its own gauntlet of discernment,” Thompson said. “If you can get through the years of ordinary young adulthood today and still come out with an interest in priesthood, it means something has been planted in your heart. A certain resilience has to be built-in if you are going to make it to 22 years old today and make application for seminary. Anybody who considers seriously the idea of serving others through Christ and His Church is going to be at the top of my list of heroic individuals whether they go all the way through or not.”
(Joseph Patti was out of town at a family wedding when the Idaho Catholic Register visited St. Paul Seminary.)
Each of the four floors of the residence hall for seminarians at St. Paul Seminary contains a painting of men at the different stages of their formation as seminarians. From top to bottom in the photos at left are Lector, Acolyte, Deacon and Priest. (ICR photos/Gene Fadness)
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