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What's it like?: Seminary Overview
A man thinking about the priesthood would naturally wonder what life is like in a seminary. Am I going to be stuck in a monastery? Can I get out if I want? What if I come to realize it isn’t for me? Will I be allowed freedom to study what I want? How long does it take? . . . . All are good questions, and quite normal for any enquirer. Below is an outline of the purpose and “program of formation." Be sure to have a look at A Day in the Life.
The Purpose of a Seminary
To begin, a seminary has two basic purposes: to see if a man is truly called to the priesthood and, if so, to prepare him for priestly ministry. What it means then, is that some men will come to the seminary without absolute certainty that God is calling them to this ministry, but thinking it is a real possibility. They will use their time in the seminary to come to that decision, and so move from a questioning stage to a level of comfort that they are indeed called to this life-long commitment. We call this “moving from discernment to decision”. That decision can come early for some and late for others, but all the while, seminarians study, pray and work toward that final goal. Here is where the “program of formation” comes in, designed to prepare candidates for ordination in four basic areas: spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral. Each area represents an important element in the life and ministry of priests, and gives the candidates insight into how this will be lived out in their future.
If priests are leaders of prayer then they have to be men of prayer. The spiritual formation helps the candidates to deepen their personal relationship with the Lord. Each day then, the seminary community meets at least twice for common prayer, including the Eucharist and either Morning or Evening Prayer, but the seminarians are encouraged to develop their own rhythm and time for personal prayer. Our liturgies are an important part of life here, and so we take great care in how we celebrate them. We begin each year with a three-day retreat and have days of recollection throughout the year. For these retreats and days we invite bishops and retreat leaders from across Canada to share faith and contemporary spirituality. Students of theology also end the year with an eight-day retreat at a centre on Lake Erie. Each week, we have a time set aside for specific talks on issues related to developing the spirituality of the priesthood, and seminarians see their individual spiritual directors on a regular basis throughout the year.
In order to be a good priest, a man has to be a committed Christian and a decent human being. Our program of formation includes the “human” aspect to foster this reality in the candidates. To start, residential living is a good place to test that reality, as it were, where the seminarians learn to live and work with others. Within the residence the seminarians live in small groups headed by a priest who is a member of the full-time faculty. Early in the year, each group goes to a cottage on Lake Huron to begin to develop the bonds of friendship needed in community. Shared daily and weekly duties in the residence foster a sense of community and responsibility for others. In addition, leisure, hobbies and exercize are part of a normal life. These are not only encouraged here, but are seen as critical parts of a seminarian’s formation. Learning to use free time is also an important goal and essential for good living.
While preparing for priesthood, seminarians are engaged in academics as they would for any profession. Priests have to be aware of the world around them and have an intimate knowledge of the Catholic religion in order to teach and preach. A broad range of studies is encouraged in the early years, but with a special focus on philosophy and the other humanities. Then seminarians start their theological studies which is, in the words of an ancient theologian,“faith seeking understanding”. Here specific studies are undertaken to ensure the broadest possible exposure to Catholic theology. Seminarians are students of the local university (in our case, the University of Western Ontario and King’s University College), and so normally acquire two university degrees during their years of study, following course timetables from Mondays to Fridays and assignments throughout the term as any university student would. Depending on what university work he has done, a seminarian can spend from five to seven years in study here.
The final important aspect is pastoral formation. Through a variety of experiences, seminarians are introduced to the very practical side of priestly ministry, including a full year of work in a parish in their own diocese. Normally, while in residence throughout the school year, seminarians are required to spend four hours each week in volunteer work in such places as hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities, AIDS hospices, and shelters for the homeless. They gather once each month with their classmates to reflect on their experiences.
From all this, you can see that seminarians are busy. Day in and day out, the demands of study and other parts of formation make up our daily routine. While prayer is important, the seminarian is not shut up in a monastery away from the world, but fully engaged in the world of the university and the community. The studies have a particular focus, but at the same time, there is room for personal interests and development. All the while, the seminarians form bonds of friendship that not only carry them throughout the years of formation but lead to lasting friendships in the brotherhood of priests. Through all this, the men who come to the seminary have the best chance to make the proper discernment and decision about God’s call for them.
St. Peter's Seminary offers a six week Summer Spiritual Formation Program for Seminarians