When I was discerning whether I was called to the priesthood, seminary life was one of the last things I thought about, despite the long six-year training period. My mind and heart were dreamily lost in the call of being a priest and I didn’t really give too much thought to the process and path to priesthood.
Up until a few years before seminary I had never met a seminarian or entered a seminary. The whole process was something of a mystery. So clearly I had a lot to learn and get used to.
I had thought that all there was to seminary was prayer, study and the occasional meal. But I discovered that there is a whole lot more that, in addition to the essential pillars of prayer and study, make seminary both a challenging and exciting place to be.
The basic framework at St Mary’s College, Oscott, in Birmingham (and indeed in all major seminaries worldwide) consists of what Pope John Paul II described as the principal foundations for priestly formation: the academic, the spiritual, the pastoral and the human strands of formation. The four strands are linked and integrated into six years of study, two degrees and three ministries (lector in year two, acolyte in year three and diaconate at the end of year five). There are also many hours of formation time in prayer and one-on-one meetings with staff, including spiritual direction.
I have now been in seminary for more than three years and what comes to mind when I think of it is the word “community”. We are a community of men bound together by our distinctive calling and purpose: our shared love for Christ and his Church.
But we are far from identical. There are more than 70 men with 70 different stories, from over 20 dioceses. We embody diversity. While some of us love to play FIFA 18, others prefer strategic board games. Some enjoy trainspotting and others plane-hopping. Some love cooking food, while others – myself included – just love eating it. In all our differences we are one community.
I am not pretending that we are the embodiment of the early Church of Acts. Arguments over all things theological and liturgical put that romantic idea to bed. But when all is said and done, all of us would give everything for Christ and his Church. We are proud to be Catholics and feel privileged to be called toward priesthood.
I remember that in my first year, after breakfast most days, we would have what we later termed “a council” where we would passionately discuss how we could best help the Church to thrive again – what would work, what could work and so on.
What has really surprised me about seminary life is our ability to have an impact on the wider community. In my few years at Oscott I have been most proud and excited by our efforts to influence the culture around us for Christ. In the words of John Paul II, we are seeking to counteract a culture of death and build a civilisation of love.
We have prayed outside an abortion clinic during 40 Days for Life campaigns. We have seen and heard of mothers who have decided to keep their babies – a priceless joy and reason to praise God. We have sung carols at Christmas for those in the nursing homes and outside our gates, enabling us to share the joy and the message of Christ at Christmas. We have fed the homeless weekly in the streets of Birmingham, painted a room in a home of a local family and invited local people to pray with us at various public prayer opportunities.
More formally, we have had weekly pastoral placements in schools, hospitals, prisons and community projects.
I never imagined there would be so many opportunities to live out our vocation as we seek to discern it.
Perhaps some young men are put off by the idea of a isolated life of prayer and study. Seminary is that – but it is so much more. In the immortal words of our rector, Fr David Oakley, seminary is neither a university, a monastery, a barracks nor a boarding school. Though it encompasses something of all of these different walks of life, it is unique.
I believe that seminary is the training ground today for Christ’s heroes of tomorrow. Yes, I believe the priesthood is truly heroic. Not because of who we are, but because of who He is. Not because of what we do, but because of what He does. Jesus, through the grace of ordination, will live through us and bring his saving grace through the sacraments to his people. And that grace will lead us to the joy of eternal life.
Paschal Uche is a seminarian from Brentwood diocese
This article first appeared in the January 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here