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Sacrificing speech, gaining God: Mount St. Mary's seminarians kick off semester in silent retreat

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By Nancy Lavin | January 19, 2018

Seminary silent retratSilence hung heavy in the air.

Every cough echoed, every turn of a page and shift of a body reverberated through the chapel at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

The wooden pews were filled by men who sat with heads bowed in prayer. Dressed in jeans and button-down shirts, they looked much like their collegiate peers who were set to flood the Emmitsburg university campus only a week later, when classes were scheduled to resume.

But while the university students savored their final week of winter break, catching up with family and friends, perhaps escaping the harsh winter for a more tropical destination, the seminarians began their semester in silence. Save for daily Mass and group prayers in the seminary’s St. Bernard Chapel, they went for five consecutive days without a sound — about 120 hours.

Cellphones, computers and all other forms of technology were also put aside as part of the weeklong silent retreat.

Between the scheduled prayers and presentations from a visiting bishop, there were long stretches of time designated for self-guided spiritual exploration — Scripture reading, meditation, individual prayer, exercise, or even creating art, as one artistically inclined seminarian opted to do.

It wasn’t easy or comfortable. The urge to look something up on the internet or greet a fellow seminarian passing in the hallway was often lurking. The unstructured time was sometimes boring, the isolation a gateway to questioning and self-doubt.

But the discomfort and struggle gave way to opportunity. Breaking away from what Monsignor Andrew Baker, seminary rector and vice president of the Mount, described as “the dictatorship of noise,” creates room to listen and to hear God. If all goes according to plan, the insights that come from that divine message will carry these seminarians through the semester and ultimately into the priesthood.

The Program

With 146 students enrolled at the start of the semester, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary boasts one of the highest enrollments of any seminary program in the country, according to Baker.

The unique location of Mount St. Mary’s on a university campus has made it a popular pick among the 213 accredited theological seminary programs as of 2016, according to the Association of Theological Schools.

“It’s a slice of real life right in front of you,” Baker said, referring to the seminarians’ ability to interact with the type of people they will eventually minister to in their own parishes.

The crossover can be informal — through shared use of the university cafeteria and gym, or in more official forums, such as the campus ministry program or sports teams, for which seminarians serve as team chaplains.

While the seminary program is by no means isolated from the university, it also has a distinct, separate identity.

“Seminarians have to realize they’re different,” Baker said. “Their life is not the life of a typical student.”

It’s a life driven by a divine calling, which courses through every aspect of the six-year journey to build the foundations of academic, spiritual and pastoral formation. It’s not for the faint of heart.

About 10 to 15 percent of the seminarians will withdraw before completing the six-year program, deciding that the priesthood is not for them, according to Baker. Occasionally, a student will be forced to leave for failing to meet the academic or spiritual requirements of the program.

Throughout the first two years, students take classes in theology, ecclesiastical Latin, biblical Greek and other courses that will earn them a certificate in pre-theology. Some simultaneously pursue a Master of Arts in philosophical studies through the university’s theology department.

A select few who attended undergraduate seminary programs can enter a program aimed at achieving a four-year Master of Divinity degree. There are also options for dual degrees: a Master of Arts in theology or the bachelor’s degree in sacred theology, an ecclesiastical program.

Classes range from in-depth examinations of Scripture and biblical concepts, including the Holy Trinity, to practical skills such as how to deliver a homily and personal and pastoral finances.

There are spiritual requirements, too. Seminarians gather each morning for daily Mass in the chapel, as well as for an evening prayer before dinner. They are expected to carve out time for individual prayer and contemplation daily, too, either in one of the designated chapel holy hours or another time.

Each student also meets regularly with a spiritual adviser — usually one of the 15 seminary priests, though sometimes it could be a priest from an outside parish who assumes this role — for confidential discussion related to their spiritual growth.

These spiritual and academic teachings are put into practice through pastoral assignments, which send seminarians out into the community. They are assigned, in groups, to local Catholic schools, prisons, hospitals and parishes where they can hone the ministerial skills they will later use in their own parishes.

Fourth-year students, after being ordained as deacons at the end of their third year, are always assigned to parishes, where they assist the parish priest by preaching homilies during Mass, performing baptisms and other clerical duties.

It’s a hectic schedule that leaves little free time. None of the seminarians, for example, can work outside jobs to earn extra money, though the cost of their studies is paid for by their respective dioceses.

All are required to live in the seminary’s dormitories, which feature a kitchen, recreation area and a bar serving beer, wine and soda during some evening hours. As celibacy is a central tenant of priesthood, dating and relationships are forbidden. Women are not allowed to even enter the dorms, except for moving in or out and during special events, Baker said.

The Retreat
Multiple seminarians interviewed by The News-Post named the silent retreat as their favorite part of the year.

“There’s something about being unplugged for that week, away from all the noise of the world — it’s refreshing,” said J.R. Buckley, 31, a second-year theology student from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, in West Virginia.

And while it was by no means the dramatic revelation that can often be portrayed in movies and television, Buckley said he heard, in the stillness and silence, “the voice of God.”

For Ryan Budd, 28, a first-year theology student from the Diocese of Hartford, Connecticut, the experience offered time to encounter not only God, but also himself.

“The biggest distraction is all the business going on in our own heads,” Budd said. “When you spend five days in silence, you find out what disintegrated people actually lie beneath all that.”

It’s distressing, he admitted. Asked how he worked through those feelings, he answered, “You don’t. God does it.”

Even divine intervention doesn’t eliminate struggle, particularly in the beginning, before the rhythm of silent prayer and reflection start to take hold. This was the case for Bobby Krisch, 27, from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

As a first-year pre-theology student, Krisch was participating in the annual retreat for the first time. He was unsure how to begin.

“I knew I was supposed to be doing spiritual reflection, but I kind of got bored,” Krisch confessed.

The first two days were marked by “lots of naps” and frequent visits to the chapel as he fought the urge to succumb to boredom. As the retreat progressed, though, it grew easier, and he described “several meaningful prayer experiences.”

More senior students, who have participated in the silent retreat in years past, also said they grew more accustomed to silence with each subsequent year. Fourth-year theology students, who will be ordained as priests in May, take the practice overseas, incorporating a silent retreat into a 17-day pilgrimage to Israel.

The trip is split mainly between Jerusalem and Galilee, visiting the churches and other holy places where major biblical events unfolded: Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, the site in Galilee where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he was crucified and later resurrected.

“They walk literally in the footsteps of Christ,” Baker said.

The significance of his surroundings made it, in some ways, more difficult to keep quiet, said Deacon Patrick Hake, 27, a fourth-year student from the Fort Wayne diocese.

“There’s a lot more things to see, a lot more distractions than when you’re just here in the seminary,” Hake explained.

But by the same token, the awe inspired by being in the places where Jesus lived and died is, by its very nature, silencing.

Fellow fourth-year Deacon Ben Dunkelberger named an overnight prayer held in the tomb itself as his favorite part of the trip.

When the silence broke — at noon on Jan. 12 for those at the seminary — many were eager to catch up with the classmates they might not have spoken to since the end of the fall semester.

Vince Faurote, 21, a first-year pre-theology student from the Fort Wayne diocese, named asking a fellow “Star Wars” fan what he thought of the new movie as his first order of business. Jake Schneider, 22, also a first-year pre-theology student from the Fort Wayne diocese, checked his social media accounts to catch up on news from family and friends elsewhere.

Aside from a few well wishes for the semester, Schneider didn’t find much he missed, underscoring his realization of the relative unimportance of technology.

"You realize how much time is filled with meaningless chatter,” Faurote added.

Having cleared away the distractions, students felt ready to embark on a new semester of intellectual and spiritual growth. For fourth-year students, it was also the beginning of the end, with ordination just a few months away.

“I’m nervous, but it’s an excited kind of nervous,” Dunkelberger said. “This is such an amazing place, the fraternity is great. But I feel ready for the next step.”

Photo courtesy of Graham Cullen of the Frederick News-Post.

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