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Seminary Reflections

I am a Deacon and I am still not worthy. I pray that I always feel that way.

What will others think of me?

Explaining that you feel called to priesthood is not a typical conversation starter. People respond in completely different ways and it depends on their experience or lack of experience of the Church. Before entering seminary, I found it difficult to share with others what I was thinking about for my future. Sometimes it was because I was worried about their response. Other times it was because I had many doubts myself. Once at seminary, people were able to see how I became more comfortable and I soon found people were booking trips to Rome for a visit. Essentially, we bring people with us on our journey and we should be patient with others as well as with ourselves. If we consider how long it takes us on a personal level to accept the sense of calling, perhaps it’s easier to see why others need time to understand what it is we are journeying towards.

I’m writing this as I’m about to enter my seventh year of seminary training at the English College, Rome. I am also now a Deacon, after ordination to the diaconate in July. Reflecting on these years, I share here some of my observations about the vocational journey. Given that vocations are personal as well as ecclesial, some of these observations will speak to you, others will not and that’s normal.

I don't feel worthy

15 years ago when I started vaguely thinking about priesthood I remember that the barriers came up quickly. Why? I simply thought that I was not good enough for priesthood; that I wasn’t the right kind of person, that even to contemplate the idea of priesthood was out of my league. There’s a difference between humility and putting yourself down. Yes, in one way we’re not worthy of the vocation to priesthood because it’s a gift that we’re invited to live out. It’s a meeting of our will and God’s will. Yet, vocation is something that we are called to respond to and our response is, in a sense, an ownership of that vocation. That’s why, during the Ordination rite, we are called by our name. Not that the priesthood is mine, rather I wholly respond to my name being called.

Freedom of thought

On graduation day I was talking with my former professor. I was sharing that I was going to work in a chaplaincy role and she said something surprising: “don’t let them have your brain”. There’s the view that having a ministry within the Church involves handing your intellect over and learning ‘the script’. While we believe that God gifts our intellect, we do not leave our brains in the cloakroom, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht. Apart from the obvious studies, with Philosophy and Theology, a lot of our free time and pastoral work help us to consider what we study formally in light of other aspects of daily life. What’s important here, I think, is to nurture our intellectual lives and cultural curiosities. Studying literature has shaped my journey to priesthood and my love of literature has shaped my time in seminary. Seminaries are also places of lively debate and discussion. You hear differences of opinion and that’s healthy.

Ryan's Ordination to the Diaconate

Loneliness

Many people speak to me about the loneliness they imagine priests to experience. Seminaries are communities and I live with forty others. Sometimes, given that context, it’s difficult to prepare for a life as a priest in a presbytery. It can be hard to find time to yourself. There are ways of doing it, though and it’s important not to always need to be surrounded by people. We need time to reflect, unwind, pray, and be comfortable with our own skin. If we’re socialising all the time, the move to a presbytery will be a shock.

Being solitary is different to experiencing loneliness. People also speak of being alone even among a crowd. For priests, time by ourselves is necessary in order to better serve God and the people entrusted to our care.

 

Open to God’s surprises

Walking with the Lord with our vocation involves trust. I never imagined that I would be living in Rome for all these years, or that I’d get to minister with so many different people across parish placements and beyond. We have to be open to God’s movement in our lives and that openness and discernment bring us towards seminary, throughout seminary, and beyond seminary. God doesn’t call statues; he calls people, flesh and blood, with all our anxieties, fears, doubts and also with all our hopes, dreams, and visions.

 

Ryan Service, Archdiocese of Birmingham

Three deacons stand on the threshold of the priesthood after seven years of formation.

 

It's a long journey with many twists and turns but in this conversation, John Waters interviews fellow priests-to-be Ryan Service and Marco Egawhary in this video as they prepare for a July Ordination to serve the people of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

As a late vocation, I am aware of the varied experiences, attitudes, skills and habits that I bring to Saint Mary’s College, Oscott, where I am in formation for the priesthood. Over the years, I have worked in manufacturing and services, the public and private sectors and most recently in trade union education. These and all life experiences bring with them baggage; some helpful to a man entering priestly formation - some unhelpful.

 

When God calls men to the priesthood, He is - of course - aware of our personalities and lives, our strengths and our weaknesses. The seminary is a house of discernment and formation. Underpinning that formation is the call to conversion, as men (in a life of prayer and study, and guided by our formators) seek to build an ever-deeper relationship with Christ Jesus and so discern the Lord’s will. The process of conversion presents both opportunities and challenges, as we ponder God’s providence of the gift of a calling to the priesthood.

Seminary formation challenges men to develop in the spiritual, pastoral, human and intellectual strands essential in the formation of priests. As well as community worship, spiritual direction, pastoral placements and formal lessons, seminary is - crucially - the setting for the stillness, personal prayer and mediation that enable us to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit. Being attentive to God’s will is the key to conversion, and an engaged and fruitful experience of seminary life.

 

Dom Erik Varden OCSO, Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, observed, ‘Conversion must be constructed in aspirational, not reactive terms; as an option for what is good, not against what is thought bad’. We are called to embrace all that is good. Nonetheless we must recognise - and set aside - attachments (such as constant use of smartphones, a taste for designer goods or gossiping) that are unhealthy and addictive and become a hindrance on our journey of conversion.

 

Seminarians are asked to engage deeply with conversion, welcoming and embracing all that God’s calling entails. There are times when I have felt the priestly vocation so blessed that somehow it must be beyond me: I have asked myself, 'Surely, not me?' In those moments, Cardinal Basil Hume's observation that, 'The priest is an ordinary man called to an extraordinary ministry' holds out a message of hope and reassurance.

 

Having been ordained deacon in June 2018, this is my final year at Oscott. I am now more conscious than ever that priestly formation is a blessed journey of conversion, as men seek to conform themselves evermore deeply to Jesus Christ – shepherd and servant.

Bob Hayes, Diocese of Salford