Mount Angel Seminary
5:20 am and the first bells of morning chime ringing through the dark and still hill which is Mt. Angel. Some seminarians already have arisen from their sleep and are busy with homework, prayer, or a regimented workout routine. Others, annoyed by the deafening sound of the bells, angrily roll over and try to fall back asleep. Then there are those who fortunately sleep through the clamor and awake at a later time. Those early risers join one another in our cafeteria for breakfast. By 7:25 the walkways are alive with men dressed in black sauntering over to our crypt chapel for Morning Prayer. From our basement chapel you can hear the sounds of 150 male voices reciting the psalms, singing hymns, and the hushed silence as we prepare for Mass. With another chime of the monastic bells, Mass begins at 8. Following Mass the new school day has begun and the walkways, classrooms, and dorm buildings are alive with seminarians studying, praying, playing, or dutifully fulfilling their many tasks. Again the bells chime marking the noon or lunch hour. We all gather together in the cafeteria for lunch. Then the afternoon classes begin. About half of the hours of a given school day are filled with meetings or classes, some seminarians have more free hours than others. The individual schedule depends on the year of the seminarian and the number of extra activities he has. The bells now chime for a fifth time, Evening Prayer. Although this bell marks a time for prayer, we pray later than the monks. Basically once the bell has finish ringing, about 5:20, we have ten minutes before Evening Prayer begins. Then the chapel radiates with the sound of 150 male voices singing a hymn of praise to Mary, Our Lady, and this marks the end of our day. But our days are not over. We eat our dinner together in our cafeteria as the sun slowly sets in the sky illuminating the scenic Mt. Hood in hues of pink, purple, and orange. Each seminarian retires to his evening tasks: homework, exercise, meetings, or rest. As night lingers on, our eyes close in sleep, only to awake to another day.
Perched above the forests and fields of Oregon is a small Benedictine Monastery which is home to Mount Angel Seminary. Founded by Benedictine monks from Switzerland, this seminary has faithfully formed priests for over 150 years. Today Mount Angel serves as the home-away-from-home of 150 resident seminarians and 30 religious who are all on the path to priesthood. Those who live on the campus are the diocesan seminarians, the men who will one day become parish priests in around 20 different dioceses ranging from as far north as Juneau, Alaska and as far south as San Diego, California, stretching from the west coast to as far east as New Mexico, and also including Samoa, Canada, and Hungary. The religious living elsewhere include Benedictines, Carmelites, Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, and the Society of Saint John. This vibrant mixture of backgrounds, ethnicities, and people serve as a warm welcome to the diversity that comes from being in a Catholic communion.
The daily life of a seminarian is both diverse and structured. Our days are simple, eat, pray, study, and sleep. Just kidding. Each seminarian has a variety of activities that he engages with on a daily to weekly basis. But each day begins and ends with prayer. We pray the Morning and Evening Prayer together as a community (these are the hours of the Liturgy of the Hours). After Morning Prayer we celebrate Mass together as a group of seminarians or together as a community, including the monks. Following our times of prayer we attend classes like a university student. Added to our classes are formation conferences, day of recollection or nights of silence, time in small groups to build fraternity, and ministry placements. Each student is assigned to work at specific place for the year called a ministry placement. These placements can range from soup kitchens to homeless shelters; RCIA to prisons; youth groups to nursing homes. Each placement has its own challenges and joys. After our scheduled events are done and our homework is carefully evaluated, we have some time for fun. Many seminarians enjoy the competitive and athletic side of sports such as soccer, basketball, racquetball, volleyball, pickle ball, or lifting weights. Others enjoy the more sedentary time enjoyed with movies, board games, or a chat with a friend. Nevertheless we keep ourselves busy.
In my experience with those who have never experienced a seminarian or a seminary, I sense that for them seminary is a black hole in which a man jumps in and pops out a priest. I sympathize with this understanding of seminary since most people only see the priest and not the process. The process of becoming a priest is just as important to understand as the in-and-outs of seminary life. The basic goal of every seminarian is to follow God’s will for him. This statement may seem to be a no-brainer for anyone reading this, but the truth is that we don’t express that. Many men will enter seminary and somewhere along the journey discover that God is not calling them to be a priest but something else. This process is called discernment: the active life of prayer dedicated to knowing God’s will for a person. Although many contest that you cannot know God’s will, I disagree. God wants us to know his will for us and waits until we are willing to listen. Following Elijah’s revelation of God on Mt. Horeb, God’s voice is a small whisper that can only be heard by those who are silent and attentive enough to hear it. Let this image stand as the example of discernment and seminary formation. In this way the process of forming a man to be a priest is two-fold. On the one hand he must attentively listen to what God’s plan is for him at every
moment. On the other hand he must actively cultivate the virtues, dispositions, and habits that will help him faithfully and joyfully live out the call to serve God and His people as a priest. This usually means that some things we previously enjoyed would no longer be appropriate, and some things we previously did not enjoy become a dominant activity in our lives. Trust me. In the words of John Henry Neuman, to be human is to change and to be perfect is to change often. We must continually allow ourselves to be open to God’s will and docile before the Holy Spirit if God is going to work in our lives. This constant focus on change can lead to grumbling and discontentment amongst seminarians. But recall the Israelites in the desert, we too are human. As I end this reflection on Mount Angel and seminary formation I want to take a moment and say to all of you who are in our parishes and who are our support. I want you to that your support is crucially for each of us, perhaps more than you may realize. We endure the trials and joys of seminary because we know that one day we will return to our dioceses, to all of you, and will be able to serve you as priests. The people in our dioceses fuel our fire and zeal. I hope that this opens the strange and confusing world of the seminary and helps to clarify the process of become a priest.