September 17, 2007

Becoming a priest

Visiting seminarians tell their story

By Kelsey Linden
Staff Writer

Everyone is called to live their life a certain way. Often, people grow up, go to school, get married, and raise a family. However, it’s not hard to recognize that priests live their lives a little differently.

At times, we ask ourselves the question: What is it that calls a man to become a priest?

Recently visiting the Sts. Peter and Joseph Catholic Church, the seminarians from St. John Vianny spoke on behalf of their vocations.

Father Bear, the president and rector of the seminary at St. Thomas, grew up in the city. After graduating from Georgia Tech college with a degree in architecture, he was planning on getting married and raising a family, but God had a different plan. At the age of 30, Bear felt called to join the priesthood and was ordained at the age of 39.

He was a classmate and close friend with Delano’s local priest Father Miller, from the parishes of St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s church.

Continuing this friendship after school, Miller openly invites Bear and all 154 seminarians from St. John Vianny for their annual ritual: a softball game in the town park where it’s the whole town of Delano verses the seminarians.

Recalling his years with Miller in the seminary, he laughed before saying, “Father Miller could always make someone laugh, even when he wasn’t laughing or trying to be funny.”

Miller is especially noted for his ability to impersonate people. He has a humorous side, but he knows when to be serious in church.

Bear continued by saying, “I think Father Miller has about six or seven sides and we’ve only seen about two or three of them.”

Often, people ask priests like Bear and Miller what a calling is, and when did they felt that calling. Bear explained, “A calling is a sense from God where you feel that your gifts and your life serve a purpose to others and many times a person who could be a great father could also be a great priest.

“For me, it was a sense of how I might serve others with the gifts that I had. Only once in a while does God send a very clear signal. Many times, it’s very slow. That’s why a seminary requires eight years. It’s not a quick decision.”

Becoming a priest is no easy task. Bear knows for himself that it’s a lot of learning.

“They need eight years for the amount that a priest needs to learn,” Bear said, “People forget how much a priest needs to learn. He needs to learn the academic subjects like theology and philosophy. He has to learn how to help people with counseling and help people celebrate the sacraments. There are even classes on how to move your hands and all the movements during Mass. That doesn’t just happen automatically.”

When asked what he felt the most rewarding experience is about being a priest, Bear responded, “No question whatsoever, the most rewarding part about being a priest is watching others experience the life of Christ. That can happen in many ways. Sometimes it’s through God’s forgiveness. Sometimes it’s through hope and faith. It’s really interesting to see how God works in each and every person’s life.”

God is certainly working through the lives of St. John Vianny’s 154 seminarians. If there is anything Bear deeply sees in these boys, it’s dedication and fun.

“There are two things I see,” said Bear. “One is a great dedication to the church. These men love the church. They love everything about the church. They love the Blessed Mother. The Pope. They love the teachings of the church. They are very dedicated. The second thing is they’re normal guys. They like to have fun. They’re full of energy. They’re not sure about the priesthood, but they’re sure that they want to follow Christ. They’re very dedicated, but they’re a lot of fun.”

Bear also commented, “I think they’re like every other college guy. They like to play sports. They certainly enjoy socializing and they are not afraid of women. They really enjoy getting to people and they’re capable of mischief. They’re full of pranks, so they’re not completely serious all the time.”

One of the most common misconceptions about priests is that they are sad and lonely. However, Bear begs the differ.

“I look around at my fellow priests and they are some of the happiest and sociable people with many friendships,” he said.

Just like anyone else, priests eat junk food, veg out in front of the television, read good books, spend time with family, and go on vacation. However, a priest is not allowed to marry.

When entering the seminary, the student is not allowed to have a girlfriend. Bear explained, “Part of being in a seminary is the possibility for them to try on a long term and committed way of someone who is celibate.”

Bear reiterated, “They are encouraged to have many friendships with both men and women because a priest is not someone who is lonely and alone. The idea is to put away for that one special relationship while they are in the seminary and see if it feels right.”

When it comes to praying, Bear finds joy in praying for those in need, but it is not always easy.

“If nothing else,” Bear said, “You do know that the Lord hears your prayers and also that you’re not just doing this for yourself. A priest prays for the church,” Bear said.

Bear undoubtably cherishes each Mass and looks at each celebration as one of the most joyous things a priest can do. “If a priest truly believes in the Holy Eucharist, no trouble can bother him because he knows that he’s brings Christ to the people.”

St. John Vianny has the largest seminary in the United States. As the president of the seminary, the most challenging aspect for Bear is “making sure that the busy work doesn’t get in the way of the most important, being a father to the seminary.”

When asked if he felt like a father to the seminarians, Bear said, “Yes, I must because every Christian man is called to be a father. The question is, what kind of father? As a priest, I’m certainly a father to those I serve. What does a father do? He provides for his children. He protects them and loves them. These are all things that I do. You have to know that you have a father who cares for you and who is going to stand up for you. That’s the key.”

Bear added, “I really hope that the young people of the parish will really look at the possibility of becoming a priest as being just as exciting, adventurous, dangerous, and heroic as anything else they could think of.

“We’re soldiers in many ways. We’re pioneers in many ways. We’re risk takers in many ways. If they are looking for a life like that, this a great way to do it. I always encourage them to come to a seminary just to see what it’s like.”

The first four years, the seminarians take all the general courses such as mathematics, science, English, and social studies. The last four years are geared towards the priesthood. Often, men choose a double major (philosophy and their choice) just in case they are no longer feeling called to the priesthood. After the first four years, they will automatically have their degree. The choice is theirs, of course, whether to continue schooling towards the priesthood.

Ben Hadrich and Joe Kuharski are seminarians who have just begun their second year. Both felt God’s call to the priesthood.

Hadrich explained, “I’ve always felt that the faith was important. In my own life, I love teaching (both his parents are teachers). I went to college for math teaching before the seminary. I love teaching and I love working with kids. I got into youth ministry and for me, there was no greater joy than to bring kids to Christ.”

Hadrich also had a wonderful relationship with his grandmother. Her last few words with him were “Jesus loves you.” He has continued to pray those words, and finds peace and joy. At that time, he did not know whether God was calling him to the priesthood, but he knew that God wanted him to be at the seminary.

Kuharski’s call came earlier in life. “I’ve always felt a pretty strong call ever since I was six years old. I have a really big Catholic family with 13 kids and we would always have priest over for dinner. That really helped because they showed me that a priest is someone I can relate with. They are no different than I am. I always developed a pretty strong prayer life from my parents. I kept following God’s voice till high school. Once I visited St. John Vianny, I knew it was the place for me.”

Both Hadrich and Kuharski feel just like every other college student now, but when it comes to thinking of the priesthood, it’s so far from where they are now.

“It’s one of those things where it’s in the back of your mind, but it’s not evident. Which is kind of nice because it relieves a lot of pressure. I know that God’s going to tell me in the next few years whether he wants me to be a priest or not,” said Hadrich.

When they are asked if priests are lonely, both openly express how much fun priests can be.

Kuharski said, “To me, priests never seem lonely. In a way, I can actually see how that would be a benefit for me. Not necessarily lonely, but alone with God. I can actually find a certain sort of attraction to that based on my temperament.”

Hadrich also commented, “Priests are just like you and me. For me, I love to go out with friends and play sports. I think that the real issue here with priests is celibacy. That’s a gift that takes a lifetime to unpack and unravel. It’s not something I’ve fully grasped, but I have learned that it’s a sacrifice obviously to give up having a wife and kids. It’s a challenge, but it’s a gift I’m learning to accept.”

Both agree that celibacy is the most challenging aspect of the seminary, but they also respect the rule.

Hadrich continued by saying, “It makes sense. You can’t fully give yourself to a program that is asking you not to be married someday while dating. That’s what a seminary is for, to test it out. If you don’t test it out, how do you know for sure?”

Kuharski also added, “I’ve always thought of it as dating the church.”

Hadrich added, “I was always told to pretend that I have a girlfriend. How would I interact with other people then? It changes your outlook a lot.”

When asked what was the most rewarding part about being a seminarian, Hadrich said, “Being a seminarian, people trust you in a different way. Kind of like people automatically trust a priest. To some degree, I think that’s true with seminarians. And the doors have opened for me with friends and family where we sit and talk about the faith. Because I’ve taken this upon myself to be a seminarian, they know that I love them and that I want them to experience the same experiences I have. I think that’s really rewarding to see the fruits come, even though I’m still on my journey.”

Kuharski added, “I feel assured that I’m being formed in the right way. I know that I’m getting solid teaching that I know the church wants me to have.”

Kuharski also finds it challenging to be both a college student and a seminarian, but there are benefits. As seminarians, they are expected to look nice. A clean shave, a neatly trimmed hair cut, and a nice shirt and khaki pants are only a few of the requirements. It promotes maturity.

For those interested in joining the seminary, Kuharski recommends prayer, talking to the right people, and touring the seminary. Hadrich agrees and also encourages spending time with God to know exactly which path He wants His children to follow.

“I don’t think you could ever lose anything by going to the seminary as a young man. The seminary is so powerful, that your whole life is going to change. Long term, there’s absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain to from trying it. They make a point at St. John Vianny to say, you’re not coming here to be a priest. Your coming here to configure to Christ and through that, you’ll figure out what to do,” said Hadrich.

As a message to those who are considering the priesthood, Bear sums it all up by saying, “If you’re not sure whether you want to become a priest, then at least decide whether you want to change the world. Do whatever you can or feel comfortable doing to do that. Whenever you’re doing that, you’re getting closer to God’s will for your life.”

If you or anyone close to you is interested in the priesthood, feel free to stop by the campus of St. Thomas for a visit at St. John Vianny’s Seminary. It may look scary, but Bear and 154 seminarians can assure that all anyone will find are a bunch of men who are just like your regular college students, who is enriched with a love for Christ.

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