Following St. John Vianney: Seminary forms ordinary men to serve the Church as priests

Seminarians at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, like Frank Cicero, spend a year focused on spirituality. The time helps seminarians root themselves in God. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

DENVER — The seminary isn’t some fantasyland where dioceses pick new servants from a priest tree.

It’s a place for regular Catholic men — some straight from high school or college, others from the working world. Once there, they’re formed for the priesthood. They endure similar academic rigor as other college students with a few key differences.

They don’t always start at 18 or 19, but somewhere in their 20s or 30s. Seminarians stay for seven to nine years or as long as the Lord wills it. And the costs are much higher — with the option of part-time work non-existent.

Fortunately for Phoenix’s 28 seminarians, the diocese — through the Charity and Development Appeal — plus local groups such as the Knights of Columbus and Serra Club, are there to help cover expenses.

Christ calls regular men off the street to the priesthood, explained Fr. Dan Vanyo, who was ordained June 2 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

“Look who Christ called in the beginning. They were working men,” he said of the first 12.

The Apostles didn’t go back to their boats. They left their nets to follow Jesus and learn from Him. The Apostles studied wholly under Christ’s leadership for three years.

“The seminary draws us to a place where we can have that formation like the Apostles had then,” Fr. Vanyo said.

Ten seminarians, including Fr. Vanyo, just finished another academic year at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, near the University of Colorado. It’s one of two American seminaries where Phoenix men study for the priesthood.

“Formation takes time. A lot of us need to grow quite a bit to enter into this role with the Lord’s blessing,” Fr. Vanyo said.

Seminarians look at their own habits and maturity and hone them as a sculptor would, he said. Formation advisers, spiritual directors and school psychologists guide them along the way. Fr. Vanyo entered the seminary in 2005 and found it to be as much of a time for intellectual growth as it was for human and spiritual growth.

“It’s one thing to be book smart. It’s another to be a spiritual father,” he said.

And that’s what the seminary excels at: helping seminarians grow in their reliance on God’s grace. Naturally, some will discern that the priesthood is not for them, but two-thirds complete the process.

This year 13 men from six dioceses — including Fr. Vanyo in Phoenix — finished their studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and were ordained to the priesthood. Some 120 seminarians remain.

Seminarians from the Phoenix Diocese join for a hot meal at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, near the University of Colorado. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

A year of spirituality

“Being up here, there’s no wasted time. Even if in a year or two some might leave, there are gifts and blessings for just being here. That eased my mind a little,” said Luis Martinez, a seminarian from Most Holy Trinity Parish in Phoenix, during some down-time after lunch one day.

The seminary restricted classes to morning sessions only last fall. Afternoons afford the future priests free time for studying, recreation and apostolate work both on and off campus. Some deliver groceries to fellow seminarians living off campus. Others take care of lawn maintenance on seminary grounds, re-shelve materials in the library or clean the chapel.

They balance menial tasks with academic and spiritual formation. They offer holy hours, recite Morning and Evening Prayer together and fill the chapel daily for noontime Mass. For seminarians like Martinez who just finished his Spirituality Year — a period unique to the Denver seminary — that prayer time and focus on inner growth is key.

“It’s kind of a spiritual boot camp in a sense. We’re asked to dump everything,” Martinez said midway through the first semester.

A self-monitored “media fast” remains in effect throughout the year. They’re allowed to connect with family on Saturdays.

“I’ll get out what I put in,” Martinez said of abstaining from media. “By staying away from those things, you develop a relationship more with Christ through Scripture, prayer and talking with your fellow brothers and hearing everyone’s story.”

Classes focus on Church history, the catechism, Scripture and the priesthood. The key difference for spirituality year seminarians: they’re without tests and homework.

“It’s been very inspiring to understand the priest as a victim for Christ,” Martinez said.

The spirituality year is a time of grace for the seminarian to become rooted in God, explained Fr. Paul Sullivan, director of vocations for the Phoenix Diocese.

“The year, which allows for a deepening of the spiritual life, allows him to come to a deeper understanding of who he is in God’s eyes. This is foundational for growth in holiness,” Fr. Sullivan said.

The spirituality year has been so successful, that from now on, every diocesan priest will have devoted an entire year or at least a summer to a spirituality period. It also features a month-long mission experience among the poor and ends with a 30-day silent retreat.

From contemplation to action

Fr. Sullivan sees this spiritual formation as a response to Pope Benedict when he said, “The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life.”

That’s not to say there isn’t time for fellowship. Some spend Fridays and Saturdays playing basketball, cards — one of them is reportedly super-competitive — hold friendly croquet or golf matches or take a hike.

Fr. Vanyo was among some seminarians who trekked six hours up some of Colorado’s 14ers, a series of mountains that peak at least 14,000 feet in elevation. Once on top, a priest offered Mass. There were easier hikes too, Martinez said. Seminarians in their spirituality year climbed together on Fridays.

Seminarians also served at nearby schools, parishes or nursing homes. Martinez led the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary every Thursday at a retirement center.

“It puts a lot of love in your heart to see the elderly come in walkers and wheelchairs,” he said. “It’s a blessing just to see their faces.”

Daniel Cruz, who just finished his first of two philosophy years at the Denver seminary, served at a local Catholic hospital. He said visiting the sick and bringing them Holy Communion excites him more for the priesthood.

“Showing great compassion and care to the people further brings into practice the Good Shepherd and intercessor aspects of the priesthood,” Cruz said.

God willing, he and the diocese’s 27 other seminarians — that includes seven who are entering in August — will be able to take on such roles full time once they’re ordained.

A.J. Enfield, who earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, shared some advice in a commencement speech.

“Trust the formation process; fully invest yourself into the program,” Enfield told fellow seminarians who still have years of formation ahead of them. “Our priestly fathers have told us that we cannot fail, regardless of whether we go on to theology and eventually the priesthood, or become good, holy, humble Catholic laymen.”