By Tony Gutiérrez, The Catholic Sun

With a new house of formation opening in August, the Diocese of Phoenix is expanding its seminary, allowing men preparing for the priesthood in the diocese to stay within its boundaries for another year. Bishop John P. Dolan hopes the diocese will be able to offer a complete seminary formation program locally in the near future.

“We’re one of the largest dioceses in the United States, so it’s about time that we establish our own seminary,” said Bishop John P. Dolan. “They will have better pastoral experiences in parishes that they will come to serve in when they become priests or pastors.”

Since 2019, most men entering seminary have successfully completed their first two years of formation at Nazareth House, near St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix, where they lived and worked together, before continuing their studies at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

Now, under the leadership and guidance of Father Will Schmid, who serves as pastor of San Francisco de Asís Parish in Flagstaff until July 1, those leaving Nazareth House will move to Our Lady of Perpetual Help House in Scottsdale — sharing a campus with the parish of the same name — to live out their Spirituality Year within the diocese.

“The idea behind the Spirituality Year is it’s a year when you take a step back,” explained Father Schmid. “Space is created without distraction of the modern world, so you can dive deeper into the spiritual life, dive deeper into Scripture, and really develop a healthy interior life.”

In the past, national norms for priestly formation were more institution-based, but with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Program for Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition,” that norm is shifting to a more household model. A similar model is already in place at St. John Vianney, where the majority of the diocese’s current seminarians are completing their studies.

Under the new norms, seminarians will go through four phases of formation: propaedeutic, discipleship, configuration, and vocational synthesis.

“No longer is the progress of each seminarian going to be based on his academic level. It’ll be in stages,” explained vocations director Father Kurt Perera, who also serves as a formator at Nazareth House.

The Propaedeutic Stage is the stage that begins at Nazareth House, which opened in 2019 as a two-year college-level seminary. This stage can be one to three years long and allows men to complete their general education requirements through Phoenix College if needed.

“They really developed this propaedeutic year. They have a house model system, where you have a group of guys — around a dozen — cooking meals together, living home life, and they really showed us this was possible,” explained Father Schmid. “When we look at St. John Vianney, we’re really pleased with what they’ve done, and we’ve seen what that’s done for their local diocese. We’re at a point where we have the resources and the talent to do this ourselves, and it’s a really cool opportunity to build on this.”

“Formation begins in a home, not in an institution,” said Bishop Dolan. “We find that it’s better when the guys are able to work together. They’re cooking, they’re cleaning, they’re doing all the things that people do in their home; it’s not something that’s provided for them. They’re actually having to roll up their sleeves and do home work.”

The Spirituality Year is the final year of the Propaedeutic Stage. Up to this point, seminarians would complete their Spirituality Year in Denver, followed by the discipleship and configuration stages, when they study pre-theology and theology, respectively.

“We are so grateful to St. John Vianney Seminary for their faithfulness to the formation of our seminarians,” said Father Paul Sullivan, rector of Nazareth House, who also serves as pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Phoenix. “Now, instead of our seminarians leaving our diocese for another city for the first two phases on their journey, they will stay home in Phoenix. They’re excited to stay closer to their parish communities and their families, who they see on a regular basis.”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help House is set to open in August with between nine and 12 seminarians. Their focus will be less on academics and more on spiritual formation, and they’ll visit parishes throughout the diocese every other week. While visiting parishes, including those outside the Valley, they will host events to meet with men interested in discerning a call to the priesthood, as well as other parishioners.

“One of the advantages to having the seminarians in your diocese is you can expose your guys to the different parts of the diocese, to the people,” explained Father Schmid. “You can start to introduce the people to the seminarians in the particular parish communities that one day — God-willing — will be their future priests.”

The house itself is the former convent used by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill when they taught at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. Since they left in 2019, the former Mother Seton House and its chapel have been refurbished, allowing the men to have a private Mass on the weekends they are not traveling.

“We’ll have Mass in house together as a community and spend more time in prayer and fraternity,” said Father Schmid. “There are times when we turn inward and have Mass together as a house, then we breathe out. From what the Lord gives us in breathing in, we go out into the community. It’s establishing a culture in which we live interiorly.”

Our Lady plays a crucial role in the formation of future priests, said Bishop Dolan, noting that both houses are tied to her patronage.

The diocese has been under her protection for all these years,” he said. “In many ways, Mary is guiding us to that sense that formation begins in a home, and, really, the most important home is the home with her and her Son. That’s the home that we want.”