Recently a colleague at Conception Seminary College paid me a compliment. Like me, he was returning to work in the seminary for a second time after a break. He said I gave him confidence this time to do his ministry better because, as Dean of Students, I “have a vision.”
It is always a bit awkward when someone praises your vision. I say that because I was not sure I knew what in fact my vision was.
Upon reflection, what came through regarding my vision for Conception Seminary College was its perennial strengths. I would identify the strengths of Conception Seminary College as these: community, stability, and location.
Being a Man of Community
Our seminary is on the same campus as the monastery. We interact as one community. For this reason, our seminarians value common life and deliberately build it.
I often say to the students and formation staff alike that there should never be an us-against-them mentality. I respect our men and want to listen. We may disagree, but at the end of the day we must love one another and seek the path of holiness together. This is a prerequisite for maturity necessary to lead a parish.
Theological seminaries say Conception alumni foster community deliberately. One alumnus became student body president at a graduate seminary where there were deep divisions. Two large archdioceses were clannish while the remaining dioceses joined a third clique. He worked to bring them all together, “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). Now a priest, he is building community with college students at a Newman Center.
This is the first part of the vision of Conception Seminary: forming a man of community. He is not focused on his own time. He enjoys being among others and fostering communion around Christ.
One of the vows that Benedictines take is stability: to remain in a particular community. By contrast, our seminarians prepare for parish ministry necessarily going many places. Yet there is a stability the monks offer our students to develop internally.
One aspect of stability is this: we monks “don’t go nowhere.” A competent, holy, and driven priest ought to be promoted. Monks are no less driven, but we will be here at Conception Abbey nonetheless! Stability frees us to work collaboratively without ambition. We are at home with one another’s strengths and weaknesses professionally.
I think this collaboration and comfort makes our seminarians feel at home. It is no wonder alumni enjoy coming back for a retreat and catching up with the venerable monks.
Stability is also seen in this: slowness. We change slowly. Our students being placed into a multigenerational community can presume this slowness is entropy. Yet G.K. Chesterton describes it thusly: “The intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of a fence, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it’” (The Thing: Why I am a Catholic).
What we lack in swift movement, we make up for in discernment. It can be frustrating, but it means one must be persuasive, calm, and prayerful making changes. A second aspect of the Conception Seminary vision is stability in the sense of internal equilibrium manifesting itself in prudent decision-making.
I suppose our location and fact of being a freestanding school seem a given instead of an ideal. However, it is “baked in” to the vision!
We live in a time when life changes rapidly with technology, travel, and even regarding identity. If future priests are to know about these realities, should they not be in the thick of the culture? It is a valid question.
Nevertheless, preparation is crucial. Newly recruited marines do not get dropped into a warzone. Instead, they go off to a place far away from combat in controlled situations, with veteran instructors, and develop skills. Only then, after making benchmarks and being evaluated, do they go fight. Unless we take someone out of the culture and can clearly see his strengths and weaknesses in an environment surrounded by prayerful discernment, he could only be formed in the culture instead of prepared to face it.
We are in the middle of nowhere. Yet we are a somewhere! We have consistent biblical suggestions that this is precisely the place for preparation. Before Christ’s public ministry, He spent a long time in the hidden years of Nazareth, being obedient to His parents, growing in wisdom and holiness (cf. Luke 2:51-52). Jesus then burst into His public ministry with mighty deeds and teaching with authority. Then in turn, when Christ called His own disciples, He led them to an out-of-the-way place by themselves. He sent them out provisionally, but for three years He was forming them. Location is all-important to making a structured, external quiet something our seminarians can then recreate wherever they go.
This quiet place happens in prayer, surely, but it is also necessarily part of preparing for priesthood. Living closely in this little patch of northwest Missouri allows those of us in formation to observe the men in many aspects of life that can help us know them very well and aid their development precisely. And thus, our location is also part of our vision: it is the context for growth.
The vision of Conception Seminary College is this: to be a stable community, seeking the will of Christ, and conforming our lives to Him. We create this intentional community in a deserted place that is a hotbed for virtue and readying shepherds to nurture the Church. It is because of the simple and undistracted context that our alumni are able to internalize the structures of our seminary to be successful parish priests.
— Fr. Pachomius Meade, OSB
Vice Rector & Dean of Students