“I am just so happy to be back on campus,” said one enthusiastic seminarian returning for his senior year. The seminarians returned to campus in August, excited to be on campus and see one another in person. Even though various precautions were put in place to ensure their safety and the safety of everyone residing or visiting campus, they would not let such things dampen their spirit.
When someone asks a seminarian from Conception what the best part of seminary is, the most common response is: community life or the brotherhood. It is no surprise that a seminary that shares the ground with a Benedictine monastery would have a strong emphasis on community. Every day, the seminarians pray together, attend classes together, eat meals together, and recreate together. Their daily routines are built around the lifelong brotherhood that the monks exemplify, teaching them to build strong friendships and to cultivate within them the desire to build community. The hope is that when they are future priests, they will have acquired the skills necessary to build a parish community that is hospitable, serves and supports many people, and invites people into a relationship with Jesus Christ. For this reason, many of our alumni express their gratitude years later for the ways Conception formed them to be men of communion.
By nature, we are social beings, but numerous social and technological factors have forever altered the ways we relate to one another, as have the recent pandemic and political climates in our country. In seminary formation, a strong emphasis on community life and face-to-face interaction cannot be stressed enough. Particularly important for the seminarian in his formation to the priesthood is the ability to relate freely to others and to be challenged to grow. Like anyone who has grown up in a family, interactions with parents and siblings are purifying, testing of one’s patience. However, it is in such moments and trials that we learn to grow, and we learn what it means to love. While the world is increasingly a place full of distractions and superficial relationships, seminarians at Conception Seminary learn to establish healthy friendships and solid support systems where they can address the human need for belonging and community. As future pastors, seminarians will be able to use the skills learned here to bring people together for communal prayer, Bible studies, socials, fundraisers, as well as reach out in service to the poor and marginalized.
Community life at Conception begins with offering the first hours of the day to prayer together in the chapel, and it extends to countless interactions throughout the day and opportunities to show compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. The encouragement of brothers keeps us accountable and honest: “Iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
For this academic year, the seminary administration decided to limit the seminarians’ off-campus activity as an extra safety measure. While this test of obedience is inevitably trying for some, it has also taught the seminarians to make sacrifices and it has challenged them to find creative ways of finding entertainment on campus and fostering brotherhood. Various seminary committees host movie nights and pizza socials, play board games, play sports, and have organized tournaments in Spikeball, volleyball, and ping-pong, and even a Bob Ross-themed art night. Off-campus group outings in the fall included a camping trip that included almost half of the school and a couple weekend opportunities at two different lakehouses.
Carson Haupt, a senior seminarian from the Diocese of Dodge City, remarked, “Being away for so long has made us appreciate what we have in a new way. We’re being more intentional—seminarians are still visiting in the evening like before, but we’re also much less likely to do things alone, especially when it comes to going off-campus. Since times to leave campus are more restricted, the seminarians seem to be going places together rather than running individual errands.”
I frequently remind the seminarians to be grateful, even amidst the normal anxieties of life or academic stress — grateful that they have a community to encourage one another and a place where they can pray regularly and receive the Sacraments. It is important not to take such blessings for granted, but to learn to value our authentic interactions and come to see how life, especially our spiritual life, is a journey that is most joyful when we undertake it with others. Benedictine monastic life has taught me the importance of the role of gratitude, and the monastic community tries to set an example of living out everything as a gift from the Creator. No matter what kind of noise and chaos there is in the world, we strive to be witnesses of hope by remaining interiorly peaceful. The monastic community’s simplicity of life communicates how a life dedicated to prayer, work, and community can be extremely satisfying and fulfilling, not just in terms of years, but for an entire lifetime.
”Community life at the seminary is what I love most about Conception,” says senior Jonah Beckham of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “Conception emphasizes the importance of fraternity and brotherhood. All my friends here are more than just my friends — they are truly my brothers, and this is my family. During the five months of separation, it was being separated from my family which was very hard and now it is a blessing to be back with my family. Even with all the precautions, we have found that we just enjoy being around each other and being in each other’s presence.”
This year will probably be the most formative aspect in the seminarians’ lives because there is the potential for immense spiritual growth. The additional rules and the sacrifices we are asking of them are providing opportunities to learn to accept situations and surrender to circumstances beyond their control. When we are challenged to make sacrifices that go against what we have planned or would prefer, the challenges often reveal to us what is in our hearts, and whether we are able to respond with gratitude for God’s many blessings. I hope that the seminarians and all of us can learn that life will present us with many difficult situations, and how the response most fitting of a Christian is total and complete trust in God.
— Fr. Paul Sheller, OSB
Dean of Spiritual Formation