Seminarians learn and discern as college undergraduates
By Jordan Gamble
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Kevin Wack has a pilot's license and even started college as an aerospace engineering major, but he will not be flying planes for a living after he graduates from the University of Notre Dame next spring. Instead, he plans to become a priest.
Although he has considered other paths -- pilot, husband -- Wack said the priesthood has been popping up since childhood family gatherings with his two uncles, both priests in the Congregation of Holy Cross.
"Priests were always very normal people to me. They were and still are the two happiest people I know. As a young kid, 8 years old, I was really drawn to that happiness," Wack said in a phone interview with Catholic News Service
As a senior in high school, Wack was serious enough about the priesthood to apply to Old College, an undergraduate seminary at Notre Dame. The three-year program is a precursor to the Congregation of Holy Cross' Moreau Seminary, also located on Notre Dame's campus in South Bend, Ind.
Old College is an example of a collaborative college seminary. Unlike stand-alone seminary colleges, collaborative programs are attached to accredited colleges or universities.
"We find it a great asset to be able to be here on campus," said Holy Cross Father Kevin Russeau, director of Old College and himself an alum of the program, in a phone interview.
The "Old Collegians" live in their own residence hall, a tiny, 166-year-old brick building that survives from the university's founding. Father Russeau said its number of occupants has fluctuated in the last decade: from 18 in 1999, down to four in 2006, and up to a crowded 22 this fall.
Though Old College residents form a tight community, they are not tucked away from the rest of campus. From taking classes with other undergraduates to joining extracurricular activities, Old College students can and do participate in college life.
"We have some that are on a club-level baseball team, others in the marching band, others working in campus ministry. They do a variety of things typical to college students," said Holy Cross Father Ed Obermiller, vocations director for his congregation's Indiana province.
"Unlike their peers, however, they tend to go to bed a little earlier because they are up at 7 a.m. for a half-hour of meditation," he said.
Another thing that sets Old College apart is its meticulous application process, including interviews with current Holy Cross priests and a screening by a psychologist. Joining Old College also depends on acceptance into either Notre Dame or the nearby Holy Cross College, but that decision is up to each school's admissions committee.
Old College has a more diverse curriculum than some college seminaries because of the Holy Cross focus on teaching.
"Because we are a teaching community, we do not wish to require that all seminarians major in philosophy. We want them to discover their passions and perhaps find the field they might pursue a Ph.D. in and teach at one of our institutions," said Father Russeau in an e-mail to CNS.
An additional concentration is not required, he explained, but the formation staff encourage the students to study their interests so long as they also complete 18 credit hours in philosophy and 12 in theology, prerequisites for the master of divinity program at Moreau Seminary. Typically, 30 philosophy and 12 theology credit hours are required to apply to a major seminary, a standard set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Program for Priestly Formation.
Other colleges offer study and discernment communities for people already past the regular college age. The pretheologate program at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, has both an undergraduate, preseminary formation program and a condensed, two-year curriculum for people who need philosophy and theology credits but have already completed an undergraduate degree.
Eric Scanlan went to Franciscan University after he graduated from the University of Florida in 2007 with a business degree. The priesthood was in the back of his mind, he said, but he was unsure of pursuing it. He joined the pretheologate program on a friend's recommendation.
The brotherhood and guidance he found there provided support for his discernment.
"The greatest blessing of the pretheologate program was the community of men really striving for holiness. I didn't know what to expect -- the whole priesthood idea was a pretty new idea to me at the time. I was so impressed at, I guess you could say, how normal the guys were: the friendship, camaraderie, and really looking out for each other," he explained.
The community in the pretheologate program is comparable to Old College, except there are separate households (small group residences) for graduate students like Scanlan and for undergraduate students, who are on a four-year track. The program has grown to about 50 or 60 students since its start in 1985 as a discernment group of four men.
While Old College prepares men for living in the Holy Cross community, the pretheologate's purpose is more exploratory. This is because Franciscan University's program fulfills the academic prerequisites for many major seminaries but is not tailored for a specific diocese or religious order. Pretheologate graduates go on to diocesan and religious seminaries across the nation and world.
When interviewed in June, Scanlan was just days away from starting the next stage of his priestly formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In a few years he will be a priest in his home Diocese of Venice, Fla.
In Indiana, Wack was spending the summer as a counselor for a high school conference at Notre Dame. Fittingly, his job was to lead a group of teenagers in discussions about their own calls to vocation.
After three years of living in Old College, Wack will move into Moreau Seminary this fall, where he will combine finishing up his undergraduate degree in theology with his novitiate year for Holy Cross. Five years from now, he will be ordained a priest, like the uncles who inspired him as an 8-year-old.
"Other kids might see a shiny firetruck in their future, but I saw the priesthood," he said. "There's some sort of this draw, this silent desire, that says maybe this life is for you."