One of the interesting aspects of vocation work is the amount of traveling that is part of this ministry. It has afforded me the opportunity to visit many new places and to meet a diverse group of people. In the middle of June, I was in Omaha, Neb., visiting some of our seminarians who were doing a summer semester there. It was an interesting trip since it was my first time in Nebraska. The six seminarians I was visiting were doing the nine-week spirituality program for diocesan seminarians conducted at Creighton University. The Institute For Priestly Formation (IPF), which is based at Creighton, runs the nine-week course.
I have had the pleasure of working with IPF the last three years, taking courses in spiritual direction, and was very happy when I learned the archdiocese was sending seminarians there for the summer. Many vocation directors around the country I have spoken with have sent seminarians to Creighton for years, and some have referred to it as the novitiate for diocesan priesthood, analogous to the longer period of time spent by members of religious orders before making first vows. The program begins with a three-day introduction to spirituality followed by an eight-day silent retreat that sets the tenor of the man’s time there. Classes focus on a range of topics from learning about the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola to deepening a man’s understanding of his masculine identity in Christ. At the heart of the whole program is the idea of discernment and giving a man the tools necessary to come to a better sense of his vocation and if the Lord is truly calling him to serve in the priesthood.
Priests and lay people involved in spiritual direction and formation from all over the country are on staff to assist in the successful operation of the nine-week course. Since it is under the auspices of IPF, the priest who is the head of the program is Father Rich Gabuzda, who is the director of IPF. Father Rich has spoken and written often about the centrality of the spiritual life for the formation of priests and the critical nature of it for the effective ministry of the man after ordination. The metaphor he uses for the central role of spirituality is the hub of a wheel. Even if every other area of formation and discernment is well ordered, if there is not a strong spiritual life, then everything will fall apart. This is why IPF incorporates this into all of their work and ministry. The importance of contemplative prayer, simply being alone with the Lord, especially in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is at the heart of what allows a man to discern and what keeps a priest grounded in the One he is called to serve. If the prayer life of a priest falters for any period of time, his whole vocation may eventually be in jeopardy as well.
For a seminarian, who is still discerning his call from the Lord, his posture must be like that of Elijah in the Old Testament who inclines his ear to hear the still small voice of the Lord in the whisper of the wind. The daily practice of this in seminary will form a strong habit in the man of relying each day of his ministry on the invisible yet powerful work of the Lord in his life. Even if a man discerns out of seminary, the tools he has acquired will enable him to bring major life decisions to prayer before acting. The spiritual life of any disciple of the Lord is crucial but it is even more essential for the man who is aspiring to serve in the priesthood. The spiritual life truly is like the hub of a wheel that keeps us moving forward steadily as we discern the Lord’s will.