Looks like some of the new guys are still trying to figure out where they are!
Somehow, four years of Seminary have passed me by, and year number five has gotten right underway. Classes don’t start until this Tuesday, but I’ve been down here at the Seminary, helping out with Orientation week for the new seminarians. And one of the greatest joys that comes with helping the new guys get comfortable in such a new setting is not feeling like I’ve got something to show them, as if they couldn’t fit in unless somebody like me was there to show them the way. Nope. For me, the joy comes in learning from them, watching them take it all in, remembering what it was like for me when I was dropped off by my family to begin this crazy journey to get closer to the priesthood.
I suppose there could be a mentality of showing the new guys the ropes: hazing them, letting them know who’s boss, making sure they don’t overstep their role too quickly. Hey, I am a returning seminarian, after all. Shouldn’t I be able to show off a little: my experience, my knowledge, even my prayer life?
It doesn’t quite work like that down here. Or at least, when we try, it makes for a big mess.
I remember coming in to St. John’s for my first year of theology, last year. I had been here for some classes before, and I was moving from one seminary program to another, from the college program to the graduate program. So I was kind of familiar with the faces, the teachers, the schedules and such. And I definitely looked up to the fourth year guys who were about to be ordained, wishing I could get there as soon as possible. But what surprised me during the year was how much I also ended up looking up to the new guys who had just come into their first year in any seminary program. These guys still had the newness of the experience on their hearts. That first fire that enlivened their vocation was still burning pretty brightly. I’ve heard some people try to chalk this up to naivety, like, hey, these guys haven’t been disillusioned by the process yet, or they’ll soon cool down and see Seminary as just another obstacle to survive on the way to the priesthood.
What an awful way to live for seven or eight years! As if the struggles that come along with the joys of Seminary life mean that the faculty are always out to get us, or as if the goal of the program is to chew us up and spit us out, just to make sure we’re strong enough for the priesthood. Believe it or not, there are people around who feel this way. Now, I’m not saying the seminary life is perfect, or that our community is well on our way to instant sainthood. We have our weaknesses and we’re held down by our sins as well. But what I want to make clear to all of you, as we need to be reminded now more than ever, is that, again, believe it or not, it’s easy to complain about Seminary life, but we’re called to so much more.
For those of you who are sports fans, I was just watching Tom Brady give a pep talk to the Michigan football team right before they started their season this last Saturday. That guy’s a pretty inspirational speaker, I’ve got to say. He spoke about how he learned to love being a leader, sitting right where those players were sitting. He learned how to love football more, how to be more fearless, and that was where his own peers chose him to lead them. Man, I was pumped up, and I’ve never put on pads to play football before (I’ve only ever played tackle football without pads; who needs pads, ha!?). And it got me thinking, maybe I haven’t been listening to the right voices, or maybe the seminary experience really has changed a lot, but I’ve never heard a priest come up to me or other seminarians with that kind of enthusiasm and tell us that the Seminary was the place he learned to become a great priest. There’s always a lot of affirmation about how great it is to be a priest, and how you learn the most when you’re actually with the people, but it’s like some guys are so ready to fight the system, and merely survive, so they can move on.
Well, I don’t know what the rest of my time in the Seminary has in store for me, but right now, I love the experience. Sure, I see things I would do differently if in charge, and I have my struggles with classes, prayer, and other men. But for me, these last four years have been the best four years of my life, and these new guys coming in every year, with that fire still burning in them, they kind of relight my own candle.
And can’t it be the same in all the things we do? When we see someone new at Mass on Sunday, maybe they seem a little lost, or maybe they seem more excited to be there than we do. What do we take from that? I’m a competitive guy, I know that I try to out do people sometimes. Would we try to prove that we belong at our church more than they do? Or are we humble enough to accept that we might learn something from them? How about the new guys or girls at school? Are we going to try to out do them, or get to know them and recognize that maybe we’re the ones who need to learn from them? I’m really thinking the words that need to be on our hearts for the rest of this year, and our whole lives really, come from St. Paul, in the words that spilled out of his heart to the people of Rome: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8: 28). Yes, God will work good in us this year, even through our struggles, our disagreements, and in those moments we mistakenly think we should out do the new people in our lives, when really, God has so much more in store for us.