What drives nine seminarians and one faculty member out of the comfort of their day to day lives, especially during a school break, into an unfamiliar and far away place? There are many answers to this question such as a twelve-seater van, the grace of God, or the desire to form a priestly and Christ-like heart. Regardless of reason, we set off united with a clear goal in mind: to broaden our horizons, specifically by encountering African American Catholics in Birmingham, AL. Supporting this mission, we aspired to have a common disposition: listening to those we encountered with our very being, asking questions to understand from where they were coming, and walking with them on their journey.
As seminarians, one day, God willing, we will become Catholic priests. Throughout this mission trip, we reflected on our experiences through several lenses to enrich our priestly formation: spiritual fatherhood, fraternity, preferential option for the poor, and missionary discipleship.
Over the course of our stay in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, we had the opportunity to encounter several members of the African American Catholic Community, and to worship at some of the historically black parishes in the diocese. Our group spent the week in residence at the retreat center at Saint Francis of Assisi in Bessemer, AL. We attended Sunday Mass at Saint Francis as well as at Our Lady of Fatima in Birmingham. During the week, we had the opportunity to also go to daily Mass with student body of Holy Family Cristo Rey School at the parish of Holy Family. Every single one of these communities welcomed us warmly and with open arms and truly showed us the love of Christ.
“The Most Rev. James P. Lyke, O.F.M., a former Archbishop of Atlanta once wrote that, ‘One cannot understand the history of the United States without a substantive reference to the history of the African-American people. Similarly, if one seeks an accurate and complete picture of the Catholic Church in the United States, it is essential to know the accounts of the African-American Catholic.’ The time that we spent in some of the historically black parishes of Birmingham has truly exposed many of us to new and beautiful expressions of the Faith outside of our own cultural experiences.”
– John Washington, Pre-Theology 1, Archdiocese of Atlanta, GA
“I believe that the best way to define spiritual fatherhood is when a person is willing to listen to the people who have been entrusted to him and is able to allow God’s love to flow through him to those in need. During our Birmingham mission trip, I recognized that Deacon Doug Moorer was a man who is a great example of a spiritual father. Both of his homilies that we listened to expressed very clearly that God loves all of us with an infinite love but also reminded us of the seriousness of living a life outside of God’s saving grace. It was refreshing to hear a homily that was very direct and helped me to realize that a spiritual father is one who protects his children and who is not afraid to preach at times “uncomfortable” truths out of love for his children. Fr. Jon Chalmers and Fr. Bob Crossmeyer were also examples of spiritual fathers. It seemed like both priests had an overwhelming amount of responsibilities which required them to both lay down their own interests and desires to help improve the lives of the students at Cristo Rey school. All these examples have given me a clearer understanding of what it takes to be a spiritual father.”
– Thomas Leah, Pre-Theology 1, Archdiocese of Chicago, IL
“Fraternity is brotherhood, exemplified in a group of men who treat each other as more than just friends. Yes, as friends these men share in each other’s joys and victories, but they also support each other in times of struggle and failure. This was strikingly apparent when we had the chance to visit the Cenacolo community in Hanceville, AL. Regardless of any of their pasts, these men not only band together in shared weakness to overcome vice but replace it with a solid core of virtues such as prayer and labor. As a testament to the power of fraternity, one need not look any further than the relapse rate of the men after completing the program. By the grace of God, Cenacolo performs approximately 15 times better than the average drug rehabilitation facility.”
– Andrew LeGreve, Pre-Theology 1, Diocese of Green Bay, WI
“To me preferential option for the poor is something fundamental to the Christian life. It’s part of who we are: compassion was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, the center of our faith. The preferential option for the poor means that in all that we do and in all that we say: in all ministry, in all parish life, in all preaching, in all prayer, the poor must be there in some way. The poor must always be closest to the heart of the Church. Preferential option for the poor, however, does not come naturally to us: if it did, Christ would not have had to call us into it. For me, as a seminarian, I feel like preferential option for the poor is like a gauge that I must fill up; I know it’s important in my mind, but really knowing it so much so that it informs my actions is a very different thing. It is easy to forget about the poor and the marginalized through the daily grind: going from class to class and studying for test after test. This is why it is important to get out there and get filled back up again with reminders about the preferential option for the poor- to get the bar filled back up, to get in touch with who we really are as Catholics: servants of the poor. After having filled this bar back up, studies, prayer, and all the other aspects of my seminary life, take on a new, refreshed vigor. Our encounters with the Gaudalupan Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit in Eutaw and Consolata Missionary Sisters at the Catholic Center of Concern helped fill my gauge.”
– Michael Kelly, Theology 1, Diocese of Yakima, WA
“To be a missionary is to be sent, and to be a disciple is to follow Jesus and worship Jesus. Therefore, being a missionary disciple is to be a disciple who recognizes and acts on the mission of sharing Jesus with others. While we shared the presence of Jesus with others by listening and understanding those we met, there were more than a handful of Christians in the Birmingham area who intentionally shared the Gospel message with us, which gives me no reason to doubt that’s not a regular part of their lives. It seemed to be a more regular part of daily life than what I am used to, and that’s a good lesson for us seminarians. Two men in particular who shared an afternoon with us that stand out as missionary disciples are Fr. Mitch Pacwa of EWTN and his friend Bishop James Lowe of Guiding Light Church. They discerned the call to follow Jesus to the extent that their lives were completely changed – Fr. Pacwa by becoming a priest, and Bishop Lowe by becoming a non-denominational pastor in a very Baptist area. Both of them went out to evangelize whether on worldwide television or by gathering Christians and tangibly addressing for a large faith community’s needs. They have established a strong friendship and have unexpectedly seen it bear fruit in working towards faithful leadership for Birmingham.”
– Kevin Ripley, Theology 2, Diocese of Green Bay, WI
These experiences only cover a small portion of what the Lord showed us in Birmingham. They will be great sources of prayer and have already inspired in us profound personal growth.
We thank in a special way Bishop Robert Baker together with Fr. Vernon Huguley, Vicar for Black Ministry and Mr. James Watts, Director of the Black Ministry Office of the Birmingham. A special thanks as well to Deacon Walter Henderson and Deacon Doug Moorer who accompanied us on different parts of our journey. And thank you to the priests who welcomed us in their parishes and were open to say mass for our group when we needed an early morning mass. The wisdom and insight of those we met was of great benefit to us. We look forward to the next opportunity to visit Birmingham and worship the Lord together. God bless you all!