Building Bridges Amidst a Pandemic

by on December 17, 2020

By Father John Kartje
President and Rector of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary



“In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43).

With these words, Pope St. John Paul II drew upon a powerful image of the priest as a “bridge” to help others cross over into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. But a careful reading of this text indicates that it is the man’s personality, in particular, which is the bridging element. The supernatural grace of a priest’s ordination is received and communicated by his natural humanity—and that humanity can be either a bridge or a chasm, depending on how the priest views himself, his pastoral environment, and the people whom he engages. That is why a priest’s human formation is one of the most critical aspects to be developed during his time in seminary. His mastery of the Catholic Church’s rich intellectual tradition, or his deep contemplative prayer life, will be of little help to his parishioners unless he can embody those gifts within a compassionate heart, a perceptive mind, and a willingness to sacrifice his own agenda in service of the needs of his people.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed throughout the year, it has been highly evident to me just how resourceful and resilient our students, alumni, faculty and staff have been. They have found new ways to negotiate the unique challenges and needs which surfaced from a society that has been limited by social distancing, quarantining, off-site learning, restricted access to the Sacraments, and devastating spiritual, financial, emotional, and physical crises. The seminarians’ capacity to help bridge these struggles—so that the people of God do not lose hope in the One whose love is ever present even within the midst of the chaos—is what we seek to grow and develop through our seminary formation program.

The seminarians’ capacity to help bridge these struggles—so that the people of God do not lose hope in the One whose love is ever present even within the midst of the chaos—is what we seek to grow and develop through our seminary formation program.

- Father John Kartje -

In these pages of The Bridge, you will encounter numerous witnesses to this bridging process at work. As the seminarians departed campus early in the spring semester, they were challenged to find ways to remain connected to their classmates, faculty, formation advisors, and spiritual directors. That meant yeoman efforts by everyone to quickly adapt to off-site learning, with the sometimes painful moments that any quick change necessitates. Beyond the academics, the seminarians had to find new ways to reach out to the people of their home dioceses where most of them were now living. How does one make pastoral connections with nearly empty churches, elderly and infirm parishioners who cannot be readily visited in person, and the usual vast array of parish gatherings (in classrooms, RCIA sessions, parish council meetings, marriage and baptism preparation, etc.) now relegated to Zoom? In these pages you’ll see how!

Perhaps few moments within the life of a priest or deacon provide a more intimate connection with his diocese than his Ordination Mass. Those liturgies are generally celebrated within a packed parish church or diocesan cathedral. While a pandemicera Ordination Mass might look very different, you’ll read about how the grace of the Holy Spirit allowed one newly-ordained deacon to transcend any apparent shortcomings at his ordination and prepared him to help his people transcend any similar shortcomings in their own lives.

I particularly encourage you to encounter the myriad examples of “priestly bridging” that are so evident in the ministry of one of our alumni, Fr. Sergio Rivas. He shares with us his pastoral mantra which was forged by his formation at Mundelein: “Lord, let me look at people the way you did”. But he also shows us how that simple phrase continues to inspire him to melt away the COVID barriers that might otherwise take root between his people and the love of Jesus Christ.

While he may not have foreseen the pandemic of 2020 when he penned the quote cited above, Pope St. John Paul II certainly knew the deep need for a priestly ministry that could bridge the pain and confusion of global crises. Drawing on his life experience, the Spirit inspired him to craft a vision for priestly formation that was designed to achieve that end. At Mundelein Seminary we are the beneficiaries of his vision and in the following pages you’ll see what that looks like in action.

Together with you, in Christ, we are Mundelein. We form parish priests. God bless you.

This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.