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Experiencing God’s Presence: Prayer and Spirituality on Campus

by Kyle Tietz on October 3, 2018

“The goal for seminarians is to find God where they are, and to experience His presence.”

- Father Carlos Rodriguez, Director of Spiritual Life -

Kyle Tietz is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of Dubuque

The pews in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception were slowly filling as I took a seat. Around me were many unfamiliar faces. I had only arrived at Mundelein a week before and was itching to get to know my fellow seminarians. Why, then, were we beginning the year with a silent retreat?

Over the next week, it became clear to me that the retreat would set the tone for the rest of the year. Prayer life is at the heart of what goes on here at Mundelein, and spiritual formation is integral to the seminary community and our preparation for the priesthood.

Spirituality is the meeting ground of communal liturgy and personal prayer and devotion. In Mundelein’s seminary program, there is no special emphasis on a particular spirituality, such as Ignatian or Carmelite. It offers a rounded formation for future parish priests.

“We’re not training guys to become monks, but we do want to cultivate contemplation in a practical way,” said Father Carlos Rodriguez, Mundelein’s director of spiritual life. “The goal for seminarians is to find God where they are, and to experience His presence.”

And, finding that sacred presence happens in many ways.

Liturgy

“Do this in memory of me.” (Lk 22:19)

“It’s the most intimate place where we encounter Christ, the most tangible place,” says Father Brad Zamora, Mundelein’s director of liturgy, when explaining the centrality of liturgy in the life of Mundelein Seminary. “Christ is the one who calls us and put on our hearts the priesthood.”

Certainly, the Mass is the central moment in daily seminary life where we encounter Christ in the word, community and Eucharist. Resident priests concelebrate, and many of the lay faculty join the seminarians in this sacred liturgy.

Mass is planned with seminarian formation in mind, Zamora said. “We are equipped to live out liturgy ‘more fully’ at Mundelein, with our music ministry, instituted lectors and acolytes and deacons,” he said. “The goal, particularly with music, is to connect with the students’ parish experiences.”

The relationship between liturgy and personal prayer is also important. Zamora referenced the Vatican’s 1979 document, Instruction on Liturgical Formation in Seminaries, which sheds light on this relationship: “Liturgical and personal piety mutually support and complement each other. Familiar communion in prayer with Christ leads to fuller, knowledgeable and pious participation in the sacred liturgy. On the other hand, private devotion receives example and nourishment from liturgical life.”

Mass is celebrated in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the fall semester. Because many seminarians are on internship or in the Holy Land, the more intimate Chapel of St. John Paul II in the Theology Residence is used in the spring. But, regardless of where it is celebrated, Mass grounds the day in worship and sacrament.

Liturgy of the Hours

“Seven times a day I praise you …” (Ps 119:164)

For seminarians and priest, it works out to five times a day, actually. The Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office, developed in the monastic tradition as a method of praying the Psalms. The practice found its way into the life of diocesan priests in a simplified form. At ordination, deacons promise “to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the people of God and indeed for the whole world.”

Most mornings before Mass, Morning Prayer is recited or, on Sundays and solemnities, chanted. This is an opportunity to pray the Psalms with the wider Church around the world. A different seminarian is scheduled each morning to lead the prayer as a way to cultivate liturgical leadership.

Evening Prayer is treated a bit differently. Depending on the day of the week, it is prayed with one’s cam brothers on each residence hallway, in a language group or with one’s diocesan brothers.

The remaining three hours — the Office of Readings, Daytime Prayer, and Night Prayer — are generally prayed individually. We are encouraged to incorporate all the hours gradually into our prayer lives during our years of formation.

Holy Hour

“Could you not keep watch for one hour?”  (Mk 14:37)

“I’m going to go pray a Holy Hour” is a common enough phrase in seminarian parlance. This hour of personal prayer, an expectation of the seminary program, is a time of retreat from the day for a seminarian to connect personally with Christ.

Armed with Bibles, breviaries, rosaries, journals, spiritual reading and even reading assignments from class, the men of Mundelein seminary go to spend time with the Lord. Some pass the entire hour in silent meditation, but most combine silence, recitation, Scripture and spiritual reading.

Praying for an hour in eucharistic adoration is particularly encouraged. Each weekday before the communal liturgy, the body of Christ is taken from the tabernacle in one of the chapels and exposed for the watchful vigil of the early risers. Those who are less early to rise can find exposition throughout the week on campus or at nearby Marytown, which has perpetual adoration. Of course, Christ is always present in chapel tabernacles across campus for adoration 24 hours a day.

A relatively new opportunity is praise and worship each Thursday night. This combines eucharistic adoration with music led by members of the seminary community. Zamora cites this time of prayer of an example of personal spiritual needs entering the community life. Because many men desired it, praise and worship became a regular occurrence in the calendar, he said.

Spiritual Direction

“Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.”  (Lk 24:15)

Central to our formation is the practice of spiritual direction. Each seminarian selects a priest to guide him through the joys and challenges of a life of ministry. Meeting every two weeks, we bring our blessings, struggles and insights from prayer to our directors in strict confidentiality.

Rodriguez coordinates the program of spiritual direction and directs 20 men himself. He is quick to share the blessing of this part of formation.

“It’s a privilege and honor to enter into guys’ lives in a deep way when they reveal so much of who they are,” he said. “I see the real person in spiritual direction and why God loves them. Everyone is unique.”

Rodriguez explains that spiritual direction revolves around the Road to Emmaus passage from Scripture. In it, two men are walking together when they encounter Christ. He is revealed to them in his Word and in the breaking of the bread, and their hearts are set on fire. Thus, it is not so much that the spiritual director guides the seminarian, but that the seminarian allows Christ to be the guide.

Nonetheless, the wisdom and experience of the spiritual director invites Christ into each session. In spiritual direction, the most intimate encounters in prayer, as well as difficulties in formation, are vocalized and shared. This is when true vulnerability and honesty can pay spiritual dividends.

Language and Culture

“Every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”  (Rv 5:9)

Looking down one Tuesday evening at the Spanish Evening Prayer handout and song sheet, I wondered how much my high school Spanish would help me out. About half the crowd in the Deacon Chapel was native speakers. After a quick “Dios mío, ven en mi auxilio,” the strum of guitars for the hymn told me that we were under way.

A diversity of language and culture allows the wider seminary to experience the breadth of spiritual experiences that each man here brings. This range of worship exemplifies the universality of the Church and shows her as authentically Catholic.

Mass at seminary is the principal avenue for cultural celebration. Thursdays see Mass in Spanish, which is immersive yet forgiving to those still learning the language. Masses with African and Asian hymnody also make their rotation, bringing in cultural music and readings in Swahili, Tagalog and Vietnamese, to name a few. Special days such as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Lunar New Year are celebrated with appropriate festivity. Last semester, we also celebrated the holy Qurbana, the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church.

Tuesday is “Language Night” for seminarians’ Evening Prayer. We gather in various groups to pray in English, Spanish, Latin, Polish, Italian, Portuguese, as well as varying African and Asian languages. German Evening Prayer accompanied Oktoberfest this past year, and I continue to hear whispered rumors that Evening Prayer may be prayed in French.

Hispanic Ministry at Mundelein in particular presents a strong cultural spirituality, according to Father Miguel Corral of Las Vegas, a 2018 graduate of Mundelein, who led the ministry last year. Hispanic Ministry coordinates Spanish Evening Prayer and music and celebrations for Día de los Muertos, Las Posadas before Christmas, and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12.

“The purpose of Hispanic Ministry is to share Hispanic culture with the greater community, things we will see in parishes,” Corral said. “Hispanic spirituality is very devotional, especially with Mary and the saints. Experiencing this is important with the number of Hispanic Catholics across the United States on the rise.”

Marian Devotion

“Behold, your mother.”  (Jn 19:27)

The words of the Litany of Loreto ring the inside of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception just below its ceiling, proclaiming various titles of Mary. The grotto commemorating Our Lady of Lourdes lies just outside the chapel’s doors. Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Częstochowa and the Theotokos grace the various walls of the residence buildings.

Marian devotion is apparent in seminary life not only in imagery but in practice, too. The clicking of rosary beads interrupts otherwise silent chapels. I occasionally run into a fellow seminarian walking around the lake, rosary in hand.

The Confraternity of Mary is a student group that leads and promotes Marian devotion on campus. They are seen most prominently leading the Angelus prayer before Morning Prayer and the rosary after lunch. Other activities involve promoting Marian consecration and praying for the benefactors of the seminary.

Liam Thompson, a second-year pre-theologian studying for the Diocese of Lafayette, is a member of the confraternity. He explains the importance of Marian devotion for seminarians: “If it is Mary who formed Jesus Christ in her womb, it is likewise her who will form us into Christ. This was her mission, given by God,” he said. “Furthermore, true devotion to Mary protects and sustains priestly celibacy.”

It is fitting to foster such devotion here on the campus dedicated to Saint Mary of the Lake.

Spiritual Life

“Do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31)

Certainly, these channels are not the extent of spirituality on campus. There are also informal email invitations about novenas to saints for various causes, prayers before sporting events, spiritual reading swapped and shared in the mailroom, guys meeting to read through the Scriptures, discussions on the writings of various saintly figures, personal days of retreat or recollection and communal penance services.

Here in seminary, one’s spiritual life lies at the crossroads of required communal liturgy and personal prayer at one’s own initiative. The formation faculty, visiting priests and speakers, those who support through prayer and fellow seminarians guide the spiritual formation that takes place.

But it is the One who “explores the mind and tests the heart” (Jer 17:10) who truly knows our souls and leads us to growth. And may He lead us indeed.

This article originally appeared in The BRIDGE, a seminarian-produced magazine. The entire issue is available here.