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Forming Priests in a Pandemic

Posted on December 17, 2020

By Joseph Nguyen, Diocese of San Jose

In early March of 2020, Mundelein Seminary faced a challenge that the world had never seen before: the COVID-19 pandemic. As the seminary developed ways to respond, it stayed focused on its mission to form priests who could react to the changing pastoral dynamics across the country.

Throughout the early months of 2020, Father John Kartje, rector/president of Mundelein Seminary, kept a close eye on the developments of the coronavirus as it made its way into the United States and especially when it arrived in Chicago.

“It was a big decision to send people home, but we were from such a large geographical area, I knew that if an ultimate lockdown order for everybody came out, it would be hard for guys to get home,” Kartje said.

On Friday, March 13, the decision was made to send the seminarians back to their home dioceses. The third theology class, which was still on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, returned to the United States the week after the decision. The other institutes on campus the Institute for Pastoral Leadership, the Liturgical Institute, the Instituto de Liderazgo Pastoral and the Institute for Diaconal Studies also simultaneously suspended in-person classes. All classes changed from the in-person format into online learning. A brief hiatus was made so that the seminary faculty could adjust to the new format of teaching. Then, the week of March 23, classes resumed for the seminary as well as for the other institutes online. Using the Microsoft Teams software, seminarians and students of the other institutes connected with their professors from across the country and continued their studies online.

“It was a challenge,” Kartje said. “We were trying to get up to speed with remote learning.” In spite of the seminarians being spread across the country, and the faculty having to teach without students in the physical classroom, a spirit of generosity and patience was present among all. Many seminarians now spent much of their time living in parishes. One benefit of this arrangement was the ability for seminarians to do more hands on pastoral work, and to find new ways of doing ministry creatively. Some of these methods included helping parishes with livestreaming Masses, posting on social media for the parish and enhancing its digital presence, helping with religious education at the parish, and home visits to deliver groceries. Seminarians also learned other aspects of rectory living such as how to live in Christian community with the priests they were with and making use of the time in shelter in place for deeper prayer and interiority. Many seminarians found this time to be fruitful in personal growth and a better vision of what it meant to be a parish priest, as well as gaining more formation in pastoral service.

The pandemic also affected ordinations. Due to uncertainty about how the situation would affect large Masses, many dioceses chose to postpone ordinations, or hold them with fewer people present. Deacon Joby Joseph, studying for the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago, had his diaconate ordination postponed from May to July. In spite of having to wait longer, Joseph found in this time the ability to prepare more for his ordination. Staying at a parish during shelter-in-place and during the summer, the deacon spent his time in prayer, reflection, and study as he was waiting for the day to come.

“Our (ordained) life won’t necessarily be comfortable, but will still be beautiful,” he said, adding that he was “able to ground myself in Christ, and to really ask myself the question of whether or not I believe this is something important to give my life to going forward.”

Kartje noted that the ordinandi had an attitude of greater understanding of what it meant to be a priest for the Body of Christ.

“I didn’t see bitterness or a sense of disappointment,” Kartje said. “Sure, they may have had hopes or thoughts that it would have looked different, but I did see a profound sense of what it really means to be Church. At the core of this life they’re called to, it’s not about how many people are in the cathedral on their ordination day.”

Reflecting on first Masses he witnessed, Kartje was similarly encouraged.

“I found particularly moving a number of first Masses where it would be just the priest and a concelebrant or two, and maybe 20 people in the church, an incredible joy and gratitude for living into that new charism, and as I witnessed each one of those, I felt even more encouraged and grateful for the Church that these men were going out to live their vocation … that manifested the fullness and the glory of what the Church is all about.”

Mundelein Seminary continued to reach out to the community throughout the summer. Kartje held an online Bible study dealing with how to live in the midst of uncertainty. Father Bradley Zamora, director of worship, recorded musical reflections as a way of doing online ministry. The May Crowning was moved to the virtual platform, with many seminarians from across the country taking part with music, prayers and readings. The fundraising event was held online as well on July 16, honoring

Msgr. Michael Boland and featuring speeches by Cardinal Blaise Cupich and Kartje. Throughout the summer, the priests who remained on campus prayed at Mass for the intentions and prayer requests submitted online. The seminary also continued to provide resources and prayers for those who needed them.

“For the faculty and administration, the summer was also a busy time planning for and preparing for the return of the seminarians to the campus. Changes were being made, especially in the liturgy, dining and classroom experience.”

For the faculty and administration, the summer was also a busy time planning for and preparing for the return of the seminarians to the campus. Changes were being made, especially in the liturgy, dining and classroom experience.

In planning the new liturgy and procedures, Zamora looked for ways to follow the guidelines of the state of Illinois as well as the Archdiocese of Chicago. One of the main concerns in doing this was balancing the need of having the seminary community pray together while maintaining use of the chapels on campus. A solution was found in having liturgies in three spaces. During most days of the week, seminarians would be split into two cohorts, one in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, the other in the Chapel of St. John Paul II. Masses would be held simultaneously in both chapels, and seminarians would be seated with their cams. Masses for the whole seminary community were to be held within the auditorium. The Cardinal Mundelein Auditorium, which had the most capacity of any building on campus, was transformed from a theater into a sacred space, with the stage turned into a sanctuary and the historic Wurlitzer theater organ finding a new purpose as a liturgical instrument. In addition, the seminary created new sanitizing protocols and added hand sanitizer stations and socially distant seating. Spots were marked with blue stickers with a cross on it in the chapels and the auditorium. As the semester began, the community was able to adjust smoothly and successfully to the new schedule.

Dining also changed at the seminary. The refectory continues to provide food for the community, though it now comes in the form of takeout. Boxes of entrees and salads are now standard, as well as carry-out drinks and utensils. There is some limited seating within the refectory itself, though outdoor seating is available across the campus including at the recently made patio on the north side of the Theology Building.

Resuming seminary life involved preparation for any situation that might turn up within the semester. Returning to the physical classroom meant taking necessary precautions. One classroom was assigned to each cohort as their main meeting space. Mundelein staff socially distanced the desks and disinfectant procedures were established to ensure the safety of the students. Microsoft Teams now supplements the classroom experience, providing a means for students or faculty who need to quarantine to continue to participate in class where it becomes necessary. A new style of teaching developed as well. Teachers have “synchronous days” where the traditional in-person class was held, while offsetting it with “asynchronous days” where the teacher would teach online and post a lecture for the students to watch. In these ways, the learning experience has also changed in a unique and flexible manner.

In looking back at the past few months, both seminarians and faculty found that this was an experience of creativity and service, and that it proved the formation at Mundelein Seminary bore fruit.

“Watching what the seminary community did as they were sent to their home parishes in their home dioceses I think prove that we have a program in which we want our men to be creative, to take the tools, the formation that we give them and to put it into practice in real settings,” Zamora said. “And I think from what I’ve seen, both from the seminarians who now have returned to Mundelein Seminary, and from priests who are in their home dioceses across the United States, creativity is something they’ve really leaned into in this moment.”

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