‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ Then Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
After our recent celebration of the Mass of the Holy Spirit with Archbishop Cupich, we are well underway into a new year at the seminary. At that Mass, twenty-two first-year theology students declared their Candidacy to enter into formation for priesthood. They joined twelve of their classmates who had already declared Candidacy to their respective bishops in their home dioceses.
As I addressed these men, along with the rest of the seminary community, on the evening before the start of classes, I asked them to embrace the journey they were embarking upon with a spirit of “fascination and suffering.” While those may not be traditional words associated with seminary formation, I have increasingly come to see them as central to the discipleship to which Christ calls his priests.
There are plenty of experiences that bring joy and happiness to seminary life: plumbing the sublime depths of a gifted theologian or spiritual master, bringing smiles to the faces of children while teaching religious education, or receiving heartfelt hospitality and listening to the personal stories of families encountered in distant places during mission trips and pilgrimages, to name but a few. And yet, joy and happiness in the service of Christ — wonderful though they be — are not enough. The seminarian must be truly fascinated with the person of Christ, no matter where he is encountered. To be fascinated means to be enchanted and enticed, to be so taken with another that you seek every opportunity to be by their side and you refuse to be dismayed or put off by what would otherwise be perceived as obstacles or discouragements. As we all know, to be fascinated with some-one can easily devolve into foolishness and naïvete , giving way to a fragile ego or narcissism. But to be fascinated with Christ, if properly guided by prayer and spiritual direction, will always lead one deeper into relationship with him.
Sooner or later, however, that journey into deeper relationship with Christ will involve suffering. A seminarian must be prepared to embrace his suffering and not simply endure it. Suffering does not necessarily mean physical pain but it does require remaining steadfast in the face of choices one might rather not make. For a seminarian, suffering primarily means submitting his own will or ego to the will of the Lord. Over the course of a seminary year that might manifest itself as having to accept a challenging expectation from his bishop, as walking with a family through the death of their child in his parish apostolate, or painfully intervening after a friend or classmate refuses his pleas to seek help for an addiction.
I think that Mary, the patroness of all priests and seminarians, must have known something of this dual experience of suffering and fascination upon finding her lost son in the Temple (Luke 2:41-11). In that one encounter she both accepted the poignant truth that her son was not fully her own while at the same time being drawn to ponder with awe and love just how “wonder-full” he was.
The finding of Jesus in the Temple only serves to underscore the fact that, for many of us, our first — and often our deepest — experiences of both fascination and suffering can be found among our family relationships. That’s why families remain so critical in the life of a seminarian or priest. It’s where he learns to embrace Christ in both love and suffering. So it’s fitting that we celebrate our Family Day at the seminary so early in the year. Our families are truly the human foundations upon which all priestly formation is grounded.
Whether you are a family member or friend of a seminarian, or one of our many supporters who help sustain us with your prayers and generous donations, know that you play a significant role in helping our men to enter more fully into that sublime encounter with Christ which the Blessed Mother embraced throughout her life. For that we are deeply grateful.
Together with you, in Christ, we are Mundelein. We form parish priests.
Fr. John Kartje