We’re currently in the heart of ordination season. If you follow any diocese or seminary on social media, your feed is probably filled with ordination pictures and words of congratulations. If you are especially fortunate, you may even know a man who is getting ordained to the diaconate or priesthood this spring.
My husband is a professor at our archdiocesan seminary, so ordination season is particularly exciting for our family. The men who we have walked with for the past 4-8 years are now becoming priests. Men who have been friends and spiritual brothers to our family will now become our fathers.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine shared with me that she was launching an apostolate for women wanting to “spiritually adopt” priests. (The local group she started was born from a national movement, encouraging women to use their prayerful, spiritual maternity to help priests grow in holiness.) At the time, I think I was dealing with a bout of secondary infertility, and the idea of spiritual motherhood was one that appealed to me. Even if I can’t have a biological child right now, maybe I can have a spiritual one, I decided.
When I was a little girl, I was mainly in awe of priests (or even afraid of them!). As a high school student, while helping our parish’s retreat team, I had the opportunity to get to know my pastor. He was a gentle, kind man. Having suffered from scrupulosity since early childhood, his retreat talk on Confession completely changed my approach to the sacrament. He was a “later vocation,” having been ordained to the priesthood later in adulthood, and his humility helped me to see that priest are real men.
As a student at the University of Notre Dame, I got to know even more priests. There was a lovable Australian priest who used to say daily Mass once a week in my dorm chapel. He laughed with us, he got to know our prayer intentions, and he pointed us to holiness — one Tuesday night Mass at a time. Another priest became my friend on a retreat and ended up becoming my regular confessor. His understanding of who God was helped me to begin to see that God was loving and worthy of trust — not an exacting judge waiting to smite me. Yet another priest befriended my now-husband and I, talking with us, hanging out with us, and encouraging us to take a stand for our faith.
All four of these men were concelebrants at our wedding.
I remember leaving Notre Dame after graduate school and realizing how much I would miss Masses with streams of priest concelebrants. I knew I would miss going to ordinations and getting to visit a seminary for Night Prayer and partying with seminarians.
But God has a funny sense of humor, and years later, my husband ended up getting a job teaching at our archdiocesan seminary, hundreds of miles away from Notre Dame. Now, we routinely go to ordination Masses, attend Masses with a stream of concelebrants, party with seminarians, and have more priest and seminarian friends that we can count. Everything that I thought I was losing, we now have in abundance.
During college, while trying to discern what my vocation was, I remember wondering if God was calling me to religious life or married life. I felt a very strong pull to married life, but I was afraid that marriage wasn’t a holy or “special” enough vocation. I remember late nights praying in my dorm chapel and bargaining with God, “Okay, God, if you call me to marriage, then can you at least give me a son who is called to the priesthood? In fact, if you call me to marriage, then please let me give you my first son as a priest.”
Two years ago, we lost our Gabriel to miscarriage. We had felt he was a boy and knowing that I had a son and that he didn’t live long enough to hold in my arms (let alone long enough to become a priest!) broke my heart. At the end of a priest’s first Mass, he presents his mother with the cloth that was used to wipe the chrism oil off his hands at his ordination. (She keeps it and, when she dies, is buried with it.) I remember going to a first Mass of a newly ordained priest, right after losing Gabriel, and witnessing him give his mother this cloth. My heart broke as I realized, “I have a son…but he will never be a priest.”
Right around the time that we lost Gabriel, my husband was given a full-time position at the seminary where he had been serving as an adjunct professor. In the two years since losing Gabriel, I have begun to take these men ever deeper into my heart and my prayers. When a man discerns out of the seminary, I feel the pang of losing him. When one of them has a triumph in his ministry, my heart fills with joy and pride for him. When I hear their vocation stories, I wonder at the marvels that God is doing in their lives. And when they are ordained, my heart nearly bursts with joy, seeing their vocations finally coming to fruition.
This past ordination season has been a particularly emotional one, as we witness some of the first seminarians we befriended become priests. As I have been preparing myself for these good-byes, I realized how much I have grown to love these seminarians. During the past year, I’ve felt the call to spiritual maternity grow stronger and stronger. Then, recently I remembered the prayer that I prayed as a college student, begging God to give me a son who was called to the priesthood. When I lost Gabriel, I thought that I had lost that possibility. But then I realized, God hasn’t given me one son who is a priest. He has given me hundreds.
What can you do to support seminarians?
Pray for them.
Pray, pray, pray for seminarians. The process of seminary formation is a grueling one. It needs to be, to ensure that only men who are fully prepared for this difficult life are the ones who are ordained. So, pray for seminarians. Don’t just pray that they can make it to ordination, though. Pray that God may help them to be open to whatever he has in store for them. Pray that they may be humble, and that they may be open to the process of formation – even if that process doesn’t culminate in ordination.
Pray for those who form them.
The formation team at a seminary has an incredibly important, incredibly difficult job. They have to say unpopular things, and sometimes their decisions are criticized. But the best formators are the ones who do all that they do out of love for the men they are forming, and love for the Church. Pray that they can do their job well.
Remember that they are real people.
A seminarian is not a different, higher life form. Seminarians are real men. They have real struggles and are imperfect. They need real friendship, they need to be challenged, they need to be prayed for. They do not need to be idolized or put on a pedestal.
Love them even if you lose them.
It is a sign of a healthy, thriving seminary if men discern out or are asked to discern out. Want what is best for these men and for the Church. Love them, knowing that they may not be ordained. Pray that God may lead them to whatever their vocation is, even if that vocation is not to the priesthood.
Finally, share their joy.
Rejoice with those who do make it to ordination. Go to ordination Masses and share their joy. And never, never stop praying for them. Ordination isn’t the end. It is only the beginning of a life lived in service to the Church.