Dear Future Seminarian

Daniel McQuillan (7/14/20)

I write to you as a former college seminarian.  I want to share my experience with you so that, as one who’s experienced seminary life, you’ll know what to expect.  Your acceptance to college seminary is ostensibly a response to a divine call, a whispered invitation to serve Christ in a deeper way.

I discerned out of seminary seven years ago, but my love for Christ, His Church, and His priesthood remains.  I am now a happily-married layman, daily striving to live out my vocation.  It’s not easy to be a layman nowadays.  Many a day I feel disenchanted with the Church, mainly due to the recent failings of the American Catholic hierarchy to protect people from abusive clerics.  The reality of the Church’s sin hits me hard.  But Christ is the goal.  He is the one who matters.  He is the way, truth, and life, who calls me to follow Him in spite of the Church’s sin. 

My three years in seminary was equal parts joy, happiness, and suffering.  I made deep and lasting friendships.  I learned a great deal.  I grew closer to Christ.  I found out I am loved.

Two guys I was in seminary with were in my wedding party last summer.  They are my closest friends.  They stood beside me at the altar when I vowed to love, honor, and serve my wife all the days of my life.  Like me, they discerned out of seminary some years ago.  We’re all laymen now.  They are husbands and fathers, devoted to Christ first and foremost.  They love their brides, then their children.  They work hard to provide for their families.  They pray.  They know Jesus personally.  Together, we share a common bond and experience.  

If I had to name the best part of my time in seminary, one that I hope you will cherish, it would be the prayer.  You have a unique opportunity to pray—deeply, often, and in a variety of ways.  This is undeniably the best part of seminary: intimate time with Christ.  Prayer should be your ultimate concern.

I fondly recall the many liturgies of my three years in seminary.  Daily masses were quiet and reverent.  Frequent reception of Holy Communion stirred me to better prayer and a deeper conversion to Christ.  

The priests we had on faculty were, for the most part, good men.  They preached well.  I can think of some stellar homilies from those days.  I distinctly remember a homily preached while I was on a pilgrimage to Mexico.  A priest from the seminary faculty gave it.  While at the shrine-Church to Blessed Miguel Pro, he told us that it was spiritual freedom, given by Christ to Blessed Miguel Pro, that allowed him to defy the Mexican government, go into hiding, and serve the Mexican people.  If it wasn’t for this freedom, he would have never continued outrunning the authorities, secretly serving as a priest.  

I remember another homily where we were thanked for our kindness to the senior priests.  A separate part of the seminary building was dedicated to housing senior priests.  Each day, lunch was served in a large dining room.  Seminarians ate on one side, senior priests on the other.  A number of guys would make it a point to talk with these retired priests.  Some guys, I learned, would ask them to hear their confessions.  I got to know one of these priests particularly well, a faithful man who once held a high office on the USCCB committee for liturgy.  He was a gem.  I’ll never forget what he said about Eucharistic Miracles: “Transubstantiation is the miracle.”  

I’ll also never forget a really bad homily.  I can’t help but bring it up.  A faculty priest used a weekday homily to address our apparent need for better table manners.  I think the Gospel that day was Luke 14: 7-14.  I remember him saying we aren’t to have forks that look like “meat lollipops.”  He said we were to stand whenever a priest entered the room and greet him.  It was laughable.  (He now works in the Vatican.  He was just given the title Monsignor.)

The moral here is there will be faculty members you’ll admire greatly and others you won’t.  Don’t let the bad ones disturb your peace.  

You’ll probably have many opportunities to adore the Lord in Eucharistic Adoration.  I was able to pray this way often during my seminary days.  Take advantage of this form of prayer. God speaks in silence.  Pray in silence.

One thing I learned about prayer while in seminary you should know: prayer is not a job.  It’s our allowing Christ to work in us.  The work of prayer is letting Him in.  God respects our freedom too much to impose Himself on us.  Likewise, if prayer is simply the sum total of our efforts, we’re not truly praying.

When we allow God in, He does the work.  He prays in us.  He forms us.  And what I found most interesting is when you do that, you can suffer.  Memories, sins, sinful thoughts, etc. will pop up, for Christ is trying desperately to heal that part of us.  It’s a transformation, not a polishing.  I always thought this quote by CS Lewis summed up what I learned of prayer during seminary:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”  (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Go deep with Christ by being brutally honest with him.  Be vulnerable and allow Him in.  Sit down during Eucharistic adoration or before the tabernacle for at least 20 minutes each day and say “Jesus, I am here.  I’m sitting in this chapel.  Help me to be open and vulnerable to You, that you may enter in and do Your work.  Pray in me.  Heal me.”  God will do the work, according to His time and will.  Part of it will be painful.  Don’t be afraid if less-than-holy stuff comes up.  He’s trying to heal you.

I know I risk sounding holier-than-thou.  Please let it be clear, I’m not some prayer guru.  I have no degree in spiritual theology.  I struggle tremendously with prayer.   I’m just passing on sound advice that was given to me.  I was told to be honest and raw in prayer.  The times where I was, I felt closer to God.  

Know that I’m praying for you.  I commend you for responding to what is ultimately an invitation from God.  The world needs holy men—bishops, priests, religious, and laymen.  

I’ll end with the words of my spiritual director from seminary.  He said this during our first meeting: “Listen, I don’t care if you become a priest or not.  All I care about is that when you leave here, you can say ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’”

Dan McQuillan is a graduate of St. John’s University where he studied philosophy and theology. He teaches literature and writes from Rhode Island.

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