By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 26, 2012
Men following a call to serve the Catholic community in the priesthood test their call before ordination for years at a seminary.
It’s there where the men prepare to serve not only as spiritual leaders, but to be future teachers of the faith, to oversee parish administration, and relate to Catholics of all ages, to women and men, to many nationalities.
In North Georgia, eight men in May and June take their place around the altar as new members of the clergy, two as priests and the rest as transitional deacons.
The Atlanta Archdiocesan Vocations Office is promoting Vocations Awareness Week April 29 to May 5, bookending the week with special programs, including on Saturday, May 5, a Discernment Mass at 10 a.m. in the St. Dominic Chapel at the archdiocesan Chancery in Smyrna.
The Atlanta Archdiocese currently has 36 seminarians studying in 11 seminaries, including two in Colombia, South America, one in Rome, Italy, and one in Mexico.
The Georgia Bulletin interviewed three of the seminarians about their experiences. They are to be ordained transitional deacons on May 26.
‘Be Who You Are’
Dennis Dorner Jr. enrolled in a college seminary in Chicago to earn his bachelor’s degree and is now studying at Mundelein Seminary just outside the city for a graduate degree in theology.
“I was excited about priesthood. I didn’t really have expectations about seminary,” he said.
He is 31 years old and a native of Atlanta. His father is Deacon Dennis Dorner, a permanent deacon and the chancellor of the archdiocese. Dennis Jr. attended Georgia College and State University but left without completing a degree.
He worked in banks and restaurants, but Dorner said he was “restless” and weighed whether to move forward to be a seminarian for the archdiocese. A heart-to-heart conversation with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory that covered everything from his professional life to “have you ever been in love?” encouraged him to apply to seminary.
In 2006, he enrolled at Loyola University in Chicago to earn his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. In the fall of 2009, he moved to the suburbs of Chicago to Mundelein Seminary to continue his studies.
He said the life as a seminarian is “a little withdrawn” from the rest of the world, with students venturing off campus to gain experience in local parishes and ministries. The time away from distractions is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call, he said.
“In a way, you are being broken so you can be reconfigured in the person of Jesus Christ,” he said on a YouTube video. “And there’s nothing that is easy about that, but at the same time, there’s incredible joy.”
The seminary experience is shaped by a 1992 papal document titled “I Will Give You Shepherds” by Blessed John Paul II. The pope wanted future priests trained in four broad areas: intellectual, which is addressed through classwork; human formation, which is developed by living in community and growing in how to become a “better man of Christ”; pastoral, gained through ministry experiences; and spiritual, which is a seminarian’s prayer life, including daily Mass.
The academics can be vigorous, but that shouldn’t deter anyone, Dorner said.
“Through the grace of God, anything is possible,” Dorner said. “These are classes that form you as a better Christian.”
His days begin around 7 a.m. with morning prayer and then are filled with classes, time in the chapel, and community events and end with night prayer around 10:15 p.m.
He has a simple dorm room, with a private bathroom. Photos of his family, nieces and nephews decorate his room, along with an electric guitar and amp.
“The best advice I ever received was to be transparent as you can be. Be who you are. Let the Holy Spirit work through your formation,” he said.
‘Seminary Is A House Of Discernment’
Gaurav Shroff came to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, in Emmitsburg, Md., after time as a novice in a religious community.
At the seminary, Shroff said he’s found a close fraternity among his classmates.
Shroff mistakenly thought seminary would be a place of dos and don’ts.
“There is a great respect for us as adults. There are expectations that are laid down, but one embraces them freely as mature adults,” he said in an email.
And part of that is managing time and making priorities for all aspects of seminary life, said Shroff, a native of India.
While a lot of time is spent in the classroom and studying, Shroff said seminary is not graduate school, and he emphasized the distinction between the two.
“Academics is only part of what we focus on,” he said. “Prayer, human formation, focus on pastoral ministry—all of this, in the context of a serious call to being a holier disciple of the Lord—these aspects are not present in graduate or undergraduate programs,” he said.
He has been at Mount St. Mary’s over the past four years, and spent a year prior to that in the religious order novitiate.
Shroff, 39, said seminary is not just for men who know they will become priests but for men exploring the idea.
“The seminary is a house of discernment. You don’t have to have figured it out before you enter. Every year, a few guys discern that the Lord is calling them away. That is OK,” he said.
A School Of Patience, Affability
Michael Revak arrived at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary after a year as a landscaper and six months as a missionary in Jamaica. He expected to find seminarians walking “in robes and chanting solemnly through the halls from one liturgy to the next.”
Instead, he said, there is a tightknit group of men who “pray hard, but we do not fail to study, play and socialize with just as much enthusiasm.”
He has been there for six years, excluding time he spent on a pastoral assignment in the archdiocese. He decorated his room with a poster of Vito Corleone, Marlon Brando’s character in “The Godfather,” along with pictures of the Virgin Mary and a poster from the Vocations Office. A crucifix hangs over his bed. He turns 28 at the end of April.
During his time, Revak said a challenge has been living with more than 160 other men. At times, the close quarters have been frustrating, he said. And out of it has come a greater awareness that draws from him more humility, compassion, affability and patience, he said. But out of it, students seem to have a closer bond than what Revak experienced as a college undergraduate.
Seminary runs around the clock, not just in class time, he pointed out. Outside of class, a person is engaged in community prayer, seminars, different meetings, he said.
“One of the things that took me the most getting use to was the degree to which time is no longer one’s own, to do with as one pleases,” he said.
The formation process “is running 24/7 with a whole variety of demands,” he said.
Revak said men weighing a vocation should “give it a try.” Seminary is a place to “test” your vocation, he said. “There is only so much discernment you can do outside the seminary.”