Catholic Free Press

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Pastors mentor seminarians all summer

Posted By September 2, 2011 | 5:00 am | Lead Story #1, Local
Leonardo Prada and Fr. O'Toole
Leonardo Prada and Fr. O'Toole

By Tanya Connor

“We’re going to miss him when he goes back to school.”

It’s not just biological parents who say that. The “father” telling The Catholic Free Press that last week was a priest, talking about a seminarian who spent the summer at his parish.

It’s more than a kind sentiment. It reveals the profound respect priests demonstrate for men “home” from seminary for the summer, men with whom they share their lives and ministries.

This respect and appreciation seems to be mutual, and spills over into parishes and parishioners’ lives as well.

In this case Father Edward D. Niccolls, 63, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Auburn, was talking about Jorge Amaya, 30.

“It’s been a pleasure having him here,” he said last Friday as he sat at his desk, with Mr. Amaya seated nearby. “He’ll come in and land right in that chair.  He’ll say, ‘And how was your day?’ … His initiative to do that puts a whole different perspective on your day. …He’s just a happy person and this happiness radiates.” Mr. Amaya returned to St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore on Monday.

Seminarians have 10-week summer assignments under priests who volunteer to supervise them, according to Father James S. Mazzone, director of the diocesan Office for Vocations.

In a write-up inviting priests to help, he says seminarians live in rectories and priests teach them about ministry and involve them in parish life. Parishes pay seminarians a stipend, in some cases soliciting help from parishioners or other parishes.

“I’m very grateful to the priests who agree to receive seminarians for the summer, and also understanding of the priests who cannot receive them for a number of reasons,” Father Mazzone said.

When Father Niccolls was pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Worcester, Mr. Amaya served in a summer assignment there. This summer the Colombian was in residence at St. Joseph’s while studying English.

Father Niccolls, the only “native-born American” in St. Joseph’s rectory, said he sees Mr. Amaya not as a Colombian, but as a brother preparing for priesthood. But he tells seminarians to remember where they came from.

At St. Christopher’s and/or St. Joseph’s he’s lived with seminarians and a priest from the United States, the Philippines, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda.

“I think people need to see we do have vocations coming from other countries,” he said, expressing hope that this will help local vocations.

“These young men who come from other countries make a great sacrifice,” leaving their families, he said. “I think it’s important to make them feel very much at home in this diocese. It’s the respect you have for them for making the sacrifice.”

It is a sacrifice; trips home are too short, Mr. Amaya said. But he said he has everything needed to feel at home here. People are friendly and open to his thoughts, they correct his English and teach him the American mentality.

Some are uncomfortable with foreigners, he said. Some Latinos give the others a bad name; they litter and are noisy, he explained. He tries to recognize Latinos’ mistakes, say good things about Latinos, and show that he’s not like the annoying ones.

Foreign seminarians benefit parishioners, he said. Cultural exchange can help spread the Gospel and parishioners see seminarians’ humanity.

Seminarians mustn’t forget that, he said; “when you are far away from your country, you have to get friends.”

Father Niccolls said parishioners journey with seminarians who make that parish their home parish. Seminarians also benefit from getting to know priests and the diocese. At St. Joseph’s they pray together.

Having seminarians both helps him and takes time, he said, but “I think in the end it’s all positive.”

“I think many priests become fearful (of supervising seminarians), because they think it’s a very elaborate process,” Father Robert D. Bruso, 61, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Fitchburg, said. He’d tell such priests they don’t have to develop a program, just let seminarians shadow them. It doesn’t take time or effort, and “you can afford what you want,” he maintained.

He’s had 12 seminarians in 11 years, half from the diocese, an American from elsewhere, four Hispanics and an African – a diversity revealing “how the diocese is changing ethnically,” he said.

Five are now priests, three transitional deacons, two still in the program, he said. Two discerned priesthood was not their calling.

“I think if you’re studying to be a parish priest, you need to experience parish life from the perspective of the priest – from the rectory,” Father Bruso said. “It also helps them decide, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ It also gives them a boost. They realize they have the capacity, with God’s grace, to build an effective ministry.”

Of pastors he said, “It gives you a shot in the arm … when you see these talented young people and their enthusiasm to do things.” And it’s good for priests who live alone, which he thinks is unhealthy, he said.

In parishes without vocations and with older pastors, seminarians show teenagers that priesthood isn’t just something their grandfathers’ generation did, he said.

Deacon Hugo Cano, 31, said Father Bruso was good to him and requested prayers for him. St. Anthony’s was his first assignment, the language and culture were challenging, but parishioners made him feel at home, the Colombian said. It’s now his “home parish.”

“Every single parish has something good to offer to seminarians,” he said. “Every assignment will make him a better priest.”

His third summer he served a parish with a Hispanic community – St. Louis in Webster.

“It gave me a sense of my first calling to the priesthood,” he said. “The Lord called me from Colombia, the same culture.” He said it gave him a better sense of what he wants to do – help different communities in a parish.

This summer he saw Catholic community at St. Joan of Arc Parish, which has Anglo, Hispanic and Ghanaian communities, he said.

Father James F. Carmody, 67, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Northbridge, said he sees their seminarian interns partly as a reward for parishioners’ prayers for vocations.

“They become their surrogate parents,” he said of his English-speaking parishioners’ relationship to the three Colombian seminarians they’ve hosted. Knowing these men are preparing for priesthood, parishioners treat them with that kind of respect, which is heady for a young man, he said. It’s different from seminary, where they’re told what to do; here they create things themselves, he said.

Two of their seminarians were mature men in their 30s; he mainly had to teach them about priesthood, he said. The third, an energetic 21-year-old new here, needed more instruction about American life.

This summer’s assignment showed Leonardo Prada, 37, more about parish priesthood, which he knew included administration. Father Brian P. O’Toole, 51, under whom he served, is pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of the Holy Rosary parishes in Gardner, and also oversees two schools, two cemeteries, and a day care center, with help from other clergy and laity.

“If I become a priest, I will get a seminarian,” Mr. Prada said. “I will show to this guy the reality, like Father O’Toole showed me.”

Father O’Toole said having a seminarian is a great opportunity to share priestly life and engage a collaborator in ministry and it shows him what’s going on in theology and seminary today.

What would he say to priests about hosting a seminarian?

“A lot of it comes down to finance,” he replied. “A pastor has to ask the question – sadly – ‘Can I afford to have someone here?’ We try to make it happen,” sacrificing as necessary.

“A seminarian has potential for the parish,” he said. As uncertainty about a parish’s future hangs over parishioners, seminarians show that there are still vocations and are lights of hope. Parishioners also benefit from seminarians’ ministries.

What would Father O’Toole say to seminarians?

“See the parish life, enjoy the parish life, but keep centered in Christ and your spiritual growth,” he replied. “There will always be work, but stay focused on what is your call. You always need to be fed.”

Father Nicholas Desimone, 29, a Worcester native ordained in 2010, is now seeing parish life from the other side. He’s associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Charlton, where he served four weeks as a seminarian about five years ago under Father Robert A. Grattaroti, 75, pastor.

“He was a great mentor to me, a great friend and a constant supporter of my vocation, so much so that he even attended my diaconate ordination at St. Peter’s in Rome,” Father Desimone said. Father Bruso, under whom he also served, vested him in Rome.

Father Desimone said he had wondered whether St. Joseph’s parishioners would still think of him as a seminarian or even remember him, but he received “an incredibly warm welcome.”

His relationship with the pastor is still one of mutual respect, mentoring and friendship, he said.

“It’s great to see the enthusiasm of a new priest, and it inspires us to renewed energy and a renewed spirit of ministry,” Father Grattaroti said.

Seminarians inspire the parish, he said, adding, “If I had more room, I’d always be willing to accept them.”