Path to the altar is slightly altered: how coronavirus affects seminarian formation

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

May 4, 2020

Deacon Linh NguyenDeacon Linh Nguyen
Deacon Linh Nguyen livestreams daily Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral on April 28. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

FORT WORTH — Years from now, when Deacon Brett Metzler looks back on preparing for the priesthood during the 2020 pandemic, there’s an image seared into his soul that he’ll never forget.

Allowed to serve at liturgies during the stay-at-home order that prevented parishioners from attending worship services, the newly ordained deacon described witnessing the Mass, celebrated in front of an empty church, as “painful.”

“When the visible body of Christ isn’t present, there’s genuine suffering,” said the 27-year-old seminarian. “It makes you grateful for community and having people around who support one another.”

Dcn. Metzler and other seminarians in the Diocese of Fort Worth are enjoying a strong sense of camaraderie as they continue their education and formation during the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to quick planning, distance learning, and a few adaptations, all diocesan seminarians are maintaining a daily prayer schedule and course load, assured Father Jonathan Wallis, director of seminarian formation and dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, Louisiana.

“The pandemic will not delay anything in their formation in any way,” he continued. “We were able to keep them on track.”

Twenty-eight students from the dioceses of Fort Worth, New Orleans, Nashville, Lafayette, and Galveston-Houston remained at the 1,200-acre campus set in the piney woods of the Bayou State. The other 75 percent of the seminarians enrolled in the four-year college program at St. Joseph Seminary returned home when the state announced stay-at-home orders. The college is housed on seminary grounds and with all classes currently held online, the collegians are safely continuing their studies.

“We determined this was the best place to be,” said Fr. Wallis, noting the school’s isolated location. “In making the decision, there were two major goals. The first was to keep everyone safe and healthy. The secondary goal is to make sure no one loses any academic progress.”

Daily Mass and prayer times were moved into the St. Joseph Abbey Church where the young men can spread out and practice social distancing.

“No one is taking the Mass for granted,” the dean explained. “The seminarians feel a strong bond and connection to the diocese particularly during this time and are offering their attendance at Mass and prayers for everyone in our diocese.”

Operated by the Benedictine Monks of Saint Joseph, the Abbey keeps tight control over who comes on and off the property. For meals, food service workers stay on one side of the refectory with the seminarians dining on the other side. No seminarians have become sick, Fr. Wallis pointed out.

Blake Thompson, one of 17 Fort Worth seminarians attending St. Joseph, said remaining at St. Joseph Seminary is a testament to the importance of his vocation.

“We’re not here to simply get a degree. It’s much more than that,” explained the St. Jude parishioner who expects to graduate in 2021. “We’re here to go about the will of God in our prayer life, the friendships we form with other seminarians, and the people we serve in the community.”

 Jesus Segura credits the help of family and friends for encouraging his vocation to the priesthood. The 18-year-old seminarian was completing his first year of study at St. Joseph when the coronavirus sent most of his classmates home.

“It’s a blessing from God that I’m able to continue my education and formation at St. Joseph Seminary,” said the Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner. “I pray for everyone — especially my brother seminarians who are greatly impacted by the pandemic.”

It isn’t the “normal” freshman year Segura expected.

“But I’m trying my best to push forward on the path to the priesthood regardless of the obstacles,” he added.

Seminarians further along in their formation living at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio and the Theological College in Washington, D.C., returned to Fort Worth when their seminaries closed. The theology students now reside at St. Francis Village under the direction of Father Keith Hathaway, who was named prefect by Bishop Michael Olson.

“This plan enables them to live together in community and maintain a daily schedule of prayer, Mass, classes, and communal life,” Fr. Wallis explained.

This isn’t the first time Deacon Linh Nguyen had unexpected circumstances affect his education. He was a senior at St. Joseph Seminary College in March 2016 when a 100-year flood damaged the school’s library, dormitory halls, and cafeteria.

“It took out the last couple of months of my senior year,” recalled the Christ the King parishioner who was sent home while repairs were made. “I remember the support we had for each other and the way we worked through it.”

The ecclesiology student is experiencing a similar sense of community as he adjusts to life at St. Francis Village. Each seminarian has an individual schedule of coursework, spiritual direction, and sessions with his advisor.

“But this is our opportunity to spend time with each other, build our fraternity, and grow deeper in our relationship with one another,” Dcn. Nguyen said. “It’s been an easy transition moving the classes online and doing what we can to finish the year strong.”

The “saving grace” of the disrupted academic year is spending time with other diocesan seminarians, Dcn. Metzler agreed.

“It’s been very nice how smoothly the transition has gone,” he observed. “The way the diocese brought us here and set up everything so quickly, we were able to get started on classes and formation a lot faster and easier than other dioceses.”

During the summer months, seminarians receive assignments that expose them to parish work or other ministries.

“Bishop Olson is still determining what those will look like,” Fr. Wallis said. “This is brand new territory for all of us and we want everything done safely.”

Deacon Linh Nguyen

FORT WORTH — Years from now, when Deacon Brett Metzler looks back on preparing for the priesthood during the 2020 pandemic, there’s an image seared into his soul that he’ll never forget.

Published (until 5/4/2035)