Touched by the Celibates

By Erich Wallace

Hey, all!

I hope you’re enjoying summer so far! What great weather we have been blessed with, am I right? I know Wisconsin has some long, brutal winters, but it makes summer all the better when it finally shows up!

I know the title of my blog is a little edgy with the sexual abuse scandal being a hot topic, but I thought it appropriate to share some experiences I have had in the recent months with some amazing celibate people and how they have affected me. I hope to show that celibacy for the Kingdom of God is not the source of scandal but is rather a beautiful giving of oneself to God and His Church with abandon. Here we go!

At the end of March, I was privileged to chaperone a group of high school boys to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, MN for a visit. This is a “college” or “minor” seminary for young men who have not yet gotten their bachelor’s degree or who haven’t spent considerable time in the workforce, and it is associated with St. Mary’s University. It has a beautiful little campus, surrounded by bluffs, with great facilities and great people. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted by seminarians who would be our guides for the weekend. I don’t know if they were forced to be the ones who gave up their weekends to spend time taking a bunch of people they didn’t know on tours and hanging out with us or if it was voluntary. Regardless, they were giving up their free time, study time, and possibly their own desires to be there and made it apparent from early on that they were going to treat us very well. They were all about our desires, making us feel comfortable, answering our questions, and simply being present with us. They were also very mature for their age. This showed me that the formation they were receiving in seminary was really making an impact. “Formation” is really what a Catholic seminary is all about, as it is the development of the whole person. Formation is broken up into four main areas: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. 

Human formation is meant to train seminarians in how to interact with others: “Do you look people in the eye when you talk to them? Can you carry on a conversation? Do you have a firm handshake? How are your manners?” Simple things like these are important for the priesthood because one must be sociable and good with people. These life skills are often taken for granted, but they are little things that can have a big impact.

Spiritual formation is quite obvious; it’s a training in the spiritual disciplines, especially prayer, through daily adoration hours, Mass, and the communal praying of the Liturgy of the Hours (which all priests and religious are required to pray) in order to deepen one’s relationship with God.

Intellectual formation is the academic portion and is where classes and study come in. It is the study of philosophy, theology, history, etc. that help one grow in knowledge of one’s faith. The more us humans know, the more we can take to God in prayer and the more we can experience Him in new ways while becoming more equipped to defend the Truth.

Pastoral formation is kind of the culmination of all the areas of formation which trains the seminarian in how to serve and to lead people to Christ in each of their specific situations. It is putting the other three areas into practical use.

Like I mentioned earlier, it was obvious in the seminarians that their formation was having an effect on their lives. They gave of themselves through their attentiveness to our needs, spent time playing basketball and board games with us, gave up their spots on the court if there were too many people, prayed with us, went out to eat with us, and showed us how to truly “humbly regard others as more important than oneself, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others,” (Philippians 2:3-4). It was a blessed weekend with the seminarians and faculty at Immaculate Heart in Winona that left an impact on my heart because of the sacrificial love I witnessed. The following weekend I had the privilege to spend a few days with the Capuchin Franciscans in Milwaukee and Chicago.

I have been discerning the priesthood for a while now and felt the need to visit a religious community, so I inquired with the Capuchins about coming down for a visit. A knowledgeable, kind, and selfless friar offered to guide me throughout the weekend. It was none other than Superior Disciple’s own Br. Nathan Linton! I had spring break that week, so I sent Br. Nathan a message asking about how I could spend a weekend with the Franciscans. Br. Nathan was in Chicago at the time studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but he generously offered to meet me in Milwaukee and to spend the weekend with me showing me the different ministries the Capuchins ran, introducing me to the different friars. Not only was Br. Nathan’s sacrifice to give up his time to come and show me around impressive, but so were the Capuchin ministries and communal life that I got to experience.

After buying me a wonderful fish fry lunch (it was a Friday during Lent), Br. Nathan took me to a place called the House of Peace. The House of Peace is a huge food and clothing bank for those in need in the Milwaukee area. It is open 5 days a week and serves many people. I got to meet the wonderful Capuchin priest in charge and to actually go on a tour with a professor and a group of students she brought from a nearby college who were doing an urban immersion course led by the priest. I was amazed at the amount of food and clothing the House of Peace took in and distributed and at the wonderful volunteers who made it possible. I also learned that they offer free legal counsel through volunteer attorneys and Marquette University law students for non-criminal legal situations. They also have a clinic on site to provide not-so-serious medical care. It was impressive how comprehensive these ministries were, providing for almost all the needs a person or family may have. Another impressive part of this is that the Capuchins who run the ministries often times live right where their ministry is! What a life of sacrifice!

After the House of Peace tour, we went over to St. Ben’s church where they serve a free community meal six nights a week! I don’t know how familiar you are with food pantries/free meals, but to serve a meal six nights a week is above and beyond! Many churches may do one a month, or up to a few a week, but six nights a week is incredible. They serve over 90,000 meals a year there, and the Capuchins head it up; but there are also dozens, if not hundreds, of faithful volunteers who choose a night a week/month to cook and to serve the meal. Beautiful stuff. The night I was there, I think they served about 390 meals. That’s helping a lot of people!

Later on I got to experience more of the Franciscan community, to meet some of the friars who were at different levels in their discernment (from 18 year old novices, to professed priests, to men who have spent a life of service as a Capuchin and are in their 70s or 80s), and to hear some of their stories. They are a very diverse group from different countries, with different backgrounds, living in community together in service to Christ, to His Church (especially to the poor), and to each other. It was so fun interacting with these men who were able to joke around and to give each other some flack while still loving each other well. I felt so welcomed by them. For the last day of the trip, I headed down to Chicago to see the friars’ residence there (many of them are getting their education at the University of Illinois at Chicago) and had dinner with the community. 

One of the priests had made a wonderful chicken dish, and another friar made a great dessert. I simply got to spend time with them and to see how they interacted as brothers in Christ. It was such a joy because they were hilarious, joyful, and loving. Once again, there were men from all over the world: many from the Middle East or African countries, and many Americans, but all with a common call to serve Christ like St. Francis. It was an honor to get to spend the weekend with them and to see their way of life.

Lastly, not long after these experiences with seminarians, priests, and brothers, I was up in Rhinelander, WI for a High School Discipleship Weekend retreat in preparation for Extreme Faith Camp (which went on just two weeks ago, June 17th-21st). The retreat was put on by a group of young religious sisters who are part of a relatively newly founded religious order: The Missionaries of the Word (check them out, they’re amazing: https://www.missionariesoftheword.com/). I actually went to college with one of the sisters and had not seen her since I graduated from UW-Madison in December of 2012. I knew her through St. Paul’s University Catholic Center in Madison. She was always a joyful, dedicated, and feisty little lady (she’s about 5’1”) in college. She still had those qualities now, but it was obvious that something had changed about her as well. She was still the same girl, but her heart was light, and you could tell she was in a deep, committed relationship with someone: the person of Jesus Christ. Her and the other sisters’ relationships with Jesus were more palpable and real than any I had ever witnessed. He was not a distant “spiritual figure” whom they related to once in a while; it was as if He were truly there in the flesh in their lives. He was their spouse, to whom they gave everything, and they were filled with joy and purpose because of it. They spent time with us and with the youth of our diocese that weekend, loving us, giving profound talks to us, leading us in prayer, and sharing their lives with us.

It truly is hard to describe how real the presence of Jesus was in them, but after reading and hearing more about their lives, it makes complete sense. They have an intense dedication to prayer: they attend Mass daily, pray five hours of the Liturgy of the Hours daily, have daily Eucharistic Adoration, daily go through an examination of conscience, and daily recite the rosary. They also have a special dedication to Lectio Divina (a Latin phrase meaning Divine Reading) where they do a thorough and slow reading of a Scripture passage, placing themselves in it, meditating on it, and relating to Christ through it. Most of all, though, this line from their website’s vocation page seems to describe it best why their relationship with Christ seems so real:

“More than anything else a religious sister is a woman in love with Jesus. A woman who enters religious life does not enter as a ‘Plan B,’ because she didn’t find anyone in the world to marry. A woman who is called enters for just the opposite reason: it is because she found the One she loves – Jesus Christ!” 

They continually strive to give everything they have to Jesus, their spouse, and hold nothing back through their prayer, their service, and their entire lives. It is evident and had a profound effect on me in realizing how real Jesus can be in each of our lives.

These three experiences, as well as those I’ve had with my current parish priest, Fr. Chris Kemp, other wonderful priests in the Diocese of Superior (like Fr. Patrick McConnell, Fr. David Neuschwander, Fr. Adam Laski, Fr. Samuel Schneider, Fr. Inna Pothireddy, Fr. John Anderson, Fr. Gerard Willger, and Fr. Shaji Pazhukkhatara), the religious sisters I’ve met over the years, and our current seminarians, have shown me that celibacy for the Kingdom of God is not some sort of punishment that should be done away with. It is not the cause of the sexual abuse scandal, and it is not something to be seen as weird or abnormal. It is the response of people who have been called by God to make Him and His Church their spouse and to first and foremost be with Him and have a deep relationship with Him, so that through that relationship, they can love the world with abandon.

Thanks for reading! Now please take a moment to pray for our priests, religious sisters and brothers, and seminarians, that they may experience the love of Christ in a new way, so, filled with that love, they may love others as Christ has loved us!

See y’all soon!

Erich

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