So maybe you’ve decided to make the leap and attend seminary. You have spoken to your vocation director and maybe to your bishop. Or maybe you think you ought to give seminary a try, but you’re feeling too intimidated by how shrouded in mystery the whole process seems to be.
I remember when I finally decided to apply, I was pretty consistently baffled by what was supposed to be happening next, and what being a seminarian was actually going to be like. In fact, I would say that most of the experience was actually a surprise, and even the things that I expected didn’t happen in the way that I expected.
Here are three things to know:
1) People will treat you differently
This will start as soon as people hear that you’ve begun the application process.
Even with everything that has happened, people still love priests and the priesthood. The reason for this is that they love Jesus and they know that the priesthood is the way that Jesus has chosen to stay with them. They will treat you accordingly. This is a beautiful thing and it should be a cause of great joy for you to see how devoted the people still are to their priests.
It is very critical to remember, however, that Jesus and the sacraments are the reason people are treating you so differently, not because of your awesome personal accomplishments, and certainly not because you are actually better than them in any way.
This reality will hit you very hard pretty early on, and may cause some struggle because you know your own interior life and you know what a miserable sinner you still are. This is a good thing, and you should be very concerned for your spiritual health if it ever completely stops bothering you. I’ll never forget the first time I put on the collar and looked in the mirror it struck me immediately that nothing magical happens. You are still you, warts and all.
With that in mind, be aware that people are going to treat you as if a) You have no faults or sins, b) You are an expert in all matters spiritual and doctrinal (especially moral!), and c) You are an impenetrable fortress of commitment to celibacy, incapable of being tempted or developing romantic feelings for anyone. Hopefully, you have enough self-knowledge to realize that none of these are reality. It goes without saying that without constant self-checks and being committed to holding nothing back from your spiritual director, any one of these things will be poison to your soul if you start to believe your own hype.
The last of those three things deserves more attention. When you apply to seminary you will notice that your interactions with women will change almost instantly. Because you have made a temporary commitment to celibacy (which is definitely a good thing), women in your life will suddenly see you as emotionally available and eminently trustworthy with their intimate feelings. Be very, very careful here. You may find yourself invited into the intimate places of women’s hearts where you really shouldn’t be, since you are neither their boyfriend nor their spiritual director.
Regarding interactions with the opposite sex, I would recommend being very diligent in paying attention to the what your actions tell you in terms of your commitment to celibacy. Just because you enjoy female attention doesn’t mean you’re not called to celibacy – that’s completely natural – it’s just that if you are called to celibacy it’s something you’re going to have to learn to exercise great caution around. Also, tell your spiritual director everything. If you have cultivated a relationship with someone that is starting to cross some boundaries (even just emotionally) you need to bring that to your director. Failure to do so is a recipe for a spiritual and potentially, moral, disaster.
2) You will be scandalized
Just like the society of people at large, any collection of people from that society are going to have all the same problems, sins, and vices as the population in general. And I do mean pretty much all the same sins. Perhaps the fact that some of the them are happening inside the Church makes them worse or more scandalous, but the reality is what it is. I think a lot of young men enter seminary with the expectation that they will suddenly stop struggling with the sins of their past and that everyone else there will be very pious and virtuous.
Don’t get me wrong, you will meet some of the most authentically holy and saintly people you’ll ever know in the seminary. However, you will also meet men who are bishops, or priests, or who are about to be priests whom you know (because of your proximity to their lives) to be at least as flawed and sinful as you are. Realizing and accepting this is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can be an opportunity for great spiritual maturation. You will be forced to separate your notion of the holiness of the Church and of the Priesthood from the holiness (or lack thereof) in the individuals who occupy the Church, even at the highest levels of authority.
Working and living inside the institutional structure of the Church can be one of the greatest tests of faith a Christian can endure. For that reason, it can also be one of the greatest opportunities for growth available. You will experience the dissonance between the things that people say about the Church from the outside and the things you know to be true on the inside. Faith tells us that Jesus is in charge of His Church and nothing can stop it from enduring. You will be made to cling to this truth in a new way when you go to seminary.
3) You will learn to pray like you never have before
I thought I had a pretty decent prayer and sacramental life before I went to seminary, and by most people’s standards, I did. Something I found in seminary was that not only was I taught methods and forced into habits of prayer that were totally new, but I found myself impelled by the difficulty of the situations I faced, and simply by taking my discernment seriously, into praying with greater fervor and intensity than I ever had before. This is true especially if your seminary offers a Spirituality Year and a long Ignatian retreat as mine did. This habit of prayer will be indispensable for both the discernment of your vocation itself and the strengthening of your ability to do God’s will.
With this great gift, however, comes the great responsibility of remaining mindful that this spiritual gift is especially for you, here and now in your life. God neither expects nor wants all of the faithful to have the same kind of prayer life and practices that you are building. You will have to combat the temptation to think that other people are somehow spiritually inferior or know less about God’s will for their lives because they don’t pray in the same way or as much as you do. God gives graces as He chooses to, and He wants you to receive grace in the way that he’s planned for you.
Overall, seminary can be a great time of grace and maturing as a Christian man. The best advice I think I can give to anyone planning to go to seminary is to keep your grasp on reality. Don’t become so cynical and bitter that all you can see is how terrible everything is all the time, but don’t become such a Pious Pollyanna that you refuse to acknowledge evil and dysfunction when it’s staring you in the face.
In short, be the man God made you to be and then He’ll make you into the Priest He wants you to be. Don’t worry about anything, because if Jesus Christ wants you to be His priest, then no power on earth or in hell can stop that from happening.