It’s a chilly, February Saturday morning in St. Paul, and the sun is starting to splash rays of colored light across the wooden pews inside the Catholic Church of St. Francis de Sales. About 4 1⁄2 miles down Randolph Avenue and up Mississippi River Boulevard, Randy Skeate rolls out of bed, gets ready and begins his morning devotional prayers.
By 10 a.m., the second-year theology seminarian from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and MInneapolis is inside the St. Francis de Sales building. He teaches RCIA classes – in Spanish – to six men and women who will enter the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil. After lunch, individual prayer and discussion with pastor Fr. James Adams, and some afternoon free time, Skeate will be back for a holiday event, then spend most of Sunday helping with Mass, faith formation and the church’s youth group.
Skeate won’t become a priest for at least two more years. But he’s already here, preparing for a lifetime of ministry with the hands-on experience that can only come from time in a parish.
“I think it’s important for seminarians to see each day what it is like for a pastor, because as they study and try to get the theory, like anything else, it means a lot more when they get to see some real-life encounters,” said Adams, who graduated from The Saint Paul Seminary in 2004. “The huge joys there are, as well as real big challenges, especially now. It’s such a different time than other times in history, so they need to try to hear some of that and not get scared away, but be realistic about what they’re looking at.”
The seminary’s teaching parish initiative, which dates back to 1983, provides that lens. Through archbishop-approved partnerships with more than 50 parishes in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and beyond, seminarians visit several times per month. They interact with parish staff and ministry leaders, attend Sunday Mass, explore the work and culture of the parish office and meet regularly with a committee of lay parishioners. This group helps guide and from them during their final four years of major seminary.
It’s a chance for hands-on experience – and an example of how the laity plays a vital role in forming the priests who will someday celebrate the sacraments with them, attend their graduation parties, meet them for coffee to discuss a difficult issue or sit by their deathbed as their time this side of eternity runs short.
“Pastoral formation is truly ‘behind the wheel’ training for our future priests,” said Eric Dumas, the seminary’s associate director of pastoral formation, “and the teaching parish is where it all happens.”
Said Skeate: “When I come to Francis de Sales, I’m always rejuvenated and energized and inspired for ministry. I love coming to visit the families and spending time with Fr. Adams, walking with members of my teaching parish committee, just getting to meet new people.
“It reminds me that the life that God is calling me to in the seminary is all preparation for priestly life.”
It’s Saturday night now, and the gym at St. Francis de Sales is hopping.
It’s been turned into a party hall, complete with live music as Latino couples from the multilingual parish get together for their annual Valentine’s Day dinner date night. Skeate, who grew up in the Twin Cities and has become fluent in Spanish, gives a talk to highlight the evening.
Saturday afternoons and nights of a teaching parish weekend can vary. They tend to involve some quality time with Adams, who like Skeate has come to embrace the role of ministering to a parish full of different ethnic backgrounds and languages. Sometimes, they meet with parishioners or celebrate weddings. One afternoon, Skeate and Adams visited Fort Snelling. Often, they’ll go out for dinner or be invited to dine at a parishioner’s home.
Last year, Skeate helped carry the parish’s relic from Jesus’ cross around the neighborhood during outdoor Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. This past December, he marveled as local children placed gifts in front of an image of the Blessed Mother in tribute to Our Lady of Guadalupe. A mariachi band played as the entire community gathered to celebrate the Patroness of the Americas.
Teaching parish pastors serve as mentors for the seminarians who assist them. But Adams says it’s as much a growth opportunity for him, too.
“To have Randy as a seminarian here has been a huge gift, real joy,” Adams said. “It’s always great for me personally to kind of step out of myself and … just grow as a pastor as you try to pass that on and teach somebody what you’re trying to do.”
Seminarians take roughly 128 credit hours during their time at The Saint Paul Seminary – four Master’s degrees’ worth by some academic standards.
And yet there’s no substitute for real-life experience.
“Getting to know the people, walking alongside them for four years, is a great way to build those relationships and receive affirmation and motivation from the people through their eagerness to support me in my vocation and the calling that God has given me,” Skeate said.
Sunday mornings at St. Francis de Sales are a whirlwind.
Today, Skeate arrives shortly before 8 a.m. for morning prayer in the rectory with Adams. At 8:30 a.m., teams of Latino catechists and small-group discipleship leaders gather in the school gymnasium, across the parking lot from the Church. Adams gives them his blessing before Mass begins. The Church’s English Mass begins across the street at 9 a.m.; Skeate stays behind to greet the Latino families arriving for weekly faith formation classes for children, teens and adult small groups. From 9:30-11, he floats from classroom to classroom and into the gym where the parents are being catechized – with a break at 10 a.m. to greet parishioners leaving the English Mass. The Spanish liturgy is at 11:30, and Skeate is usually either helping serve at the altar or sitting in one of the pews. He hangs back afterward and speaks with Catholics young and old, Hispanic and White; they always seem happy to interact with a potential future priest.
“It’s been a blessing for all of us at the parish, because Randy is so outgoing,” said parishioner Margee Adrian. “He’s so down to earth. … You can tell that Randy really cares about the people in our parish; you feel like he personally cares about each of us and wants to know our story and all about us.”
Adrian serves on Skeate’s teaching parish committee. In her free time, she runs a pro-life group that collects car seats for parents in need.
The teaching parish committee’s regular meetings with Skeate feature deep discussions around topics of faith and what laypeople expect in a priest. Last week, they shared stories of the role the Eucharist has played in each of their lives.
“For my sake, it’s somewhat of a mini, practice parish for me,” Skeate said. “I get to walk alongside these people for a handful of years and get to know them well and discuss the needs of ministry that they have.”
Skeate said he’s always excited to return to The Saint Paul Seminary after a committee meeting because he brings back real stories and experiences of laymen and women and applies them to what he’s learning in the classroom and sessions with the priestly formation staff. He often practices his homilies with his committee before presenting them during homiletics class, too.
“He’s going to make a great priest,” Adrian said. “If we have more seminarians like Randy, we’ve got a good future ahead of us.”
As Super Bowl LVII kicks off on FOX, Skeate is back at the parish, where the St. Francis de Sales youth group is holding its monthly meeting for games, dinner, a talk about the life of a saint, Adoration and Benediction. He catches the latter part of the game with some friends before heading back to the seminary.
Every teaching parish scenario is a bit different, depending on the needs of the pastor and the community. For Skeate, his ability to speak Spanish – honed during years of high school study and participation in the seminary’s Spanish immersion program – and relate to the St. Francis de Sales congregation is a strength upon which to build, Adams says.
“He’s a very good listener,” says Gordy Palzer, another member of Skeate’s teaching parish committee. “I think most of us in our modern society, we’re pretty guilty about thinking about the next thing we’re going to say, rather than listening to what the person we’ve engaged in conversation is saying.
“I don’t think there’s a phony bone in his body.”
It’s this type of feedback – from the same type of people to whom Skeate will someday be ministering – that he might not get during the academic portion of seminary formation. Adams has encouraged Skeate to build on his strengths and be open to addressing his weaknesses – a key part of the human element of preparing for the priesthood.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far,” Skeate said, “is recognizing the people’s hunger for a spiritual father in their lives.”