Brushing up on Johnny Cash may not sound like standard seminarian training, but that’s exactly what Nick Vance found himself doing this past summer.
As part of formation at The Saint Paul Seminary, he served at the Holy Family Residence – a Catholic eldercare facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in downtown St. Paul – where live music hadn’t been performed since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vance began hosting mini-concerts, playing guitar and singing – tailored to his demographic.
“I had to learn all the oldies,” he said. “Plenty of Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love,’ John Denver, ‘Country Roads,’ ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane.’”
One resident, a longtime music teacher, had been hard to reach due to advanced dementia. He was completely non-verbal, relying on hand gestures to communicate.
“I was trying to form a connection, but I didn’t know if it was happening,” Vance said.
Then he began to play “Stand by Me,” and the resident mouthed the lyrics.
“That was the first time I had seen him make an attempt at vocalizing something,” Vance said. “There was this joy that seemed to come back to his face. In the most unexpected way, God was using the meager offering of my gift to awaken something in him.”
“I’m not here to come down from on high and offer this glorious ministry. I’m here just to be with this person, to have a human connection that makes way for the divine.” — Seminarian Nick Vance
Summer has become an important season of formation for seminarians, allowing them to stretch and experience new dimensions of priestly preparation. This past summer, 37 of the men in the configuration stage of formation participated in an eight-week program that involved a variety of settings – urban and rural, working with youth and the elderly. It put them face-to-face with real-world scenarios they will encounter as priests – ministering to the sick and dying, visiting with homeless people, helping at eldercare facilities, understanding the struggles of farmers and engaging young adults.
Sometimes, Vance said, it taught “a poverty of spirit” – being empty-handed and at peace, surrendering the urge to say the right words or accomplish a certain agenda and instead learning how to sit in the uncomfortable and simply be present.
“When someone wasn’t able to track a conversation and they’d repeat themselves, I had to find my own poverty of spirit to respond with the same energy and joy,” Vance said. “It puts you in an entirely different mindset. I’m not here to come down from on high and offer this glorious ministry. I’m here just to be with this person, to have a human connection that makes way for the divine.”
Vance is eager to apply this to other scenarios. “When I learned how to set down my expectations and have one ear to the person and another ear to the Lord and just let that be the guide of the conversation, it was substantially different,” he said.
Reaching young adults
Outreach to young adults is another component of formation.
Spending time with University of St. Thomas students prepares the seminarians to address challenging social issues like abortion and gender identity, said Vance, who helps with the seminary’s popular worship gathering Cor Jesu.
“Being so close to college students helps us stay grounded with all these issues because it’s so easy to treat them solely as abstract issues and forget the persons involved,” he said. “If we truly are trying to bring people to Christ, we have to remember exactly that: I’m not here to win arguments or prove points, I’m here to help bring others to Christ – real people with real stories in need of real love. Joyfully bumping elbows with others, especially the young adults we meet on campus, helps to remind us of that.”
A highlight of the summer for Deacon Kyle Etzel, a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was a weekly event dubbed “Beads and Beers.” A small group of young adults from the St. Mary’s Church in St. Paul would gather for vespers every Tuesday at 6:45 pm, then process through Lowertown while praying the Rosary together – through Mears Park, down to Union Station and then back up to The Barrel
Theory Beer Company on Seventh Street.
“My approach is: ‘I have time for you. I’m willing to listen to you. And if you want to hear from me, I’m happy to have the conversation.’ I think young people are really looking for those. And these opportunities in formation – whether in hospitals or nursing homes or at a brewery – help us practice that.” — Seminarian Deacon Kyle Etzel
“It started bearing fruit almost immediately,” Etzel said. “New parishioners joined, a couple folks who will be doing RCIA this fall.”
The brewery fostered fraternity among the group.
“It’s a common space that society has chosen today, that’s where people meet and hang out,” Etzel said. “We need to be there. If we’re afraid to go there, if we just sit in our parishes and wait for the people to come to us, then we’re not really exercising pastoral charity.”
Like Vance, Etzel found the time with young adults helped him refine his response to controversial social issues – whether he was hearing from committed Catholics struggling to defend Church teachings or people who have a problem with those teachings.
“My first approach is usually to remind myself: What they’re struggling with isn’t the hot-button issue,” Etzel said. “There’s some first principle that’s missing or that’s causing friction. They’re struggling with, ‘Who am I? Am I loved? Am I enough?’”
Etzel focused on those underlying emotions rather than launching into a lecture.
“My approach is: ‘I have time for you. I’m willing to listen to you. And if you want to hear from me, I’m happy to have the conversation.’ I think young people are really looking for those. And these opportunities in formation – whether in hospitals or nursing homes or at a brewery – help us practice that.”
Living the rural life
The city streets aren’t the only place seminarians prepare for the priesthood. One in four of them will end up in a rural parish at some point during their ministry – often with multiple churches and parishioners who are spread out all over the countryside.
Each August, the seminary partners with Catholic Rural Life to give men in formation a taste of this experience. The session includes a day spent meeting with farmers near New Prague, Minnesota, touring their properties and learning about their needs as rural Catholics.
“This program is especially important for people like me from the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, which is a particularly rural diocese,” seminarian Benjamin Peters said, “to get that first-hand experience of what it means to be a rural pastor.”
Caring for the poor
Back in the Twin Cities, while Etzel took to the streets in Lowertown, some of his fellow seminarians were across the river at the Peace House Community in downtown Minneapolis, a refuge for the homeless and marginalized founded by the Sisters of St.Joseph of Carondelet.
About 115 people visit on any given day – sometimes to cool off or warm up, sometimes for an hour of serenity – Executive Director Marti Maltby said.
He commended the seminarians for their ability to engage visitors of the Peace House.
“They’ve done a really good job,” Maltby said. “They know community members by name and their story.”
The young men were quick to lend a hand however they could, Maltby added. One woman wanted help changing the tire of the truck she’d been living in.
“So many random things happen, and there’s no way to plan,” Maltby said. “They’ve gotten to see a few of the unexpected things you have to deal with and how flexible you sometimes have to be.”
Being at Peace House is good preparation for priesthood, Maltby said.
“It gives them a lot of practice realizing they have not had the same life experiences as others. They are not going to have the answers all the time. It doesn’t work to pretend to have the answers or to give canned answers.”
That was a powerful takeaway for Phil Conklin, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“It teaches you to truly listen to people, to get their side of the story,” he said. “If we’re in a parish, there could be a person most people avoid, and maybe that’s the person I’ll notice and go talk to, to hear their story, and who knows what that could open up as far as the Lord’s work is concerned?”
Fellow Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis seminarian Ryan Sustacek had an equally powerful experience visiting patients at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale this past summer.
“I received more than I gave these patients,” he said. “People who don’t get visitors probably aren’t laughing a lot in the hospital setting, so it’s great to be able to laugh with them,” Sustacek said. “To be invited into their lives, where they’re at, where they’ve been, what brought them here – that’s beautiful, that’s holy ground.
“And then we would often close in prayer. Even if people aren’t religious, we’d ask them, ‘Would you mind if I said a prayer for you?’ and without fail, they would say, ‘Yeah, I’d be happy if you prayed for me.’ So you leave them with that aura of peace that the Lord brings, just inviting Him into their room.
“As a priest, we’re kind of the bridge between God and man, and it says in the Bible that God is love,” Sustacek added. “Being able to bring love into that room is just so powerful. What I think I’ve taken away is that we don’t need to be healed so we can experience love – that’s part of it, but love itself, the experience of love is actually healing. As a priest, that’s going to be what we’re asked to do, to be that bridge.”