Service and solidarity: 16 first-year seminarians reflect on poverty immersion experience

saint paul seminarians who are ready to depart for homeless ministry
Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as saying “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me (chapter 25, verse 35).”

Collin Prom could feel the Rocky Mountain winter cold seeping into his bones.

One of 16 men in The Saint Paul Seminary’s “propaedeutic” stage who spent most of January ministering to the homeless in different cities throughout the United States, Prom and fellow seminarian Sean Daly stepped out of the subzero Denver temperatures and into a local restaurant. Via their work with Christ in the City, Prom and Daly were there to meet a homeless man who frequented the area.

He wasn’t hard to find. Hunched over in a wheelchair, he had no socks and no shoes. He’d spent the previous few nights in temperatures of minus-15 and below, and his feet were heavily frostbitten. Someone had given him something to eat, but the “waves of suffering emanating from this man” were unmistakable, Prom said. A policeman was there to call an ambulance and have the man taken to the hospital, where he was likely to lose multiple toes due to the condition of his feet.

Prom and Daly sat down with him, and the man didn’t say much. But he did ask for a refill of Dr. Pepper. Then another. Then another.

“It’s a terribly heavy situation as you’re sitting in it … and you realize there wasn’t very much we could do, other than sit there and get him Dr. Pepper,” said Prom, from the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. “There was this realization afterward: ‘Jesus, I got you your Dr. Pepper today.’”

Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as saying “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me (chapter 25, verse 35).” It’s these type of humbling, sometimes uncomfortable situations that have become a key component of early seminarian formation – aimed at bringing a man outside of himself so he can become better disposed to discern whether God is calling him to the priesthood.

It’s why Fr. John Floeder, director of human formation and the man in charge of The Saint Paul Seminary’s propaedeutic stage, enlisted the help of Christ in the City and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development to send first-year seminarians to six different American cities, each with its own unique cases of poverty, mental illness and homelessness.

It was a journey of service and solidarity, seminarian Sam Mishler said.

“I found it to be a really good space for just practical application of what we’re learning in formation,” said Mishler, from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “We’ve been working a lot particularly with some of the human aspects of formation, trying to empathize with people, trying to listen well, meet people where they’re at, and going into a space where people were really aching to be heard.”
For Mishler, that locale was South Bend, Indiana. Seminarians also visited Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Traverse City, Michigan.

Seminarians in the propaedeutic stage spend most of the year at their Damascus House home base, entering into prayer, contemplation and communal living while studying some of the Church’s great literary works with Saint Paul Seminary professors. They also take part in a media fast – no smart phones or computers the vast majority of the week – and individual and group psychological counseling sessions.

It’s a deep dive into the interior life before a man goes through the rest of major seminary. But the poverty immersion program gave them a chance to spread out and branch out.

Some days, they walked the streets, handed out food and invited homeless people into conversation and prayer. Others, they met with policymakers looking to alleviate poverty not just by monetary and material assistance but via education and protection of their legal rights.

The Chicago group also worked in a parish setting – the same place some of these men will likely end up as priests several years from now.

“We got a pretty immersive experience of not just working with the poor or working with migrants, but how a parish community can take practical steps to respond to situations like those going on in Chicago right now,” said seminarian Isaiah Lippert, of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota. “Whether it be with a soup kitchen or finding housing for migrants … just seeing all that a parish can do and what a priest’s involvement in that sort of work can be.”

Said seminarian Michael Rahm, also from Winona-Rochester: “It’s hard, especially now after poverty immersion, to imagine my life as a priest without part of that involving serving the poor.

“[Jesus] wants us to serve the poor.”

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