By DR. PAMELA PATNODE
Director of The Saint Paul Seminary Institute for Catholic School Leadership
The woman walking her dog along the sidewalk in front of the Saint Paul Seminary that beautiful summer evening gave me a quizzical glance. I don’t blame her. I was rolling my suitcase toward the entrance of the seminary, ready to move in for a two-week stay. It is a rare sight, indeed, to see a woman entering a Catholic seminary with a suitcase in hand.
As a mother (and now a grandmother), I have had the unique opportunity to spend time the past three summers living at the seminary. I lead a certificate program for Catholic school educators that takes place at the Saint Paul Seminary. During the summer, we gather for the in-person portion of the year-long graduate program. The Saint Paul Seminary provides lodging for students who must travel to join us. To offer lodging within the seminary for the religious sisters and lay women in the program, the seminarians vacate an entire floor of the seminary. We (the consecrated and lay women) each stay in one of the rooms typically occupied by a seminarian. It is a rare privilege as a woman to stay in a Catholic seminary, and it is one from which I have learned much.
For me, this experience has been a sneak peek into a world that is rightly reserved for the men whom God calls to the service of the priesthood. Interestingly, in the small amount of time that I have been privileged to live among the seminarians, I have observed many things that can be applied to family life.
Emanating from the chapel at different times throughout the day, one hears the harmonic, deep voices of the men chanting the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours and the hymns of daily Mass. It is a moving sight to witness the seminarians joined with priests of varying ages united in prayer—hearts and voices lifted to God.
For the seminarians, the schedule of the day is ordered around Christ. The day begins with prayer, it ends with prayer, and it is regularly paused for prayer. Their prayer is both private and communal, it is of Christ and his Church, and it unites them to Christ and his Church.
When observed as the outsider, this rhythm of prayer appears to be a beautiful way to order the day. When put into practice, one quickly learns that a commitment to daily prayer is hard work. This practice of daily prayer requires intention, discipline and perseverance.
For those of us living within families, our prayer lives will likely be different from the seminarians’ daily schedule. However, within the domestic church, the Ecclesia domestica, a commitment to both individual and communal daily prayer is necessary, and it can transform the life of our family and our own personal lives.
A second practice of seminarians that families can strive to emulate is communal living. The formation process of seminarians includes intellectual, pastoral, spiritual and human formation. Included within this multi-year formative process is learning to live in community with the other men.
Communal living is not the same as collective living. Collective living relates to sharing the same address with another, but not much else. Communal living involves relationship—and it is intentional. This deliberate form of relationship-building purposefully makes time for prayer, for conversation, for meals, for rituals, and for play. Communal living involves patience, self-control, self-giving, and forgiveness. When these virtues are practiced within families, much fruit can emerge.
During the years when we were raising our five children, there were times when it required tremendous effort to intentionally make time for family prayer, family meals, conversation, board games, homework, helping one another and simply being present to the other. The demands of work, school, sports, activities and volunteer commitments often competed for both our time and our energy. We learned that prioritizing family relationships above these outside commitments and the encroachment of social media requires prayer, discipline, intention and sacrifice.
Learning to live well together is part of the seminarian formation process. It is part of family life, too.
A third observation I made relates to home decorating. My time spent at the Saint Paul Seminary was not the same as staying in a luxurious five-star hotel. The current living facilities of the Saint Paul Seminary are modest. The building is older, the individual seminarian rooms resemble college dorm rooms, and the furnishings of each room are sparse. However, what is immediately recognizable to the outsider are the books and the sacred art that adorn the bookshelves and walls of the rooms. In a culture that often hides evidence of the supernatural, a peek into the rooms of the seminarians reveals an ardent desire to learn about the faith, to live the faith and to surround oneself with the truth, beauty and goodness that give evidence to the faith.
As families, we too are called to continually learn about our faith. A scan of our own bookshelves will disclose whether this is happening with much intention. If not, this is an invitation to enter an exciting world of learning.
In addition, although our homes are not required to look like Catholic seminaries, having décor that reminds us that Christ is the center of our lives is important to consider. Years ago, my former pastor, Fr. Arnold Weber, OSB (1925-2012), invited the owner of a local Catholic bookstore to come to our parish. He asked the owner to bring crucifixes to sell to parishioners after Mass. During his homily that weekend, our pastor mentioned that he was often invited into homes to share a meal with parishioners. During these home visits, he had observed that few of the houses had religious objects on display. Fr. Weber invited parishioners to consider adding a crucifix to each room, a picture of a saint, a cross on the mantle or some other display to remind guests and themselves that our lives are centered in Christ.
As I entered the seminarian’s room for my stay last summer, I noticed the beautiful sacred art carefully hung on the walls and the rich collection of holy reading found on the bookshelf. All of it reminded me of the invitation from Fr. Weber; what a beautiful invitation it is for all Catholic families. When we surround ourselves with the good, the true and the beautiful, we are better able to live these virtues and model them for one another.
Finally, my summer stays at the seminary have been times of work, of study, of worship and prayer, of fellowship — and of fun. In fact, each summer, the students in the Catholic School Leadership program have dinner and a game night with the seminarians. Typically, we play bar trivia—a Catholic version. The competition is fierce (especially during the “Name That Heretical Hymn” segment), and the laughter is loud.
Over the past three summers at the seminary, I have observed that seminarians work, pray, study and serve together. They also play. From trivia nights to the Rector’s Bowl football game, to frisbee golf and more, the seminarians truly model Christian joy within community.
For families, this is an important message. We need to pray together, to work together, to serve together and to play together. Fr. Weber once said to me, “Pam, a lot of people think that to be holy means you need to be dour and serious all the time. I don’t think so. When there is laughter in the home, I know the Holy Spirit is present.”
Life can be challenging. However, it is important to remember that time for leisure and play together as a family is necessary for the building of relationships and memories.
The Catholic School Leadership students have returned home, and the seminarians are back in their rooms. My own children are beginning families of their own, and I now find myself reflecting upon what I have learned both as a parent and as a guest of the seminary.
Although the seminarians are following a call to the priestly vocation, they unknowingly modeled for me many habits that are important for family life. A commitment to daily prayer; intentionality in building relationships; a dedication to learning about the faith; an environment of truth, goodness, and beauty; and the joy that comes from healthy play are just some of the practices I observed. What a gift it was to be a guest of the seminary, and what a blessing it is share these lessons within my own family. I am already looking forward to my stay next summer.