For most people, the past two months have been seen as “quarantine” or “isolation” as millions have sheltered in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, but for the seminarians of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, other phrases come to mind, such as “fellowship” and “on-the-job training.”
Since mid-March, the 51 men studying to become priests for the Archdiocese of Baltimore have left their classrooms and been placed in parishes across the region, according to Father Steven Roth, archdiocesan vocations director. They’re working with local pastors as the church deals with an unprecedented challenge, he said, connecting with the faithful while churches remain closed.
While other dioceses across the country have sent their seminarians home to continue their studies remotely, Baltimore has established an internship of sorts – one that harkens back to the earliest days of the priesthood.
“All our seminarians have been given a graced moment in these challenging times to see each of our parishes literally have to retool to reach the churched and the unchurched,” said Father J. Kevin Farmer, pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Frederick and St. Joseph-on-Carrolton-Manor in Buckeystown. “This has truly been a ‘living laboratory’ all while they have to still be responsible for their studies.”
Seminarians are helping churches broadcast Masses online and sharing meals and prayer with priests as live they alongside them in rectories. Meanwhile, the coursework continues as the seminarians study, write papers and attend classes online.
“This is as if we are going back to the old mentor model of priesthood where a young man, thinking God may be calling him, follows a priest around in his daily ministry to see if the vocation is for him and to learn from the pastor,” said Father Gerard Francik, pastor of Sacred Heart in Glyndon and St. Charles Borromeo in Pikesville and a former vocations director for the archdiocese.
Father Francik said the church moved away from the mentor model to improve standards of education. While the seminary system has many benefits, he said something special was lost along the way. The strange circumstances of the pandemic have created an opportunity.
“This time invites our seminarians to see the possibilities of parish life in a new way,” Father Francik said.
A native of Cameroon, seminarian Maurice Afor has been taking the lead livestreaming Masses for Father Francik and Sacred Heart. He added a microphone for better sound quality and has been working on his camera angles.
“It keeps improving every day because each day I learn something new,” Afor said. “So it has been a good experience.”
Another seminarian, Mickey Carroll of Walkersville, just began his studies in January and has started working in a parish much earlier than he anticipated. While his contact with parishioners has been limited by the pandemic, he has one skill that’s invaluable at St. John the Evangelist’s rectory.
“I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. It’s just something that I enjoy,” Carroll said. “[The other priests] weren’t big cooks beforehand.”
Carroll said he’s been cooking simple Italian pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe and carbonara and even giving some cooking lessons when needed.
Seminarian Dan Acquard of Fulton has been placed at the Catholic Community of Ascension and St. Augustine in Baltimore County under the guidance of its pastor, Father John Williamson.
Father Williamson and Acquard often pray together and the time has given the seminarian a glimpse at his future.
“[Father Williamson] has been giving me very good advice about parish ministry, much of which I will take with me in three years when, God willing, I too will be ministering in a parish,” Acquard said.
Email Tim Swift at tswift@CatholicReview.org
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