Seminary Life amidst COVID-19

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Samuel Pearson
Nestled among the terrace houses of Carlton and just a street away from the usually bustling Lygon Street, the seminary too has witnessed our little corner of the world change dramatically. Over the space of a mere week, I recall seeing busy Rathdowne Street change from being a car park during peak-hour traffic, to an empty road.
Then came the announcement that all academic classes were to be suspended and in short order, many of us returned home to families, parishes and dioceses, before borders closed and heavier restrictions on travel were enforced. In a few days, the seminary decreased to about a dozen in lockdown with staff. After some time, I too left the now deserted corridors and emptier chapel.
The great disruption
‘In an attempt to find a quick way to describe all these changes I have taken to calling this time ‘The Great Disruption’ because it is a disruption,’ writes Fr Denis Stanley, Seminary Rector, to me in an email. It is ‘a break in the way we take many things in life for granted’.
For Jamie Castillo, a second-year seminarian for the Archdiocese of Melbourne; ‘I realised the importance of other brothers who are not present here. I miss the lively community and the support of my close friends’, he says.
‘However, there is some good that came out of it too. I got to know those seminarians who are staying here, even some formators. I even go to the gym every day to keep myself healthy and sane!’
Sixth-year seminarian Dean Taberdo, who has remained at the seminary, said that ‘it is sad that some members of our seminary family have to live away from our Carlton home...I certainly miss the walks to classes, meeting fellow students there, and writing essays with actual books from the library!’ (to the chagrin of many stressed students, the Mannix Library had to be closed). ‘Personally, I was saddened that I could not go home to Darwin for Easter to visit family and celebrate with our people the Easter Triduum.’
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, with Dean relishing ‘the opportunity to have more time for quiet throughout the day, for prayer, further reading and study. For us living here in the seminary, another new opportunity is to be able to work more closely with the formation staff- they join us in preparing meals, washing dishes, wiping tables, washing tea towels, cleaning during working bees’.
In a letter sent to parents and friends of the college soon after the lockdowns began, Fr Denis wrote; ‘formation for priesthood, however, has not ended. In this time of emergency, it must continue in other ways putting our creativity, resilience and faith to the test’.
One such ‘other way’, despite all pastoral placements having ceased due to the closure of so many organisations and schools, is the seminary’s newly launched feature on the college website, ‘to extend an apostolate of intercessory prayer for all who send us their intentions’, as Dean describes it.
‘For me, this means that when I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, I do not only present myself and my needs; I also carry with me the people and prayers entrusted to us. It is a humbling privilege and it gives us a preview of how priests must also live as intercessors for their people with God, in imitation of Christ our Mediator, who always intercedes for us, (Heb 7:25)’, he writes to me in an email.
While Good Shepherd Sunday usually brings us to parishes, this year, the Vocations Office organised for our vocational witness to be online instead, a few of us recording videos through our phones, which were then shared on Facebook. It was an initiative that garnered record numbers in social media engagement for the page. Soon to be ordained deacon, Jaycee Napoles teamed up with Assistant Vocation’s Director Fr Nick Pearce sharing his top tips for discerning a vocation to the Priesthood through these trying times.
 Still shots from the Vocation Office's Melbourne Facebook page 
Jaycee Napoles
Online education
Very Rev. Dr Kevin Lenehan is the newly elected Master of Catholic Theological College (CTC) where we seminarians undertake the academic portion of our studies. Having only begun the role in September last year, in the space of few very short weeks, he has led the college through dramatic changes. ‘In February 2020, the CTC staff were discussing the possibility of taking one or two of our courses online as a way to better serve people in parishes, schools and other ministries around the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania,’ he wrote in response to an email I’d sent him.
‘By the end of March 2020, our entire timetable of courses and units had been transferred to online delivery! This has been a major challenge for staff and students, perhaps the biggest change CTC has undertaken in its 50-year history.’
‘For lecturers, it has meant learning to use the technology, and to re-design learning materials to suit the online environment. It has also meant learning to work from home, some with family and children sharing their new workspace, others with parish communities or religious houses to negotiate within a new way of gathering (or not) as church.’
‘For our seminarian students there have been a range of challenges: relocating to shelter at home arrangements, finding access to devices and internet; finding new means to keep progressing with formation and pastoral goals, as well as balancing their academic tasks and finding the resources to complete assessment tasks.’
‘For other students, many of them adult professionals balancing household, work and study, often caring for younger and older family members, the daily routine has been turned upside down, and they are just hoping they can 'hold it all together' until things start to return to 'normal'‘.
Perhaps somewhat wistfully, he notes, ‘we are missing the regular informal contact with colleagues in the corridors and common rooms at CTC, as well as the pleasure of the classroom with interaction with students and their learning.’
While everything seems so uncertain, it’s possible that the legacy of this pandemic may be the further transformation of the way we keep in touch and communicate. Another word we’ve added to our everyday vocab is ‘Zoom’ a noun, not the verb we come across in commercials for Mazda or children’s books about cars and rockets.
Fr Kevin is not alone when he observed: ‘we are finding that Zoom teaching is physically and mentally exhausting, and are trying extra hard to keep in contact with class members and make sure they have all the resources they need.’
The prospect of sitting in front of your screen for three hours, listening to a lecturer isn’t something too many relish. Dean found it ‘quite difficult getting used to online lectures’, a sentiment shared by many students. However, Zoom is not without its supporters.
‘I am actually enjoying Zoom. It enables one to have a very conversational approach to teaching. A lecture room tends to alter that somewhat’ writes Rev. Prof. Austin Cooper OMI to me in an email. Once the Master of CTC himself, his academic life continues as a much-loved and respected lecturer and mentor to graduate students, as well as spiritual director to some of us. ‘I am able to work from home giving lectures on Zoom and speaking by phone to people with whom I am in contact.’
Fr Austin is my own Spiritual Director and with our correspondence now through email and phone calls, it’s just another way seminary formation has changed in recent weeks. Speaking over the phone, one afternoon, I asked him how he’s going and chuckling he said: ‘I am doing well, though this is a very strange world in many ways: one has an attitude of caution (say in boarding a tram), that one would not usually experience.’
He went on to recount humorously a trip to the post office, noting the feeling of mutual suspicion; how everyone seemed to fear the other was carrying some kind of bomb that could go off at any moment.
‘Of course, I am NOT given to carrying bombs on trams or anywhere else: one has some standards!’ We both laughed. But deep down I wished it was over another hot cup of tea with him, surrounded by the many books which appear to hold the roof up in his office.
Then came his practical, yet also seemingly winsome, advice for living through this time:
‘I have a programme for each day, clear yet always remaining flexible. I make sure to spend some time outdoors either walking, gardening or just admiring nature: this is always an element of my prayer anyway.’
Prayer in the digital age 
For Catholics in general and in particular for us seminarians (given the regular timetable of prayer which usually structures our days), the biggest change has perhaps been felt in our prayer lives. Then, off course, there is the absence of the Mass and indeed all the sacraments.
Well, sort of. ‘Online mass’ is yet another buzzword Catholics have recently added to their everyday vocab.
We have all been ‘thrust into the digital world’ says Fr Denis, ‘encouraged to watch parish liturgy live streamed. It might be innovative and the best we can do during ‘The Great Disruption’...however, it is stubbornly strange to watch’, he notes. ‘Watching traditionally crowded events online by yourself – like the Holy Week liturgies – look and feel very different.’ 

Very Rev. Denis Stanley EV (second from right) with seminary staff

‘There has been a lot of online theological reflection and debate provoked about live streaming worship and the implications for traditional sacramental theology...I have found all this fresh, fascinating and thought-provoking.’

 As an example, he sends me an extract from a critique on the limits of live-streamed celebrations of the Eucharist that points out:
Because of their institution during his lifetime, there is an unbreakable line between the ‘stuff-and-gestures’ nature of sacraments and the earthly life of Jesus…the sacraments involve sensory engagement. The ‘stuff-and-gestures’ of the sacraments must, therefore, embody openness to the senses...offered as a physical reality that engages the senses of all those who are participating...The way that Christ chooses to impart grace is through sacraments that involve physical stuff, action and presence. It therefore appears out of keeping with not only tradition but their nature to attempt to divorce sacraments from their physical source.
‘One of the things that I hope the pandemic will also leave behind for us’, writes Fr Denis in an email, ‘is a yet greater love and understanding of the ‘physical stuff, action and presence ‘of our worship, especially the Eucharist. To love as people who pray...and understand better the presence of each of us at the Eucharist – how we need each other’s presence.’
For Fr Denis, we often take for granted that the Eucharist is the ‘fruit of the earth and of the vine and the work of human hands.’ He writes, ‘We are privileged to follow and be one with the actions of Jesus; to bless and to break, to pour, to eat and drink’.
First-year seminarian Nicholas Calandra, for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, agrees; ‘it has been a sad thing to see pretty much the entire Catholic population deprived of Mass. However, I think this has been a special opportunity to deepen our love for the Most Blessed Sacrament,’ he says.
I can’t help feel a little sorry for Nic, as I begin to read his response to an email I’d sent him. He’s having a first year quite unlike any other. The first few months of one’s time in the seminary are designated as a time for spiritual growth and friendship with fellow first years. Yet, the first years of 2020 are now separated without the communal nature of a seminary. Not that Nic seems to be in the doldrums of spiritual stagnation. Quite the contrary, in fact he writes in response to an email I’d sent him.
‘When we receive the Eucharist...Christ enters our soul to transform us to be more and more like Him...If we receive the Eucharist without preparation and love, we create obstacles to let Jesus transform us into saints.’
‘So I think this whole situation has been a great opportunity to realise: The Eucharist is a most Sacred Gift.’ It compels us to ask ourselves; ‘how well have I received and prepared for Communion? We should try and receive every Communion as if it is our last!’
Bill Lowry, a fifth-year seminarian for the diocese of Ballarat, is similarly spiritually astute. ‘I have during this time tried to meditate regularly on the words of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; ’All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose’ (Rom 8:28).’
Anecdotally, says Bill, ‘I have been greatly heartened by the introspective turn of many people, evaluating what is truly meaningful in life.’ Despite all the uncertainty and difficulties of our present moment, he believes that God, in some way, can bring about our good. ‘It may not be comprehensible to us now, but I certainly feel that the Lord is working almost imperceptibly in our facilitate a more ardent love and desire for him.’
Like Bill and Nic, Anthony Beltrame (sixth year) made the decision to leave the seminary when the lockdowns began. Hailing from the Archdiocese of Adelaide, I recall some weeks ago the anxious discussion he and the four other seminarians from Adelaide had as to whether they should remain together at the seminary or go home. In the end, two stayed behind, while the others caught the last flight out, or else took the long drive back.
‘In days like these it can be hard to keep your head up...we may not know our next step, but we do know where we are headed’, he writes in an email, reflecting upon his reading of the spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence.
‘All throughout it extols the soul who abandons himself completely to God. In fact, you hear it said so many times, by the end of the book you're like, ‘yeah, yeah, I get it.’ But the spiritual work reaches its climax only in the final pages which speak of the glorious victory of the souls who are faithful to God...The point is this, we can spend our whole lives not knowing what direction God will take us the next day, but we can be sure of this: All the bad things he permits us to experience are so that he may reveal the ever-greater power of his mercy, namely that we may come to share in the eternal life won for us by his Son.’
In Carlton, Fr Denis (or Fr Rector we often call him), remains hopeful that ‘the pandemic will pass,’ leaving us better because of it. ‘One of the Prayers of the Faithful we prayed at Mass in the Seminary read;…that this time of crisis will soon pass and leave behind it a world richer in mercy, brighter with care for the vulnerable and more thankful for those who gladly give their lives to serve others.’
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