Buffalo seminarians find large community in Baltimore welcoming
This year started a new chapter for seminarians from Buffalo. In the fall seven young men traveled to Baltimore to continue their priestly formation at St. Mary’s Seminary & University, while Buffalo’s diocesan seminary, Christ the King, prepares to close.
Founded in 1791 by the Society of St. Sulpice, St. Mary’s strives to provide outstanding spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral preparation for candidates for the Roman Catholic Priesthood. Following in the Sulpician tradition, it seeks to do this as a formational community grounded in Jesus Christ and primarily directed toward diocesan priestly service in the Church.
St. Mary’s differs from Christ the King in terms of physical size and student body. The Baltimore campus contains just one building rather than a series of buildings that made CKS seem like a typical to a college campus. It also has a larger student body. Close to 80 students from 15 dioceses study and pray together.
“They’ve been very welcoming here. The transition has been quite easy,” said Joseph Franz, a third theology student. “They spoke about it as more of a merger than transfer. They’ve accepted our classes. Our schedules are a little bit different because the way the sequencing was at Christ the King is a little bit different than here, but they’ve been very accommodating as far as that is concerned. The community as a whole has been very welcoming to us.”
Joseph Tokasz, who has attended St. Mark’s in Erie as well as Christ the King in East Aurora, calls St. Mary’s a “normal seminary environment,” with the seminarians living, eating and studying on campus.
“It’s that same routine of prayer, of academics, of community life. It was very natural to come into that and be a part of that and immerse yourself into a life of prayer and also the seminary life,” the third theology student said.
Classes take place in what is now known as a hybrid model of in-person instruction and Zoom sessions. Most classes are in person, but a few of the teachers are unable to attend class due to quarantine, so distance learning is employed. “There are a few classes where our lay students will Zoom into the class so they can be present,” explained Tokasz.
Although they have a much larger student body, classes sizes are only slightly larger, due to the fact that lay students and diaconate students do not join in with students studying for the priesthood.
A typical day begins with optional Holy Hour from at 6:45 a.m. Followed by morning prayer at 8, then breakfast and a couple of classes. After 11:30 a.m. Mass, they have two more periods of classes and meetings. There is also an evening prayer and some evening classes.
Wednesdays are typically spent at a ministry site. Theology students serve at parishes, while pre-theology students serve at soup kitchens or homeless shelters. Due to Covid, ministry day has taken the form of video conferences, while the seminary administrators look into virtual ministries. Free time is spent studying in their individual rooms or in the lounge, where capacity is currently limited due to Covid.
“It can be busy. You have to be good with your time management skills,” said Tokasz. “You do have to make sure you set aside time for recreation and exercise. That is part of the schedule in some ways. You don’t have class every hour of the day or every day. There are free times to do your work and reading that you need to do for classes. You also schedule in your prayer time. It’s not an unbusy schedule, but there is time for the fraternity and community as well.”
John Callahan has only spent one year at Christ the King, so it was an easy switch to the new school. He’s enjoying the diverse and larger population on campus.
“There’s more community here. We’re going from 23 guys to 74 here, which is a huge improvement for the community,” he said. “When we do communal prayer, there are so many of us.”
Covid has put some limits on the men who are understandably eager to see not only their new school, but the larger community as well. Students are allowed to leave the seminary grounds, but are asked to remain in the Greater Baltimore Area.
“If we do go out, we have to do an online questionnaire either prior to or upon returning to the seminary. Depending on the results of that questionnaire, we may or may not be isolated,” explained Franz. “So far, there have not been any cases here. We’re a pretty closed community. They do not allow visitors here. The only visitors are the faculty and staff who do not live here.”
Students and professors wear masks all the time, except when they eat with only two people per table.
“It’s pretty strict, but it has been successful so far,” said Franz.
The move to Maryland and the Covid pandemic have not gotten in the way of these men pursuing their vocation. Nor has the criticism the Diocese of Buffalo has faced in recent years.
“As much as there had been issues in the Church, the Church to me is something that stands for something bigger than we are, and more beautiful that we are, and what the people are striving to be. The Church stands for that regardless of the human brokenness in that. There are also a lot of great things in the humanity of the Church that we can all look to and appreciate and model ourselves after, including the canonized saints,” said Franz.
He points to the Bread of Life Discourse, when Jesus is abandoned by all but 12 disciples. He asks those men if they want to leave too. Peter replies, “To whom shall we go?”
“I love my faith and I love the priesthood. As much as all this has gone on, I think my seminary life has given me a much better appreciation for our Church and the priesthood. I can say that my faith is deeper because of my seminary formation, even in the midst of all of this,” Franz said.
Christ the King Seminary will continue to educate the fourth theology students until next spring.
Seminarians from Buffalo are welcomed to their new learning institute, St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. Pictured are (from left) Juan Sebastian Aristizabal. Joseph Tokasz, C.J. Wild, John Willett, John Callahan, James Boback and Joseph Franz. Also pictures in back are Kevin Upendran from Diocese of Hamilton Ontario, and Brother John Nguyen, SOCist, who had been studying at Christ the King. Courtesy of St. Mary’s Seminary.