Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
When seminarians are sent to parishes across the diocese for a “pastoral year,” they learn what life is like for a priest, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
Despite the change they experienced, going from scheduled days to quiet isolation amid many questions, four Diocese of Richmond seminarians — Dillon Bruce, Armando Herrera, Alex Jimenez and Joe Kauflin — gained deep understanding of parish life this past year and drew closer to God as a result.
“The goal is to help prepare a man to engage in parish life and be fully informed about the kind of life he’s going to live as a priest,” said Father Brian Capuano, the diocese’s vicar for vocations.
Father Capuano oversees the placement of seminarians in parishes for their pastoral year experiences, which may be more or less than a calendar year, usually from June until the following August. It is a formal aspect of formation, recommended by Vatican II, held between the seminarians’ second and third years of theology studies.
Matches are carefully considered, Father Capuano explained, and placement depends upon parishes that can house and support an additional person for a year. A quiet person may be placed in a large, busy parish, for example, or an outgoing person may be placed at a smaller church; the purpose is to gain and expand skills and experiences.
He recalled an important moment in his own pastoral year, when his priest was away, and he was called one evening to the hospital bedside of a dying patient.
“I couldn’t give the sacraments, but I could sit there and pray with them,” he said.
The year also educates the seminarians’ families as well, Father Capuano said.
“Parents learn, ‘What does it mean for my son to be a priest?’” he said, noting that they may not see their sons much, or at all, over holidays, for example. “Seminarians learn you’re not living your own life so much anymore but are living in service for the sake of others.”
Although they served at different parishes for their pastoral years, Bruce, Herrera, Jimenez and Kauflin supported each other and became friends. Before the pandemic, they visited in person when they could, to hike, share meals and compare stories. During the pandemic they have kept in touch, including through a book study via Zoom.
“This year made us brothers,” said Bruce.
‘No matter what, Christ is Lord’
During his pastoral year at St. Bridget, Richmond, Dillon Bruce spent a lot of time with the students at the parish’s school and grew to be their friend.
“I loved being with the kids,” he said. “They would ask me: ‘Why do bad things happen? How does God work in our lives? Am I enough?’ Kids and adults alike all have the same questions, and I always told them, ‘God loves you no matter what.’”
Bruce, 27, from Stuarts Draft, attends the Pontifical North American College in Rome. His pre-pandemic duties at St. Bridget included serving at Masses, helping with the Catholic Heart work camp and assisting with other ministries.
He liked visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor, a congregation of nuns serving the elderly and dying poor at Saint Joseph’s Home for the Aged. His weekly visits with the nuns and residents showed him that personal presence is important.
“I gained confidence that the Lord is going to work through me if I just show up to be with people,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, Bruce witnessed his pastor, Msgr. William Carr, leading his staff during the crisis.
“It was awesome to watch how a pastor reacts during a crisis, and how he builds confidence and maintains the joyful proclamation of the Gospel,” he said, adding that Msgr. Carr and Father Tochi Iwuji embodied “God’s love and protection; they showed us that, no matter what, Christ is Lord.”
Livestreaming of Mass, although different, still focused on growing in holiness and commitment to the Lord, Bruce said. “I learned that if you give to God, he just gives more.”
‘I’ve grown in the heart’
“It’s a whole new perspective,” said Alex Jimenez, 26, about his pastoral year at St. Ann, Colonial Heights. “You’re dealing with real people, with real pain and suffering, not just theories in seminary. To encounter that called me to love more deeply. I’m so grateful for that.”
The Woodbridge native, who attends Theological College in Washington, was touched by the generosity of the parish. At St. Ann, he said, parishioners look after each other — and that care also included Jimenez, who was showered with food and kindness. “And baked goods,” he said.
Before the shutdown, Jimenez’s duties included serving at Masses and teaching religious education on Sunday. In November, he attended the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis with high school students.
One of his favorite ministries was taking communion to homebound parishioners.
“I love visiting people in their homes and learning about their lives,” he said. “And I got to bring them our Lord.”
When everything closed, Jimenez was impressed by the parish staff’s ability to function. He noted that the first thing the pastor, Father Danny Cogut, did, before making a plan, was to make sure they were alright emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.
“What an incredible staff. I learned so much from them about responding to something like that,” Jimenez said.
The year also showed him where he is strong and where he might grow.
“I feel like I’ve grown in the heart,” Jimenez said. “I’ve grown to a deeper love for God and for his people.”
‘I’ll follow you, Lord’
After busy days early in his pastoral year at St. Benedict, Richmond, under the pastoral guidance of Father John David Ramsey, Armando Herrera felt disappointed and “kind of cheated” when the pandemic shut everything down.
“I prayed, ‘Lord, I was hoping to have more time with the parish,’” he said.
He often found himself sitting at a desk as a “porter” to monitor people who came to the church.
“But it was a huge blessing, and I learned a lot about ministry and the priesthood. I was available to people and to God in a different way,” Herrera said.
He ended up having many, what he considered “remarkable encounters” with parishioners as well as strangers, and he learned that it was important to just be there and pray with them.
“You allow people to give you their pain, and you give it to the Lord, and he pours his love and mercy on them,” Herrera said.
One day, a man he’d never seen, possibly homeless, came in holding a black shirt, explaining that he wanted to offer it for someone who might need clothes. Herrera said the man was clearly agitated, and after he gave the shirt and left, Herrera heard the Lord prompt, “Go to him.”
Herrera ran down the street, stopped him, and said, “God loves you!”
“He started breaking down as we prayed right there on the sidewalk,” Herrera said, adding that he seemed to feel better after Herrera reassured him of God’s love, and he walked away. “Those random encounters have taught me to just be available to be used by God.”
A student at Theological College, the Roanoke native, 26, said he’s also been blessed by his fellow seminarians.
“I always wondered if priests have friends,” he said. “I’m so grateful for Alex, Dillon and Joe. We’ve spent a lot of time together.”
His call to the priesthood fills him with peace and hope, he said. “I’ve learned to say, ‘I’ll follow you, Lord.’”
‘He is always with us’
When the pandemic hit during Joe Kauflin’s pastoral year at St. Andrew, Roanoke, he relied on his experience as a missionary in Honduras, where big changes could happen any moment.
“It was a crash course in how we don’t know what’s down the road,” said Kauflin, 31, a Virginia Beach native who attends Theological College. “This situation can be used to help us grow and mature in the faith.”
He had been enjoying his time at the parish, “soaking it all in” and learning about the rhythm of parish life. His involvement with Masses, adoration, youth group activities, catechism, visits to Our Lady of the Valley nursing home, hospital visits, funerals, weddings and more – such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which helps anyone in need – kept him busy. Then everything changed.
He was grateful for and comforted by the response he witnessed from the priests at St. Andrew, Fathers Kevin Segerblom and John Christian, as well as the staff and volunteers.
“I found a lot of hope in seeing how the folks around me responded to it,” he said.
Sometimes one’s prayer life can be dry, he noted, especially when everything is turned upside down. He was reminded that sometimes one must wait, even if one has a spiritual goal in mind.
“I learned the importance of just staying with the Lord,” he said.
Witnessing parish life, in good times and bad, affirmed an important truth for him.
“In the chaos, in times of sorrow and joy, God is present in the midst of all life,” Kauflin said. “He is always with us.”