Currently, there are 18 men in the Diocese of Camden studying for the priesthood, and discerning if it is, indeed, what God is calling them to live out.
One, Rev. Mr. Edward Kennedy is in his final year at Saint Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and, if it is God’s plan, will be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Camden next spring.
Another, Josh Nevitt, is currently in his pastoral year, serving the parish community of Saint Andrew the Apostle in Gibbsboro.
Seven others are in formation at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and nine are studying at the College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Andrew’s Hall at Seton Hall.
Last week, I visited the seminarians at Saint Andrew’s Hall and, for the next 14 hours, took notes on a day in the life of a seminarian.
The metal gate in front of Saint Andrew’s Hall opens, as I pull into the parking lot of this home for college seminarians, blocks away from Seton Hall’s main campus. Peter Gallagher, 21 years old, greets me at the front door. In his fourth year at the college seminary, he is from Haddon Township, and a parishioner at Christ the King, Haddonfield.
I follow him into the house, up steps to the second floor, to the house’s private chapel, and come upon 30 men in silent meditation before the altar. After 15 minutes, it is time for Lauds, morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. This daily, communal ritual, along with Holy Mass, Vespers (Evening Prayer), and Compline (Night Prayer), forms an integral part of a seminarian’s life, intended to strengthen the spiritual pillar of their priestly formation.
After Lauds, I follow Peter downstairs, and get a tour of the house. Along with the chapel, there are student rooms, common areas, a washer/dryer room and, the next place I am going, a kitchen.
Here, the seminarians gather for breakfast. One picks up the daily Wall Street Journal delivery, scanning the headlines. Another fires up the stovetop and cracks some eggs. Others pour coffee into mugs, or go over notes for upcoming exams. Studies for a seminarian particularly emphasize philosophy and theology.
Overall, it is a joyful atmosphere. For over a month, these men have lived in this house. In doing so, they have strengthened another pillar of their priestly formation: fellowship.
These 31 men are a diverse group. In addition to the men from South Jersey, there are students studying for the Archdiocese of Newark; the New Jersey dioceses of Metuchen and Paterson; the diocese of Nashville, Tenn; and the Diocese of Madison, Wis.
Stephen Robbins, 19, a second year student, offers me a cup of coffee.
“Seminary life has been great so far,” he tells me. A parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Lindenwold, he first thought about the priesthood while a senior at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken.
“Last year, I began my freshman year at Drexel University in Philadelphia as an education and history major,” he tells me. “I thought my desire for the priesthood would go away at Drexel, but it didn’t. It kept coming back.
“There is an intimacy, brotherhood with these guys. It’s a great atmosphere,” he tells me.
Also present at breakfast is Father Duverney Bermudez, vice rector of the house. From Colombia, he has served the seminarians at Saint Andrew’s for the past four years.
“These men have a lot of courage (to enter the seminary and discern the priesthood) during these times of growing secularism,” he says. “This is a happy house. These guys are full of love for God and the church.”
Father Fred Miller also lives at the house, as Saint Andrew’s spiritual director and mentor for the men. He echoes his fellow priest’s sentiments.
“All here are seeking to know God, and love God. There is a joyfulness, sense of peace here.”
I join some of the seminarians on a 20-minute walk to Seton Hall’s campus. One Camden student rides on his skateboard.
The campus is bustling, like any other college. Banner and tables promote upcoming events such as a student play, or pro-life meeting.
Every so often, the seminarians will greet passing students whom they know from class. In the college seminary, the men have classes with male and female undergraduate Seton Hall students, another important part of their formation.
Before class, Peter and I step into the Immaculate Conception chapel in the heart of the campus. Between classes, he will stop here for quiet meditation and personal prayer, a practice not uncommon for the seminarians.
As Peter has an exam at 9:30 a.m., my plan is to meet Stephen at the popular Dunkin’ Donuts on campus, after his 9:30 a.m. “Journey of Transformation” mid-term.
Stephen, fresh off a quick mid-term, joins me at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Soon, his housemates/classmates follow and we occupy a corner of the shop: fellow Camden students Ryan and Eric; Krzysztof from the Diocese of Paterson; and Andrew from the Archdiocese of Newark.
The group checked emails on their phones or laptops, prepared for the rest of the day’s classes, or discussed their answers to the mid-terms questions on the Book of Exodus and Plato.
I sit in on Stephen’s class on Christian doctrine. Professor Christopher Cimorelli starts the class off with prayer, followed by discussion on original sin and free will.
At lunch, the Saint Andrew’s house occupies four tables against a wall of Seton Hall’s main cafeteria, full of students grabbing sandwiches, pizza or heading to the carving stations or soda machines. The lemon chicken is not bad.
Before Peter’s Greek mid-term, with graduate students at Immaculate Conception, he heads to the graduate building’s library to prepare for the test and look over his planned schedule for next semester: Introduction to Catholic Prayer and Spiritual Tradition, Spanish II, and New Testament Greek II.
After classes, and before private evening prayer at 5 p.m., the students return to Saint Andrew’s or engage in recreational activities. The men recently completed their intramural flag football season, coming in second place, and await the next sport.
Peter and Stephen step out for a common evening run. Normally, other housemates will join them, but duties such as homework and meetings on this night call them elsewhere.
Upon returning, Peter and Krzysztof begin their designated house duty: ironing the napkins that were just washed and dried after the previous night’s community dinner, and getting them ready for the next dinner on Sunday. Other seminarians prepare the readings for the 6 p.m. Mass, or will have to clean up after tonight’s dinner. These assigned chores are to help prepare the young men for the important routines that make up parish life.
Holy Mass, led by Father Fred Miller, the house’s spiritual director, begins. In his sermon he references the day’s readings on the new Law of Jesus.
“Through grace, we are living a life of resurrection,” he tells the students. “Through the spirit, we are able to live perfectly.”
As his housemates prepare to enjoy their pizza dinner, Peter, along with fellow seminarians Arom and Joseph, both from Newark, leave for their weekly pastoral assignment at Saint James Church in nearby Springfield.
The fourth pillar of formation, a seminarian’s pastoral assignment, demonstrates the importance of service to the life of any priest. In past years Peter has taught religious education or worked with Seton Hall’s campus ministry.
With Arom driving, the three arrive at Saint James. After a quick dinner of beef macaroni and string beans provided by the parish, they engage with the parish community in a workshop designed to help one discover their God-given gifts, or charisms. After 20 minutes of answering questions on a sheet of paper, Peter finds his strengths lead him to the gifts of Mercy, Faith, and Prophet, good skills for a pastoral caregiver, lector or Bible study leader.
Upon our return to Saint Andrew’s, my day with the seminarians ends with Night Prayer. For a day I have witnessed them seek to live a life of holiness on a journey that, one day, may lead them to ordination to the priesthood. For now, these are men discerning God’s call for them.
“The seminary has been a wonderful journey where the Holy Spirit has led me to encounter Christ,” Peter says to me before we depart.
“This pilgrimage has taught me to pray, meet many different people and build great relationships, learn philosophy, theology and different languages, and serve the pastoral needs of others. All of these facets help form me to live out the priestly vocation he in his mercy has called me to. It is truly a joy.”
For more information on discerning a vocation to the priesthood, visit www.camdenpriest.org