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Seminary Life

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St. Mary of the Lake Seminary Mundelein
Zachariah Chichester  |  Brian Kelly
| Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary
Deacon Rick Lesser  |  Steve Matthews





St. Mary of the Lake Seminary Mundelein - Zachariah Chichester

In the fall of 2014, I began as a First Theologian at Mundelein Seminary, located an hour north of Chicago.  When I first came for interviews in the summer, I was taken aback by the beautiful campus.  Today, I am ever more appreciative of being able to stretch my legs in a nice walk around the lake or even just walking between buildings.  There is also a wonderful variety of things to do here, from outreach to the poor, attending operas in Chicago, wood working in the wood shop, exercising in the gym, and playing sports in the field. 

The guys here are really good men.  I find it most encouraging to see so many of them sincerely trying to grow in their love for Christ as the foundation for future ministry to God's people.  I am truly glad that the priests and professors here are themselves wholly dedicated to forming Christ-centered priests.  One of the great blessings here is the cam life.  Cam life is life in the smaller community of guys who live on your floor.  We prayer together, relax together, and have the opportunity to develop great friendships.

Having come from "the working world", and being in my early thirties, I find my experience both advantageous and also a little trying.  The advantage is that I come to seminary with a fairly reasonable perspective of the way the world is, it's dangers, trials, and blessings.  At the same time, getting back into the swing of an intensive class schedule takes a little adjusting.  Some of the guys coming right out of minor seminary find the adjustment a little smoother.  Altogether, I find that I can provide perspective to younger guys and they can help me grow in holiness.  Well, off to study!

Zachariah Chichester
Class of 2018

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St. Mary of the Lake Seminary Mundelein - Brian Kelly

Mundelein Seminary, like most seminaries, is routine focused allowing men to discern their vocational call in an environment that helps develop good habits as future priests.  Each aspect of seminary life has prayer as its center, incorporating it throughout classwork, communal living and even extracurricular activities.  Developing these habits centered on prayer, allow the men to remain focused on why they are here in the first place...that is, to discern the Lord's call and will for them in their lives both currently and in the future.  Each of the 200 men here are discerning the same call to the priesthood allowing us to form not only a bond that develops long term friendships, but also an environment that encourages us to participate together in helping each person grow in our relationship with the Lord.  The campus itself, set on over 800 acres of beautiful wooded landscape, physically reflects this prayer centered focus as each residence hall has its own chapel located in the center of the building, in addition to the Seminary's main chapel located at the heart of the campus.  

The Seminarians who are sent to study Mundelein come from over 35 different dioceses around the world.  Allowing us to grow in our respect and appreciation for the universal church as a whole as we get to know one another's culture, language and backgrounds.  We begin and end each day by praying the Liturgy of the Hours together.  Following Morning Prayer and Mass, classes begin, which are similar to other Undergraduate/Graduate level courses in expectation and workload.  Most classes’ meet twice a week for 90 minutes, during either the morning or afternoon and generally all classes are done no later than 4pm.  This leaves plenty of time in the evening for socializing, exercise, homework, studying, field education assignments, community service and personal prayer.  Finally and most importantly, whether it's before the day begins, midday or evening, the routine allows us to be able to step back when we choose to do our daily Holy Hour and truly pray.  Allowing us to recognize that seminary is truly a rhythmic environment centered on discerning the Lord's call.   

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Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary - Deacon Rick Lesser

Things happen here at the seminary on a schedule.  That is a luxury I was not afforded in my previous life as a husband, father, and veterinarian.   At any moment urgent family or client concerns would rearrange what had been an orderly day into happy chaos.   That will probably be my situation once again after I am ordained, but for now, I am enjoying the predictable rhythm of my day.

Spiritual Formation


In the ancient tradition of the Church we pray the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day.  Most days we pray Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer together as a community.   We pray the Office of Readings, Daytime Prayer, and Night Prayer privately.  This time spent in prayer (a bit more than an hour each day) is a welcome luxury compared to my previous life. 
And of course we celebrate Mass each day.  In addition, we devote some time each day to private prayer through Lectio Divina, the Rosary, or Adoration. I have found that being faithful to the prayers impacts me – heart, body and soul.   There is something about being with people who love us and whom we love that brings out the best in us.  I have become quite aware here that I am the better version of myself only when I am in prayerful contact with God.

Academic Formation


We generally have core classes 4-5 mornings a week, and some electives and conferences some afternoons.   We study the rich depths of what God has revealed to us and what our Catholic Church has spent centuries unfolding.  
Our job as priests is not simply to be nice people – that is certainly necessary – but we also have to be obedient to God’s will and faithful to the teaching of the Church.   Trying to grasp all that is no simple task, and this side of heaven I doubt that any of us do it perfectly.   But that is no reason not to learn all we can.  So, we keep cracking the books.

Pastoral Formation


If we synthesize our prayer and out study fully, intellectual honesty demands that we “be” pastoral in living what we have learned.   What difference a single word can make in that sentence.  Our pastoral formation does not simply train us to “act” as if we were pastoral; at our core we are called to “be” pastoral.  

That doesn’t mean that we have a license to just sweep all the sin of the world aside in the name of “playing nicely”.   Rather, being pastoral means that we continually invite others (and ourselves for that matter) to say “yes” to God.  

In our pastoral assignments we see the absolutes we have learned put into practice in the real world.  We come to understand that God did not just put some high bar up and expect people to jump over it the first time.   Nobody does that, and God does not expect us to.  He does expect priests to help people try – and never dismiss or discourage them.

Human Formation


Of course, we have to be healthy in mind and body to do all this.  Machines are supposed to be “all work and no play” – but that is not healthy for you and me.   We have social time, visits to and from family and friends, trips into Boston for sights and dinner.   I just got back from seeing my kids in Kansas and Colorado.  

The seminary has a gym, as well as a basketball and a bocce ball court.  There are plenty of opportunities to swim, run or hike (and this winter to ski and snowshoe).   Since we are a seminary for second career men (a polite euphemism for “old guys”), we are particularly encouraged to eat, sleep and exercise well.

One of the great strengths of the Catholic Church is the wide variety of gifts we have to offer.  At the same time, having people who place lesser or greater value on our individual gifts can be a challenge.   It is the same in the seminary.   It will certainly be our reality in a parish.  A good parish priest has learned that it is not enough to just love God and the Church – we also have to love being with the people! 

Deacon Rick Lesser is the widowed father of three and a former equine veterinarian.  He received a Masters in Divinity from Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in 2013, and will complete his last year of seminary formation at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston Massachusetts in May 2015. 

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Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary - Steve Matthews

What’s it like at the seminary?

There are four major parts of seminary life and formation:

Academics, Pastoral, Spiritual and Community

While each of these are important and should be equal, I think it depends on the level of experience and comfort of each seminarian to determine what the balance should be.  For some, an overemphasis on academics and studying may be more important than the other three.  For others, the need may be more on the spiritual aspect of formation.  The key here is that the formation of the person into a seminarian and God-willing a priest should be as much as possible an individualized program.  Fortunately or not, in today’s church and seminary, it may not always be possible to do this.  It is left to the individual seminarian (with help from his spiritual director and faculty advisor) to determine what is the best course of action.

For me, as a “second career” seminarian attending Pope St. John XXIII I found a good balance between these four pillars, depending on the time of the semester.  At some times during each semester (such as mid-terms and final) I need to focus most of my time and energy on academics.  During other times, such as the beginning of the semester and retreat time (or days of recollection), my focus can be more spiritual, etc.  However, don’t get the wrong idea!  Prayer and spirituality (along with pastoral work and community life) are always part of seminarian life!  Each seminarian adjusts his schedule to the events in his life (whether it be on a pastoral level, a communal one or academic with always prayer as a major part of it)!

If you have questions about life at the “second career” seminary feel free to contact me via the vocation office and I’d be happy to answer your questions!

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