Last year, The Record’s Anthony Barich spent a day in the life of a student at St Charles Seminary, and found that WA’s future priests share a faith-filled camaraderie…
It was at the Vatican of all places where Archbishop Barry Hickey heard the words he loves to hear from a young man:
“Hi, I’m Mark. I’m from Perth and I’d like to become a priest.”
During a year of discernment, Mark Baumgarten was in Rome in 2006 for one of Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audiences at St Peter’s Square, and happened to literally bump into the Archbishop.
Though he had already all but made his mind up, providence was surely giving young Mark a serious tap on the shoulder by this fortuitous meeting at Catholic Church headquarters.
His intention to take the priestly vocation was sealed during an intense 30-day “Spiritual Exercises” course in Phoenix run by a Jesuit spiritual director, designed by St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, to bring an individual’s calling to the fore.
“St Ignatius strikes me as a structural genius,” Mark said of the course. “With a spiritual director, the Exercises have a very powerful impact.”
His mind was made up. The day after he returned he called Fr Armando Carandang, then Perth’s vocations director. He was on his way.
He entered St Charles’ Seminary in February last year and loves it.
Of course, as Mark freely admits, the politics of human existence – ie getting on each others’ nerves – doesn’t disappear just because you’re in the seminary, but it holds together because they are all moving towards the same goal.
In the life of a seminarian there are moments of fiery competitiveness, pure tranquility and uplifting liturgy that prompted Mark to say he felt like he was “floating” after experiencing the Easter liturgy at the seminary this year.
Indeed, the late Pope John Paul II said that a seminary is called to be “a continuation in the Church of the apostolic community gathered about Jesus, listening to His word, proceeding towards the Easter experience, awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit for the mission” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 1992).
The academic studies that Mark experienced in his first year were introductory as classroom takes second place to understanding the dynamics of seminary life.
On the Tuesday morning, when The Record visited St Charles’ last year, the seminarians got a 45-minute sleep-in.
Morning prayer from the Divine Office – otherwise known as the Prayer of the Church or the Breviary – and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament start at 7.30am. Usually they would start at 6.45am.
Half an hour later they adjourn to the dining hall that used to be split into classrooms, and sit down to the average breakfast of cereal and toast.
Fr Don Hughes OMI (Oblate of Mary Immaculate), the Rector of the seminary, browses part of The West Australian, and the seminarians cast lots to get the sports section or whatever section they fancy. A copy of The Record is lying around somewhere.
Forty-five minutes later they retreat to their accommodation for a house meeting. I sat in on MacKillop House’s meeting, appropriately named after Australia’s first beatified person.
It’s minor housekeeping stuff, but relevant none-the-less. One seminarian asked about fixing the cooling system in the chapel – he could’ve sworn there was an instruction manual in the sacristy somewhere.
Other issues mentioned were reiterated on the notice board as one walks through the hall of the building where Fr Don takes first-years through a Gospel reflection at 9.30am, then took them through some local Church history at 10.45, with a snack in between.
During Gospel reflection, Fr Don takes the opportunity to make some telling points to the first-years, who today number only two as three others, two of them from Burma, are indisposed.
In an intimate one-on-two session with Mark and young Nathan Florio, Fr Don tells them of the importance of Pentecost – the theme of the coming week’s Gospel reading.
Mark, an astute 29-year-old who has clearly done his fair share of prayer and teachings thanks to St Ignatius, already has a rather strong clue. But Fr Don seeks to clarify all the same.
“The important thing about Pentecost is that it wasn’t just an isolated event 2000 years ago; we are changing all the time, and every day the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit come to the fore in our everyday lives.
He quotes Cardinal John Henry Newman: “To live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often.”
So it is personal change that the seminarians seek, in part through the Prayers of the Church in the Breviary, which can be used by the laity and which Mark carries with him to the chapel for his midday prayers.
Usually it is a moment of quiet reflection, sitting in peace before the Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is held, but on this occasion he shares it with me.
The prayers of the Breviary, in part, are made up of the Psalms that formed the groundwork of the Liturgy of the Jews for 12 centuries before Christ and were handed down to the Christian churches.
This time of personal prayer is part of almost two hours of free time, during which a few opportune moments presented themselves for hobbies the seminarians pursue to help retain a sense of self.
African seminarian Bonaventure Echeta, a solid bloke not averse to the odd bout of competitiveness over an afternoon game of table tennis, was spotted hauling his mountain bike out of his room for some solid fitness work, clad in cycling tights.
It is during these moments of doing the very Aussie thing of sitting on the verandah – minus a tinnie of VB – that seminarians can take time out to chat to each other or just enjoy the serenity.
The new accommodation houses are named after appropriate saints – MacKillop (Josephite founder Mary MacKillop), Vianney (St John Vianney, patron of priests), de Paul (St Vincent de Paul; and the Vincentians ran the seminary for 30 years), and the first-years stay in Prendiville (named after Archbishop Redmond Prendiville, who bought the property for St Charles’ Seminary) that houses the library, games room and store room.
As Mark noted, every part of seminary life is geared around formation – spiritual, academic, human and pastoral.
Seminarians study a standard four units a semester at university, but some may do two or three, depending on their adaptability to the language or concepts.
Students from second-year onwards attend Notre Dame on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Fridays are kept free for sacramental focus – liturgy and singing as well as cleaning the kitchen and their houses and sport – while Saturdays they can leave the seminary to visit family, and Sunday is for reflection in the morning, with Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the evening.
Just after lunch at 1.20pm, the first-years joined Margie Bramston for “Voicecraft”, which for the many international students means learning how to pronounce the English language properly and effectively, which they’ll be doing plenty of as priests in public addresses.
At St Charles’, there are students from as far as Africa, Myanmar, Vietnam and India.
For the students whose first language is English, like Mark, it’s about learning to project one’s voice effectively, structuring speeches and using aids to get the message across well. Much of their future outside the seminary will be spent preaching and speaking in public, so these classes are time well spent.