June 4, 2021

Seminarians find blessings and challenges in priestly formation during pandemic

Transitional Deacons Michael Clawson, left, and Matthew Perronie smile while posing on April 10 outside the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad. The two were ordained transitional deacons for the archdiocese that day after experiencing a challenging year of priestly formation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Both have received full doses of a coronavirus vaccine. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Transitional Deacons Michael Clawson, left, and Matthew Perronie smile while posing on April 10 outside the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad. The two were ordained transitional deacons for the archdiocese that day after experiencing a challenging year of priestly formation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Both have received full doses of a coronavirus vaccine. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

First of a two-part series (Part Two)

By Sean Gallagher

Transitional Deacon Matthew Perronie wore a bright smile after being ordained on April 10 at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in St. Meinrad.

He and four other men took the last major step in their priestly formation journey that spans years before they are ordained priests next year.

Deacon Perronie’s happiness at his ordination was increased because of the extraordinary challenges that he and other archdiocesan seminarians have overcome during the past year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Diaconate ordinations are a high point in the life of Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. There was no ordination in 2020 at the seminary because the pandemic had ended in-person formation activities about two months before an ordination was to take place.

Overcoming the challenges in priestly formation during the past year caused by the pandemic made this year’s ordination all the more special for Deacon Perronie.

“It was definitely a victory,” he said. “It was kind of like, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve completed the race.’ ”

The pandemic has tested seminarians and those responsible for their formation in the archdiocese in ways that they could have never expected before March 2020.

But all of them have witnessed how God is ultimately using the pandemic to prepare the seminarians even better for ordained ministry in central and southern Indiana.

‘I was grieving what we were losing’

In-person priestly formation at Saint Meinrad, Bishop Bruté College Seminary and Marian University, both in Indianapolis, where Bishop Bruté seminarians take classes, came to a quick end in mid-March 2020 at the start of the pandemic.

Deacon Perronie, then a year away from his diaconate ordination, had mixed feelings at that time. The seminarian community at Saint Meinrad gathered for their last Mass together and to celebrate at a dinner for the outgoing class of transitional deacons, an event that ordinarily happens at the end of the formation year in the southern Indiana seminary.

“I got emotional,” Deacon Perronie recalled. “That moment kind of spoke to me of the idea that a priest has to be willing to rejoice with someone in one moment, then grieve with someone in the next moment. I was grieving what we were losing.”

Deacon Perronie and some other seminarians remained at Saint Meinrad, taking classes online and living a restricted community life.

Other archdiocesan seminarians returned to their homes or lived at parishes for the remainder of the spring semester.

Seminarian Justin Horner, a junior last year at Bishop Bruté, moved into the rectory of his home faith community, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Morris in the Batesville Deanery.

He was there by himself as St. Anthony’s pastor at the time, Father Shaun Whittington, lived in the rectory of St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County, where he also served as pastor.

“It was weird going from a [seminary] full of 40 guys to living alone,” Horner said. “But, for my own discernment, it was good because I was able to see what it was like to live on my own [like many priests do] and realizing that I would do all right.”

‘We don’t enter into ministry with our own ideas and plans’

After the spring semesters at Saint Meinrad, Bishop Bruté and Marian were completed online, archdiocesan seminarians moved on to their summer assignments.

Archdiocesan director of seminarians Father Eric Augenstein ordinarily has a broad array of options for the assignments: serving in parishes, hospital chaplaincy training, a Spanish-immersion program in Mexico and a priestly spirituality program at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

Most of these were unavailable in the summer of 2020 because of the pandemic. So Father Augenstein, with the help of priests and other parish leaders across central and southern Indiana, did what they could to bridge the gap.

“In a lot of ways, priestly formation at the beginning of the pandemic came back to the archdiocese in a way that we typically don’t do,” Father Augenstein said.

Seminarians who would have spent the summer in Mexico stayed instead at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood where both of its priests are fluent in Spanish and there is a vibrant Hispanic community.

Seminarians who would have taken part in the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha went instead to St. Paul Parish in Tell City where its pastor, Father Anthony Hollowell, gave spiritual conferences to them. The seminarians had weekly spiritual direction with archdiocesan priests. They also had an eight-day Ignatian retreat led by Father Peter Marshall, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis.

“It was great. We were able to utilize the gifts and backgrounds of some of our own priests,” Father Augenstein said.

Since ministry in parishes remained limited last summer, Father Augenstein had parish-assigned seminarians learn about archdiocesan-sponsored ministries and to work on skills that would assist them in future ministry.

Horner and another seminarian, for example, began learning American Sign Language (ASL) to be able to minister to hearing-impaired people in the future.

“With ASL, you really have to focus on the other person,” Horner said. “So, you’re much more intentional about having a conversation. It’s a really cool language, and I hope to study it more.”

Father Augenstein said the summer assignments and the time that some seminarians spent living in parish rectories in the spring gave them opportunities to build relationships with archdiocesan priests.

Looking at the priestly formation that the seminarians have received during the pandemic more broadly, Father Augenstein said that the experience helped these future priests learn “how to minister in times of crisis, something that they might not see in an ordinary parish assignment.”

“It’s helping them to remember that,” he said. “We have to respond to the situation that we’re in and what’s going on around us. We have to find the presence of Christ in the ministry we’re called to in that situation.”
 

(The second of this two-part package will explore the challenges of in-person priestly formation since last August and lessons learned from the challenges. For more information on a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit www.HearGodsCall.com.)

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