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A higher calling

Amanda Michaels | Monday, April 5, 2004

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part Holy Week series focusing on the religious of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross.

In the chapel, five stained glass angels rise up behind the altar, and a setting sun sends fractured bits of colored light floating through the cloud of lingering incense. In the library, a mosaic of saints wielding quills and scrolls send encouraging glances on the wooden tables and worn armchairs that usually hold seminarians and their piles of books. In the courtyard, an abstract pieta is framed by the striking tableau of the Golden Dome rising from the waters of the lake.

Silent and unimposing, the artwork of Moreau Seminary serves as a subtle reminder of the keystones of religious life at Notre Dame: prayer and study, tradition and modernity.

Run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, Moreau is just one half of a two-part vocations system that also includes the undergraduate discernment program at Old College. Within the walls of these two buildings reside the men looking to dedicate themselves to the religious life, “normal guys,” as they affirm repeatedly, but surrounded by mystery nonetheless.

A long journey

“My friends at medical school commiserate with me,” said Stephen Koeth, displaying a half-smile. “After spending so many years going through the different levels of formation, you get an itch to go out and do what you’ve been trained to do.”

Koeth, a 1999 Notre Dame graduate, is in his second year of theology, but has actually already spent four years in the program. Seminarians can spend anywhere from five to nine years going through the steps of discernment and formation process that eventually culminates in the priesthood.

The vocations office, directed by Father Jim King, is the starting point for all those interested in religious life. From there, men can choose either the Old College program if they are undergraduates or the candidate program if they are seniors in college or have already graduated.

The Old College program allows those interested in the priesthood to experience Notre Dame’s on-campus life for three years before they move to Moreau for their senior year.

“There was definitely a call in my life to the ministry and priesthood that I could no longer ignore, and Old College gave me the opportunity to answer it without sacrificing an undergrad experience,” Notre Dame junior Jake Grenier said.

After their third year at Old College, the students move into Moreau, where they are joined by older candidates in the program just deciding to join the seminary.

“During the Candidate year, the men get a feel for the life of prayer, study, commitment and apostolic works,” Moreau rector Father Wilson Miscamble said.

The following year – called the novitiate – is spent in an intense, retreat-like environment outside of Colorado Springs, Colo. that features manual labor, prolonged periods of silence and personal prayer and introspection.

After this experience, the men make their first vows and return as the newly-professed to begin theological studies for the Master of Divinity program. Three to four years later, the seminarians petition to become deacons and take their final vows during an ordination ceremony.

This year, six men will enter into the ranks of the Holy Cross community that spans across the globe and is rooted on the banks of St. Joseph’s Lake. For many of them, the journey to the final vows begins at Old College, where young men discern their future under the watch of priests past and present.

Welcome to the ‘O.C.’

“Once at a party in Farley, a girl was looking for a group of Old Collegians that were supposed to come, and when she saw some guys sitting quietly in the corner, she assumed it was them. Turns out they were from Alumni,” laughed Old College freshman Joe Wysocki. “My friend told me that story – it basically sums up how a lot of students of campus see us over here at Old College.”

Seven undergraduates – many of whom have contemplated the priesthood for years – live and study in Old College along with seminarian Tom King and Father Charles Gordon.

According to Grenier, the small group of men with common goals is a great draw to the program.

“There’s a different atmosphere here, like a house. You get to know people on a different level,” added Wysocki.

Like other undergrads, the Old Collegians go through the normal track of courses and majors, but must additionally complete 24 credit hours of philosophy and 12 credit hours of theology. They can join clubs, play on interhall teams and study abroad.

And what about the question on everyone’s mind?

“Dating is a grey area,” Wysocki said. “It’s acceptable and you shouldn’t deny it, but the general rule is you don’t look for it. It’s all part of discernment.”

More stringent parietals, which begin at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, and the restriction of female visitors to the basement and first floor make it harder for the couple as does the Old Collegian’s commitment, said King.

“The goal is to try to work into living the vows, and by the time they get to Moreau, they can’t date,” King said. “Honestly, I would think it’d be more difficult on the person dating the Old Collegian because most times, in the end Jesus wins out.”

Though their families and friends are, as a whole, supportive of their decision, the Old Collegians must deal with misconceptions and ignorance from those who know nothing about the program.

“When I first meet people and say, ‘Hey, I live in Old College!’ I get a lot of ‘What’s that? Who’s that? Where’s that?'” Tucker said. “Honestly, we’re regular students, we do regular things, we have fun too.”

Though regular students at Old College, their lives take an exceptional turn as they make the next step in their journey to priesthood.

Across the pond at Moreau

“This is our ‘Wall of Fame,’ if you will,” said Miscamble, gesturing proudly down the hallway lined with pictures of the seminary’s past ordained.

From among the black and white photos appear such well-known faces as Father Edward Malloy and Father Mark Poorman – constant reminders of the high standard of achievement expected of those living and studying in Moreau.

Centered around what seminarian Greg Haake calls the “three pillars” – common prayer, common table and study – life within the walls of Moreau is a structured combination of introspection and interaction with the other professed and those in the outside community.

For the men in the formation program, Moreau is a place to seek support during what can be a long and trying process.

“It takes serious consideration to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience [that are required of seminarians and priests]. Poverty and obedience are just as hard as chastity. Each day a different one can be difficult,” Haake said. “The support of your brothers helps you live your vows, because you’re all in it together.”

Though the men have the option to quit the program at any time before taking their final vows, the mere prospect of spending years in the prolonged formation program dissuades many from taking the chance.

“The way I see it, formation is sort of like dating. You don’t get married before you date, in the same way you want to live the life before you commit yourself to it,” said Tom Smith, a May 2003 graduate of Notre Dame and new candidate.

The seminarians spoke highly about the feeling of family within the Holy Cross order that drew them to Moreau, and Haake admitted that a visit to Moreau was all it took to alleviate his mother’s reservations about his decision to enter the priesthood.

Life across the lake, however, has its drawbacks as well.

“The single biggest challenge is the fact that it’s institutional living, with a big kitchen and common baths,” Koeth said. “There are times when that can wear on you, even though the sense of family helps make it more of a home.”

Unlike common perception, Moreau is a place for men to discern whether the call to priesthood is right for them, and even those with the slightest question in their mind are encouraged to join.

“If you’re thinking about the priesthood, as Jesus said to Andrew, ‘Come and see,'” Koeth said.