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Diocese of Wilmington seminarian Mark Donohue among those benefiting from pastoral formation at St. Mary’s seminary

St. Mary's Seminary and University seminarian Mark Donohue of the Diocese of Wilmington and University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center Chaplain Judy Hvisc talk in the mediation garden May 11, 2022 at the Towson medical center. (Kevin J. Parks/Catholic Review)

By Gerry Jackson
Catholic Review

Pastoral formation is often seen as on-the-job training for future priests.

But it’s much more than that and continues to evolve, according to Sulpician Father Phillip Brown, president-rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Roland Park, and Father Andrew Baker, president-rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg.

Pastoral formation is one of the four core disciplines of a seminarians’ education along with human, intellectual and spiritual formation.

The pastoral work of the seminarians in parishes, schools, homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons is where a seminarian can develop the passion for how he wants to conduct his life as a priest.

“When the rubber hits the road, it’s about self-discovery and seeing just what their skills are,” said Father Baker, a diocesan priest from Allentown, Pa., and rector of Mount St. Mary’s since 2015. “In their pastoral work, they really see what God has given them, how God wants to use them and find out what they really love about doing his work.”

St. Mary’s Seminary and University seminarian Mark Donohue visits a patient at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson May 11, 2022, as part of the spiritual care team at the Towson medical center. (Kevin J. Parks/Catholic Review)

Father Baker said of the 157 seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s, about 125 have pastoral assignments in which they will participate for four years. They mostly work in the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.; and the dioceses of Arlington, Va., and Harrisburg, Pa.

In addition to parishes, schools and hospitals, some are also assigned to assist and minister at Catholic Charities and tribunals.

“We are trying to form in seminarians an expression of Christ as priests,” Father Baker said. “The emphasis has become much more focused on missionary work and evangelization; reaching out like the apostles. In these times and culture, it’s more and more important to bring the Word to the people.”

The ultimate goal is to develop enriched parish priests, according to Father Baker.

“Pastoral formation is all about developing great parish priests,” he said. “The fruit of all the formation is that he will be a pastor and shepherd of the flock.”

At St. Mary’s, the oldest seminary in the nation, leaders use a team concept to prepare seminarians for the priesthood with faculty and pastors, Father Brown said. The university has 73 seminarians in its in-house School of Theology and all of them have pastoral assignments – one of the signatures of its program, Father Brown said.

Seminarians spend time in a single parish in the first, third and fourth years and do more intense pastoral work at a hospital, prison or charitable site in the second year. The first year is spent mostly observing, the second year is more interactive, the third year is spent in educational programs such as religious education, and the fourth year is spent developing leadership skills.

It’s an intense program of study, introspection and hands-on work.

“These guys really have to hit the ground running when they are ordained priests,” said Father Brown, rector of St. Mary’s since 2016. “It used to be they spent four or five years after ordination as a parish assistant somewhere. We don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Father Baker said the mission is to provide the people of God with the pastors they deserve.

“It’s important that the seminarians develop as humans and leaders,” he said, “and that we try to create that pastoral consciousness. The aim is to build good collaboration and leadership skills. They need to be an animating and consoling presence.”

Seminarian Mark Donohue, a 31-year-old in his second theological year at St. Mary’s Seminary, said his work this past acadmeic year in the Spiritual Care Department at Unversity of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson has helped him toward the priesthood and strengthened his faith.

“Especially this year, I think I’ve experienced the most growth as we learn to give our life for the sake of others,” said Donohue, who earned a degree in business at the University Maryland in College Park before deciding to enter the seminary. “You see some pretty shocking stuff, people dying and suffering. It’s an opportunity to enter into the suffering and accompany people in a compassionate way.”

During his first two years at the seminary, Donohue worked in pastoral formation with Catholic Charities at Our Daily Bread in Baltimore and assisted people with disabilities at Gallagher Services in Timonium.

“At St. Joseph, they really take us under their wing at first, but then cut us loose to grow as we minister to patients and their families,” said Donohue, who grew up as a parishioner of St. Christopher on Kent Island and attended St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis. “We also ministered to the staff, who were having a tough time with the stresses due to the pandemic.”

Donohue, who is on track to be ordained a priest in 2025 for the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., says he is blessed to have had the pastoral experiences.

“It’s really helped me mature and experience my Catholic faith in a deeper and more meaningful way,” he said.

Deacon James Bors, 61, who will be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in June after more than three decades as a businessman and father, said he appreciates the emphasis Mount St. Mary’s puts on pastoral formation.

“It’s important for seminarians to get to know just what life as a priest is like,” said the Naval Academy graduate and St. Andrew by the Bay, Annapolis, parishioner. “It was very enlightening for me. I was very active in my parish for three decades, but I didn’t have a lot of direct experience with what it was like to serve as a priest.”

Deacon Bors served his pastoral year at St. John in Westminster and also served at St. Bernardine in Baltimore, Our Lady of Grace in Parkton and St. Peter in Libertytown. In addition, he taught 11th- and 12th-grade theology at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown and organized college evangelization trips for other seminarians.

“Mount St. Mary’s  does a good job of preparing you for the entire experience of what it is going to be like in life as a priest,” said Deacon Bors, who will begin his work as a priest in the pastorate of Our Lady of the Chesapeake and St. Frances de Chantal in Pasadena.

He noted the importance of learning the administrative and financial aspects of running a parish.

Michael Boris, a 26-year-old from Dallas, Pa., who is scheduled to be ordained to the transitional diaconate in May for the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., said seminarians enjoy the pastoral formation experience. The former Kings College student who has been studying at St. Mary’s for four years spent the past year working with Father Bill Keown at Our Lady of Victory in Arbutus.

“The pastoral work is very reinvigorating,” Boris said. “It might be required work, but I think most of the guys really enjoy it.”

Boris said he particularly liked sharing what he has learned at seminary while leading an RCIA class.

“It’s an enjoyable experience to impart what you’ve learned to others,” he said.

St. Mary’s Seminary recently received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment that it is using to bolster its pastoral formation process. The seminary is developing two new courses with part of the funds – one on the theory of pastoral leadership and one on pragmatic skills of pastoral work.

“The grant helps support and aligns with what we are already trying to do,” Father Brown said. “We will be engaging administrators and faculty members to serve on a team to reinvigorate pastoral studies.”

Email Gerry Jackson at gjackson@CatholicReview.org