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New ‘propaedeutic year’ program at St. Paul Seminary allows aspirants to further discern their calling to the priesthood

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In this undated photo, Jordan Danielson, left, of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minn., and Peter Specht of the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., participate in some classwork as part of their propaedeutic year at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. (CNS photo/courtesy The Catholic Spirit)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As Dominic Wolters takes this year to prepare to fully participate in priestly formation at St. Paul Seminary, he’s growing spiritually and discerning more deeply — and he isn’t missing his Twitter feed that much.

Wolters, a recent University of Minnesota graduate discerning priesthood in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with 15 other seminary aspirants, are the first to go through the seminary’s new propaedeutic year. While fasting from their phones and computers they are focusing on human and spiritual growth, discernment, and living in community in St. Paul.

“If you told me three years ago, ‘Hey Dominic, I think you’d be a great fit to live in a house with a bunch of other guys, talk about your feelings and not use your phone,’ I’d have probably looked at you like you were crazy,” said Wolters, 22, whose home parish is St. Casimir in St. Paul. “But now that I’m living in the house with these men, I really couldn’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing.”

The St. Paul Seminary program is a response to the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy’s 2016 call for a “propaedeutic” preparation stage before traditional seminary formation to foster healthy and holy priests.

It seeks to “help aspirants discern where God wants them to grow and detox from the culture,” said Father John Floeder, the seminary’s director of the propaedeutic year and human formation.

He emphasized the year is designed to help its participants grow in a joyful holiness.

In this undated photo, Anthony Olmes, left, of the Diocese of Helena, Mont., visits with Joshua French and Dominic Wolters, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Vrochta of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minn., and James Semling of the Diocese of Helena at a former convent at the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul, where they are in preparatory formation for the seminary. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

“We want to accompany them, to help them in becoming the man and ultimately the priest (God) wants them to be,” he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “Too often, priestly training can be seen as just skill acquisition rather than authentic and integral growth.”

“Propaedeutic” means “to teach beforehand.” The seminary’s program is facilitated by priests, psychologists and theologians. The participants range in age from 22 to 29. Six hope to study for the archdiocese and the others are from five other dioceses.

Some of the men are new to seminary formation while others are taking a break from seminary academics to discern their call more deeply.

Away from academic demands, aspirants have space to work on their growth together and continue discernment, Father Floeder said.

“The year is to really help ground them and to help them be able to do some real interior work and human work but without feeling like they’re on a conveyor belt being moved toward priesthood,” he said.

To apply for the program, men must have a college degree and be sponsored by their bishop and diocese. Program acceptance requires “extensive vetting,” Father Floeder said, including a full psychological assessment.

Unlike seminarians, whose work includes studying for academic credit, the propaedeutic year participants attend the seminary’s Catechetical Institute as well as sessions on human growth, intellectual life, spiritual growth and discipleship.

They develop habits in daily prayer and Mass while living in a former parish convent in St. Paul. Father Floeder and two St. Paul Seminary transitional deacons live with the aspirants, and share community life.

Secular culture, through social media and technology, can be an obstacle to growth for young people today more than in previous generations, Father Floeder said.

To better hear God’s voice and also form and sustain good habits, aspirants give up their smartphones and computers during the week and typically only use them on Saturdays.

Wolters said not having his phone constantly available can be inconvenient, but the “media fast” has helped his discernment and prayer life. Many of the men have shared they’d rather not have access at all.

Life without media-related distractions has “really kind of pushed us to encounter each other, to engage with each other on a much deeper level than we might initially do right away,” Wolters said. “It’s the sort of thing that’s both challenging but also deeply enriching and just very bracing.”

The men’s life offline is full, with morning and evening prayer, a daily eucharistic Holy Hour and Mass, along with spiritual, human, and intellectual formation sessions. Afternoons include unscheduled time for reading, prayer or outings. They also grocery shop, do chores and prepare some meals.

Community recreation includes board games and arm-wrestling tournaments. They see family and friends during the year and plan to go home for the holidays.

Aspirants meet regularly with their spiritual director and with Father Floeder, and they also minister to Latino Catholic youth and young adults in Minneapolis.

The propaedeutic year helps men identify the priority in their relationship with God and prepare to enter serious formation, said Jeff Cavins, an executive fellow at the seminary who is giving sessions on Scripture and discipleship.

“Men sign up for seminary, but often they haven’t addressed the first question, and that is not ‘are you called to be a priest?’ but ‘are you called to be a disciple?'” he said in a seminary video. “If you try to prepare to become a priest without being a disciple, that could just be a job for you.”

Wolters said he hopes to minister as a priest, but he’s learning about life in Christ in any vocation.

“In many ways,” he said, “this year is focused on providing roots of faith, giving us a strong foundation for whatever state in life God might be calling us to.”

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Klemond writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.