Young seminarians find joy in religious life

By Eli Francovich
The Gonazaga Bulletin

On the “ideal morning,” Louis Cunningham wakes up before 7 a.m. The 19-year-old freshman goes to chapel and prays before he is joined by other young men for morning prayer. Then they eat breakfast together head to Gonzaga.

This willingness to give up something that most 19-year-old freshmen consider holy and mostly untouchable — sleep — is what Cunningham’s life is all about: sacrifice. He says that “small things done out of love” can change the whole world.

Priest collar/Flickr photo by quinn.anya

Cunningham is one of 13 seminarians at Bishop White Seminary. These men live and pray together, while simultaneously attending college. Although there are undeniable similarities between the men of Bishop White — a love for God and a willingness to live that love every day —  they are by no means identical.

“No two stories are the same, especially in the seminary,” Cunningham said.

BWS was founded in 1952 by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane. Named after the second bishop of the Spokane Diocese, it’s a diocesan priest seminary, which means it is where priests who want to work in the community come to study. Despite its close proximity to GU (across the street from College Hall) it’s a separate institution, according to the Rev. Steven Dublinski, rector of Bishop White Seminary.

Dublinski, who has been rector for eight months, said however, that GU and the seminary have a close working relationship. The university gives seminarians a tuition break of around 20 percent. The seminary also buys its electricity from GU and is part of the university’s phone network. Not all seminarians attend GU, but Dublinski said the goal is that eventually they will all graduate with a degree in philosophy from there.

“It’s a little like living in two different worlds,” Justin Leedy, another seminarian, said.

This constant switch is vital to becoming a diocesan priest, he said. It trains them to keep their life focused on God, while interacting in the community on a daily basis.

“It’s hard, because it’s really easy to become two different people — to compartmentalize — and that is something that we’re warned against often,” Leedy said. “The temptation in priesthood is to go between, you know, sitting at home drinking booze, watching TV and then going out and putting on a pious face.”

Dublinski said the main goals of the seminarian life are to engage in ministry that will help seminarians to discern their vocation, to provide service to the community and to build leadership skills. This mix teaches them how to balance their lives, much like a diocesan priest does.

Cunningham is relaxed as he sits, sipping something, which turns out to be hot water (his Lent sacrifice: anything and everything not water). He has short light-brown hair, which is slightly parted. He is 19 years old but seems much older. The hustle and bustle of Starbucks on a Monday night doesn’t disturb his mannered composure, nor deter him from talking candidly about his faith. Cunningham, who is from Renton, emphasizes the importance of appearing normal and being able to relate and function in the broader world. He said the constant back-and-forth movement that seminarian life demands will only help.

“It’s great for discernment because I’m able to actually address the real world,” he said. “At Gonzaga I can address marriage, which is a good thing. I can see happy couples and be like, that’s beautiful.”

Cunningham said he suspected he wanted to be a priest in the eighth grade. This suspicion didn’t keep him from having a normal high school experience though, he said.

“You know, I didn’t go to raves, I didn’t do crazy things, but I was a high school kid,” Cunningham said.

He dated, he said, “the nicest woman I ever met,” but always felt drawn to something different, prompting him to enroll as a seminarian two years ago.

This life of sacrifice might seem strange when viewed from the outside. However, those involved are happy with their chosen lives.

“There is something deeper; there is something more real than the next party,” Cunningham said.

This belief seems to be echoed by those who have stuck with their commitment.

Sister Mary Eucharista of the Sisters of Mary Mother and the Church is full of joy. A graduate philosophy student at GU, she has been a nun for 30 years. Although the decision to become a nun was difficult, she said, she hasn’t regretted it.

“It broke my heart,” she said, “because I had a lot of plans.”

Eucharista, who taught literature at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Spokane, now lives at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center. The retreat center is located south of Spokane, surrounded by fields and woods, and is a peaceful place. Her day, like the seminarians’, starts early.

Although it’s a stressful schedule, she loves every moment of it, she said.

“I’m so excited getting my education,” she said. “I don’t care about the stress.”

Although overall she said she thinks that GU does a good job of transmitting its Catholic-Jesuit roots, she does think the message needs to be more evenly distributed.

“I’m pretty unique,” she said. “I’m shouting Jesus Christ all over me.”

But for students who want to deepen their faith, she encourages them to get “spiritual direction” from someone in Campus Ministries, or even talk to her.

“I think kids are seeking but don’t always have answers,” she said.

Jeffrey Ball, 24, has a similar view. A public affairs graduate from Seattle University, he is working at Gonzaga Preparatory School and living in the Jesuit housing on campus. Unlike the Bishop White seminarians, Ball is a Jesuit novice. This means, among other things, that he takes a vow of poverty in addition to vows of chastity and obedience.

“To me this life really makes sense,” he said. “There is a certain depth … it is very grounding.”

The enrollment at Bishop White is a decrease from last year, Dublinski said. However, it’s not a significant drop and overall seminary enrollment is steady. In the last 30 years, he said, there have been at most 20 to 21 seminarians. According to an 2011 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, seminary enrollment has actually increased nationwide by 4 percent. All told there are 3,608 post-baccalaureate U.S. seminarians in 2011. Three-quarters of those enrolled were studying for the diocesan priesthood.

Eli Francovich is a sophomore at Gonzaga University. After graduating from high school he traveled extensively in India and Europe. These trips opened his eyes to vastly different types of people and cultures and infused within him a deep respect and enjoyment of diversity. He was managing editor of the award-winning North Idaho Community College student newspaper, The Sentinel, and currently writes for the Gonzaga Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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