The Diocese of Trenton held their annual seminarian retreat for those men in the process of discerning the call to the priesthood at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Elberon, NJ from July 20 – July 24. The Monitor which is the newspaper for the diocese was invited to some of the events on July 23, and I was blessed to receive the assignment to represent them as a correspondent at this event.
The Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, David O’Connell was scheduled to celebrate Mass and spend the day with the seminarians on Thursday, and Wednesday night the news of his mother’s passing at the age of 89 was released. I was unsure of what to expect when I arrived at Stella Maris in the morning, and those working there shared that sentiment in telling me that the Bishop may not attend.
A short time later, we learned that the Bishop would be making the trip Stella Maris to spend the day with the men preparing for the priesthood. It was this dedication by the Bishop coupled with the fact that he had relationships with many of the seminarians that began my thinking about connections.
Father Michael Whalen, the retreat master, or as he told me he rather be known as the “retreat facilitator”, went to the seminary at the same time as Bishop O’Connell and the two were roommates at one point in the process. That connection has lasted over thirty years.
The connections between the seminarians was evident as well especially in the down time between the activities and particularly with the men who have been in the process for several years. Several of them spoke of that bond as one of “brotherhood” or “comradery” and referred to the importance of spending time with men who “will be fellow priests in the Diocese of Trenton together for the rest of their lives”. It is that type of commitment which is under scrutiny by our secular society a commitment to anything for a lifetime, as evidenced by the societal view of marriage.
I spoke about that with Father Whalen and he agreed, “Our culture is mired in secularism so the commitment to God and to celibacy are challenging for these men because our culture is cynical about that and cynical overall”. We also spoke about the connection of the Bishop and the seminarians, “He’s unique. Ideally that should be the role of the Bishop. Your Bishop is very hands on”.
Father Whalen and I spoke about the connection between the seminarians and the local parishes, he said: “These men are more involved in parish life than my generation. They’re much more plugged in than we were.” He made a good point about how they will be better prepared when they become priests because of that experience on the parish level during their formation.
Bishop O’Connell spoke about the connection between preparation and being ready to succeed at a particular job. The Bishop referenced a doctor without the proper medical training, a lawyer without background in the Constitution, or a dentist without the proper schooling all being negative for society. In the same way he was encouraging the seminarians that all of the years of preparation have a purpose and will provide them with the proper preparation to serve God and God’s people.
I made a connection with a seminarian, Jim Smith, who is about halfway through his formation journey to being a priest. We spoke for a while about the elements of the workshops at the retreat. I then mentioned that I had recently received some opportunities that changed the course of where I thought certain things in my life were going in the short term. He then said something wonderful, “God has a plan for our lives, its amazing the difference between our plans, the way we think our life should go, and God’s plan” that ties into my most recent commentary piece about Hurricane Sandy recovery in Union Beach.
In that piece, I wrote about the importance of discerning God’s plan for our lives, and my attempt to connect with that message by going to Union Beach and gaining a new perspective on my own life.
In the days prior to my assignment, I was given some background on the retreat and I learned that the group contained four men in their first year of the seminary. One of those four newcomers, Ray Patsky, made a connection with me in that he saw during a break in between sessions that I was looking to speak with one of the members to gain information for my feature article. Ray is a local guy to the area where I grew up, so we had a lot in common. I asked how he got on the path to the priestly vocation and he explained that it was through a program at his parish.
His parish participated in the Spiritual Adoption of the Unborn Child and Ray got involved with setting it up and organizing members of his parish around this effort. Those who are unfamiliar can gain valuable further information at www.godslittlelamb.org and it was during this process where he gained the insight that he was being called to the priestly vocation. It was “part of his journey” as he put it and he went through a discernment period which lasts nine months. In that program he visited a new parish each month for nine months. Ray was very interested in how diverse the Diocese of Trenton was from the cultural perspective as well as the differences in the land area. It includes rural, urban, mountain and beach areas which present new and unique challenges in each circumstance for the parishes in the diocese. He was very outgoing and personable I could see God’s talents at work within him.
I made another connection while walking down a hallway with Jim Smith at the Stella Maris center, I noticed a plaque on the wall to Saint Katherine Drexel. The house and the grounds were, at one time, the summer home of the Drexel family and it is there where Saint Katherine was thought to have discerned the decision to become a nun, and the rest is history. My connection is that my family prayed to Saint Katherine Drexel while my mother battled with cancer for four years. My mom was being treated in Philadelphia, where Saint Katherine and the Drexel family kept their primary residence. I was not aware that Stella Maris was formerly the summer home for the second American saint. I shared the story with Jim Smith, who showed me some rooms saying this “would have been the foyer” where the Drexel family would have greeted guests. It was an amazingly unexpected connection to make.
After the celebration of Mass, Bishop O’Connell approached me and provided me with the text of his homily to the seminarians for use in my article. I thanked him and also offered my condolences on the loss of his mother, explaining that I had lost my mother years ago. I could see that he was suffering and he replied, “You understand what I am going through”. He went on to explain that while others have expressed sorrow and he appreciated that, he knew that I understood what he was feeling. We made a connection over a shared experience. We also talked about my parish and the priests there and what a truly blessed place the parish community is at Saint Mary Mother of God parish.
It was time for lunch and I made connections with several of the seminarians. Some knew my pastor from their time at other parishes, some knew a newly ordained priest who came from my home parish, and others knew people from St. Catherine’s, which is another local church my wife and I attend at points as well. One of the seminarians, Roy, mentioned that he was going to be staying at St. Catherine’s rather than going home for a few weeks. We connected over the shared experience of knowing certain people which helped my interviews with them for the feature story I submitted on the event.
I had some time in between a session they were in privately, and I was waiting in a room with some windows overlooking the beach. I began talking to a lady who was there because she worked with the diocese and Father Thomas Vala came walking through, and immediately came over to see me and say hello. Father Thomas was assigned to a parish my wife and I were a part of when we lived on the beach before Hurricane Sandy. He helped us get through some challenging times in dealing with being displaced from our home and with trying to determine where God wanted us to be in our lives. Father Thomas got transferred to a parish close to Trenton, and it ends up that was the parish this lady I was speaking with attended, so we all had a common connection.
It just so happened that Father Thomas had to preside over a funeral in the area near the retreat house, and he decided to drop by and see someone there before heading to my former parish where he was going to say hello to some former co-workers. I believe that our paths were supposed to cross that day, and it was great to see him again.
Then, this past Saturday evening, my wife and I were talking about my assignment covering the retreat and the progress I was making on the feature article (which was due on Monday) and we decided to go to St. Catherine’s for the Vigil Mass because we were at a local park nearby. We sat down and just as Mass was starting, in comes the seminarian I mentioned before, Roy, he sat two rows in front of my wife and I. During the handshake of peace, he saw me and remembered my name and gave me a big smile, we had made a connection. After Mass, we spoke with the pastor there and Roy and he was able to meet my wife and we talked about the retreat and his plans for the time he would be staying there.
In life there are no coincidences, and that is what I thought about again that evening as my wife and I drove home, the lasting connections that we make through seemingly every day routine situations. It is important that we make and keep these connections, it will serve as a reminder of how truly blessed we are for each day we are given in this life.