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By Sean Gallagher
Aaron Jenkins, a member of St. Mary Parish in Rushville, has been a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis for a year and a half. But in that relatively short amount of time, he has had a significant impact upon his seminary community.
During his first year of studies at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, he sought and was granted permission to establish an art room on the campus, where he and his fellow seminarians could hone their artistic talents.
Jenkins was also instrumental in arranging for a workshop at the seminary on stained-glass, given by German-born artist Markus Strobl, who now resides in Rushville. More than a dozen seminarians participated in it.
These efforts were the fruit of a love for art that has grown in Jenkins from his childhood. It was nurtured as he took art classes in elementary and high school. And it blossomed when he majored in art at Anderson University.
Raised in a family that was a member of a United Church of Christ congregation, Jenkins noted that his interest in art, especially his work in art at Anderson, brought him closer to the Catholic Church.
“It just kind of opened myself up to the possibilities of just learning about God and seeing what his will for my life was,” he said. “It just really broadened my mind so that I was able to start to think about the Catholic Church.”
This curiosity about the Church, which grew slowly over his first three years at Anderson, reached a turning point when he had an internship with Strobl during the summer before his senior year.
He spent much of the summer working with Strobl in a number of Catholic churches, repairing the stained-glass windows.
The time he spent in the churches and the conversations that he had with Strobl, who is Catholic, convinced him of the need to enroll in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults ( RCIA) process at St. Ambrose Parish in Anderson Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese, the following fall.
While he enrolled without having yet been convinced that Catholicism was right for him, it only took a few months of participation for him to come to know where God was leading him.
“It was probably by Christmas that I knew that this wasn’t just an inquisitive thing,” Jenkins said. “It was becoming my own faith and [I was] just realizing that… I had been Catholic all of my life and just was learning that these were the things that I knew that I had believed in and this was the Church that held these beliefs.”
After graduating from Anderson, Jenkins took a job teaching art at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. While there, he met several people who led him to consider a call to the priesthood.
The husband of a fellow teacher had been a seminarian and the pastor of his parish had been a vocations director for many years.
While noting that the idea of ordained ministry had crossed his mind while in RCIA, he said that his experience in Washington was a clear sign.
“Everything was just falling in place,” Jenkins said. “It would almost have been criminal if I didn’t pay attention to what was going on.”
His love of art continues to play an important role in his vocational discernment.
“It’s just a form of thinking for me,” Jenkins said. “I find that when I’m over there in the art studio … I’m able to express myself in ways that I can’t do on a piece of paper or in other ways.
“When I have experiences with God, it seems like images come to mind. So being able to get those images out and to kind of work with them in front of me with my hands, I kind of work through those big questions that I have.”
Jenkins was not alone in his interest in art. Other seminarians were also interested. But he stepped forward as an advocate for the establishment of the art room, even though he had only been a student at Saint Meinrad for a little over a semester.
Benedictine Father Justin DuVall, who was the provost-vice rector of the seminary at the time, appreciated Jenkins’ initiative. Father Justin, interviewed in early December for this article, was elected Archabbot of Saint Meinrad Archabbey on Dec. 31.
“It was his initiative,” he said. “It wasn’t just for himself. From the very beginning, he proposed to me this room for lots of people to come and use.
“I think that it was a way that he was able to, as it were, rouse the troops and know that there was an interest out there among the other students. He kind of stepped forward as a spokesman for that.”
One of the reasons that Father Justin chose to help Jenkins establish the art room was that he thought giving the seminarians an opportunity to delve into the arts would help them grow as human beings.
“I think it broadens their world, for one thing,” Father Justin said. “There is a lot of emphasis on the intellectual preparation for ministry. And that’s extremely important. But it’s not the only area of formation. Human formation as well is important to us. And that helps to round that out.”
How his love of art will be embodied in his own priestly identity—if God is indeed calling him to that vocation—is a mystery that Jenkins is exploring now and will continue to do in the future.
“I’m just kind of starting to work that out right now,” Jenkins said. “It’s something that is just going to develop my whole life, I think.”
In any case, Jenkins knows that art will always be important to him.
“[Art is] just like eating or sleeping or praying,” he said. “It’s something that has to be done in order for me to be living a healthy life.” †