January 13, 2006

2006 Religious Vocations Supplement

Seminarian serves others, grows closer to God
in the outdoors

By Sean Gallagher

Priests are sacramental signs of Christ. Seminarians become acquainted in their priestly formation with the multitude of ways that this identity is lived out.

Over the past year and a half, seminarian Jeremy Gries, a member of Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis, has been doing this at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

One of the unique ways that Gries has learned that he can show Christ to others is through his work in the outdoors.

Gries is the student coordinator of Saint Meinrad’s Cooperative Action for Community Development (CACD). One of the main activities of this program is to distribute firewood split on the seminary’s campus to needy families in Perry, Spencer and Dubois counties in southern Indiana.

“It helps bring in the social justice aspect of being in the outdoors and doing physical labor,” said Gries.

But in addition to giving the love of Christ to others through service, Gries’ leadership in CACD also helps him develop skills that he will need in priestly ministry.

According to Benedictine Father Anthony Vinson, who helps oversee CACD, Gries coordinates the work of CACD’s more than 300 volunteers, which are drawn from both the seminary and the broader community. He also helps determine who receives the firewood that CACD distributes.

But these administrative duties don’t keep Gries from working up a sweat on the Saturdays when the wood is split.

“Part of ministry and of administration is getting in on the action,” Father Anthony said. “He could on Saturday walk around and see what’s going on, but he’s in splitting and he’s a good teacher. He teaches people, whether it’s running a chainsaw or putting things up on a pallet.”

Gries has noticed how his activity in CACD has helped him learn how to communicate with people he’s been charged to lead.

“It’s helped me to realize that not everybody is going to think the way that I do and that just because I think something in my head, I need to articulate that and get that across and try to motivate the people,” he said.

Part of Gries’ interest in working in the outdoors is rooted in his longstanding love of hiking and camping.

From late February to the middle of July in 2001, Gries hiked the entire Appalachian Trail largely by himself. The trail starts in northeastern Georgia and ends in Maine. It is more than 2,100 miles long and winds through 14 states.

Although this adventure happened more than three years before Gries became a seminarian, he had started thinking about the priesthood a few years before when he was studying engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

This discernment continued off and on in the years to come when he was a graduate student at Purdue and during a brief time working for an engineering firm in Indianapolis.

But during all this time, he loved being in the outdoors and found that it brought him closer to God. Gries said this happened for him in a particularly strong and extended way when hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“All of the time [it] was just you and your thoughts,” he said. “You just spend a lot of time thinking about your life and where you were headed and where you were coming from and, for me, how God was playing in that life and how he was directing me. There were a lot of times to think and to pray.”

Gries lived and worked in Indianapolis after completing his graduate studies. He became a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis and spoke about his interest in the priesthood with his pastor, Father Gerald Kirkhoff.

Father Kirkhoff is convinced that Gries would be a good priest.

“I think he’d be a fine priest,” he said. “I really do. I think he’s very dedicated to what he’s doing. But I also think he’s going to be out there in the parish. He’s going to be out with people.”

Gries saw that quality in himself last fall when he went with Father Daniel Atkins to the parishes he leads in Harrison County in the New Albany Deanery. Gries spoke about his priestly formation to the parishioners to help them understand how their contributions to the United Catholic Appeal are used.

“It hit me as I went from Mass to Mass with him how important the people were to me,” he said. “It was nice to be back in a parish setting. The people are very important.”

Whether he is in the outdoors serving people in need or worshipping with people in a parish church, Gries wants to help people understand better the nature of the Church and how much Christ loves them.

“I think if people are brought to that and come to understand it and experience it, their faith will grow and they’ll become more interested in growing in faith and growing in spiritual practices and knowledge of the Church,” he said. “It will have a real impact on their lives.” †


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