August 21, 2020

After months apart, seminarians gather for prayer, discussion of social issues at annual convocation

Seminarian Jack Wright, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, kneels in prayer during an Aug. 3 Mass in the chapel of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. The liturgy was part of the archdiocesan seminarians’ annual convocation. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Seminarian Jack Wright, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Richmond, kneels in prayer during an Aug. 3 Mass in the chapel of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. The liturgy was part of the archdiocesan seminarians’ annual convocation. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

For years, archdiocesan seminarians have gathered annually in early August in a convocation to pray and share fellowship together before a new year of priestly formation begins in their respective seminaries.

But the future priests of the Church in central and southern Indiana said this year’s convocation felt different.

They had been largely separated and on their own since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic brought supervised ministry and in-person instruction in their seminaries to a halt.

Some seminarians stayed at their seminary in a closed-off, cloister-like setting to slow the spread of the virus. Others lived in parish rectories or returned to their family homes. During the summer, many ministered in parishes. But that ministry was limited—again because of the pandemic.

So, when the archdiocese’s 23 seminarians gathered at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis on Aug. 2-5, just spending time together was a tangible blessing, said seminarian James “JJ” Huber, even if they wore masks and were social distancing.

“With as crazy as everything was and how we left, coming back together now has really been an awesome thing,” said the member of St. Gabriel Parish in Connersville. “You look forward to the convocation more than normal.”

Huber has been a seminarian for a few years now, and will begin later this month the first of the final four years of priestly formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

On the other end of the spectrum, seminarian Sam Hansen is new to priestly formation, transferring this semester as a junior to Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary and the nearby Marian University, both in Indianapolis.

“It’s exciting finally to be in a situation where my active discernment is real,” said Hansen, a member of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis. “I’ve been applying and praying by myself, going to Mass by myself. Finally, I’m in the community and it’s really awesome. I feel like I’ve finally made it to the starting line.”

Hansen had initially considered finishing the studies he began two years ago at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and becoming a seminarian after he had earned a degree there.

The pandemic changed his mind, he said, sharpening his discernment.

“Times like these help you realize the urgency and the great necessity for priests in our society,” said Hansen, a graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “It’s a witness to me for the need for mercy everywhere. And I really want to embody that as soon as possible.”

Father Shaun Whittington spoke about the spiritual and practical lessons he has learned during the pandemic in a presentation to the seminarians on Aug. 3.

The pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Morris and St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County, Father Whittington also is a volunteer firefighter with the Sunman Rural Fire Department and an emergency medical technician with the Sunman Life Squad.

He shared with the seminarians that his perspective on the pandemic both from his priestly vocation and his work as a first responder taught him the importance of resiliency.

“Resiliency should be about our whole life—spiritual as well as the practical things that come up in our lives,” Father Whittington said. “As priests, seminarians and as Catholics, we know what is eternal. We know how to ground our lives, what our anchor point in our lives should be. And we should always be grateful for that.

“With all of the chaos and uncertainty that we face in our modern world, there is one thing that we can have certainty with, and that’s the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus. So, our resiliency is distinctive because it’s rooted in that.”

In addition to dealing with the pandemic, the seminarian convocation took place in the midst of social unrest related to racism in Indianapolis and other cities across the country.

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson reflected on both crises during a homily in a Mass he celebrated on Aug. 3 at Fatima’s chapel.

The Gospel reading for the day’s Mass was the story from St. Matthew’s Gospel of Peter walking on the water to Christ, then sinking when he looked away from Jesus and noticed the winds and the waves and finally Christ saving him.

Archbishop Thompson encouraged the seminarians to keep their eyes focused on Christ amid the hardships of the world and of their own lives.

“There will always be challenges,” he said. “There will always be waves and storms for each one of us in the boat of the Church. The key for us is to remember that there will always be Jesus. That’s what we celebrate here in word and sacrament.

“Wherever we’re at in our journey of faith, in our call to holiness and mission, wherever our discernment may be at this moment, let’s keep our eyes fixed on him. Through word and sacrament, he gives us what we need to know the peace, healing and assurance of salvation.”

On Aug. 4, the seminarians were led in an exploration of racism and how this issue of social justice will affect their ministry now and in the future.

The roundtable discussion was led by St. Joseph Sister Gail Trippett, parish life coordinator of Holy Angels and St. Rita parishes, both in Indianapolis, and Oscar Castellanos, director of the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural Ministry.

While acknowledging that conversations regarding race can cause anxiety, Sister Gail encouraged the seminarians.

“If you are here in this time and this place, in the history of our country and our world, that means that God has planted something inside of you that’s ready for this moment,” she said. “God never calls us to anything that he hasn’t already prepared us for.”

The seminarians gathered in small groups to discuss passages from the

U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” and situations involving race they might encounter in parish ministry.

“The leadership that you’re being called to in the Church means that the light that is inside of you has to step into the darkness so that light becomes light for everyone,” Sister Gail said. “It means challenging yourself to be that courageous person that calls the family of God to represent our Father at the highest level.”

Castellanos acknowledged that leadership on issues related to race can be difficult “because it takes time and it drains you emotionally and spiritually.

“It requires more prayer,” he said, “and abandonment to our Lord … .”

He later reflected that priestly leadership in a parish often involves helping people from many racial and ethnic backgrounds feel connected.

“That’s going to be the issue a lot of times,” Castellanos said. “It’s through encounters, openness, sharing and being vulnerable that God makes those connections.”

Seminarian Nicholas Rivelli, who graduated from Bishop Bruté in the spring and will begin his priestly formation at Saint Meinrad this month, appreciated getting to know how his fellow seminarians felt about racism and its effects on their ministry.

“Having these discussions in the current climate has lifted a huge burden off of my heart,” said Rivelli, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis. “So much of it seems so chaotic. Where do we even begin? But together we brought it down to the concrete.”

Father Eric Augenstein, archdiocesan director of seminarians, said the purpose of the annual convocation is to help prepare the seminarians for ministry in the Church in central and southern Indiana.

“This year, we’re looking at the reality around us in a time of pandemic and social unrest,” said Father Augenstein. “How can we prepare our seminarians for ministry in these settings?”

Simply bringing the seminarians together was important to Father Augenstein to have conversations about these issues facing society and the Church.

“You can’t do formation separated,” he said. “So, just being able to be together has been the most important thing.”

(To learn more about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit

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