WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Seminarian Kristopher Schmidt rises daily at 5:15 for personal prayer before launching on his daily path of prayer, study and service.
Through high school and until his third year of university, Kristopher Schmidt had plans to become a medical doctor. But when he realized God was calling him to the priesthood, he promptly traded the stethoscope for a Bible.
Schmidt, 24, is one of 27 men from across the West currently discerning their priestly vocation at St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton.
"I'm in my third year at the seminary and my second year of theology. If everything goes according to plan, I'll be ordained three years from now," the St. Albert man said in a recent interview.
Like the rest of the seminarians, Schmidt lives in the seminary residence and spends his days praying, attending Mass, studying theology, playing sports and doing volunteer work at a parish.
Most seminarians do their theological studies at Newman Theological College, located just a few metres north of the seminary. A couple of 19-year-old seminarians and one 18-year-old are studying philosophy at Concordia University College.
"What they try to do here for us is to get us ready for the diocesan priesthood," Schmidt explains. "They are trying to create a life of prayer for us because people like myself didn't have much of a prayer life before coming to the seminary and to place the Mass as kind of the most important part of your day."
The day of a seminarian begins with Morning Prayer at 6:30 a.m. followed by Mass. Weekdays have the seminarians attending classes and studying before reuniting for Evening Prayer at 5:15 p.m. and supper. On Thursdays, a longer prayer session begins at 4:30.
On Monday afternoon, seminarians participate in a rector's conference, where the seminary rector talks about some aspect of priestly formation.
On Saturday, seminarians have rosary at 11 a.m. and Mass at 11:30 a.m. Evening Prayer is on their own.
Sunday is a free day and seminarians can attend Mass at a parish assigned to them. If they don't have one, they are free to go to any parish.
Seminarians also have a weekly holy hour and a pastoral placement where they perform some ministry in a parish.
Schmidt's pastoral placement is at Our Lady of Fatima Parish working with the Portuguese community. He is also president of the students' association at Newman College.
He rises daily at 5:15 a.m. "so that I have some time to do a little bit of personal prayer before we start (the day)."
Friday is special because seminarians have a 4 p.m. community meeting where they discuss the activity at the seminary. Later, each class meets with its group and talks about one aspect of formation.
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Seminarians like Matthew Hysell are encouraged to use the seminary’s fitness room.
"In my group, the senior group, our leader will talk about how to celebrate Mass, how to hear Confession and how to strengthen our prayer life," explained Matthew Hysell, a 33-year-old partially deaf Michigan native who is studying for the Edmonton Archdiocese. "Because we are close to ordination, he tries to give us an idea of what's expected of us.
"Then we have Evening Prayer in our group together in the formation lounge."
"It is a very heavy schedule," Hysell says. "Generally when you are in graduate school, you should only take three courses. But here in the seminary they give us a full schedule because the formation team wants us to learn how to operate under a wide number of obligations.
"When we are in the parishes as priests there are going to be (heavy) demands on our time. So our time here at the seminary is designed to see if we can do that and to train us to be able to spread ourselves out appropriately across our different responsibilities."
But he is not complaining. "I can tell you that I am very happy here," he said. "We have a very good formation team. We have a wonderful community of seminarians."
Hysell generally goes to bed at midnight and wakes at 5:45 a.m. to get ready for Morning Prayer. He sleeps just over five hours a day, although he sometimes takes a nap during the day.
He did his pastoral year at St. Theresa's Parish and remembers working 10 to 12 hours a day. "We need to be able to learn how to balance our time, our obligations and at the same time we have to be accountable to ourselves for our health and well-being."
Which is why seminarians are encouraged to use the fitness room and to play sports weekly in the gym of St. Kevin School across the street. On Monday night they have soccer, on Tuesday night, hockey, and on Wednesday night, badminton.
"Physical activity is important for me in my life so I try to go to the fitness room a few times a week, trying to stay in shape," Schmidt said.
Seminarians also have a lounge where they watch movies or play videogames if they wish. Friday evening is community night with a joint activity after supper.
"Sometimes we will play games; sometimes we will go to a bowling alley together; sometime we would just take a tour of some pastoral place," explained Hysell. "Social life here is encouraged but because of our schedule, it's limited. The formation team wants us to have a healthy social life."
Added Schmidt: "We don't get to kind of just hang out with each other recreationally during the week.
"So when we get to the weekend, on a Saturday night, we like to sit around and chat and just talk about what's going on instead of having to always be focused on doing some activity. On the odd occasion we go out to a pub and have a pint but we stay away from the clubs - those are too great a source of temptation."
While most seminarians do their pastoral placement in a parish, Hysell and seminarian Paul Blair are doing theirs at the Edmonton Institution, which they visit on Monday nights.
"We have three Liturgies of the Word usually and we just spend quality time with the inmates," Hysell said. "I've worked in parishes for about 10 years and the formation team decided it was time for me to experience something different."
Schmidt has been at the seminary for two-and-a-half years and in that time he's seen maybe 10 seminarians leave.
"It is just part of the process of discernment," he says. "The priesthood is not for everyone and if everyone got through, the seminary wouldn't be doing its job.
"No formation is lost; if a guy decides that the priesthood is not for him, the formation he gets here will help him be a better Christian man when he gets back into his parish."
No one has a "vocation" to be a seminarian, said Hysell in an email following an interview. "A seminary is a place of transition, usually 'on the way' to Holy Orders. But for some people it is also a place 'on the way' to the discovery of a vocation of being a committed layperson, or even a vocation to the religious life."
The challenges of seminary life are designed to do two things, Hysell added. "They are designed to test us to see if we have a vocation. It's also designed to equip us with the skills that we need to serve the Church.
"If you truly love the Church and God really does call someone to become a priest, then I think we are more willing to accept those challenges."
What's most fulfilling for Schmidt is that in his time at St. Joseph's his relationship with God has grown exponentially and he has come to a greater love and appreciation for his people.
The most challenging aspect of being a seminarian is that he is doing something "totally different from what everybody expects."
"When you become an adult you become married, you have children, you have a job, you have a career and you do all those things.
"What are we doing? Well, we are not getting married, we don't have a real job and we are not living up to the expectations other people might have of us."
Even if there is no direct pressure to leave, there is always the human desire to fit in, he says.
Challenges aside, Schmidt says he enjoys seminary life.
"I'm very happy with how I see my faith life growing," he said. "I'm happy with the ministry that I'm involved in, I'm happy here at the seminary with the guys that are here and the formation team.
"But just like anybody in any state of life you have your different things that you struggle with and different things you have to deal with along the way and those are the things that I need to deal with before I can discern if I'm called to the priesthood."