Ce mois-ci, nous avons interviewé 2 séminaristes aux parcours très différents mais tous les deux appelés à la prêtrise: Gerardo Vázquez, 41 ans, ancien ingénieur aéronautique à la NASA qui sera ordonné prêtre le 4 juin 2022 à San Jose et Benjamin Condon, 24 ans, entré au séminaire à 18 ans et qui sera ordonné prêtre dans 3 ans. Ils nous confient les joies et les difficultés de leur vie au séminaire, leur vision de leur futur rôle de prêtre, conscients des challenges et des grandes grâces qui les attendent!
L'interview (en anglais)
CATHOSV: Hello and thank you for sharing this evening with us! Could you please start by introducing yourselves?
GV: Hi! I am Deacon Gerardo Vázquez, from the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I was born in Mexico, raised in Fresno California and I moved to the Bay Area in 2001. I studied aerospace engineering. I worked for NASA, Lockheed Martin and Pratt and Whitney for about 12 years. I got the call and entered the seminary at 33 years old. Actually I entered the seminary at the same time as your pastor, Fr Robain Lamba! Today I am a transitional Deacon and I will be ordained on June 4 of this year.
Fr Robain and I entered the seminary in the same year but I actually took a year off, because I wasn't sure what particular diocese I was called to. I traveled a year to Mexico because I have an uncle who was a priest down there. And then I traveled to Rome. I studied there for about six months . After traveling for a while, I realized that “thank God I'm called to the priesthood still”, but specifically in San Francisco. So I came back!
BC: Hi! I am Benjamin Condon, from the diocese of Sacramento. I graduated from High School in 2006. I entered the seminary just after High School at 18 years old. That was in 2016 and I spent four years at a seminary in Oregon called Mount Angel seminary.
It is a beautiful seminary attached to a Benedictine monastery founded in 1880. I entered the college seminary there and I graduated with a degree in philosophy. That's the prerequisite for anybody who wants to enter seminary without a college major in theology. For example Deacon Gerardo already had a degree so he entered something called pre theology, which means he just got a certificate of philosophy and then moved on to study theology.
I arrived at St Patrick seminary in 2020 and I am 3 years away from ordination! In total I will have spent 9 years at the seminary.
CATHOSV: That’s a lot!
BC: It is a way of putting it! They really are trying to make sure you are ready.
GV: It's like being engaged for a very long time or dating someone for very long before you actually get married!
BC: There is all of the maturing that needs to happen and all of the spiritual preparation, mental preparation and all the academic studies!
CATHOSV: Tell us a little bit more about your studies, how many classes do you take as a seminarian?
BC: I have 6 classes and 7 periods. Each period is either 50mn or 75mn, it certainly keeps you busy! Every Wednesday is off but we still have morning prayers, so very little free time! To keep up with everything takes a lot. I mean, just within this month, I'll have 30 pages worth of papers to write.
AV: Some students have field education, this means they go to either a parish, or like Catholic Charities or St. Vincent De Paul or other Catholic organizations that are in the area. They spend four hours roughly. As a deacon, I don't have that, but I go to a parish and serve as a deacon and have to be at the parish for at least 24 hours per weekend. So on top of my classes that I'm doing that.
CATHOSV: Benjamin you entered the seminary at 18 years old, just after High School. How were you introduced to Philosophy and Theology? These subjects are not taught in High Schools in the United States?
BC: It is true that in the public school system in the United States, they have toned down most of the arts and philosophy with a bigger focus on STEM, science, technology, engineering, mathematics. I grew up in a special high school program called the “Great Books program”. It means that my High School studies was reading ancient Western philosophy, all the way from the Greeks, the Romans and the medieval ages. That was a private program in High School.
GV: When I entered seminary, as an engineer, I was quite prepared and I was able to double major and apply for honors. I was actually able to use all of my studies. It was great, I loved it. I really enjoyed the time I got to dig into a topic. When there's a topic, it's similar to how an engineer approaches a problem. I mean, you could talk about this. It's not necessarily that you have a situation and you call it a problem, and you don't know what to do with it. No, it's a situation where you have a solution and you want to see how it applies. And so I love that.
CATHOSV: It looks like the seminarists here have a great variety of backgrounds, interests and careers, can you tell us more about it?
GV: It is true that most of the seminarians had work experience before arriving here. With all different kinds of backgrounds: lawyers, engineers, state senators, nurses, doctors and even an opera singer and a colonel who worked at the Pentagon! It is great to meet so many different people. Each one brings his own expertise, for example when we have to organize an event or a retreat. And we used to organize and host many big events before the pandemic, for the celebration of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, ST Patrick, Korean martyrs, and our annual Gala.
BC: That's so great, it's the coolest thing. When I entered seminary I was right out of high school with very little experience … about anything really. At the seminary, I meet guys who are league lawyers who are construction workers. I met a guy who was a site engineer, he would organize the construction of these 678 storey tall buildings, these million dollar projects, and here he is in seminary and he's just like another guy, you know. And so here I am, and just hanging out with these guys in the back patio, and they’re just talking about these stories.
CATHOSV: Can you talk a little bit about how all those different experiences impact the life of the community here?
BC: Oh, yeah, very easily. All of the guys bring their own experience. So when we have events, the seminary guys will bring their expertise in one way or another. Once a month, we would go on some outdoor excursions, we go hiking, we go skiing, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and a big part of that is the organization. We put on retreats for like a third of the seminary. So 50 guys come and join us on these events, and the seminarians are all in charge of organizing that. And so for me coming out of high school, I had very little experience in how to organize an event for 50 people. And these guys are stepping up using the skills that they know. For example, there's a few of the guys who studied music. One of the guys here is an opera singer, he is able to use his talents and liturgy all the time. That really adds to the beauty of what the seminary has.
GV: I'm actually involved with the “Institute for Advanced physics”. Archbishop Corleone asked me to get involved with the group. And now I'm an associate member. Science is my background, but combining it with theology makes it really great. Combining faith and science reality is much needed. The Archbishop also gives me permission. We just recently had a retreat with the Archdiocese and the military services, so I got permission to become a military chaplain as well. So after three years of being ordained, in the military, in the Archdiocese, I could go into the military branch, in the Navy. So it's really, really great. I have worked 12 years with the military, so I am pretty used to that environment. The fact that I'm going into that now as a future priest, that is pretty awesome.
CATHOSV: We could imagine that you live in a “closed world” without getting out of this place and without any link with the society around, but it doesn’t seem like it!
BC: It is not but it can feel like a closed world only because of how busy it can be here! We go out on a regular basis, we serve some charities and parishes. Every Wednesday I go out to help with ministries. And you, Deacon, are part of this Institute of science, it is a way also for the church to be present in the decisions that are made in the world. Sciences and ethics I can imagine. So it's not a closed world!
GV: There are also many events that are happening here. For example, the feast of San Lorenzo Luis, who is the patron saint of the Philippines, the Celebration of Our Lady of Guadeloupe which is huge event, the feast of St. Patrick's or the Korean martyrs and the Annual fundraising event. We welcome people from outside for all of these celebrations. Before the pandemic, we would have hundreds of people visiting. It's always a beautiful thing, the seminarian life is very open.
CATHOSV: What do you enjoy the most in your life as a seminarian?
BC: I do enjoy my studies a lot, even if it is a lot and even if it is difficult!! I also enjoy the fraternity that we are all able to build up here. There's a great camaraderie that can be built up very quickly. I've made a lot of friends with some of my outdoor activities that I enjoy. When we have a free weekend, we will drive to Tahoe, go skiing, and then drive back in time for classes. And so, the adventures that I get to have, it's a lot of fun.
GV: My favorite time is Adoration, spending time in the large main Chapel. Especially when I am there alone, such a beautiful place for yourself! I also enjoy the Gym and the pool, we are spoiled here. You can get a little cuckoo but that's just kind of nature, everything's really provided here.
CATHOSV: When you get out, the rupture with this fraternity on one campus, must be something. Is there an “after community”?
BC: Yes and No. I wouldn't say there is something so structured as a seminary program once we are ordained. But there are small groups, small prayer groups that priests will form that builds paternity amongst each other. Also, the friendships you form in seminary, oftentimes are very lifelong. And so even after you're ordained, you'll keep up with those friendships. I have been told though, that for some guys who've been ordained for a long time, they mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of recently being ordained, is the struggle to have that fraternity after such a direct stop to it all, like what you were mentioning.
GV: Because we spend so much time together, it's a big shock. It will take some time for sure. I think that's probably why they ask us to spend 24 hours per week at a parish, just to get used to it.
BC: I'm sure that many priests that you know, are probably alone out there. You can be very sure that they have a group that they meet with, at least once a month. For the priests who recognize the strength of that fraternity continuing past seminar, they will even meet twice or three times a month.
CATHOSV: It's so important for them because a lot of people feel alone in their job. Having that fraternity can help them feel community.
BC: Even when I was in high school, you know, I had those friends I wanted to hang out with and it was a bummer when I couldn't hang out with them. You're having a nice time and suddenly, you're not hanging out together. And maybe it's more difficult to focus or maybe you're thinking like “Oh man, I really wish I was around that person right now. I really enjoyed that time with them”. And you can imagine that this could be very easily transitionable to a priest.
GV: As a priest, you are surrounded by a lot of people. And yet you can still feel alone. The important part of it is just being able to have those good relationships, healthy relationships, even with your parish family. It is important to make sure you're always available for them. Some people have their families around within their own diocese. I'm getting ordained for San Francisco but my family is in Fresno, that's about three hours away from here. It will be tough for me, but I'll travel back and forth. Priests generally get at least one day off, which is healthy, I think. But as you can imagine, Sundays are extremely busy. Especially during the Lent or Christmas season, so while people are out with their families, priests are really busy in the parish. And so that those are the moments where fraternity is essential.
CATHOSV: Would you say there is good mental health support for priests, if they want it?
BC: If they want it, yes. Unfortunately, I think some priests can isolate themselves. Because when you get older, there's that sense of “I'm just used to me, like this way of life and I don't want to change” and that's not very healthy. Just like you can get stuck in a marriage! The healthier way would be to make sure you do interact, you maintain your friendships, and reach out if you need any help.
CATHOSV: Would you say there's like a stigma around mental health of priests?
BC: No, I wouldn't say so. I think there is certainly the sense of independence that is needed. And if you're not able to practice a certain amount of independence it can be a problem. But when the priest needs help with one thing or another, when he's struggling with isolation or loneliness, it is pretty obvious, think of how much of a public figure he is. There's usually a lot of support available for the priest. Quite a lot. I think the older you get, and the more isolated you become, that's when it gets worse.
GV: There has been a survey “in which careers are people the happiest”? Priests are actually number one, surprisingly. Because they're doing what they're called to do. So it's not absolutely perfect, you know, like anything, like even in marriage, right?
CATHOSV: It is certainly mission driven by a mission that you firmly believe in, so that makes you happy. I mean, that works in business as well as in life!
GV: When you're doing something that is more than just a job, that's your entire being, it's your life, and you live that out completely, with joy. That's when you feel more fulfilled. There are some that may get tired. For example, if there are not enough priests, there can be somewhat of a burnout. That’s why we need to pray for vocations. That's why we prayed the Rosary today at Vespers. From 1964 to 2004, which is 40 years, 70,000 priests left the priesthood, but the number of Catholics have actually doubled.
CATHOSV: What are the most difficult aspects of your life as a seminarian, your main struggles?
BC: The biggest struggle for me is to combine all the dimensions of our seminarian life: the academic dimension (studies), the spiritual dimension (how you are growing in your relationship to Christ), our prayer life (intercession), our pastoral mission (ability to minister) and our human formation (how we grow in virtue). Integrating all these dimensions, that is the plan. It is a struggle to do all that together. When you have a lot of papers to write then you have less time Keep everything in a balance is the difficult part.
GV: Being a Deacon, I have been through most of all that, so this integration is easier for me. I always focus on God. For example, I am used to pray before and after my studies, it has become a habit. In my interactions with people, I used to overanalyze a lot, I am an engineer, a very analytical person! Because I am aware of that, I know that I have to listen more to the voice of Christ, asking myself how can I really help this person, understanding the human person in a deeper way, instead of over analyzing. It is difficult for me but it has become beautiful.
CATHOSV: Many managers go through leadership programs in their companies. As future priests, are you having any training in leadership or management? A priest has the absolute leadership role!
BC: No, not explicitly. We are trained on how to lead the ministries of the sacraments or how to lead a confession for example. But when it comes to managing a community, a budget, I think we do not have enough management training. Seminarians should constantly observe and ask questions to people who are doing these jobs, comparing and learning on the job! As soon as you are ordained, I heard that many problems will arrive! And you wish you would have a little more practice ;-)
GV: It is true that a pastor is like a mini CEO, with many people to take care of, and a doctor of many souls! Having worked in the industry for 12 years, it is very helpful to have benefited from these leadership and finances experiences. I think it is easier for pastors who had work experience prior to seminary. But leadership can certainly be learned and I definitely wish for more leadership training here. A way of progressing is also to get involved in projects here at the seminary, such as big event organizations. You learn a lot when you take these roles.
CATHOSV: Having said that, isn’t Jesus Christ the best school of Leadership?
BC: Yes, implicitly though. Many classes and conferences we have here bend towards the idea of “what you are learning you got to be able to share”. We are practicing teaching, the ability of presenting in front of many people. What is a homelie, if not a big presentation!
GV: Some bishops work on the gap between the older priests and the younger priests. They implement mentorship programs. We focus a lot on the academics during our time at the seminary because we won’t have much time to study after our ordination. And we need to be ready, especially here in California where people are very well educated and ask very deep and good questions. It is very helpful to have this mentorship for more practical questions, we can ask questions about how to deal with conflict management, different council groups, and mental illness for example. If you are open to learning you can learn a lot!
BC: Another challenge is to get the right people on the staff, to know how to lay off people if they do a really bad job. It is difficult to fire people, especially if they have been there for a long time. It requires a lot of experience and a lot of training.
CATHOSV: What are the sacrifices that you make by choosing to become a seminarian and a priest? How do you deal with them?
GV: First, naturally, entering the priesthood, you sacrifice the possibility of getting married. As a transitional deacon, directed to priesthood, I chose to give my entire person to God. My entire energy, my entire person. It is not just a 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM kind of job. It is like becoming a dad or a mom, you are on 24/7. You don’t stop being a priest. My sacrifice is marriage and having children, which is something you really need to discern because if you went to priesthood because you didn’t want children, it is not necessarily a good thing. You should not run away from something.
You know, I was about to get engaged before entering the seminary. But God kept calling me, to love him in an infinite way. My fiance is today happily married (her 3 ex-fiancés entered the seminary, she is blessed!) and I can honestly say that I am the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. Of course it is a sacrifice, but there is joy, because this is how I desired to love and to be loved.
BC: It is not a good sign when a young man says that he doesn’t want to have children. The very fundamental aspect of a priest is being a spiritual father. This is why we call priests “Father”. The desire of being a father is very strong in the heart of every good priest. Spiritual fatherhood or Spiritual motherhood can even have more impact on a person than his biological father.
GV: The other sacrifice that I would mention is time: time is not your own anymore. Like parents! We can get a call at 3:00 AM in the morning any day of the week, because someone needs the anointing of the sick. If we don’t go, this person might die without receiving the sacrament! We have to treat them as our children. As a priest, we have all these highs and lows, celebrating mass in the morning, baptism in the day and a funeral in the evening, it is quite an emotional rollercoaster! You have to be fully present to them, joyfull at a weddings, sober inside for funerals …yeah, it is going to be tough!
CATHOSV : So, there is also a lot of joy that you can find in that calling?
GV: If you are truly called to a vocation, God usually makes it pretty clear! It is the same for marriage. You can not just enter marriage just because you assume that the culture expects you to do so, or because you don’t want to be alone. Many marriages end up in a very bad way. You can be alone in marriage, as a priest, we hear a lot about that. So, ultimately you choose a vocation because you feel called by God. And then you have to discern who to get married to. It is the same with priesthood, you have to discern if it is a diocesan priest, a benedictin, a dominican, there are different ways of living this priesthood.
CATHOSV: We just participated in a listening session of the Synod on Synodality, asking ourselves what were our dreams and aspirations for the Catholic Church. What do you think that the Catholic Church could do to attract more teenagers and young adults?
CATHOSV: It certainly brings us a lot of joy to see young people like you that probably are going to make a difference!
GV: I would make a reference to the Scriptures. In Exodus, Moses frees people out of Egypt to take them to the Promised Land. The plan originally was to worship God for three days as God told them to. Ultimately, worship comes from God and not men telling God how we want to worship him. That is the very important distinction between the Protestant Churches and the Catholic Church. Protestant pastors were telling me how tired they were of always having to create their own liturgy, be creative, and attract new people. They need to have a high pump level of energy all the time. They start realizing now that they can not get that creative all the time.
The Catholic Church, in her wisdom, established the Liturgy that is the same, since the very beginning, and it is universal. In a sense you can say that “it is boring and ancient” but there has actually been a rise of people desiring for that sense of stillness and quiet in the worship. I am not saying that it is bad to jump crazy up and down when you sing (praising worship in Catholic Universities are amazing for example), but in the context of a mass, it is distinct, it is how God tells us how he desires us to worship him. The mass is God giving us his instructions on how he desires to be loved. Not so much for himself but for us, for the dignity of man. We worship him in such a way that gives us the greatest amount of dignity. Of course, lectures and music can make a big difference during mass! Some parishes offer Youth or Young adults masses which are really good because priests can focus on them in their homelies.
BC: In the Liturgy, all the different parts are working together. As you were saying, it is important that the different parts of mass complement each other. In masses where there is such an emphasis and an overabundance of music, it takes away the other part, such as when you are trying to focus on the eucharist, centered exactly on Christ. With music taking over, your attention is being divided. Christ has to compete with all these different things.
BC: There is a French word that was used during Vatican II that graved into me : “ressourcement” “return to the sources”. This is how I would think of it. I’m 24, the youth group that I grew up with, has now graduated from college and here we are, trying to find out what we are doing in life. Even in High School I was having these conversations with the same people. “What am I going to do in just in a few years?” Now, a few years have come by and we are thinking that, as young adults, we are in charge of our own faith. But how to nurture that faith? What is the best way to nurture that faith? Come to the alter! But a return to the sources in a particular way, means an authentic worship of God. Christ laid down a certain way for his apostles to follow, he gave authority to those apostles, to then preach and to teach. A return to that authentic worship is a very powerful thing, especially in a world where, let’s be honest, it is kind of hard to find something authentic. Look at Politics around us! Even the understanding of the human person is being stripped away, it becomes difficult to say what a human person is in the eyes of the world. But in a consistent Church, that is trying to find authenticity in a world where there is a lack of authenticity, . My experience with the hundreds of young adults i hang out with and go on hikes and retreats together, we are finding a great, great source in this authentic worship of the Church.
CATHOSV : We are also consistently being stimulated by phones, we are always busy, even when we have nothing to do… There is this culture of non-stop activity. I think “returning to the sources” is also taking a minute out of everything and focus on your faith. I think it is very important to share this perspective.
BC: Here we are hanging out together. You are all in High School. The busy-ness of High School is real, there is a lot: classes, sports, maybe a job in the evening, hanging out with friends, you are non-stop! And the rest… the moment of rest and silence, especially when I am in Adoration, the whole world stops and I can just focus on someone who matters more than anything else, and then, that being expressed in the Liturgy…it is so powerful.
GV: It reminds me of a Scripture that says “Be still and know I am God”! Ultimately that is what the heart and mind want, this rest. It is important to integrate that to your life, focus on what’s good, what’s true and what’s beautiful. Those things can point you to God. The modern culture has lost that, all that noise and distraction can drift you away.
CATHOSV : Thank you very much for your precious time, for your sincerity and openness. This conversation will resonate with us for a long time and we can’t wait to share it with the French Catholic Community. We hope to welcome you at a French Mass in Los Altos very soon!
Interview by Aimée, Faustine, Hector and Maelys @St Patrick’s Seminary, California, April 2022.