EAST AURORA — For six, third-year seminarians finishing their pastoral year at Christ the King Seminary, the inaugural "Spiritual Summer" program was a transformative step on their paths to the transitional diaconate and ultimately priesthood.
For Father Joseph C. Gatto, president-rector, it was a dream come true.
"One of the things I have dreamt about since I was in formation many years ago and gave much thought to during my first two years in East Aurora was a program for seminarians to enhance the spiritual dimension of their formation outside the classroom; something that would allow them to reflect on their spiritual lives as they complete their time of parish ministry and return to theological studies prior to ordination," said Father Gatto.
"All seminaries provide academics, pastoral and counseling skills, and liturgical understanding. And while we also offer spiritual formation and direction, prayer time and adoration, I always felt there was a piece of the puzzle missing," Father Gatto explained. "So this year, we inaugurated a spiritual summer, something I believe is unique to Christ the King Seminary."
Seminarians Peter Bassey, Peter Santandreu, Jerry Pasnik, Gerry Skrzynski, Robert Agbo, and Luke Uebler all began the program with a three-day orientation on the nature of prayer and spirituality at the seminary in early July and concluded it with what Father Gatto called the "pièce de résistance," a 12-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land from July 31 through Aug. 11.
They also participated in an eight-day retreat guided by two trained Jesuit priests focused on the life and teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, and spent two weeks immersed in presentations and reflections on the spiritual heritage of the Church along with a contemporary understanding of diocesan priestly spirituality.
"During that time they took an in-depth look at a variety of the spiritual masters St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen and others from the beginning of Christian tradition right up to the present day, especially as their insights relate to the life of a diocesan priest," said Msgr. Richard Siepka, director of spiritual formation at the seminary. "This was a period of exploration of the spiritual life, an opportunity for personal prayer and growth in each of the seminarian's relationship with the Lord."
For Pasnik, the program was a wonderful experience and the highlight of his summer. "In a very real way my relationship with Jesus grew much deeper during the retreat and conferences held at the seminary, which made the trip to the Holy Land a more spiritual and fruitful experience," said Pasnik. "To be a good priest for the people of Western New York, I need to have a strong personal relationship with Jesus."
Father Gatto said the trip to Israel provided the glue that tied the program together, while helping the seminarians better understand and prepare for their eventual day-to-day ministry as a diocesan priest.
"We all experienced a profound encounter with Christ in the Holy Land," said Father Gatto. "We celebrated Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the tomb of Jesus; we spent an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament at Gethsemane; we stood on the mountain of the Beatitudes, the site of the Sermon on the Mount. How can a seminarian going through formation ever be the same again or not preach differently as a result of these experiences? They can't."
Agbo and Uebler, both ordained as transitional deacons in September, concurred.
"The trip was life changing," said Deacon Agbo. "There is no way to remain the same after walking where Jesus walked. My three personal highlights were a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee, where I asked Jesus to make my life fruitful, our vigil at the tomb of Jesus where I asked the Lord for the grace to die to myself, and the visit to Bethlehem University where I interacted with Muslim students. These experiences made the Bible come alive and now, as a deacon, I preach with more understanding and clarity."
Deacon Uebler said the experience transformed his understanding of the Gospel. "Every time I preach now, I hear Jesus's message and visualize my time on the sacred soil there, hoping to communicate His beautiful story in ways I couldn't fully imagine prior to the trip. We often speak of inviting Jesus into our homes, but in this case we got to visit His home - to see where He grew up, ministered and worshipped."
Father Gatto speaks with pride of his staff, including Msgr. Siepka; Father Robert A. Wozniak, vice rector and director of priestly formation; Father F. Patrick Melfi, associate director of priestly formation; Eileen Warner, director of mission and pastoral outreach; and everybody else at the seminary who worked together to bring Spiritual Summer 2016 to fruition.
"I believe we are offering something at Christ the King that many seminaries don't offer, but I hope they take notice because I think, in fact I know, this program is going to make a tremendous difference in the spiritual growth of our future priests," Father Gatto concluded.