When seminaries closed in mid-March because of the pandemic, most of the young men studying for the priesthood returned to their family homes. Many set up areas for prayer and study amid the bustle of family life as classes resumed online just a few days later.

Seminarian Kevin Key went from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia to the parish rectory.

The two months he spent at his home parish of St. Patrick in Carlisle offered him a taste of rectory life, parish life, and what it takes to lead a parish family.

“Father (Donald) Bender, my pastor, was very gracious and generous in allowing me to stay in the rectory. I was very lucky to be there with Father Bender, Father (Tiburtius) Raja, our parochial vicar, and my friend and fellow seminarian, Aaron Lynch,” he said.

The experience “definitely became part of formation,” said Key, who just completed his first year of Theology.

“The seminary prepares us for most everything, except rectory life. At St. Charles at least, there are 150 of us living together, eating together and worshiping together, so the lifestyle is not the same as a rectory, where many of our priests in our Diocese actually live alone. I was glad, all things considered, to live in a parish for those two months, and get to see how rectory life is, learn to live with brother seminarians and priests, and see if that’s something I’m comfortable with,” he said.

Although the experience didn’t fully show Key the exact normalcies of parish and rectory life – given social-distancing orders, the suspension of public Masses and closed churches, schools and offices – he did get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to operate parish life on a daily basis.

That included preparing the church for Holy Week, arranging flowers for the Easter celebration, cooking meals and brainstorming ways to maintain connections with parishioners.

“Father Bender gave us many opportunities to be involved in the parish. For livestream liturgies, for those other worship opportunities, Aaron and I were so much involved. We were the sacristans, we were the tech crew, we were the servers, we were the lectors,” Key said. “What usually takes a whole parish family to run, Aaron and I were called upon to fill those obligations.”

Key said he was also fortunate to be able to participate in the Masses Father Bender celebrated, and to receive Holy Communion.

Seminary studies remained a priority during the two months at the rectory, since classes resumed via Zoom not long after the seminarians were dismissed from campus.

“We had two days to move out of St. Charles and get back home to our home Diocese, and then classes started again,” Key said. “We were right back on it right away. There was no letting up, no slowing down. It was go, go, go, as far as academic formation went.”

He commended the flexibility of his professors and the resiliency of his fellow seminarians – some of them participating in Zoom sessions from the family dining room with siblings in the background.

“This was a new situation to everyone; us seminarians as students were not comfortable with it. Our professors and administrators – it was new to them. Everyone kind of took it in stride as best they could. There was a lot of making do,” Key said. “They’re in class learning key theological truths about persons and then their little sister comes into the screen and asks her big brother to help her with getting breakfast ready. There was a lot of resiliency shown by my brother seminarians pushing through this difficulty.”

“We actually had a really ideal situation set up for formation outside of the seminary,” Key said of his time at the rectory. “Father Bender was very respectful of our need for continued studies, of our need to stay in touch with formation at the seminary.”

At the end of the semester, Key returned to his family home for a bit of relaxation before moving to St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey for his summer assignment.

He said what he misses most about seminary life is the in-person formation.

“It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m supposed to be around my brother seminarians who can correct me and guide me, and my formators do the same. There’s no replacing in-person human interaction, so that’s been something I’ve really lost. We can call each other, text each other, see each other on Zoom, but I live across the hall next to my best friends, and I don’t see them like I usually see them. That’s something I really miss. Also praying together. At the seminary, we have Mass and we pray Morning and Evening Prayer together every single day, in person,” Key said.

In Formation to Serve

There are four pillars of priestly formation which guide the development of young men toward priesthood: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. Each pillar, while distinct, is connected to the others.

Key said the experience of living in a rectory and adapting to the challenges of life during a pandemic have furthered his development in each of the four pillars.

“All I want to do is serve. This time in formation is purely for the sake of being able to serve you one day. That’s all I desire,” he said in a video message to the people of the Diocese. “I’m looking forward to that possibly more than any of you are, because that’s all I want to do. That’s why I chose this life – to serve you.”

Financial contributions to the Pentecost Collection directly support Diocesan seminarians, like Key, in receiving the formation they need today to become your priests tomorrow.

“When you support me and my brother seminarians in the Pentecost Collection, the men before me who have gotten ordained, the men after me who will come, we’re not doing it for ourselves to get a nice degree. We’re in formation to serve you, and you are supporting us so that we will be your priests one day,” Key said of the collection, which will be taken up May 30 and 31.

“The Pentecost Collection frees up seminarians to go to school when they might not be able to afford it on their own, and give themselves truly, fully, and not have to worry about making other financial payments that are so often a stress on grad students,” he said.

There are 24 men currently studying as seminarians for the Diocese of Harrisburg. The cost to educate them is nearly $1 million.

The annual Pentecost Collection supports the seminarians’ education and formation, covering costs for books, tuition, retreats and summer programs. The cost of tuition, room and board for one seminarian is $38,000 per year.

Contributions to the collection support the increase in vocations in the Diocese and allow seminarians to focus completely on their formation as future priests.

    “I could not do this, my brother seminarians could not do this, if you were not supporting the Pentecost Collection and our Diocese was not taking care of us,” Key said. “Complete thanks and utter dependency and gratitude to my Diocese, to the people who give to the Pentecost Collection. You make it possible for me to be in formation. All the priests in your Diocese are priests because of the Pentecost Collection. The Pentecost Collection is what made it happen.”

Key also offered a message of hope and prayer in these days of the pandemic.

“Being a seminarian during quarantine is very similar to everyone else in quarantine. I’ve suffered, you have all suffered. The sacraments are meant to be in person and they will come back soon. Our bishop is doing everything he can. I look forward to that just as much as the next person,” he remarked.

“Keep praying for each other, keep praying for us seminarians,” he urged. “We’re praying for you. We’ll all be back to Mass soon enough, and we’ll all have those doughnut socials after Mass soon enough. That’s what we’re all working for – Jesus in the sacraments.”

(The Catholic Witness also interviewed seminarian Richard Groff about his experiences during remote formation. Read his story and see portions of his interview here.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness