ST. MEINRAD, Indiana — Familiar sounds of sizzling meat and clanging cutlery associated with food preparation offered a different kind of doctrine than one might expect in a third-floor classroom at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.
Inside, several seminarians stood around a large U-shaped countertop, chopping, stirring, seasoning and boiling.
Their instructor, Benedictine Father Julian Peters, watched the whole operation and occasionally stepped in to add an ingredient or test a consistency.
While most of the classes at this southern Indiana seminary focus on spiritual and intellectual formation, a one-day cooking class on Jan. 18 aimed to help these future-priests function as whole — and wholesome — human beings.
“It’s a matter of stewardship, of being able to take care of ourselves,” said Peters, “so that we can be healthy and happy and take care of others.”
St. Meinrad Seminary is currently educating 120 men for the priesthood, hailing from 30 dioceses and nine religious communities.
During the two weeks between school semesters, known as the “January interterm,” instructors tackle a variety of topics not covered in the regular curriculum.
Along with cooking, studies include pastoral councils, art, suicide prevention, hospice care, basic plumbing and mechanics.
“The basis of seminary formation, as Pope John Paul II reminded us, is human formation,” said Benedictine Father Tobias Colgan, vice rector of the seminary.
“Not only in a person’s own personal development and self-understanding, but also in the human skills that that person will need in service of the Church and of the people that he will be ministering to,” he told Catholic News Service.
St. Meinrad Seminary installed a large kitchen in one of the rooms for precisely this purpose. Eight burners, four ovens, two sinks and plenty of countertop space give the seminarians an opportunity to learn a skill that may have been overlooked.
A priest is frequently the sole occupant of a rectory, so he must be able to take care of himself, often while juggling many other obligations.
“They’ve got Mass and then they’ve got to go visit the hospital and then there’s a sick call at a nursing home but then they’ve got pastoral counsel, finance — they have all this stuff to do and it’s very easy for them to put themselves last on the list,” said seminarian Michael Bialorucki, who spent the summer serving at a parish in his home diocese of Toledo, Ohio.
“I’ve seen a lot of priests just get themselves McDonald’s or Wendy’s. It will eventually hurt their health,” said Taesang Yun, a seminarian from Busan, South Korea.
The men in the cooking class are on track to be ordained as priests in 2020.
Peters said his goal, in the brief period of time set for the cooking class, is to give them tips on how to improvise in the kitchen, what ingredients to keep stocked and how to use tools, like a slow-cooker, to reduce the hands-on preparation time.
As the men together created a chicken soup, complete with dumplings, vegetables and a leftover rotisserie chicken, Peters also praised the “therapeutic value” of cooking in a priest’s life.
“In our ministry, we don’t see how things turn out,” he said. “We baptize a baby but you don’t know how their life always pans out. You receive the vows of a couple at marriage but then they transfer out of the parish or we get transferred.”
When cooking, however, Peters said that, “you can see something through to completion, and there’s that human sense of satisfaction that comes with that.”
The seminarians eventually cooked two different types of soup, several seasoned roasts and bread smothered in a cheesy crab dip.
According to Colgan, the seminary has placed renewed emphasis on human formation in the wake of revelations related to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Men must be prepared — spiritually, intellectually, mentally and physically — for the unique demands of the priesthood.
In addition to the classes offered during the interterm, the school hosts 30 conferences throughout the year about other tangible topics.
Colgan said that the seminary staff also tries to discern and fill the individual needs of each student.
“We have 11 priests who live full-time in the seminary to model good human formation and to be able to gauge the human formation and the growth in human formation in the candidates,” he said.
“I can testify that (with) this generation of seminarians, they’re aware of the history, they’re aware of the crisis but they’re not deterred by it,” Colgan said. “In effect, they’re probably even more on fire to become their best selves so that in their turn they can be a solution.”
While none claimed that a cooking class alone would resolve the clergy abuse crisis, both students and staff implied that a priest’s knowledge of self-care was an important ingredient in the mix.
“The fact that we were called at this time of crisis, and that we are a formation at this time,” said Daniel Velasco, a seminarian from the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, “it’s an invitation to be part of the solution.”
“We’ve taken (the crisis) as a challenge to say that we can be better, we can be healthier,” Bialorucki said.