PORTLAND, Oregon — Two weeks of self-imposed coronavirus quarantine ended April 7 for two Oregon seminarians and a priest. Father Peter Julia, Brent Durschmidt and Justin Echevarria had been studying in Rome until late March.
After Easter visits with family, the three healthy men will reconvene at the quarantine site to continue living in an impromptu house of studies.
They’ll resume life at the Griffin Center retreat house in Milwaukie, Oregon, where they have been having Mass, studying, lifting weights, doing chores and sharing laughs since being sent home from universities in Rome.
Durschmidt and Echevarria had their first year cut short at the Pontifical North American College while Julia is completing a master’s degree in spirituality at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, commonly called the Angelicum.
“This year has been very formative in teaching me how to surrender,” Durschmidt, a former firefighter, told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Portland Archdiocese.
The North American College schedule had already taken a turn because the bishops of the United States were coming to Rome for “ad limina” visits with Pope Francis. That created a flurry of new activities and hosting duties. Then COVID-19 hit just as bishops of the Northwest were making their trek to Rome.
“You get used to surrendering to the fact that things may not look like what you want them to look like or what you expect them to look like,” Durschmidt said. “Being open disposes you to how the Lord is working in your life.”
The deadly spread of COVID-19 in Italy began in the north, but it was clear that Rome eventually would suffer cases. Italian seminaries and colleges in early February quickly shifted to online courses and ordered students to shelter in place. That seemed the safest plan until the Italian health care system began to be overwhelmed. If a foreign seminarian became ill, school leaders thought, no one would want him to be forced into what was near chaos. By the last week in March, officials at the schools ordered students to go home.
The Archdiocese of Portland booked their men on a flight within two days. The three were disappointed to leave their studies in so glorious a place and would miss their friends. But all understood.
At the Griffin Center, the three continued studies online and tried to live a life that balanced prayer, intellect, pastoral preparation and human formation. They also joked around.
“Thankfully we have really good fraternity,” Julia said. “I have been amazed by and edified by how everyone seems to chip in in an intuitive way.”
The men have come to know each other well, since strengths and weaknesses are impossible to hide in such a small community.
Echevarria said their life has become like a situation comedy. The two older men act as big brothers who give expert advice, even when no one asked for it.
In social media posts, Julia showed daily life in quarantine. One theme was how Julia, 40, and Durschmidt, 33, taught 28-year-old Echevarria how to cook. He began with boiling rice and moved on to proper scrambled eggs and seasoned salmon.
“This was quite a year,” said Echevarria. “It was eye opening for me, leaning on what the Lord might be inviting me to.” The key lesson, he said, was flexibility.
“Things seem great when you are in control. When a wrench is thrown in, you need to learn to be more flexible and open. Let’s see positives in this. The Lord says, ‘I give this to you.’ We need to say, ‘Your will be done.’”
The men have kept up a brisk spiritual life, with morning prayer, Mass and holy hour before breakfast. They also gather for a daily rosary and evening prayer.
Though it could be possible to feel sorry for them, the three realize they are the recipients of mercy and privilege. Being in so small a group with a priest means they can have Mass daily.
“We have a sense of carrying the prayers of people who don’t have access to the sacraments,” said Julia.
Durschmidt he has decided to receive Eucharist on behalf of Catholics in western Oregon.
In the room where they do workouts, they have written prayer intentions on a whiteboard so they remember to pray for others, even while sweating.
Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.