DETROIT — Amid the pandemic, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit has the same mission: To form men for the priesthood and prepare all of its students, laity and clergy to be ambassadors for the new evangelization.
The seminary’s vice rector, Father Stephen Burr, said this year’s 114 seminarians, representing 16 dioceses and religious communities, are seeing changes to classrooms, liturgical schedules and safety protocols, but the seminary still intends to provide the full formation experience.
“We are trying to keep the two major schools, the graduate school and undergraduate school, separate throughout the year, shifting our liturgical schedule and creating separation between the two houses of men,” said Burr, who also serves as dean of seminary formation.
“We’re following the same protocols the archdiocese has given about the amount of people allowed in a chapel,” he said, and making sure that everyone follows socially distanced guidelines.
Burr said the seminary’s chapel is technically big enough to accommodate everyone, but for safety’s sake, chapel time is being split up.
In addition to the seminarians, who live in dorms on campus, Sacred Heart Major Seminary hosts 292 commuter students as part of its lay formation program, which has a different schedule as officials work to keep the two sets of students apart.
Besides changes to the classrooms, which include plexiglass dividers to keep lecturers and professors separated from students as well as physical distancing between students, Sacred Heart also must consider other elements of the formation experience, such as the movements of transitional deacons to or from assignments or bringing in guests speakers on different topics related to priestly ministry.
Transitional deacons “will still go out and do ministry on a regular basis,” Burr said, “but we’ve limited them to going out once and then coming back, instead of spending the night at the parish. We still want them at the parish, but we want them to stay in one residence throughout the semester.”
Most seminary students have the option of taking courses online, should they choose.
“Those who may be at risk or are uncomfortable attending classes in person had many online class options to choose from this fall,” said Matthew Gerlach, dean of the Institute for Lay Ministry and associate professor of theology at the seminary. “About half of all lay commuters enrolled this fall are taking at least one online class. So, you can see how appealing this option is amidst the pandemic.”
But for all of the changes and challenges, men still have the desire to study for the priesthood, and lay disciples want to learn more about their faith and equip themselves for ministry. This year, 32 new seminarians are enrolled, on par with last year, when 31 new men entered.
On the commuter side, this year’s 292 students is a slight drop from last year’s 311, but considering the circumstances, enrollment is still beating expectations, Gerlach told the Detroit Catholic, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“While everyone in higher education was concerned students would not return to classes this fall, we found that our lay commuter students really wanted to continue their education and formation and find strength and support in the Sacred Heart community they love so dearly,” Gerlach said.
“The seminary and archdiocese offer generous financial assistance to those in ministry and so the economic challenges many people are facing today are not keeping them from continuing,” he said.
There are currently 26 men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit, with three new seminarians this year. Overall, the seminary hosts 114 seminarians representing 16 different dioceses and religious communities.
While COVID-19 has changed some of the approach to education and formation, God is still calling men to the priesthood, even in the midst of a pandemic, said Father Craig Giera, director of priestly vocations for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“The men I’m speaking with now seem to have a calling in their heart to serve other people, doing things that are meaningful,” he added. “They feel God is speaking to them in their hearts and are open to the priesthood.”
While no one has specifically said COVID-19 spurred them to discern a vocation, Giera said, “some have felt the situation has helped them focus on something they have felt for a very long time.”
The Archdiocese of Detroit added three new seminarians this year, with 26 men in total currently studying for the priesthood.
Giera, in his first year as vocations director, said his office soon will launch a campaign to encourage Catholics in southeast Michigan to pray the luminous mysteries of the rosary for an increase in vocations.
“The luminous mysteries are how Christ manifests who he was,” the priest said. “The luminous mysteries are about Christ’s very public priesthood, and we want to encourage men to take up that public priesthood.”
Meloy is a staff writer for Detroit Catholic, the online news platform of the Archdiocese of Detroit.