Deepening Discernment: Inside the Newly Instituted Propaedeutic Stage at The Saint Paul Seminary

Nineteen young men in one household kitchen is a fascinating sight. And sound. And smell.

Sizzling bacon, sausage and eggs. A table scattered with oatmeal, cereals and fruit. And every once in a while, a unified singing of a '90s rock song. But for the men in The Saint Paul Seminary’s new “propaedeutic” year, it’s just another communal breakfast after daily Mass.

This is a household. A family.

The word propaedeutic (pronounced pro-pi-DO-tik) may be a hard one to spell and say, but its meaning is simple: a time of preparation. In the case of The Saint Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas, the new year of formation serves as a time discernment before a man enters the vigorous theological and philosophical studies of major seminary.

Some will go on to major seminary. Others will discern a different vocation. Either way, they’ll have made a free, well-intended decision to do so, the priest in charge of the program says.

“With all the various voices in our society today, young people need to kind of shut out the noise, to be able to hear the voice of God in their heart and in their life,” said Father John Floeder, the seminary’s director of human formation and propaedeutic year lead.

“I don’t think I could come up with the words to describe how much God is moving in each of our lives.”

James Semling, aspirant, Diocese of Helena, Montana

The world has changed a lot since Floeder was ordained a priest in 2007. He lauds the recent call from Pope Francis for seminaries to provide an extra year of formation for the priesthood. The Saint Paul Seminary was one of the first in North America to institute what some church leaders refer to as a spiritual “detox.”

“I didn’t have the internet until I got to college, and Netflix was still a service in which you would receive DVDs in the mail,” Floeder said. “So what these men are facing today is a world that’s very different than the one I grew up in.”

Father John Floeder, director of human formation and the propaedeutic stage at The Saint Paul Seminary, addresses seminarians inside the Church of St. Mark in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Housed at the Church of St. Mark about a mile from the The Saint Paul Seminary on the St. Thomas campus, the men are distinctly set apart from the life of the major seminary and have a different daily rhythm. The goal is to take a step back from the craziness of the world and enable the men to openly discern where God is calling them – whether it be to the priesthood or married life.

“They need time and space to rediscover authentic love and connection with the Lord and authentic love and connection with one another,” Floeder said.

One of the ways the men receive that time and space is abstaining from technology. Phones and laptops are placed in the “computer lab,” which is briefly opened once a week for the men to catch up with friends and family.

The rest of their spare time, the men read, play board games, go on group runs, sing music, and simply spend quality time together.

“As Americans, we think we know what freedom is – getting to do what you want,” said seminarian Anthony Olmes from the Diocese of Helena. “Actually, in taking things away like our cellphones and laptops and having to be on a schedule where I have to wake up before 7 a.m. every day, it’s brought a lot of [true] freedom. I’ve not experienced that in my life before.”

The group attends a daily holy hour, morning prayer and Mass. Their schedule also includes weekly work in the community, including ministry with underprivileged children in Minneapolis. Half of them assist with the Church of St. Stephen’s high school youth group on Friday nights; the other half goes to Risen Christ for four hours every Wednesday to spend time with the younger students there.

Another source of growth, they say, has been their biweekly classroom sessions in the common area.

Once a week, Saint Paul Seminary professor Dr. Bill Stevenson comes over to lead discussions on classic literature by greats such as Dante and Homer. Renowned catechist Jeff Cavins also comes once a week to teach the men about what it means to be a disciple and walk them through salvation history. And Paul Ruff, the director of counseling services at the seminary, facilitates a process group and is available for individual counseling. Floeder has also brought in special guest speakers like Father Josh Johnson of Ascension Press and “Ask Fr. Josh” fame.

One theme is consistent throughout all their classes: no grades.

“What makes the propaedeutic year so different from entering right into major seminary is that there’s just not the same academic pressure,” Olmes said. “We’re just reading books together and talking about them in our sessions. We’re really getting formed as a whole person without that academic stress.”

As the seminary’s inaugural propaedeutic year starts to wind down, its participants tend to be filled with a sense of inner peace about the next step on their vocational journey.

“I don’t think I could come up with the words to describe how much God is moving in each of our lives,” said James Semling from the Diocese of Helena, Montana.

Aspirants attend a daily holy hour, morning prayer and Mass. Their schedule also includes weekly work in the community, including ministry with underprivileged children.

And although Floeder had some nerves about what the year would be like at the beginning, the growth and maturity he’s seen in the men under his charge has left him in awe, he said.

It’s one more way the Church can ensure good, strong, holy priests.

“Being able to direct this program and live as a spiritual father for these young men, it has filled me with an overwhelming sense of hope,” Floeder said. “This program is really, I think, fulfilling what should be all have our hopes and dreams for what it is to be a priest and serve in the Church.”