Priests for Today: Connecting With the Elderly

Brushing up on Johnny Cash may not sound like standard seminarian training, but that’s exactly what Nick Vance found himself doing this past summer.

As part of formation at The Saint Paul Seminary, he served at the Holy Family Residence – a Catholic eldercare facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in downtown St. Paul – where live music hadn’t been performed since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vance began hosting mini-concerts, playing guitar and singing – tailored to his demographic.

Seminarian Nick Vance spent his summer at the Holy Family Residence, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

“I had to learn all the oldies,” he said. “Plenty of Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love,’ John Denver, ‘Country Roads,’ ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane.’”

One resident, a longtime music teacher, had been hard to reach due to advanced dementia. He was completely nonverbal, relying on hand gestures to communicate.

“I was trying to form a connection, but I didn’t know if it was happening,” Vance said.

Then he began to play “Stand by Me,” and the resident mouthed the lyrics.

“That was the first time I had seen him make an attempt at vocalizing something,” Vance said. “There was this joy that seemed to come back to his face. In the most unexpected way, God was using the meager offering of my gift to awaken something in him.”

Summer has become an important season of formation for seminarians, allowing them to stretch and experience new dimensions of priestly preparation. This past summer, 37 of the men in the configuration stage of formation participated in an eight-week program that involved a variety of settings – urban and rural, working with youth and the elderly. It put them face-to-face with real-world scenarios they will encounter as priests – ministering to the sick and dying, visiting with homeless people, helping at eldercare facilities, understanding the struggles of farmers and engaging young adults.

I’m not here to come down from on high and offer this glorious ministry. I’m here just to be with this person, to have a human connection that makes way for the divine.

Seminarian Nick Vance

Sometimes, Vance said, it taught “a poverty of spirit” – being empty-handed and at peace, surrendering the urge to say the right words or accomplish a certain agenda and instead learning how to sit in the uncomfortable and simply be present.

“When someone wasn’t able to track a conversation and they’d repeat themselves, I had to find my own poverty of spirit to respond with the same energy and joy,” Vance said. “It puts you in an entirely different mindset. I’m not here to come down from on high and offer this glorious ministry. I’m here just to be with this person, to have a human connection that makes way for the divine.”

Vance is eager to apply this to other scenarios. “When I learned how to set down my expectations and have one ear to the person and another ear to the Lord and just let that be the guide of the conversation, it was substantially different,” he said.

Editor's note: This story is derived from an article that originally ran on The Seminaries of Saint Paul website under the headline "Priests for Today: How the Seminary Prepares Future Shepherds for a Complicated World." The Saint Paul Seminary is located at the University of St. Thomas.