Benjamin Sember '02I clearly remember the middle of my sophomore – not because of the beautiful campus, the school’s academic reputation, or the Minnesota climate. I came to St. Thomas because the little promptings in my life had convinced me that I should go to the seminary, and St. John Vianney seminary was located on the college campus. The seminary provided formation, prayer and daily structure, but since it was tied to a Catholic university, I could also connect with the regular college experience.
It turned out to be an excellent decision. By sophomore year I had determined that I would major in philosophy, with a double major in “something else.” I soon settled on Catholic Studies, in large part because this would allow me to spend a semester studying in Rome.
This visit to the Eternal City, at the end of the Jubilee Year 2000, was a major turning point in my life. The history of the many saints and martyrs, my volunteer work with the Missionaries of Charity, and the example of Pope John Paul II strengthened my willingness to follow the call of God wherever it might lead; however, Rome also made me more realistic. I saw for the first time that the good and the bad, beauty and ugliness, saints and sinners, can coexist and in fact are always mixed together in this world. I also learned to value different cultures and traditions, to enjoy the diversity they offer, and even for brief moments to see the world with other eyes. Most importantly, I learned to question my own culture and to doubt its fondest assumptions. I realized that the Gospel makes demands of nations and cultures, not only of individuals.
Beyond the Rome program, what I learned from Catholic Studies was priceless. The program educated a community of scholars – not intellectuals learning obscurities, but students genuinely seeking to apply to their lives the wisdom they discovered. Catholic Studies helped integrate all my learning, from chemistry to literature to psychology, into a coherent whole. I do not mean that psychology was a slave to Catholic Studies; rather that Catholic Studies supplied a broader and more flexible view of the universe than psychology, but one that had a comfortable place in which psychology could fit.
Finally, Catholic Studies provided a community of faith. In the seminary I was already part of a community that was structured and united by faith, but Catholic Studies was a welcome opportunity to be part of a larger community of people who were interested in and excited by the Gospel. Catholic Studies helped to give me a perspective outside the four walls of St. John Vianney.
I graduated from St. Thomas in spring 2002. My time in the seminary and in the Catholic Studies program had prepared me intellectually and spiritually to pursue further studies toward the priesthood. After more than a year studying theology at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, I am grateful for what I gleaned from the Catholic Studies program. I have already faced the questions of what is valuable and what is dangerous in my own culture, and how I can value another culture without losing my own. Many of the seminarians struggle to construct a framework with which to organize the various elements of history, theology, Scripture, homiletics, etc. I came to the seminary with a structure that has continued to expand as I develop intellectually.
Finally, as my classmates and I tramp deep into the Western intellectual tradition, I find myself passing many familiar landmarks, and I discover that among Socrates, Dante and Josef Pieper, I am very much at home.
Benjamin Sember ’02 is in his second year of theology studies at the Univer sity of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminar y in Mundelein, Ill . He is a seminarian for the Diocese of Green Bay.
Joel Sember '02 The fall of 1998 at the University of St. Thomas marked the first time I set foot in a regular school classroom. I was home-schooled my entire life, which gave me a unique perspective on college education. My peers who had been heavily involved in high school activities tended to see college as a chance to back off from learning and get serious about dating and partying. I saw college the other way around. For the first time, I was able to get involved in activities with other students. Being young, excited, and eager to learn, I set my sights on a challenging major such as engineering or philosophy. I joined the Aquinas Scholars honors program and took harder sections of calculus and physics. Because of my passion for learning, I was wary of Catholic Studies. High school had been a four-year study in Catholicism and I did not want more of the same. Convenience drew me into the program; I could take classes to fulfill basic requirements, classes were cross-listed in other fields, all my friends were doing it, and most of all, I would get to study in Rome.
As I became more involved in Catholic Studies, I liked what I saw and took more classes. The professors were some of the best at St. Thomas, and they presented challenging material in clear and original ways. Catholic Studies teaches things that are not taught by other disciplines at the college level; also, the classes encourage students to reflect on information and to be able to speak well about it. A good grade in a Catholic Studies class does not mean you guessed well on a truefalse test; rather, it means you understood the material and were able to say something intelligent on your own. In other words, Catholic Studies classes teach you to think. Most people do not equate Catholicism with freedom of thought. The truth is, though, that no one has ever taken ideas so seriously as Catholics. The Church just wants you to ground yourself in the tradition before you speak.
At the time, I was attending the college seminary of St. John Vianney. Catholic Studies complemented my seminary program perfectly. The seminary taught me spirituality, and Catholic Studies gave me ancient and modern spiritual writers; I learned about liturgy, and Catholic Studies helped me understand the cosmic liturgy; I learned about prayer, and Catholic Studies offered me a holy hour; I learned about Christian culture, and Catholic Studies sent me to Rome to experience culture shock. In my development in college, the social aspects of Catholic Studies also were very important. The program has developed a community of young people all interested in living life well and truthfully. This helped me develop my social skills and my public confidence. Most importantly, I learned that faith cannot be lived in a vacuum. One must be supported by Christian friendships.
I graduated from St. Thomas with degrees in both philosophy and Catholic Studies. I took so many Catholic Studies classes, in fact, that it was more of a challenge to complete my philosophy degree. I went on to Mundelein Seminary, where I discovered the value of the preparation I received. Most graduate programs focus on one single field. Seminary does not. The seminarian must become competent as a counselor, a church architect, a mystic, a public speaker, an ethicist, a writer, a building manager and many other skills; furthermore, his activities must all be rooted in Christ. This is no problem for the Catholic Studies graduate. The program teaches a person to study broad fields within the context of Christianity. It teaches how to understand and evaluate many disciplines, and to see how they influence each other. One learns to be respectful but critical, open but swayed only by truth, rooted in eternity but connected with today. As I enter my second year at Mundelein, I am reaping the rewards of my reluctant decision five years ago.
Joel Sember ’02, is a second-year theologian at the Univer sity of St. Mar y of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. He is a seminarian for the diocese of Green Bay.