GARRETT BRAUN: It’s important for seminarians to have ministry assignments because the life of a priest should be an integrated whole. You’re not just purely a preacher. You’re not just someone to visit people. You’re not just an academic. You have to be all those things at once.
BR. JOEL BLAIZE: You are listening to Echoes from the Bell Tower, stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana. I’m Br. Joel.
BR. KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: And I’m Br. Kolbe. Today’s episode is about the Seminary and School of Theology’s Workers into the Harvest program. It is the seminary’s pastoral formation program and it gives students the opportunity to be with people in service to the Church.
BR. JOEL: The program is made up of weekly educational workshops, theological reflection groups and an internship at a ministry site. Each year of study in the seminary focuses on a different dimension or aspect that would be encountered as a priest.
FR. SEAN AARON: Each year has really built upon itself. I remember it was First Year, we just did a lot of observation at a couple different parishes.
BR. KOLBE: This is Fr. Sean Aaron. He attended all six years of seminary at Saint Meinrad. He graduated in 2019 and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana.
FR. SEAN AARON: My second year, we actually taught middle and high school religious education. My first year of theology was at a homeless women’s shelter in Evansville. After that year, I was at a nursing home in Jasper, and then these last two years here in St. Meinrad and St. Boniface.
BR. JOEL: Saint Meinrad’s Master of Divinity program begins with two years studying philosophy and then four studying theology. Some students also take a year off from formal studies to serve at a parish in their dioceses.
BR. KOLBE: The Workers into the Harvest program takes place on Wednesdays and on weekends. It is designed to bring together the understanding of theology with the practice of ministry. In simple terms, it puts in practice what is taught in the classroom.
BR. JOEL: On Wednesday mornings, experts come in and give workshops on topics from conflict resolution to ministering to individuals with dementia. In the afternoons, students head to their internships.
FR. SEAN AARON: Each year exposes you to a little different dynamic of the priesthood. You get the youth, the poor and the homeless, those who are in hospitals and aging, and then you’re actually, your last two years, you’re at a parish, so all that really just comes together. You meet all those people in the parish.
BR. KOLBE: In the rest of our episode, we are going to break down the theme for each year of study and talk to some seminarians about their experiences with ministry assignments. Starting in the first year of philosophy, students visit bishop offices, chanceries and Catholic centers to learn about the resources available and how to access them. The theme for that year is “Co-workers in the Vineyard: Meeting the Ministers of the Church.”
BR. JOEL: The theme for the second year of philosophy is “The Body of Christ: Evangelization and Catechesis.” During this year, students learn from experienced catechists on how to share the faith. This was the year Fr. Sean taught religious education.
BR. KOLBE: In the first year of theology, seminarians learn about social justice and inter-religious dialogue. They have ministry assignments at social ministry sites, like boys and girls clubs, food pantries, and outreach centers. Fr. Sean has great memories about his internship at a women’s homeless shelter.
FR. SEAN AARON: Many of those women, if not all, have had bad experiences with men. So with my classmate and I walking into their home, there was a lot of distance and not communication between us and the women who live there.
I'll never forget, we had to get in the shed – and you couldn’t even walk in the shed, it was just packed. So we decided to take everything out and to organize, throw away and clean out that shed, and the women watched us. I think by that act, that showed them that we cared for their home. That was the icebreaker and that’s when the communication started.
BR. JOEL: Two years ago, Garrett Braun, Br. Justin Ayanou and Br. Stanley Rother Wagner were assigned to help with the St. John Bosco youth group in Jasper. Their basic ministry was to be with the youth, be a representation of the seminary and the Catholic Church, and to help the youth understand how the Scripture applies to their daily lives. Just a heads up, we used two different microphones during this interview. You might notice a slight difference in sound between speakers. Here is Garrett.
GARRETT BRAUN: The night with the youth group could vary. We start with introductions every time, no matter if they already know each other. It is some sort of introduction game. Somebody shares something fun or a fun fact or their favorite Halloween costume and then we’ll move into some things, some kind of game often or some kind of meditation on Sunday’s reading.
BR. STANLEY ROTHER WAGNER: One of the blessings that I found working with Bosco in Jasper is, while it’s youth ministry, and while most of our experience deals with high school students, there are also a lot of adults that help out. A lot of adults who are employed through the parish. It gives us a nice inter-generational set of skills to learn to communicate with different groups of people, which I think is what you need in a parish. It is not just going to be older people that you encounter.
BR. KOLBE: As Br. Stanley just said, ministry assignments help seminarians learn how to connect with people of different ages and backgrounds.
BR. STANLEY: It’s really about forming a well-rounded person, well-rounded man for the priesthood. People need to see that their priests are not just physically healthy, but also spiritually in tune with what they need and can communicate to them and relate to them.
GARRETT BRAUN: I had a story from last semester that Br. Justin saw, and it was kind of at the end of the night and one of the freshman girls came up to me and asked me for advice about this guy she liked. He had been hanging out with her a lot, giving her a lot of attention, telling people that she was his best friend. She was getting kind of annoyed because he hadn’t told her that he liked her. He hadn’t asked her out or anything and, I guess, I just had a hard time relating to it. ¬
My response was, “Well, why don’t you ask him ¬if he likes you?” It was just so clear to me what she needed to do. She said, “No, I can’t do that. I could never do that.” I was just like, “Well, why not?” So I thought, “Okay, why don’t you ask him on a date or something?” She was, “I can’t do that.” It was just so hard for me; I could no longer put myself in the shoes of a freshman in high school in that way. So that was a good reminder of just where people are at, learning to relate.
BR. JOEL: Students in the first-year theology class are ministering in Christ’s name and representing the Catholic Church. They learn to work with volunteers. They are also making the connection between what is being taught in class and what they are experiencing at ministry.
BR. STANLEY: I certainly have to pay attention in class now because I never know what the teens are going to ask. That’s a credit to them because they have extremely insightful questions. I think that high school students are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for sometimes, and they want to see that Christian joy, that presence of Christ in their lives. They need people, besides their parents, people in the parish, to show them that, and I think that our presence can bring that authentic presence of Christ.
GARRETT BRAUN: Sometimes I feel this need to prove myself or do something big or important at ministry, but 99% of the time it’s really simple. In our case, being with young people, hearing about their day and their lives and just in that small way letting them know that we care about them and that God cares about them.
BR. KOLBE: The second year of theology focuses on pastoral care and presence. The ministry internships during this year are at hospitals and nursing homes, and students learn how to be with people in their time of need and discomfort.
BR. JOEL: We caught up with Garrett again last year when he was in his second year of theology studies. His internship was at an assisted living facility in Jasper. On a typical Wednesday, Garrett would meet with his supervisor and receive a list of residents to visit.
GARRETT BRAUN: Most of the time it’s people we met with previously, so we kind of build that relationship throughout the year. That’s been a blessing in that once you start to learn about their life and they kind of come to expect you on Wednesday and, in some cases, I’d like to think that they’re looking forward to my visit a little bit, and that helps us have a good conversation. And also, kind of challenges me to dig deeper, “What else does this person have to offer?” They’re a lot older than I am, so they’ve experienced a lot and they have a lot to share and I have a lot to learn from them.
GARRETT BRAUN: I’ve really enjoyed seeing the perspective of what matters to people when they look back. They’ve almost come full course in their life, and I think they really understand that. And I think I’ve just learned to not stress out about some of the little daily things that go on, and they have this perspective and kind of a deep peace about what matters and what they’ve done that they’re proud of and what they’re thankful for.
BR. KOLBE: Through this ministry, Garrett has developed a comfort of walking into someone’s room and not necessarily knowing what to expect or knowing their story. He says he’s also developed confidence in what he has to offer and share. After he visits one-on-one with residents, he usually helps with Bingo and ends the evening with a Bible study.
GARRETT BRAUN: When I was getting ready to teach the elderly about Scripture, in some ways I was really kind of intimidated. Like, “Are they going to look at me and think, ‘What does this kid have to offer?’” They have so much more life experience. But I came to see that they really are looking to me to see what I have to share. And in some ways, they’re already starting to see me in that priestly role. So to grow in confidence there and trust that, “Yes, I can teach people. I can teach high schoolers and I can teach people of different generations as well.”
BR. JOEL: We also talked to Garrett’s classmate, Alex Crow, about his experience as a chaplain intern at Memorial Hospital in Jasper. Like Garrett, Alex would arrive to the hospital and receive a list of patients to visit. The big difference was that he saw different people each time he went to ministry.
ALEX CROW: You never know really what you’re gonna walk into that week. They just give you the census and whatever unit you get, you get. And it’s always different every week, too. So you kinda get a wide experience of different types of people in different types of situations, depending on the week.
BR. KOLBE: Alex feels like his internship at the hospital has helped him develop good, basic human skills.
ALEX CROW: Not only just how to start a conversation, but how to engage with someone who is going through a trial, like suffering. Most people in a hospital obviously are not there because they want to be there. So it takes a kind of unique approach to be able to walk in and be disarming. It’s been challenging. It still is challenging. I think it’s one of those things that you could never really perfect. Just walking into a room of someone you don’t know, who could be terminally ill, and starting a conversation. It’s always very surprising and kind of, I don’t know, eye-opening to see where the conversation goes. So it’s been life changing a lot of different times as well.
BR. JOEL: He says one of the most valuable things he has learned is that people are hungry to be listened to. He has learned how to talk with people in such a way that he is not waiting for the next moment where he can insert a comment.
ALEX CROW: That’s been huge. A lot of what we do in the hospital room isn’t necessarily giving advice or always interpreting what’s happened in someone’s life for them. A lot of it’s just sitting there and just listening. And sometimes it’s really kind of benign. It can be taxing to sit there for 45 minutes straight and someone’s telling you about their entire life story. But as I said earlier, it’s like if that’s what the person needs in that moment, then the fact that they’re willing to just kind of spill everything in front of you like that is a sign to me that people need to be listened to. And it’s healing for people. I’ve seen it. People feel renewed. You can see it on their face. They’ve been reborn by you sitting there for 30 minutes and attentively listening to them. So that’s been a great realization for me.
BR. KOLBE: Alex says that he has experienced the love and mercy of God in ways he never would have expected.
ALEX CROW: I’m someone who struggles to listen when I pray. And I’m someone who struggles with believing that God is active in my life, which I guess on one level is kind of ridiculous, but nonetheless it’s how I feel a lot of the time. And there’s just been several experiences I’ve had in the hospital where, I don’t know, I’ve just thrown up my hands and thought, “God has to be real. God is here.”
I know God is active in my life because I was given this experience with this individual who stirred this up inside of me. Or I was able to stir this kind of thing up inside of them and it’s just unquestionable in a way. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense. But that’s been the greatest gift of the whole thing. It’s reminded me that God exists and that he’s really present among us.
BR. JOEL: Third- and fourth-year theology seminarians intern at a parish and they serve at that same parish both years. During their first year at the parish, the seminarian establishes relationships with the pastor, staff and parishioners. Typically, during the summer between third and fourth year of theology, the seminarian is ordained a transitional deacon.
BR. KOLBE: During the third year, seminarians help teach faith formation and they serve at Mass. In the fourth and final year of studies, seminarians take on a more active role in the parish. They gain experience preaching at Mass and taking on the other responsibilities of a deacon.
BR. JOEL: Fr. Sean Aaron was assigned to St. Meinrad and St. Boniface parishes. He taught an adult faith formation class during that first year serving there. The next year he was involved with second grade catechesis and preparing children for First Communion. He also served as a deacon.
FR. SEAN AARON: This year I've enjoyed taking a bigger part, an active part in the Mass. I've enjoyed preaching. I think the homily is a great bridge between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but also, I just love being with the people in the church. This is the smallest churches I’ve ever been a part of, St. Meinrad and St. Boniface, but very active churches, and I love my ministry weekends, just being with the people. And the nice thing about being here at St. Meinrad and St. Boniface, you feel like you’re really connected to the people. They know you.
BR. KOLBE: He says his internship at the parishes gave him experience interacting and communicating with parish staff. Every Wednesday began with a staff meeting. He also grew in his abilities to teach the Catholic faith through preaching at Mass and faith formation classes. He says the relationships he developed will stay with him long after graduation. He was able to be with one family as they prepared for baptism.
FR. SEAN AARON: One family has five children, and I believe it was a year ago December that the four children, the oldest had been baptized but the four youngest had not, and so those four children were baptized. And that family came to my ordination. That was a neat connection that I’ve had with that particular family.
BR. JOEL: During his first year at the parish, he would visit and take communion to a homebound gentleman.
FR. SEAN AARON: I’ll never forget, when I left last May, I saw him as I was leaving to go back to Kokomo. He had a disease that was slowly taking him and so I’ll never forget when I left, he said, “You know, I hope I’m here when you’re back.” And so, I prayed for him all summer and he was here. He did survive the summer and so I was able to meet and visit with him.
I actually visited him lastly on a Wednesday and prayed with him. He was unresponsive and I found out later he died later that afternoon. The family then asked me if I would be deacon for that funeral Mass here at St. Meinrad Parish. So yeah, I’ve had a connection to that man and then also his family, as well.
BR. KOLBE: While the Workers into the Harvest program provides students hands-on learning, perhaps the most valuable outcome of the program is that it helps students discern their vocation to the priesthood. Here is Alex Crow.
ALEX CROW: You have to, at some point, start to kinda take on the disposition and the state of mind of a priest, and then apply it. I think that’s kind of what ministry kinda draws out of you. It’s in practicing it that I start to realize that whether or not this is something I’m really committed to. So I think it’s again, an indispensable part. I really don’t know how you could know that you’re … with any level of real certitude you’re called to be a priest if you never get out there and actually start to exercise the ministries that priests do. There’s really no other way, in my opinion.
BR. JOEL: Thank you for listening to our episode today about the Workers into the Harvest Program. Our next episode is also along the lines of ministry. We will be talking to Br. Zachary about prison ministry.
BR. KOLBE: This episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of Br. Joel Blaize, Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter and Christian Mocek. The music for this podcast was written and produced by Br. Joel.
BR. JOEL: We began interviewing people for this episode over two years ago and couldn’t include everyone in it, but we want to offer a heartfelt thanks to Fr. Denis Robinson, Fr. Anthony Vinson, Fr. Sean Aaron, Br. Stanley Rother Wagner, Br. Justin Ayanou, Garrett Braun, and Alex Crow.
BR. KOLBE: Thanks also to the St. John Bosco Youth Group, Brookside Village and St. Meinrad Parish for letting us record ambient audio for this episode.
BR. JOEL: If you are enjoying “Echoes from the Bell Tower,” tell your friends and subscribe to it on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite listening platform.
BR. KOLBE: And you can view some photos of students at ministry assignments and listen to past episodes on our website at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
BR. KOLBE: I think my favorite place to visit in the hospital, it was really sad, but where everyone was getting their cancer treatment. It’s just like a giant room and you’re just walking around visiting with those people and most of them have really good attitudes. It’s just a really humbling experience.