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Catholic Vancouver May 9, 2019

Seminary now one year longer, and students say that’s a good thing

By Agnieszka Ruck

Father Hien Nguyen (centre) with seven seminarians who have just completed a Spirituality Year, the first stage in pursuing the priesthood. This new requirement from the Vatican means men discerning the priesthood in Vancouver must now spend at least nine years in formation. (Photo submitted)

The long process of training diocesan priests in Vancouver has just become another year longer.

As of last fall, men interested in ordained life must spend a “Spirituality Year” under the supervision of priests at Seminary of Christ the King before starting studies of theology and philosophy, extending the wait to become a priest to at least nine years.

But according to three young seminarians who have just finished the archdiocese’s first Spirituality Year, it is totally worth it.

“My main takeaway is knowing, believing, and trusting that God the Father loves me,” said Alexis Boquiren.

The aim of the Spirituality Year is to immerse would-be priests in personal development, spiritual direction, time in prayer, and one month of full-time service in the community before they dive into eight years of academic study.

Boquiren was assigned to spend his “immersion month” living with five people with developmental disabilities in a home operated by the non-profit L’Arche in Burnaby. He had never interacted with people with disabilities before.

“There was a bit of a struggle in the first week or two there, because I was always asking: ‘What do I do now?’ Through prayer, I was able to realize that it’s just being with them that’s the most important. That’s really what they need,” he said.

Living in the L’Arche home wasn’t about cooking meals or running errands for its residents. Most often, it meant watching TV, going for walks, or learning to knit. “They feel a lot of loneliness, especially those who struggle with anxiety, depression, Down Syndrome, dementia, and other types of developmental disabilities … Most of the time what other people need is people to just be with them, to listen to them, and to be attentive to their needs.”

Alexis Boquiren (right) and a fellow seminarian at the entrance to a L’Arche home. (Photo submitted)

Boquiren said while he learned to listen to and love others, he also learned to love himself.

“There is a lot of struggle with self-image and wondering if I am loved. Throughout this whole year, and in my immersion experience working with developmentally disabled people, (I learned) I am loved regardless of my weaknesses or strengths. That is something I will really bring to my next year and the rest of my life. It’s fundamental.”

While Boquiren lived at L’Arche, peer Luke Tam Tran was on the other side of the world, meeting the sick, poor, and orphaned in a tiny village in Vietnam. Their experiences were completely different but, it turns out, the lessons learned were much the same.

“You cannot imagine how joyful the kids, 1 to 3 years old, were. We were strangers to them, but all of them ran and jumped on us,” said Tran.

He spent one week among hundreds of orphans under the care of religious nuns. In such a short time, Tran was dismayed he couldn’t teach the poorly educated children much of anything. But he realized he had something else to offer: his time and his love. He would seek out youngsters who would eat by themselves, who didn’t seem to have any friends.

“They need support in spiritual things more than food. Many people support them for food ... but no one helps them to be certain about their emotional life, no one helps them to discover their life,” he said.

In return for his companionship, “they put the love that they want to give to their parents to me,” he said. “I had only to hug them, to kiss them, and to wish that in the future they might have a better life.”

Luke Tam Tran (right) in Vietnam. (Photo submitted)
Luke Tam Tran (back row, centre) with Vietnamese children. (Photo submitted)

Tran also spent a week volunteering with Medical Aid for Vietnam, a non-profit created by Father Tien Tran of St. Matthew’s Parish in Surrey, and another week meeting villagers living on a mountainside who spoke a dialect he couldn’t understand. He tried to make connections and be available for people anyway.

“Throughout that month, it opened up for me that I like to travel and go to the poor people.” Tran would return to the orphanages of Vietnam or volunteer in poor regions in Africa, “not because I want to help them, but because I want to be with them. I want to connect and stay with them as who they are, so I can know their lives.”

Steven Borkowski had a job clearing tables at White Spot before he entered the seminary. He said he’s worked with people with developmental disabilities before, and as the oldest of seven children, is good with kids. But the Spirituality Year sent him out of his comfort zone, too: he spent a month living among the homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Borkowski and two other seminarians slept in a tiny office at the Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel by night, and toured various services for the poor and homeless by day. One such centre was The Door is Open, which offers at least 400 free meals a day and other programs.

He helped prepare and serve the food, but on days when there were too many cooks in the kitchen, Borkowski participated in the most “educational” part of the experience: talking with guests.

“I met some surprising people,” he said. “It struck me how they don’t have much, but they’re grateful for what they do have.”

On his way to high school, Borkowski used to pass homeless or low-income people on the streets in Surrey’s Newton neighbourhood. “I was kind of scared of them,” he admitted.

“After this experience, I am not afraid of these people anymore. I can imagine, if I ever went back to that school, I could sit with one of the guys and chat with them.”

Steven Borkowski (second from left) with fellow seminarians and Mildred Moy, the head of St. Mary's Street Ministry, one of several non-profits these seminarians served during their immersion month in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. (Photo submitted)

During the immersion month, “I got to see their humanity and it was stepping out of my comfort zone and taking a leap of faith that allowed me to see their goodness.”

After completing the Spirituality Year, Alexis, Tran, Borkowski, and four fellow seminarians were set to participate in a silent retreat to discern if they would continue with their studies toward the priesthood. 

Tran said whether all seven young men become priests or not, their experiences were extremely valuable. 

“This is so good for young people. They do not learn only about spiritual things, but they learn about their human formation. It is crucial for them because it will help them not only to become a good person in their family, but they will become better for the society, for the parish, and for the country,” he said.

“I hope that many young people will take the risk, a good risk, and will learn many, many things.”

The Spirituality Year was launched in the Archdiocese of Vancouver in response to a 2016 document from the Vatican called The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.

“The experience of recent decades has revealed the need to dedicate a period of time to preparation of an introductory nature, in view of the priestly formation to follow, or alternatively, of the decision to follow a different path in life,” it said.

The document calls for a “propaeudeutic stage,” to “provide a solid basis for the spiritual life and to nurture a greater self-awareness for personal growth” for seminarians. It is supposed to last one to two years, be separate from academic studies, and exist in a house set apart from the rest of the seminary. The Archdiocese of Vancouver has opted to give it an easier name to spell.

Want to read more about vocations and vocational discernment? You might like this article about Deacon Felix Min's journey to ordination, this story about Sister Cecilia's misconceptions of cloistered life, or a personal testimony from a young woman trying to discover her calling on a mountaintop.    

Seminarians Luke Tam Tran, Alexis Boquiren, and Steven Borkowski. (Agnieszka Ruck photo)