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Arlington seminarians share papal encounter, thoughts on letters from home

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VATICAN CITY — There are six diocesan seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and one studying for the diocese in Madrid. Last week, they all met Pope Francis prior to the audience with the bishops of Region 4 making their ad limina visit to the Vatican.

One seminarian had been studying in Rome for four years and had never had the chance to meet the pope. That all changed when Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge brought the seminarians to greet the Holy Father prior to his meeting.

Seminarian Tim Courtney, who arrived in Rome just five months ago, detailed the papal encounter.

“We took a bus over to the Apostolic Palace, and you go through successive rings of castle walls and wait in a bunch of different rooms,” he said. “The encounter itself was just a handshake. I told him I was praying for him and he handed me a rosary. It doesn’t sound like much because there was a lot of waiting for like 15 seconds, but it really meant a lot.”

Deacon Joe Moschetto said it was a very surreal experience. “There I was, face to face and shaking hands with the successor of St. Peter. It was over in the blink of an eye, but I will always remember the experience.” 

Courtney recalled his first week in Rome when Pope Francis welcomed the first-year men at the NAC during one of his Sunday Angelus addresses. “Ever since then, I’ve been especially sure to remember him in prayer because that experience made things so personal. We need to pray for him, and he cares for us.”

Deacon Peter McShurley, in his fourth and last year at the NAC, said the Arlington seminarians pray for the pope every day at Mass. “Being able to encounter him in person adds something to my prayers for him because I know exactly who I’m praying for. I’ve looked him in the eyes and he’s looked me in the eyes. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.”

This was the second time Deacon McShurley has shaken Pope Francis’ hand. He was a server for the pope’s 2017 Christmas Mass. “Before Mass begins, the pope goes around and shakes hands with all the servers, very quick. But I had a similar experience then as now of seeing this man in person and being able to add that personal aspect to my prayers for him.”

Seminary

Not every diocesan seminarian has the opportunity to study in Rome, where they live at the NAC and attend classes at universities in Rome. Others attend St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, and Hogar Sacerdotal “Padre Laforet” at the Universidad San Damaso in Madrid, Spain.

The biggest difference between the experience the seminarians get at the NAC versus other seminaries is the city, according to Courtney. He said the community at the NAC is not all that different from other seminaries. “We have prayer in common, we have the sacraments in common, we try to build fraternity and it’s really similar. The difference is that when we step outside, it's just different to be in such close proximity (to) the heart of the church and all the sort of opportunities that come along with that.”

“And the distance from home,” Deacon McShurley added. “It is difficult in one way, but it also offers opportunities. I remember my first year being a little bit upset about it but then realizing where were Mary and Jesus and Joseph that first Christmas. They were traveling, they were completely uncomfortable and in a very vulnerable situation. That really gave me food for prayer, because it was experiencing in just a tiny, minuscule way and being able to unite that with the first Christmas.  It really enriched my experience over here.”

Courtney said, “The distance and being in Rome is not about being able to do cool things, which certainly we are. But that's not what seminary formation is about. If you're here because there’s cool things to do, then you're probably not going to make it because there's other ways that you can do cool things. What it's about is what you fall back on when everything that you're familiar with and comfortable with in your country, in your own seminary, even in your own family, that's gone.

“So, what do you fall back on? It's a situation where you need Jesus a lot more and you feel that more acutely than you ever have. Being able to use that in prayer is a perfect example of part of the reason that we're over here,” he said

Courtney said when Bishop Burbidge asked him to go to the NAC, he “had to learn Italian, get a visa, and you don’t even think about what you’ll need for around the house. You’re not going to Target and coming back in 45 minutes. Here you go to six places, four might be open, and two might have what you need. It’s a lot to take in. But I never imagined I’d get to do the things I do — shake hands with the pope.”

For Deacon McShurley, when then-Bishop Paul S. Loverde sent him to the NAC, he told him he would be studying at the heart of the church. “It’s taught me a lot. The city is an education itself.”

He said he studies with people from all over the world, including a nun from Iraq whose church was burned down in a terrorist act. “Experiencing the universal church was a huge experience and neat to see.”

For Mike Nugent, a first theology seminarian from St. Agnes Church in Arlington, he said, “It’s a privilege to see the truly global scope of the church.

“I am particularly edified and challenged by the humble example of the religious seminarians in our classes who, in addition to their extensive theological studies, serve the poor of Rome daily in their houses of formation.”

Discernment

Deacon McShurley was ordained a transitional deacon last summer and just started a theology program at a new university where all the classes are in Italian. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment but it’s been really good.”

Talking about discernment, he said, “In one sense all the discernment happens before you're getting ordained a deacon because at that point you make your promises of celibacy, obedience and praying the Liturgy of the Hours. (Since then), I've had complete peace with regard to God calling me to this vocation. It doesn’t mean that life is easy, but it’s a complete peace with the vocation to the diaconate and looking forward to priesthood next year.” The ordination to the priesthood is scheduled for June 6, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Courtney, who studied philosophy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, is a third-year seminarian.

“One of the attitudes that has really helped me in my discernment is to take things as they come and rely a lot on the bishop who has a sort of charism for discernment, and to focus only on what am I doing to grow closer to Christ today. How have I failed to do that? How have I done that successfully? On a given day I do not think at all about whether I'm called to be a priest. It doesn't even occur to me. Maybe once a semester I take stock and think, how is this going? 

“I didn’t understand that before entering the seminary. I thought you had to internally wrestle with this giant question of how God wants you to spend your life, but it’s not like that. You have a lot of help and the system works, so trust it. If you're a young man and you don't know what you might be called to do, there are resources out there (including) the vocations office,” Courtney said.

Deacon McShurley agreed. “It’s entrusting yourself to the church and to the tools given to us to help us discern our vocation. It's not like God has some mystery card that he's trying to withhold from you, that he’s only going to reveal to you some special time or something.

“If you are striving to live a life faithful to Christ, that's the important thing and that will draw you into maybe entering seminary, if you think that that's right for you, or that will draw you into discerning marriage or the religious life.”

The folks back home

Both Deacon MsShurley and Courtney said the letters from home mean a lot. They wanted to be sure to tell the folks back home, “Thanks for the letters. I just love getting mail,” Courtney said. “Before I left, people would tell me I’ll be praying for you. And I said thank you very much. But it wasn't until things sort of got under way when that started to mean a lot to me knowing that people back home are praying for us by name, they care about us. They expect us to continually grow in holiness and they want good things for us. That means a lot. And I'm very grateful to them.”

Deacon McShurley agreed. He said during his summer parish assignment people would tell him they saw his name on the diocesan vocations poster and are praying for him. “It’s not because I'm Peter that they're praying for me but it's because they desire to have vocations and priests in the Diocese of Arlington. It’s amazing the amount of time and prayer that they put into that. It’s really humbling but also very reassuring.”

The seminarians said they love the mail from school children. “We’ll get a whole envelope from a fourth grade class and they’ve all made these little cards and they say, ‘I’m praying for you.’ They always have little pictures and are really touching,” Courtney said. “Some of them are hilarious. I remember this little girl who said, ‘Dear Tim, Are you a priest? If not, please become one.’ And a kid who drew his parish, the altar and the pews and a stick figure saying Mass at the altar. He said, ‘This is you.’ And there was a family sitting all the way in the back. He said, ‘This is me and my family.’ It was hilarious.”

Both men said they want the people in the diocese to know that they are praying for the bishop, the diocese and all the faithful. Every week they gather to recite a rosary and once a month they have a holy hour for the diocese.

Meet the seminarians in Rome

Deacon Peter McShurley from St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal
Deacon Joe Moschetto from Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls
Tim Courtney from St. Rita Church in Alexandria
Mike Nugent from St. Agnes Church in Arlington
Mike Lewis from St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington
Mauricio Portillo from St. John the Beloved Church in McLean 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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