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Seminarians find ways to adapt

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In just a few weeks, families, parishioners and clergy across the Diocese of Arlington have had to adjust to distance learning, telework and livestreamed liturgies — and the diocesan seminarians are no exception. Amid seminary closures, quarantines and online classes, the young men studying for the priesthood are finding quiet amid the chaos to remain focused on their studies, ministries and upcoming ordinations. 


Rounding out a pastoral year

Gardening. Yardwork. “And doing a lot of cleaning,” said Deacon James F. Waalkes.


That’s how the transitional deacon is keeping busy rounding out his pastoral year at St. Philip Church in Falls Church since public Masses and liturgies were suspended.


Before the coronavirus put a halt to parish activities, Deacon Waalkes had a full schedule that included “deaconing and preaching” at daily and weekend Masses, and doing baptisms and leading adoration.


“I’m kind of like a permanent-temporary deacon here,” he said, as he listed his responsibilities.


He also taught Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, and the equivalent for children, led youth groups and monthly meetings with young adults, and a performed a weekly Friday concert for three preschool classrooms at St. Philip Early Childhood Center.


It was the latter that sparked an idea for staying in touch with the homebound youngsters when activities abruptly ground to a halt.


After a skit explaining the importance of saying the rosary that Deacon Waalkes, Father William Nyce, parochial vicar, and Father Denis M. Donahue, pastor, recorded to post on YouTube, Father Donahue suggested to Deacon Waalkes that he record “Old McDonald,” a favorite at the preschool. “The preschool kids would love to see you,” he said.


The resulting video gained a responsive audience not just at St. Philip but throughout the diocese, amassing over 2,000 views.


With guitar in hand, sometimes a harmonica, and always a touch of flair, the deacon has recorded several more preschool classics including “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “This Old Man,” in two parts. Sometimes he prefaces the songs with a reflection, as before a popular song about transportation: “All of our lives sometimes feel like we’re just going round and round, but we gotta break free,” he said before beginning “Wheels on the Bus.”


The music videos are a fun break to an otherwise quiet rhythm of morning prayers, directing traffic for drive-thru, socially distanced, confessions, calling parishioners, washing the dishes after meals, and working on his garden, where he’s growing strawberries, kale and other greens.


Despite the pandemic’s interruption to regular duties, Deacon Waalkes has enjoyed his pastoral year and feels comfortable in the parish environment.


“There’s something very natural about it,” he said. “It fits."

Leaving Rome  


Deacon Joseph Moschetto did not see it coming. The seminarians received an email late one night in early March saying they had permission to leave the North American College in Rome, and to work with their bishops and dioceses for next steps.


“It seemed to me half the guys in the house saw it coming, the other half didn’t,” he said. “I was in the half that didn’t see it coming.”


By the following morning, some seminarians had already departed. In agreement with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and the Arlington diocese, Deacon Moschetto and the other transitional deacon, Peter McShurley, decided to return to the United States to ensure they would be back in time for ordination in June.


“It seemed like this was going to be something that was going to last for a while,” Deacon Moschetto said, as the coronavirus continued to spread in Italy and countries increased travel restrictions and lockdowns in response.


The two seminarians had about a day to pack and say their goodbyes to their four-year home before returning to the states and quarantining for two weeks in a residence set up by the diocese.


Since finishing quarantine, Deacon Moschetto has been at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, where he was assigned last summer. He assists with Mass and is finishing up with classes online. The transition to online classes was “remarkably smooth,” he said, as professors moved coursework online and set up videoconferencing, but “definitely more impersonal.”


And it’s the personal touch — the people and friendships — that stand out as he reflects on his four years at the NAC and prepares for ordination.


“Lots of things happened, but it was always who I was with that made those memories,” he said.


Some memories won’t happen, or at least not until later, as the early departure meant the graduating seminarians missed out on end-of-year dinners and the class photo.


“The pace at which it’s been changing has been the hardest adjustment,” he said.


Leaving the NAC may have been a shock, but the possibility of a postponed ordination is not.


“When this started happening I kind of foresaw the possibility of ordination being postponed,” he said. “(It’s a) good opportunity to remember my time is not God’s time.”


With Virginia’s stay-at-home order until June 10 leaving the June 6 ordination in question, Deacon Moschetto is using the unknown to trust in God, prepare, and “just to be ready whenever we are able to do it.” 

Seminary from the rectory


Jonathan Smith made a call from his residence at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., to the rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria: “I have a feeling the seminary is going to close,” he told Father Edward C. Hathaway. “Can I move into the rectory for the foreseeable future?”  


The seminary did close, the next day. Students were told to pack for about five weeks, since the institution was shuttering for two and then heading into a two-week spring break.


“We really felt like the Israelites fleeing Egypt,” Smith said.


By the weekend, Smith had moved into the rectory and was assisting during Masses at the basilica.


“It was a good transition because this is my home parish,” said Smith, who knew he wanted “something more similar to the structure of the seminary” than living at home.


The following Wednesday, the seminary’s online classes were up and running. Smith was joined by three other seminarians at the rectory, including a classmate who lived across the hall from him at St. Charles Borromeo. Over the next few weeks as seminaries closed, diocesan seminarians moved into rectories per the direction of Bishop Burbidge, who wanted them to have access to the sacraments and the support of small communities.


The young men at the basilica are still full-time seminarians, and have tried to maintain a similar schedule with morning prayer, Mass and classwork. They also assist as sacristans, lectors and by doing house chores. But it’s been an adjustment moving from a community of 100 seminarians to a smaller group of eight: four seminarians and four priests.


“I do miss the seminarians, especially the Arlington guys,” Smith said. He’s kept in touch through phone calls, catching up with the classmates he can’t see in person. And every Saturday morning, seminarians from the diocese join a Zoom call to pray the rosary together.


On the upside, Smith said the lack of distractions has been an “easing into ordination” as he prepares to become a deacon. And on the other side of this pandemic, he’s looking forward to assisting with the sacrament boom when all the postponed baptisms and marriages, confirmations and first communions come flooding in.


“There are going to be a lot of sacraments that need to be caught up,” he said.


Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.bartlett@catholicherald.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020