Jonathan Liedl is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis studying at the Saint Paul Seminary. He has previously worked for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Catholic Rural Life, and EWTN. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame, and an M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas.
I’ve known Oscar for only a couple days, but I already think he has some gifts that would make him a great priest.
The 19-year-old seminarian, who is just finishing his second year of formation, has been a translator of sorts for me during my visit to Buen Pastor Seminary in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela. Although he doesn’t speak any English, he patiently and clearly explains things in a way that I can understand with my limited Spanish—a welcome contrast to the typical Venezuelan speech that comes out fast and with letters missing. I can almost see him instructing his future parishioners on the revelations of our faith in the same empathetic and patient manner.
But Oscar’s progress to ordination is anything but certain, and, at least for the time being, will not be moving forward.
Like so many other seminarians in this country, currently in the fifth year of a crisis that’s made food, medicine, and other basic goods increasingly hard to come by, Oscar is interrupting his studies to support his family. His mother, already living alone and now unable to work or walk much after losing part of her foot to diabetes, is not faring well. With many of his older siblings no longer around to support her, Oscar, the youngest of seven, feels the pressure to provide. His seminary journey has already been filled with adversity, including opposition from many of his Evangelical family members, but the suffering of his mother is one obstacle that he is unable to surmount.
Last we talked, Oscar is looking for a passport so he can leave the country to find work that pays more than Venezuela’s current monthly minimum wage, which, due to mind-boggling levels of inflation, is the equivalent of just over one U.S. dollar. Maybe Oscar will go to Peru or Argentina, or maybe even Queens in New York City, where he has a cousin. He’s making plans somewhat on the fly, and, at least when we first spoke about it, he hasn’t even told his rector or bishop yet. He hopes to return to seminary eventually, but the uncertainty of that ever happening is apparent.
The struggle of seminarians to pursue their vocation in the midst of Venezuela’s crisis has not gone unnoticed by local Church leaders. Some have told me that as many as 10 percent of aspiring priests have interrupted studies in the past five years, explicitly for the purpose of supporting their families, although that number is unconfirmed by the country’s conference of bishops.
For each seminarian with a struggling family who’s chosen to interrupt his studies, there’s another who’s chosen to remain. But the pain they feel in their heart, the conflict between pursuing the vocation they believe Christ has called them to and leaving seminary to support their families, doesn’t disappear. Luis, 37, still struggles with thoughts of interrupting his studies, even though he’s only a year away from diaconate ordination. His father passed away in 2013, after the family couldn’t access medicine for a treatable heart condition. Now Luis’s mother, at age 68 and with her own health deteriorating, lives alone in the rural village where he comes from. Luis tells me he is confident in his vocation and he wants to fight for it, but sometimes he has to “turn off” thoughts about his family in order to continue.
Other seminarians express a sense of guilt over the fact that they eat three daily meals while their brothers and sisters back home sometimes go through a day without eating. Of course, the food the seminarians eat isn’t anything extravagant. Usually a single corn-meal arepa or a mix of rice and beans, or a sardines mix that this gringo couldn’t even stomach, suffices for a meal. When I ask Marcel, another seminarian at Buen Pastor, how the crisis has affected him, he simply lifts up his shirt to show me his ribs pressing against his taut skin. A common refrain I hear from the seminarians is that it’s difficult to pray or study when you’re constantly hungry.
It’s a sobering contrast to my own experience of seminary life back in Minnesota, where we have access to an all-you-can-eat dining hall for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and where the predominant struggles among seminarians seem to be frustrations with academics, difficulties with community life, and the challenges of celibacy.
And according to those who began their studies at Buen Pastor before the crisis began, it’s a departure from how life used to be at the seminary. They recall happier times, when each seminarian received a cake on his birthday and meals were filling and frequent. But as the economy has nosedived, so has the level of support the Venezuelan faithful have been able to provide to the seminary.
Today, Fr. Hermes, the seminary’s rector for the past two years, tells me that finding enough food for his 40 or so seminarians is one of the hardest parts of his job. Other basics, like soap, shaving razors and clean clothes are also difficult to come by. The seminary recently received a shipment of donated goods from some generous people in Miami, but only after it had passed through customs; government officials took what they wanted, and the seminarians got the leftovers.
And yet, Fr. Hermes sees a silver-lining in his seminarians’ struggles. The crisis, he says, has fostered a sense of solidarity and family-like closeness within the seminary community, and is teaching the future priests to trust in the Lord and to remain joyful in difficult times.
They’re important lessons to learn, because the seminarians of today will be the pastors of tomorrow. They’ll be assigned to the barrios where millions of Venezuelans are suffering, in need of faith and hope as much as bread and water. Lord willing, the struggles of the men at Buen Pastor will prepare them to serve and accompany their people, addressing their needs, preaching the Gospel and providing a tangible witness to the closeness of God in difficult times.
Jonathan Liedl is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. He is currently spending part of his summer at the archdiocese’s Venezuelan mission parish, Jesucristo Resucitado, in the Diocese of Ciudad Guyana. He visited Buen Pastor seminary in late June.