MINNEAPOLIS—A group of young priests and seminarians in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis blends diocesan priesthood with a type of community living more associated with religious orders. The fraternity, called Companions of Christ, finds itself attracting supporters and vocations with its evangelical charism and zeal for living obedient, simple, and chaste lives.
“People are very attracted to priests living communally in their diocesan service,” said Father Jeffrey Huard, leader of the Companions. “Community, when well done, offers strength. One of the great vulnerabilities that any diocesan priest would note is the danger of isolation. Ecclesiastes [4:9,12] says, ‘Two are better than one, and a three-ply cord is not easily broken.’ Young people are thirsting for community.”
The Companions currently has 17 members: seven priests and 10 seminary or pre-theology students. Several others have expressed an interest in the community. It began in 1985 when several young men in Michi-gan and Minnesota formed a lay brotherhood in St. Paul committed to living together to promote holiness and serve the Church. The Companions of Christ were formally established as a public association of the Church by then Archbishop John Roach in 1992. The original members shared a history of living communal lives and an apostolate of youth ministry and evangelization — a charism that continues today as a complement to other ministerial duties.
“There's a flavor among us that tends to be very evangelism-minded: sharing the Faith, expressing a love for Christ quite openly, quite actively,” says Father Huard.
(Another group of Companions in Detroit comprises a handful of men but has yet to achieve public association status. Its men therefore do not live together or enjoy the full expression of the Minnesota group.)
The St. Paul fraternity has a board of advisers for theological advice. Current Archbishop Harry Flynn has been “extremely supportive, very encouraging for this model and for its use in the archdiocese,” according to Father Huard, who is also director of campus ministry at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, just across the street from one of the four Companion houses.
Two other households are in St. Paul and one in its suburbs. Each household has an oratory that houses the Blessed Sacrament, and the men pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, have a holy hour of prayer each morning, and gather for dinner about three times a week. In addition, the entire community meets regularly for Eucharistic adoration, dinner, evening prayer, and fellowship. The men also meet weekly in small groups to discuss community life and share joys and concerns about their faith and work.
In the two houses near the University of St. Thomas, guests — often students —regularly stop by to be fed at the table or spiritually in prayer. Students from the St. Paul seminary, which adjoins St. Thomas, often visit to pray, study, and socialize with community members.
All guests witness the draw of a healthy community committed to the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity. “There's a lot of power in men living joy-filled celibate lives,” Father Huard explains. “There's something about a vibrant celibate witness; it's very stunning to young people. We're not ashamed of the faith, and young people very much are longing for certitude, for clarity. That kind of clear, fresh witness to the splendor of Jesus Christ is really potent. Jesus Christ is ever-attractive.”
The Companions' desire for communal living, however, does not overshadow their call to serve as diocesan priests in whatever capacity necessary. “We're very concerned to be and remain diocesan priests,” says Father Huard, who was elected moderator, or head, of the Companions for a three-year term.
It seems the dual role of community member and parish priest has worked well. Father William Baer, associate pastor at Nativity of our Lord church in St. Paul, lives with other Companions on a floor of the rectory at the Cathedral of St. Paul across town and has found little conflict. “The key is to inform the people at the parish from the get-go that these are my existing commitments. I worked pretty hard from the beginning to be present as much as possible in parish life, and people learned very quickly that they have no more difficulty getting in touch with me than any other priest. In fact, most people are very concerned that I be getting the kind of time I need with community and prayer time and so on.”
Father Andrew Cozzens, associate pastor at the Cathedral of St. Paul, has also found that community life complements, rather than confounds, parish ministry. “Every priest needs community life and for me it's built-in, so it actually saves me work.” He said at times he's had to make difficult choices about ministry vs. community life or when fatigue dampens his enthusiasm for a community event. But, he says, “those are a minimum. In fact, community builds into my life a safeguard that keeps me from the extremes of overworking or overrelaxing. I would argue that it makes me better in my parish ministry because I'm a healthier priest.
“There's a growing sense that priests are overworked, lonely, and isolated, so [parishioners] approach it from a very practical standpoint. They say, ‘It makes sense. These priests have decided to enrich their lives by joining themselves together.’”
Companions in the seminary, who receive the same instruction as any other seminarian, find a similar balance. “I've been impressed by how much I've been able to participate in the seminary's life,” says first-year theology student Michael Keating. “There isn't much that I miss because of being in community.”
In fact, similar to the priests' experience, community can provide a certain moderating influence for seminarians. “It's a community of priests who have lots of time commitments,” says Keating. “So the life is fashioned to provide certain bases of life in the midst of what is fundamentally a full-time job. I'm a seminarian, but that's kind of a full-time job. Study can be one of those unbalancing things, so it's nice to have such a regular round of life, like meals, prayers, etc.”
For a growing number of young men called to such a balanced life of prayer, sacrifice, and witness, the Companions of Christ is fostering vocations in a diocese that, in general, is seeing more seminarians. Archdiocesan vocation director Father William Pelant, himself a Companion, says that nationwide vocations are on the rise, especially in orders and dioceses that are faithful to the Catholic faith.
Father Pelant sees the problem with vocations in some areas of the country as being “not so much a crisis of vocations to the priesthood and religious life as a crisis of faith.” In this “culture of death,” he says, we have lost “generativity” — the generating of enthusiasm for the faith and for vocations.
But in the Companions of Christ, he explains, “We have this hunger to evangelize, to preach the Gospel, that for which we were primarily ordained. And we nourish each other by praying together, by standing tall with one another, by having a common ideal, by seeking truth, by hungering for the life of Christ in the Church, in her sacraments, and in and among one another.”
In addition to having a solid message, it helps to have the right opportunities to foster vocations. “We do a lot of youth speaking, a lot of retreat work,” says Father Huard, “and in those settings we're always forthright about the beauty of the consecrated life.
“My hope for us in this archdiocese is that many, many young men will find their avenue to priesthood because of the attraction to other young priests living community vibrantly, witnessing to Christ vibrantly, loving the Church.”
James Wappes writes from Minneapolis.