In 1992, six seminarians in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese received permission to form a fraternity so they could pray and support each other as they became priests.
Now, members of the canonically established public association the Companions of Christ, they are priests in leadership roles.
Since their founding, the Companions have grown fourfold and have seen a new chapter established in Denver, as young priests and seminarians around the country hear the same call to live out together the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in order to grow in holiness and become strong diocesan priests.
Inspired by the writings of recent popes and Vatican II that encourage priests to form a common life, the Companions have renewed the charism of fraternal commitment that is at the core of their life together, according to Father Jon Vander Ploeg, Minnesota Companions superior and pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis.
"We just want to live diocesan priesthood well," he said. "We want to be obedient to the archbishop, live the counsels, live in deep fraternity and grow in holiness together with brother diocesan priests. I think, for me, that’s the main goal: How do we live diocesan priesthood where we’re supporting each other and seeking holiness as diocesan priests? How do we serve the archdiocese the way that the archbishop deems best?"
Throughout Church history, diocesan priests have been called to give each other fraternal support, said Father Vander Ploeg, emphasizing that the life of the Companions is not the only way to do this.
Though influenced by St. Ignatius of Loyola and the North American martyrs, the Companions are not a religious order. Sharing common life as religious do, as well as developing strong relationships and holding each other accountable, helps alleviate the problem of isolation some diocesan priests face.
Common life has been central to the Companions since they shared a household as single men living for the Lord while doing evangelization work in the ’80s and early ’90s, said Father Andrew Cozzens, a founding Companion and assistant professor of sacramental theology at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
With encouragement from then-auxiliary Bishop Robert Carlson that they could continue their fraternal way of life as priests, they entered the seminary and sought to be canonically established in the Church.
"One of the groups I was most honored to have a small role in their formation was the Companions of Christ," said now-Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis. "When I first met them, they were a group of young men open to serving as priests, but looking for a structure where they could be held accountable to prayer and service. Through community and in some cases sharing the same living situation, they call each other to walk the path of holiness and the commitment to be a witness and disciple of Christ, the Good Shepherd."
The more senior Companions now serve as pastors, seminary rectors and professors and have been involved in diocesan priestly formation, Father Cozzens said.
With membership at 19 priests and five seminarians, including two priests ordained this spring, the Minnesota Companions are under the authority of St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt. They live together in households as much as possible, depending on their parish assignments, but all participate in fraternal-sharing groups, gather regularly for prayer, fellowship and meetings and attend annual retreats and conferences.
Six priests currently make up the Denver Companions; established in 2007, they have a similar rule of life and statutes that are also particular to their archdiocese. The two groups have frequent contact and share some conferences. The Minnesota Companions have "been really big brothers and mentors and friends and support for us as we sought to bring that style of diocesan priesthood life to Denver," said Father Matthew Book, a Denver Companion and secretary to Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila.
Jesuit Father John Horn got to know the Companions as he directed them on Ignatian retreats at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Neb., where he was a co-founder and faculty member.
Several years ago, Father Horn, now president-rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, helped facilitate the Companions’ process of rewriting their rule.
"Through lots of ordinary fits and starts in the humanity of it all, they’re just very dedicated and focused," he said. "I find them a beautiful fraternity."
When the Companions chose their name — based on Mark 3:14 — they realized that St. Ignatius had also called his first group of priests "companions," Father Cozzens said. The call for priestly renewal that St. Ignatius and others heard is not new, he said.
"It’s a little-known fact that, in the history of the Church, whenever there was need for renewal in the priesthood, you find that the Church pushes the diocesan priests towards deeper commitments in common life and in the evangelical counsels."
The Companions have found affirmation for their way of life in statements of Blessed Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Vatican II writings, Father Cozzens said.
Father Brian Park knew he was called to priesthood, but getting to know the Companions while he was doing evangelization work in Minnesota convinced him that he wanted to serve there rather than in his home state of Texas.
"I wouldn’t be in the archdiocese (of St. Paul and Minneapolis) if it weren’t for the Companions," said Father Park, who was ordained this past May and is serving at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, Minn. "That’s what first drew me here to stay. It was a huge factor and part of my vocation to the priesthood."
Young members’ enthusiasm inspires the more mature ones, Father Cozzens said. "It’s actually been one of the beautiful things — to see how deeply the younger brothers embrace the charism and how it strengthens them and how strong their commitment is to it. It helps the older brothers remember how important it is."
The life and charism of the Companions continues to witness to the laity and especially to priests and seminarians, said Father Book, who envisions a confederation of Companions associations around the country. "You can just tell there’s a great hunger among the seminarians and young priests for something like this," he said. "I hope that translates into becoming actual associations that the bishops will recognize."
Father Park said he is glad the Companions’ vision hasn’t changed much. "We just want to serve with one another, evangelize with one another and pray with one another."
As the Holy Spirit moved to renew the priesthood in other eras, he continues to work in the hearts of diocesan priests, including the Companions, calling them to a life of brotherly friendship, according to Father Cozzens.
"We’ve just discovered as we’ve attempted to live this that one of the ways — not the only way, but one of the ways — that the Holy Spirit has often renewed the priesthood is through inviting men to join their lives together in order to strengthen each other in living a deeper commitment to the ideals of the priesthood."
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.