In the three years Ave Maria University has offered its pre-theologate program for men discerning a possible call to the priesthood, enrollment has zoomed from six students to 50-plus.

What’s more, some 70% of Ave Maria’s pre-theologate grads have made the leap from Naples, Fla., to major seminary. That’s double the national average for college-seminary students, according to the College of Seminary Rectors.

Thanks to these statistics, the department confidently calls itself the fastest-growing undergraduate program of priestly formation in the United States.

And then there’s this: In 2004, the university added a women’s-discernment program. Already six young women have gone on from Ave Maria to join religious orders.

“The university is striving to be part of the renewal in the Church,” says Father Robert Garrity, the school’s chaplain, “and this is a sign of good things to come.”

One of the contributing factors to the pre-theologate program’s early success is the flexibility it provides, says Father Michael Beers, dean of the program. Young men who are thinking about the priesthood are given time to discern without committing to a formal college seminary: They can enter or leave the program at any time.

“If at any time in a college-seminary program a man discerns it’s not for him, the only course is to leave the seminary altogether,” explains Father Beers. “Typically, we might get 15 to 20 men in a year in our pre-theologate program. In a couple of days or a week, two or three might realize this is not the program for them. But they continue on as university students here.” These young students lose neither time nor credits.

There’s an added benefit to the Church. “We typically pick up thee or four new students who have come to the university,” says Father Beers. “After seeing and praying the first week with this group, they ask to join us.”

The open format is one of the program’s most appealing features. “Flexibility is the real key,” says Father Beers, who spent 20 years forming priests at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio and at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Maryland.

Campus Crusaders

Men in the pre-theologate have the freedom of university students while sharing in the kind of community life that’s distinctive of a seminary. They live on one dormitory floor, and gather for daily morning and evening prayer. The pre-theologate dean encourages the men to spend an hour a day praying before the Blessed Sacrament.

There’s daily adoration at the university’s chapel for all students, plus weekly exposition and adoration for the men in the pre-theologate chapel.

“The Eucharist is central to the program,” says Father Beers, adding that it’s one of the three pillars on which the whole pre-theologate program rests. The other two are devotion to Our Lady and fidelity to the Holy Father as the vicar of Christ. All the successful priestly formation programs he’s seen rest on these three.

The women’s discernment program is built on the same rocks. The young women live together on one dormitory floor, have a chapel where they pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, have a weekly Holy Mass and meeting together, and attend retreats and monthly outings.

“It’s a dynamic program,” says Father Garrity. “The young women who enter have peace and joy, and they’re identifiable on campus. They’re a great blessing for all of us.”

The Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother (Hogar de la Madre) were asked to come from Spain specifically to offer this vocation-discernment program, which is open to leading women to the religious, consecrated or married life.

Last year, 17 were in this program, which, like pre-theologate, gives the young women the leeway to leave or enter after the semester begins.

“In the past two years, we’ve had eight girls who left the program because they discerned a vocation to the religious life,” says Servant Sister Grace. “Six have persevered and two left, but not from Ave Maria.”

Women have gone on from here to join the Franciscans, cloistered Carmelites, the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., and the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother.

In both programs, the men and women are also “regular” students encouraged to join in campus life.

“We promote and strongly encourage participation in every aspect of the university,” says Father Beers. “That’s part of the life of all our students, in and out of discernment.”

Sister Grace agrees. “We encourage them to be very active on campus like any other students here,” she says, citing the school’s pro-life club and its sports activities. 

Dispatching Disciples

Luke Suarez, a third-year pre-theologate student, serves as an officer in the student government and is active on the university’s social committee.

When Suarez was having a hard time about direction in life during his first year at Ave Maria and thought perhaps he was running away from his vocation, he joined the pre-theologate program.

“Amazing opportunities opened up,” Suarez says. “The program helped me to feel very confirmed and comfortable in pursuit of the priesthood.” This summer, he began the formal process of applying as a seminarian for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn.

Similarly, the women’s discernment program guided junior Stephanie Smith. She joined out of a deep desire to discover the vocation God designed especially for her, she says.

“During my three semesters of discernment, I focused on centering my life on Christ and giving him my whole heart,” she explains. “After much praying, I discerned my vocation to be married. I knew that, no matter what my vocation would be, Jesus had to be my first love.”

“We want the young girls to say their Yes to whatever vocation God has chosen for them,” says Sister Grace. “We tell them, “take the Blessed Mother to be your model your teacher, and she will show you how to say your Yes.”

The same happens with the many young men interested in formally preparing for the priesthood or discerning a vocation to it.

“Even if they discern the priesthood is not for them and they’d rather be married, that is a happy outcome as well,” says Father Garrity. “The pre-theologate helps a young man to grow in his faith and be a good witness in the Catholic faith wherever the Holy Spirit leads him.”

If he were to give a “state of the discernment programs” address right now, Father Garrity could begin and end it with his concluding quote to the Register: “God is alive and well at Ave Maria.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull,

Connecticut.

Information

Ave Maria University

(877) 283-8648

naples.avemaria.edu