New Wilderness Program for Seminarians Promises to ‘Strengthen Faith and Brotherhood’

The St. Jogues Seminarian Project is open to individual seminarians ages 18-plus from dioceses throughout the country.

Incoming students at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, are required to take a three-week wilderness trek that challenges them, both body and soul. Now, seminarians will take part, too.
Incoming students at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, are required to take a three-week wilderness trek that challenges them, both body and soul. Now, seminarians will take part, too. (photo: Photo courtesy of Aeja DeKuiper)

A small Catholic college in Lander, Wyoming, has launched a new program that challenges seminarians with wilderness experiences to strengthen their faith, vocations and pastoral skills as eventual priests.

Wyoming Catholic College (WCC), known for its rigorous academics and COR Expeditions, offers backcountry treks to high-school students, families and undergraduates as well as specific seminaries such as Holy Trinity in Irving, Texas, and the New York-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. But its new St. Jogues Seminarian Project is open to individual seminarians ages 18-plus from dioceses throughout the country.

Applications are now being accepted for the 10-week summerlong program, which includes multiday backcountry hikes in the Rocky Mountains for 12 men and a priest, with daily Mass and adoration followed by practical pastoral experience with homeless people in urban environments. The program begins the first week of June.

Thomas Zimmer, Ph.D., and Andre Klaes of COR Expeditions told CNA that the project is named for the heroic martyr St. Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit missionary priest who spread the Gospel in North America in the mid-1600s under harsh conditions.

“For the last two years, we have attended the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors and shared our mission with them and talked about what the Lord is able to do with us on our seminarian trips that we have been running for six years,” Klaes told CNA.

According to Zimmer, vocation directors have been seeking summer-assignment opportunities for seminarians to foster lifelong friendships and community as well as pastoral awareness amid adverse environments and challenges.

After a typical nine months of seminary studies, seminarians are usually sent to parishes and other summer assignments as part of their formation. Seminary deans are looking for programs that get seminarians away from computer screens and out of classrooms but still prepare them for pastoral assignments, according to Klaes, who described what they will experience for a summer assignment in the Rockies.

“They are forced to live in a tent with three other guys, live seven days straight on the trail, cooking meals, and never alone. It’s a very different experience for guys who’ve been able to isolate themselves. So that’s a big part of what we provide,” he said.

“We are providing human formation: They are literally living together, relying on each other to cook, gather water, set up shelter and endure storms. These are things that are easily stripped away from us in today’s society, where everything is so easy,” said Zimmer, who has led wilderness trips in much of the United States and several foreign countries for more than a decade. He is also a faculty member at WCC.

Young men participating in Wyoming Catholic College's COR Expeditions program pray in the mountains. Credit: Damien Walz of COR Expeditions/Wyoming Catholic College

Young men participating in Wyoming Catholic College's COR Expeditions program pray in the mountains. | Damien Walz of COR Expeditions/Wyoming Catholic College

Beginning this June 3, six to 12 seminarians will start with wilderness and first-aid training plus three weeks of hiking in the Rocky Mountains. They will hike 5 to 8 miles each day, with heavy packs, and attempt mountain climbing and river rafting. There will be daily Mass and adoration, plus spiritual direction from their chaplain.

Upon completion of the expedition, the seminarians will spend several weeks assisting in wilderness trips for high-school students and families before a final week of ministering to homeless people in conjunction with Christ in the City ministries in Colorado.

A former seminarian, Klaes recalled that a seminary dean once told him: “’The friendships you form now will be those you carry into the priesthood.’”

In Klaes’ experience, he said, “some of my priest friends struggle in the priesthood because of a lack of friendship coming into the priesthood. But those who are full of life, full of joy and doing amazing things are those who have a tight-knit group of friends on whom they can rely. Formation directors have acknowledged the fact that diocesan priests often live entirely alone, so it will be their friendships that carry them through their priesthood.”

“If we can get seminarians to have an incredible experience, where the stakes are high … the hope is that, with the friendships formed, they will be well prepared with friendships as they return to seminary,” Klaes said. He added that bishops and formators recognize that while diocesan priests do not typically live with other priests, they must serve as “social people who can build rapport and have connection.”

According to Zimmer, the initial first-aid course provides skills that, as priests, they can transfer to parish life.

“They will be taught risk management and how to recognize problems before they occur,” he said, adding that he will teach the course based on his decades of mountaineering, skiing and wilderness travel.

“They may never go into backcountry again. We want to get them to transfer what they learn to their vocation. They will recognize heart attacks, for instance, so that, as parish priests, if they notice someone at a parish barbeque with symptoms, they can apply their knowledge,” Zimmer said.

As part of the application process for the project, seminarians are interviewed and informed about the challenges they face. For example, they are expected to carry backpacks weighing 40 to 50 pounds for 21 days. Priests who join as chaplains are also expected to backpack along with the younger men. Use of cellphones is limited to taking photographs on all trips organized by COR.

In addition to hiking and pastoral work with high-school students and families, participating seminarians will have the opportunity to take college credits through WCC applicable to seminary studies. There are courses in Latin, theology and philosophy available.

Zimmer said there is no other comparable program for seminarians anywhere. “We are the only Catholic program that is nationally accredited and the only one connected to a Catholic college that’s for credit,” he said.

“There are a few programs that do short trips, here and there,” Zimmer added about the summerlong experience, “but in the Catholic world of outdoor ministry, we’re the biggest program doing things like this.”

The St. Jogues project is designed for incoming college-age seminarians in their first and second year of formation.

COR missionary Damien Walz, 22, who will accompany seminarians this summer, said the program is “not for the faint of heart.”

“The wilderness is a very real environment and you can’t hide from it. You can’t put on a mask and pretend everything is okay. There’s no place to hide. All of your strengths, all of your weaknesses come out and force you to acknowledge them,” he said.

“There is ‘decision point’ in every course,” Walz said. “You see people come to a point where they are going to ‘man up’ and decide to grow, or they won’t engage with it. What I tell the formation directors and seminarians is that this isn’t a backpacking fairy tale. This is real life — and as real as it gets. It is a place where we can delve into who we are as sons of God and live as sons of God in an authentic and masculine way. By going through the challenge, they are able to engage better with the rest of seminary formation and the people whom they will lead and serve.”

Blake Brouillette, managing director of Christ in the City, who will receive the St. Jogues seminarians toward the end of the program, told CNA that the ministry is now working with more than 20 dioceses and seminaries.

“Formation directors are seeing a transformation in their seminarians, and we are grateful to be a part of it,” he said. “We are telling seminarians, ‘Come join us. Learn and equip yourselves for your call to the priesthood, serve the poor, and equip your parishioners to do so.’”