‘To Build Our Brothers Up’: Companions for Christ Answers Call for Community for the Diocesan Priesthood

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda appreciates the ministry of these ‘joyful and compassionate diocesan priests with a heart for the work of evangelization.’

Companions of Christ priests, deacons and seminarians gather after Mass and annual profession of promises and commitment to the association in 2023.
Companions of Christ priests, deacons and seminarians gather after Mass and annual profession of promises and commitment to the association in 2023. (photo: Companions of Christ)

MINNEAPOLIS — At a time when most bishops are facing a clergy shortage, St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda’s loan of three priests to another diocese seems nothing short of remarkable.

Archbishop Hebda likely would concur. When he was asked last summer by Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Diocese of Crookston in the northwest corner of the state to consider praying about such a move, he said he would do so but that an affirmative answer was unlikely. 

Bishop Cozzens had specifically asked the archbishop for priests from the Companions of Christ, an association of diocesan clergy seeking to live out their priestly vocations centered around communal life. 

Founded in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese in 1992, the Companions differ from priests of religious orders and congregations in that they are committed to the diocesan priesthood and under the authority of their respective bishops. Bishop Cozzens was a founding member of the Companions, who currently number 32 and also serve in the Denver Archdiocese and Joliet Diocese in Illinois.

As a result of Bishop Cozzens’ request, three Companions of Christ priests will be moving to Crookston in July for three years and will be assigned to two parishes, a school and the Newman Center at Bemidji State University. They will live together in a rectory at one of the parishes.

In a Jan. 23 letter announcing his decision to approve the request, Archbishop Hebda said he had acted after consulting with the Archdiocese’s Comprehensive Assignment Board and Father Peter Williams, moderator of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Companions.

Among his considerations, he said in his letter, were the very real need in the Crookston Diocese and the fact that about half the members of the Companions in the archdiocese had moved there from other parts of the country to join the association.

“In many ways, these men have already been missionaries to our local Church,” he wrote. 

Archbishop Hebda told the Register that from his earliest days in the archdiocese in 2015, he has found the Companions to be a great blessing to him, the people of the local Church and particularly her priests. 

“Strengthened by their fraternity with their brother priests and held accountable to a daily regimen of prayer, the Companions in the archdiocese have been able to not just withstand the storms that this local Church has faced but become even more united and committed to Christ,” he said. “I have personally come to know them as joyful and compassionate diocesan priests with a heart for the work of evangelization.”

A New Chapter

Sending the Companions to a fourth diocese marks a new chapter in the association’s expansion, which has continued as more men express interest in the idea of living together and supporting each other’s attempts to grow in holiness while serving as diocesan priests. Although such an idea strikes many as a new reality, Bishop Cozzens said a look at the long history of the Catholic Church reveals that it is not new. 

“There have been many times when priests have chosen to live together to strengthen each other in approved ways of life in the Church,” he said. 

Bishop Cozzens is among those who see the Companions as having the potential to increase vocations to the diocesan priesthood. He told the Register that, in his experience, when men learn that the Companions offer a way to live communally and still be diocesan priests, they often choose diocesan priesthood. 

“I count myself among those,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been a diocesan priest if not for this opportunity to live a communal way of life.” While discerning priesthood, Bishop Cozzens said he had looked at several religious communities, including the Benedictines.

When the Companions of Christ were formed, the Crookston bishop was one of six single men who were part of Christ the Redeemer, a lay Catholic community in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese. “We were committed to living celibacy and wanted to be able to be priests but also to be able to keep our community way of life,” Bishop Cozzens said.  

With the encouragement and help of then-Auxiliary Bishop Robert Carlson, the group wrote statutes for what became the Companions of Christ, receiving approval as a public association of the faithful under canon law.  Such associations can include clerics or laypersons or both and are considered distinct from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life.  

Bishop Cozzens said the response to the Companions from other bishops has varied, though many are open to discerning whether the association could serve the needs of their priests. “But there are complexities to a community like this serving in a diocese that bishops also have to discern,” he said.  

Among those are coordinating assignments with the Companions’ desire to live together in community. “That’s why we have learned we have to be flexible on that sometimes,” Bishop Cozzens said, adding that members must find other ways to connect with each other if they cannot live together because, ultimately, they must be docile to the needs of their dioceses.

Companions of Christ Bishop Andrew Cozzens
Companions of Christ priests pray over Bishop Andrew Cozzens before he began his new assignment in 2021 as the bishop of the Diocese of Crookston. Bishop Cozzens was a founding member of the association in 1992.(Photo: Companions of Christ)

Denver Archdiocese 

For example, Father Brady Wagner, a Companion in the Denver Archdiocese assigned to St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, lives a communal life with the seminarians he oversees as required by his assignment. In two previous assignments, he lived alone and with another priest who was not a Companion. 

“There are a lot of other ways we try to build fraternal life,” he said. For him, that means getting together for weekly lunches with two other Companions who teach at the seminary and, on Saturday nights, going to different Companion households for weekly “Lord’s Day” gatherings to share a meal and prayer. 

In the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, Archbishop Hebda said he and the priest assignment board generally try to satisfy the desire of the Companions to live in community. Even so, he continued, “I have been impressed and grateful for their flexibility when that is not possible, always putting the needs of the archdiocesan Church ahead of their own.” 

Another challenge Companions may face is the perception that they are separating themselves from other priests in the diocese. However, Father Williams said, “We try not to stand out. We are brothers among brothers. ... We invite non-Companion priests to our Saturday evening dinners. We’re trying to be inclusive, open, to build our brothers up.” 

Bishop Cozzens added that Companions try their best to be actively involved in the wider presbyterate and to be friends with others.

Companions of Christ with Pope Francis
Members of the Companions of Christ (from St. Paul and Minneapolis and Denver) smile with Pope Francis after a papal audience outside of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Companions of Christ in 2017.(Photo: © Vatican Media; used with permission)

“Overall, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, I think they have done that well. Companions have even had nonmembers live with them or be part of their fraternal groups or come to meals at homes. They also try to maintain friendships with priests who are not members.” 

Desire for Community

He said he thinks diocesan priests who do not belong to the Companions often are very good at finding community. Some belong to priest support groups or Jesus Caritas fraternities, groups of five to seven priests who meet monthly for Scripture sharing, contemplative prayer before the Eucharist and sharing about their lives. 

The Companions differ from these in that they seek to live together when possible, hold each other accountable to a set of ideals and adhere to a spirituality that supports and strengthens the members. The ideals are a strong sense of priestly consecration, a readiness to obey, a chaste heart and life, an orientation to evangelical poverty, a delight in and commitment to priestly fraternity, a zeal for the good of souls and a mind well-trained and penetrated by the truth of the Gospel. Members also commit to a daily Holy Hour with each other before the exposed Blessed Sacrament and aim to pray the Divine Office together whenever possible. 

Companions of Christ priests combo
Clockwise from left: Companions of Christ priests before Mass and annual profession of promises and commitment to the association; L-R: Fathers Kyle Kowalczyk, Brian Park and Chad VanHoose stop for a picture amid helping train missionaries at NET Ministries. All three are Companions of Christ and NET alumni; L-R: Fathers Joseph Zabinski and Peter Williams rest amid the annual Companions of Christ summer conference. Companions of Christ priests line up to sign their names after making their annual profession of promises and commitment to the association.(Photo: Companions of Christ)

Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project, which in 2022 and 2023 released highlights and insights from the largest national study of Catholic priests in more than 50 years, told the Register that one of the study’s interesting anecdotal findings was the desire of younger priests to build community with other priests. This often led them to intentionally form support groups. By contrast, older priests, he said, tended to be less interested in the idea, seeing it more as an aspect of life in a religious community. 

The national study, which elicited responses from 131 bishops and 3,516 priests and involved in-depth interviews with more than 100 priests, found that priests overall are doing well and that they reported significant levels of well-being.

However, younger priests showed more signs of burnout. Additionally, the study indicated diocesan priests were doing less well than those in religious communities. Another finding of the study was that priests draw much of their support from lay friends (93%), followed by family (88%), parishioners (87%) and fellow priests (73%). 

The interest of seminarians and younger diocesan priests in living a communal life as expressed by participants in The Catholic Project study is confirmed by the Companions’ own experience. 

Fraternal Friendships

In working with first-year students at St. John Vianney Seminary, Father Wagner said he has noticed a keen interest in developing fraternal relationships in the brotherhood of priests. 

“I think there is a deep longing among the men to not want to be alone and to live this life together with brother priests,” he said, adding that many have had positive experiences of friendship and living in strong communities at college Newman Centers and through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). “The thought of celibacy generally leads to a fear of loneliness and wanting to figure out ‘What’s a way I can live this where I’m not alone?’” 

Father Williams, who was a priest for five years before joining the Companions of Christ, said that as a pastor and vocations director he would meet young men who were well-formed in their faith and hearing a call to priesthood but were afraid of being overwhelmed and isolated as priests. 

“What I found was that even the presence of the Companions in our archdiocese would help them to take the step in the seminary,” he said. The positive example “of diocesan priests living intentional community allayed initial fears that might have prevented them from stepping toward seminary.” 

Companions of Christ priests
L to R: Fathers Chad VanHoose and Michael Johnson outside of their rectory and Companions of Christ household.(Photo: Amy Smith)

Archbishop Hebda told the Register he can understand why the Companions model is attractive to seminarians and young priests, as it holds out the possibility of Christ-centered relationships to support and sustain them as they face the increasing demands and expectations placed upon them as priests. 

“Seeing the consistent fruits that they bear to this day,” he said, “I am convinced that the establishment of the Companions of Christ more than 30 years ago was a work of the Holy Spirit.”

This story was updated after posting.