Teaching Seminarians How to Pray

Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation, by Anthony Flott

“Pray a half-hour each day,” St. Francis de Sales recommended. “And on busy days, pray an hour.”

Saintly advice, indeed. No mention, though, of how to pray.

Teaching seminarians just that is the goal of the Institute for Priestly Formation housed at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Established in 1995, the institute has become nationally renowned for its spiritual formation of seminarians, hosting more than 850 priests-in-training at what has been called a “spiritual boot camp.”

“We’re hoping that through the grace of God they experience a radical reorientation of their whole personality to Christ,” says Director Father Richard Gabuzda. “That’s big stuff. But why not bring it on? Why settle for anything less?”

Big stuff is what the Institute of Priestly Formation has become since its inception in 1992, led by Father Gabuzda, two other priests and a consecrated lay person. “The goal was for something like the novitiate,” Father Gabuzda says.

Just six seminarians attended the first programs in 1995. This year a record 139 seminarians from 53 dioceses attended the 10-week program. Since the institute’s inception, seminarians from 150 dioceses inside and outside the United States have attended, most voluntarily, some by mandate, and nearly all prior to or after first-year theology. It currently serves nearly 25% of all future diocesan priests.

Other programs have been added, as well, to make the institute the only national program of intensive spiritual formation for diocesan priests.

“The thought we would have grown into the size we are today. … Maybe in our wildest imagination we would have hoped for it,” Father Gabuzda says. “The summer program is more than a program. It’s more like an event. It really is a place where the Holy Spirit is at work and doing great things.”

Guided by the “biblical-evangelical spirituality of Ignatius Loyola,” the program is anything but a summer vacation. Participants attend two hours of classes a day and for six weeks perform two days of apostolic service (visiting hospitals or the elderly, teaching at nearby Girls and Boys Town, teaching a confirmation class, etc.). There’s also one hour of personal prayer each day, 1½ hours of communal prayer, daily Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, weekly Eucharistic Adoration and one-on-one time with a spiritual director.

‘Spiritual Boot Camp’

The cornerstone, though, is an eight-day, silent, directed retreat featuring four to five hours of daily prayer.

“Praying this way is pretty intense,” says Father Gabuzda. “It’s not for the fainthearted, because things come up in prayer you don’t want to come up. A lot of people want to avoid that and so avoid praying. The Lord is very loving, but his love brings up these parts in our lives that need healing. Things we shove under the table. But the Lord says, ‘I love you and that’s why we have to look at this.’ That makes it intense.”

Thus the “spiritual boot camp” reference Father Gabuzda sometimes hears. That seems right, for he likens diocesan priests to “the Marines of the Church” serving on the front lines.

“It’s a very demanding life, and in some ways I think diocesan priests have been the least spiritually prepared,” Father Gabuzda says. “My heart goes out to my brother diocesan priests who have been struggling for years, living a faithful life and living a good life, but themselves not having had enough spiritual resources. I’ve seen priests we’ve worked with, 35 years ordained, and really for the first time learning how to pray more deeply.

“Without prayer nothing’s going to happen, and the great temptation is diocesan priests are so busy because the demands are so great that we begin to think we can go without prayer. And that’s really the beginning of the end.”

For seminarians, he adds, “It really is essential. If you’re not praying, there’s nothing to discern. It’s like trying to cook without food.”

Father Martin Flum, parochial vicar at St. Peter’s in Waldorf, Md., attended the Institute for Priestly Formation as a seminarian in 1996. He arrived with what he called an intense, Marian, devotional prayer life. Yet, “in a big way what was lacking was any understanding,” Father Flum says. “I knew what I was having is what you might call good prayer, fruitful prayer, but I couldn’t say I could make any sense of it.

“What St. Ignatius left us with the spiritual exercises gives us a window into how the Holy Spirit is at work in the soul and also how the fallen spirit is at work in the soul. The biggest thing for me was all of a sudden there was a way to interpret my experience in prayer and also my experience in temptation.”

Father Tom Melvin, vocation director for Minnesota’s Winona Diocese, came to the institute in 1998 with a “routine, formulaic” prayer life dependent on his own efforts rather than on God. The eight-day retreat became a “point of conversion” that strengthened the discernment of his vocation.

“I knew better how to listen to God speaking to me,” Father Melvin says. “My spiritual senses were really kind of awakened and sharpened in my time at IPF. Just being able to notice God, not just in dramatic things, but in the subtlety and everyday busyness of life. And when I went to pray, to be able to see how he was at work there and how he was leading me and bringing about a deeper conversion in my heart. Not just in my primary prayer time, but through my whole day.”

‘Hunger for Real Thing’

Today the Winona Diocese mandates all its seminarians attend an Institute for Priestly Formation summer. “I almost view it as our novitiate for diocesan priests,” Father Melvin says. “The whole schedule for the summer is set aside and developed for you to pray.”

With its reputation spreading, the institute has grown its staff to nine full-timers, 31 part-time faculty and numerous others, from spiritual directors brought in from all over the country to undergraduate seminarians hired to help.

And it is attracting more than seminarians. Priests are coming, too — more than 300 since programs were added for those on the “front line.” Father Flum, for instance, returned in 2004 for the 30-day spiritual exercises. The institute also stages an annual symposium in conjunction with a seminary (at St. Vincent’s Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla., in 2007), conducts a seminar for seminarian spiritual directors, and this year introduced a retreat for seminary theologians to help them “bring Jesus into the classroom and teach theology from a prayer point of view,” says Father Gabuzda. “The Lord is opening this new path for us to work with those who actually form the seminarians.”

The biggest focus outside the seminarian summer, though, is the institute’s effort on and off campus (Chicago and Austin, Texas) to train priests as spiritual directors for brother priests and others. Father Melvin completed the three-year spiritual direction training in 2005, later returning as a lecturer and as a director of seminarians. He is also a spiritual director for six seminarians, nine priests, two lay persons, one permanent deacon and two religious sisters.

Father Melvin looks at seminarians today and sees “a lot of hope for the Church.” The sentiment is echoed by Father Gabuzda.

“I think the seminarians are ... much more hungry for a deep spiritual life,” he says. “They come hungry for the real thing and they want to know how to live a more vibrant spiritual life. I think this is increasing in recent years. They are looking for direction, and they believe the Church can give it to them.”

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.



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