(This is the text of Archbishop Wilton Gregory's “What I Have Seen and Heard” column for the Sept. 17, 2020 edition of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.) 

Twice during the past couple of weeks, I have been able to join two of our local seminary communities in a liturgy to open the new academic year. I’ll have to admit that it was strange seeing those bright young men all wearing masks – I suspect they were probably thinking the same thing about seeing the archbishop masked up as well. However, these are the circumstances that belong to this moment in time. Our seminary students are eager to begin another year in their formation and discernment. We all should keep them in prayer as they ask the Lord what He might be asking of their futures.

Most of them concluded the last academic year abruptly after the COVID-19 shutdown that sent them on an extended pastoral assignment as they had to finish their course work remotely. Several of them told me of the unexpected benefit that they gained in an extended parish assignment. They spoke warmly and gratefully of the clergy and laity who welcomed them into that unanticipated environment. They saw firsthand how creative the priests had become in reaching out to their parishioners under the limitations that the coronavirus pandemic imposed upon their ministry.

While I hope that we never have a repeat of this past semester, I too am deeply grateful for the fine example that our priests gave to these young men as an unforeseen part of their formation. Seminary programs always attempt to blend academics with spiritual and pastoral formation. During these past several months, pastoral formation may have become the lead agent.

The seminarians saw how priests must be flexible in their ministerial outreach to people and how they must adapt to the circumstances that often come unannounced into parish life. Our priests have excelled in making the most of a difficult situation, and I hope that the seminarians who witnessed that resourceful approach to ministry will never forget with they saw.

Last week, we celebrated the funeral liturgy of our oldest priest – Monsignor Thomas Kane.  I was fortunate enough to have met Tom before becoming the archbishop of Washington so I had advance knowledge of the accomplishments of this legendary pioneer pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington. Tom was a builder – not just of structures and edifices, but even more importantly of communities of faith. His priestly zeal was a source of encouragement and inspiration for many of our priests who now affectionately remember him as a friend, model and mentor.

During these past several months, we have lost a number of senior priests who each also made a very positive contribution to the life of our Archdiocese of Washington. That is the case for countless numbers of our priests who consistently have witnessed their love for Christ and His Church and have influenced the vocational discernment of many of our young seminarians. That is what took place over these past six months as so many of these young men spent extended time in a parish because their seminaries had shut down. Their priestly formation, however, did not pause as they discovered the example of pastoral zeal and ministerial creativity that the host priests provided for them during this time in their training.

The earliest seminaries in fact were not in designated buildings, but in a pastoral setting – sometimes even in the bishop’s house – where candidates witnessed ministry up close and personal. The good wholesome example of priests is the most effective vocational recruitment tool and retention energy and our seminarians received a double dose during the closure time of their seminaries as they served in parishes.

Now that most seminaries are reopening, albeit with many courses still offered on-line and virtual, I pray that these young men will reflect with deep gratitude on their pastoral experiences and then pray for those priests who welcomed them and guided them. A personal note of gratitude written to those host priests by our seminarians would be a suitable way to say thanks for being such an unexpected but significant part of their formation.