January 18, 2024 at 8:39 a.m.

CONNECTIONS

Encounters and reflections with our five men in formation in Nigeria light spark.
The diocesan aspirants in Nigeria are shown with Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger last week. They are studying under the guidance of Father Vitus Unegbu, SC, at the Philosophical and Theological Formation House of the Congregation of the Servants of Charity in Ibadan, Nigeria. (Photo provided)
The diocesan aspirants in Nigeria are shown with Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger last week. They are studying under the guidance of Father Vitus Unegbu, SC, at the Philosophical and Theological Formation House of the Congregation of the Servants of Charity in Ibadan, Nigeria. (Photo provided)

Encounters and reflections with our five men in their propaedeutic year at the Philosophical and Theological Formation House of the Congregation of the Servants of Charity in Ibadan, Nigeria, are the catalyst for this week’s column. They in turn have sparked connections in my mind with the pastoral missions of two visionaries, perhaps a third, who have inspired me and with whom I will be meeting in Rome at the end of February. I will also visit there with another of our 20 men in formation, as well as with Father Anthony F. Ligato, our former Vicar for Vocations, who I am proud to say currently holds several offices in seminary administration at the Pontifical North American College, my own alma mater.

Two fine priests of our Diocese, Fathers Charles Onyeneke and Cajetan Anyanwu, CMF, native Nigerians, have been accompanying me this past week, along with Father Vitus Unegbu, MC, the Superior and Rector of the House, who is in charge of the Study Centre and formator responsible for all the professed (philosophers and theologians), as well as Director of the Propaedeutic program. 

Seminaries throughout the world are developing similar programs stipulated in the “Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis” as “an indispensable phase of formation with its own specific character. Its principal objective is to provide a solid basis for spiritual life and to mature a greater self-awareness for personal growth” (RFIS, n. 59). Our men in propaedeutic year — “propaedudes” I’ve heard them called in the inimitable American way of colloquializing — are not only reminded that growth in self-awareness and sound personal identity are hallmarks of a healthy personality, helping to establish a secure foundation for the spiritual life essential to priesthood, but are exposed to concrete experiences that challenge and nourish this development.

Eight of our seminarians are currently in their propaedeutic year, the other three “propaedudes” at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University (Menlo Park, Calif.) under the direction of a priest of broad pastoral experience, Father Gary Thomas, all of whom, accompanied by Deacon Paul LeBlanc, I met with on a visitation in late fall. Like all in this new ministry, Father Gary sees his role as director of the propaedeutic program as one of accompaniment with men who will be discerning a priestly vocation as they are made part of a setting that involves the formation of the whole person: intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and emotional components that will support both the discernment of the vocation and the application of this experience to their call to Christian discipleship.

Throughout the time I spent with them together and individually, each of the men in both programs expressed their appreciation for the time they have spent since October, noting how challenging it has been because of the rigor and discipline they have been introduced to. Father Vitus spoke with me about his own formation, which included many encounters with sick, disabled and impoverished persons — as the world labels them — perfectly human nonetheless, each a gift from God to evangelize us by the very grace of God’s presence in them, which they humbly bring to us. Their beauty and promise, however, not always obvious, unfolds gradually in the personal encounter. To behold it requires mutual patience and the trained eye of faith, not unlike that of an artist whose poetry, paintings or photography reveal what the world often does not see.

Our men in Nigeria described their often emotionally jarring visits with terminally ill cancer patients, many of them quite young. Other encounters were with the poor, often aging and abandoned. They are invited to spend time at a residence on the premises of the house of formation where 50 or so children with disabilities live and others gather each day, witnessing the unfolding of God’s presence in their all-too-frail humanity. I am reminded of the photography of Rick Guidotti (see www.positiveexposure.org). A renowned fashion photographer, Rick had gotten tired of people telling him who and what was beautiful because he saw beauty in all humanity. Rick has dedicated the second half of his professional career to taking pictures of persons with disabilities and genetic conditions. His images display the beauty and humanity of all persons and have been in public spaces and galleries across the world.

Through my friendship with Doctor Joe Dutkowsky, I have come to know and treasure Rick’s work. Doctor Joe has generated and fostered the “perfectly human” movement, inviting people to see the image and likeness of God in the full diversity of humanity with the hope that they would ultimately see it in the mirror. This vision goes a long way to offering an alternative to our current wizened concept of humanity which is suffering from anxiety, depression and self-loathing, and too often addiction. The alternative is an all-loving God who meets and accepts us where we are yet does not leave us alone there. Instead, this God will do anything for us to remove any barrier between all persons and their creator God. Dr. Joe writes beautifully of his vision in his independently published book, “Perfectly Human” (June 12, 2022) and is working on a sequel. If you are looking for some soul food to restore your hope in what God can reveal in our common humanity, this book’s real-life narratives will nourish your spirit.

Speaking of hope in an all-too-human world, I have written before of my encounter with God’s presence and beauty in the poorest of the poor in the dump of Mexico City. Another visionary, Craig Johring, has opened the eyes of me and many others who have joined him on his mission, Hope of the Poor (hopeofthepoor.org). My encounters with my seminarians in their propaedeutic year, what they are experiencing, and how their formators grasp the evangelizing, pastoral, spiritual and humanly enriching opportunities discovered in meeting Christ in the depths of poverty in all its forms, brings me back to the door that Craig opens to all on mission with him — to the depths of the heart of Christ. 

The mission is not merely about delivering goods toward alleviating the material and emotional sting of poverty, but in building relationships with the poor themselves as beloved children of God whose stories, struggles and courageous hope can awaken and set on fire the faith and hope of anyone willing to spend time and walk with them. On my third Hope of the Poor mission last October, I learned that Craig had expanded it to include a site where participants spend a morning or afternoon with people with disabilities. Knowing my seminarians are being offered this gift as well and thinking of Dr. Joe and what he has done all of his life with those holy innocents, I instantly saw a profound connection among the life mission of these two visionaries, Craig and Dr. Joe, with whom I will be meeting in Rome, to connect them and to spread the good news at the earthly hub of our Catholic Faith to which, it is said, “all roads lead.”

Details of this new stage of our common mission of evangelization are only unfolding. I have promised each of them that I will do whatever I can to enable them to continue to tell their stories — more importantly, the witness of those they serve — so that others may find the joy of the Gospel that they have encountered on the living humanity of those whom the world deems impoverished, but who actually are richest in the Kingdom of God, as Jesus announces to us. 

Like my visitations with my seminarians, my friendship with Dr. Joe and Craig, my honor and privilege to participate in the mission to which their lives are dedicated, has never ceased to unfurl hidden delights of grace. I expect the unexpected, to be surprised as any mission journey entrusted to the Holy Spirit, the beating heart of the universe, brings. All else I ask is that through the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and your generous prayers, whatever design our Lord may have through these connections may come to fruition for the hope of all who seek it in their poverty. As that most generous of the Beatitudes promises, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).

Oh, and about meeting that third visionary … If it all turns out, I will tell you.

 @AlbanyDiocese


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