WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Seminarian Brett Fawcett gets encouragement from Marian Centre staffer Steve Heroux.
Seminarian Brett Fawcett spends his days at the Marian Centre helping to feed the needy. When he isn't peeling potatoes or chopping vegetables or meat, he is mopping floors or serving food to the dozens of men and women who line up regularly at the centre for food and clothing.
Or, he is sharing a meal or a prayer with the staff of the Marian Centre, the Edmonton field house of the Madonna House Apostolate at 10528-98 St.
Fawcett, 24, is one of six seminarians from St. Joseph Seminary who are living and working among the poor throughout January.
The month-long field placement is part of the seminary's new propaedeutic year – a 10-month-period meant to prepare priestly candidates before they begin their formal seminary studies.
It includes reading traditional Church texts, reflection on theology and on spiritual classics, retreats, daily lectio divina and, for six days per week, a fast from electronic and popular media. The media fast means they must stay away from cellphones, television, radio, computers and even newspapers.
An introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is integrated into the program, as are major documents of the Second Vatican Council.
"I can't endorse the propaedeutic year strongly enough," Fawcett says. "I think it should be an essential part of formation."
He loves the opportunity to be able to put everything on hold for a year, get back into the Bible and reconnect with Jesus.
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
St. Boniface seminarian Vincent Lusty says he can't praise the propaedeutic year enough.
Each member of the seminary formation team animates different elements of the program, which allows the seminarians to know their instructors and the instructors to know their pupils.
Father Stephen Hero, the seminary rector, described the propaedeutic year as "a year of personal reflection" for pre-theology seminarians.
The focus of the program, Hero said, is to help form the seminarians as persons and give them the basis for entrance into theological studies. It's also designed to help seminarians better discern their priestly vocation.
The need for sufficient preparation prior to seminary formation was first suggested at the Second Vatican Council. Father Sylvain Casavant, the program director, said the propaedeutic year "offers a time for spiritual growth and reflection over theology. I think the guys have responded to it very well."
As part of the program, seminarians do apostolic work every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Marian Centre helping feed the poor, at the General Hospital visiting the sick and at L'Arche Community journeying with the disabled residents.
For the month-long immersion experience, four seminarians were sent to L'Arche and two to the Marian Centre.
"They are learning in ways they would not if they were here in the seminary," said Casavant, who visits the seminarians in their placements at least twice a month. On Fridays he and the seminarians get together to pray and to reflect on how the week went.
Hero said the propaedeutic year is going well. "We had some feedback from the guys before Christmas; it was an adjustment for all of them.
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Roger Niedzielski is living at a L'Arche home in Sherwood Park.
"The media fast they found challenging. The younger generation is used to being connected with all their friends and family in a sort of instantaneous way." The seminarians are allowed a few hours on the weekend to answer emails.
Casavant said the main emphasis of the media fast is to show seminarians they can control their iPods and the Internet instead of being controlled by them. "By getting rid of the media, it actually forces us into a silence and we have to learn how to deal with ourselves to a certain extent."
Some of the seminarians said they now use the time they free through the media fast to pray, read the Scriptures and talk to God.
Fawcett came to the Marian Centre like a poor man, with just a bag of belongings that included a change of clothes, a Bible and a breviary.
"Most mornings I would help prepare lunch for the people from the streets," he explains. "I usually start off by helping to peel the vegetables and then from there I essentially do whatever it is they (the Marian Centre staff) need me to do." Sometimes he mops the floors.
Serving the poor is rewarding, he says, because he finds Christ in them, but he most enjoys being with the Madonna House community.
"It's a really great model of Christian community. The Marian Centre feels very much the way the Holy Family must have felt. There is a sort of selflessness that prevails here – a shared commitment and a shared love that is unique."
The media fast, Fawcett says, is challenging in all the right ways. Before he embarked on it, the Edmonton seminarian would go on the Internet as soon as he had some spare time. Now he spends that time conversing with Jesus.
"I never realized how easily I would slip into wasting time until I had the media fast and so that's has been really good for me."
Vincent Lusty, 23, who is preparing for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, says he loves the propaedeutic year.
"I can't sing its praises enough," Lusty said. "The best part is the heightened focus on prayer and the integration of knowledge and spirituality."
Lusty is doing his field placement at the Capilano area home of L'Arche, helping serve three residents, or core members, along with two assistants and the team leader.
His main role is to be present to the core members but he is finding the core members are actually teaching him how to be present to others. "They are so amazingly genuine. When they are having a conversation with you, you are fully the focus of their attention."
Roger Niedzielski, 21, lives at the Sherwood Park home of L'Arche with four core members and two assistants.
Like Lusty, his main role is to provide companionship to the core members. "It's more being with them; being present to them."
Again like Lusty, Niedzielski, a seminarian for the Edmonton Archdiocese, has discovered that the people he is trying to help "are genuinely present. They don't hide behind things as we do. They are true to themselves."
When the core members leave the home early in the morning for their day programs, Niedzielski has free time, which he devotes to prayer, to doing his lectio divina, to praying the Liturgy of the Hours and annotation 19 of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.
When the propaedeutic year started, Niedzielski didn't know what to expect. But after the first couple of weeks he realized he was fortunate to have a year devoted solely to prayer and to developing his spiritual life.
"That's something that almost no one can do. It's a great blessing that I can do this."