Seminarians on the path of priestly formation

Diocese of Knoxville has 13 men studying for the priesthood at several seminaries

By Jim Wogan

Walking the grounds of the St. Meinrad Archabbey and Seminary in southern Indiana is, to stretch a cliché, more than awe inspiring. Its impressive architecture, its stunning statuary and art, and peaceful hillside location make it a spiritual haven, a place where men come to learn how to serve God, His people, and His Church.

Father Christopher Floersh, vocations director for the Diocese of Knoxville

St. Meinrad helps form priests. And nine men from the Diocese of Knoxville are currently studying there—three of them are less than two years away from being ordained priests for the diocese. God willing, of course.

“It’s exciting and also a little surreal,” said Andrew Crabtree, a Theology III student at St. Meinrad. “Being a convert, I came into the Church in 2015. Ten years ago, I never would have guessed I’d be where I am right now, so it’s incredibly exciting that I will be able to minister and offer the sacraments to people, but it’s also like, wow, this is real.”

Mr. Crabtree is from Madisonville. His home parish is St. Joseph the Worker.

“It’s been a long process but, at the same time, an incredibly quick process because you are just working so hard to grow in your faith, in your human formation, and your intellectual formation. It moves quickly, yet at the same time it’s arduous and tough. But it is also beautiful. It’s a great dichotomy.”

Joey Austin also is a Theology III seminarian at St. Meinrad. His home parish is St. Dominic in Kingsport.

“I felt like God was calling me to do this since when I was in high school,” Mr. Austin said. “Maybe even a lot younger than that. I think when I first seriously started considering the seminary I was in high school, so it’s something that has been with me for a long time, and I absolutely made the right decision.”

Neil Blatchford, a Theology III seminarian from the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, transferred to St. Meinrad from Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis.

Diocese of Knoxville seminarians Andrew Crabtree, Neil Blatchford, and Joey Austin attend a sacrament of marriage class taught by Father Christian Raab, OSB, inside Newman Hall at St. Meinrad Seminary on Oct. 12.

“When I came here it was kind of like really daunting,” Mr. Blatchford said. “You know all the priests that have come out of here, and all the bishops that have come out of here. You know that you are going into theology from philosophy, something you have been striving for and wishing you could have done the first day of seminary. It shakes you up some days. Some days it brings you to tears, and other days you just can’t wait to be a priest.”

Mr. Austin, Mr. Blatchford, and Mr. Crabtree still have more than a year of seminarian life ahead of them. They are expected to be ordained transitional deacons by Bishop Richard F. Stika in June — one of the final steps toward their hoped-for ordination to the priesthood in 2023.

“One of my jobs as vocations director is to be here with the guys and to see their growth and their progress in the spiritual life, of course, the academic studies, their pastoral ministry, and just growing as human beings as God created us to be,” said Father Christopher Floersh, vocations director for the Diocese of Knoxville.

Father Floersh spent three days in October at St. Meinrad, meeting with the nine seminarians, their instructors, and other staff members to make sure the Knoxville nine are all on the right path.

“I remember the process for myself was one of the most wonderful things because, as I tell all of our guys who are discerning this life of the priesthood, we don’t walk in the same guy that we walk out. We just can’t. Life and direction towards holiness is all about progression day by day, so tomorrow we should be a holier person than we are today, and that is how St. Meinrad has done an excellent job, in my own life, my growth in holiness, and I see it in our own men as well,” Father Floersh said.

The twin spires of the archabbey church tower above the grounds of St. Meinrad Seminary can be seen a few miles away when approaching from the east on Indiana State Highway 63. The church was constructed over a seven-year period and completed in 1907.

The path to the priesthood will be a bit longer for the other St. Meinrad seminarians. Bo Beaty, Daniel Cooper, Robert Denne Jr., Danny Herman, Army 1st Lt. A.J. Houston, a military chaplain candidate, and Michael Willey are at various levels of study. But the camaraderie shared by all nine is evident when you walk the grounds and hallways of this 154-year-old institute established by Benedictine monks and located between Louisville, Ky., and Evansville, Ind.

“It’s absolutely important,’ said Mr. Herman, one of three Theology II students who projects to be ordained a priest in 2024, along with Mr. Beaty and Mr. Willey.

“I think that’s a big part of why we are all here together. I think our vocations director and our bishop did a great job recognizing that. There is a need for men, especially priests in our diocese, to seek out each other and to have each other as a support touchstone to go to…but it can’t be just anybody. It must be someone in the thick of it with you. I think it is important that we have a big presence of Knoxville guys here because God willing, I could be assigned with them. In the future, I can rely on someone who knows me and has known me throughout my development and before I was a priest,” Mr. Herman added.

The nine seminarians from the Diocese of Knoxville give East Tennessee’s Catholic Church more than fair representation at the southern Indiana seminary.

“It seems huge now. When I first started, there were just three of us here, so I think having the additional guys is definitely a blessing just in terms of getting to know the guys you are going to be with in the presbyterate. I think is a good thing,” Mr. Austin said.

It’s not long after the sun rises that the diocese’s seminarians begin their day with morning prayer in the seminary’s St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel.

“Day-to-day life at St. Meinrad begins early,” Mr. Herman said. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we have an opportunity to go to adoration with the Blessed Sacrament from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m., and we have morning prayer every day at 8 a.m. In our community, we also do the Liturgy of the Hours, so Lauds (at daybreak).

“We have classes beginning at 8:30 a.m. Classes range from philosophy, theology, all the core classes are in the morning. After that, at 11:30 a.m., we come together as a community for holy Mass. After Mass we enjoy lunch together and then the afternoon is up to us whether or not we use it for study, for electives, or for recreation…we have the evenings to ourselves, but we typically come together for evening prayer at 5 p.m.,” Mr. Herman explained.

With their daily dedication to prayer and study, the St. Meinrad seminarians usually don’t quit after dinner. On a recent visit in October, it was evident that dorm-room study, especially for upcoming mid-term exams, went well into the night. Despite the schedule, Mr. Blatchford said the group still finds time to socialize.

Father Christopher Floersh, vocations director for the Diocese of Knoxville, spends a few minutes in silent prayer and meditation inside the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel at St. Meinrad Seminary.

“Every Monday night we say prayer together in the St. Joseph Oratory, and then we go out and eat together and talk about our week and how it’s been and how it’s going and what we’re looking forward to. Sometimes we will have a little bit of extracurricular activity when it comes to those of us from Knoxville, like doing Bible study. It’s good,” Mr. Blatchford noted.

Classroom work, study, and prayer are only part of the seminarian experience. Future priests, after all, are required to be pastoral. At St. Meinrad, the seminarians spend each Wednesday preparing for their lives as Catholic priests by taking on pastoral projects.

This semester, Mr. Crabtree serves in the catechetical program at Precious Blood Catholic Church in Jasper, Ind., where he helps young people in preparation for the sacrament of confirmation.

“Working with high-schoolers in any capacity is in itself challenging, especially when trying to get them to trust you,” Mr. Crabtree said. “High-schoolers have so many stimuli vying for their attention and moral authority during this time in their lives. The philosophical resistance to authority and institution in our society adds to this difficulty, but anytime a little breakthrough can be made it is fulfilling when they recognize a little more about the love of Christ and His revelation in the world.”

During COVID, Mr. Crabtree also assisted in setting up a phone ministry for homebound parishioners.

“It was extremely meaningful for both me and those on the other end of the phone during the intensely lonely time of the pandemic,” he said.

The projects usually occupy three to four hours per week with additional time needed for preparation. The seminarians sometimes also serve extra time on the weekends.

Mr. Austin helps lead a Bible study program for seventh-graders at St. Paul Church in Tell City, Ind.

“We began with Genesis and are working our way through each book. The lesson plan typically involves going through a book or two each lesson, so we are typically hitting highlights. This makes it a challenge, as the Bible is rich with detail. Picking and choosing what to cover can be a challenge. It’s had some great moments, as the kids have shown a genuine interest in their faith and have asked some great questions that reveal that they’re engaging with matters of faith and spirit,” Mr. Austin said.

“Last year involved tele-ministry due to COVID. While challenging in its own way, the tele-ministry last year had its blessings as many of the people receiving phone calls really looked forward to them. Ministry of presence is vastly underrated. Simply having another person who is willing and happy to spend time with someone can do wonders for their well-being,” he pointed out.

Mr. Herman is assigned to Memorial Hospital in Jasper, Ind., as a volunteer chaplain who counsels the sick, distributes Holy Communion to those who are Catholic, and helps “fill the needs of all patients regardless of their denomination.”

Diocese of Knoxville seminarians Abrahan Da Silva (left) and Renzo Alvarado Suarez pose for a casual photo. Both are studying at Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

“At one moment you need to be the one that celebrates and gives glory to God for successful health. In other moments, you need to take on another’s suffering and help provide answers to why suffering exists,” he said.

“There is a fulfillment, though, that outweighs every obstacle. Being with actual people in their most vulnerable setting in life is truly sobering and rewarding, because we represent the person of Christ that gives hope to the downtrodden and consolation to those who are relieved. This is great for my preparation in putting on the person of Christ as a priest, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to begin stepping into that role, even if it is purely pastoral and not yet ontological,” he added.

Visiting the Diocese of Knoxville’s 13 seminarians isn’t an easy task. But Father Floersh does his best to maintain contact with all of them. In October, a planned trip with Bishop Stika and Father Arthur Torres, associate vocations director, to Seminario Hispano de Santa Maria de Guadalupe in Mexico City was scuttled due to concerns over COVID and other issues. The diocese has two seminarians studying there—Abrahan Da Silva of Knoxville and Renzo Alvarado Suarez, who is from Barranquilla Atlantico, Colombia.

“The benefits of using the seminary in Mexico is that it assists our guys in getting their documentation to work in the Diocese of Knoxville someday,” Father Floersh said. “It is intended to be a seminary for the United States and incorporates daily prayers in English and Spanish to help guys become fluent in both languages, which is vital.”

The diocese also supports two seminarians currently in early studies at Conception Seminary College in Missouri. Nicholas Hickman of Chattanooga is in his junior year of philosophy. His home parish is the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga. Also, George Vallejo III of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland is a sophomore in philosophy.

Diocese of Knoxville seminarians Nicholas Hickman (left) and George Vallejo III are studying at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo.

“Conception is a college seminary, so in some ways the daily routine is more structured since they are both working toward instilling a greater discipline that is required of our younger guys. Both Conception and St. Meinrad, however, are run by the Benedictines, so there is a strong monastic influence on the spirituality of our men,” Father Floersh explained.

Some of the Diocese of Knoxville men are just beginning their path to the priesthood. Others, like Mr. Austin, Mr. Blatchford, Mr. Crabtree, and Mr. Herman, are close enough to sense the impact of what they pray will happen sooner for them and the diocese.

“The main thing is we are here because of the people of Knoxville. We are becoming priests because we want to help people get to heaven and in particular the people of the Diocese of Knoxville,” Mr. Austin said. “We are always thinking about them in our studies and everything that we do, and we are praying for them and hoping that, God willing, we become priests and we will be able to serve them faithfully.”

Between classes one day, Mr. Blatchford offered similar gratitude for parishioners of the diocese.

“The work up here is not always easy. It is hard, and we’re working toward priesthood, yes, but the reason why we’re working toward priesthood is because of them. And when their prayers come up via letter or we don’t even know that they are praying for us—it does help, and it does mean a lot. And when I go to pray in the chapel and I think back to my diocese, I pray for my diocese all the time,” Mr. Blatchford noted.

It’s all happening in three different seminaries. One in Mexico, another in northwest Missouri, and the other located on a peaceful hillside in southern Indiana—13 men discerning and preparing for a life of service to the Church and to the Diocese of Knoxville.

“One of the blessings of being a seminarian here at St. Meinrad is the Benedictine spirituality that sort of oozes from this place,” Mr. Crabtree said. “Part of the Benedictine spirituality is hospitality and welcoming people, but also what I have found is a deep love for Scripture and study, and a mystical study of Scripture in Lectio Divina, which has really been a blessing in my life, and it really does exude on the hill but also off the hill—from all of the seminarians who graduate from here and go on to become priests. It’s a beautiful, beautiful experience.”

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