Diocese of Knoxville seminarians share experiences away from formal studies
By Jim Wogan
Summer was anything but a vacation for the men studying for the priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.
Sure, there were allowances for personal adventures and time to reconnect with family and friends during their break from the rigors of seminary, but for many of them the months of June and July provided another very important opportunity — to see what life is really like as a parish priest.
“Every priest is different, and every parish is different,” said Father Ray Powell, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City, where seminarian Michael Willey was assigned for the summer.
“A seminarian can’t learn firsthand how to do a confession, but you can see how a priest prepares for that himself,” Father Powell said. “There is an advantage to seeing the practical aspect of ministry to see a priest go from the bedside of someone who is dying, and literally 15 minutes later be in the midst of a basketball game for middle schoolers. How do you make that transition?”
Mr. Willey is a third-year theology student at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. If all goes according to plan, he will be ordained a transitional deacon in 2023 and a priest in 2024.
“Everyone goes to seminary with the goal of leaving seminary, especially when you are right in the middle of it, which is where I have been,” Mr. Willey said.
“You lose sight of that sometimes because it feels like you’re just going to be there forever. Getting to the parishes is definitely helpful. I was in Guatemala last summer, so I didn’t have a parish assignment, and then it was COVID the summer before that. I had a parish assignment, but nothing was going on because of the pandemic. So, it has been nice being here at St. Thomas and getting a taste of what I can expect as I prepare, God willing, to serve our diocese as a priest.”
Knoxville’s seminarians were spread out at various parishes and other locations this summer. Danny Herman was assigned to Spanish language immersion classes in Mexico. Abrahan Da Silva was in Canada for English immersion. Renzo Suárez was in Colombia for language classes. Nicholas Hickman was at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana for a summer internship. The other Knoxville seminarians were assigned to parish duties closer to home.
“This is really my favorite part of the whole year, to be in the parish because you get to be around the different families and people,” said Bo Beaty, also a third-year theology student at St. Meinrad, who finds the interaction with parish families rewarding.
“Getting to know them at dinner or lunch or before and after Mass and getting to serve them in ways that during the seminary year we are not able to; things like bringing Communion to the sick, vacation Bible school. Another benefit is working with a pastor like Father [John] Orr. He is just so full of knowledge.”
Mr. Beaty spent the summer at St. Mary Parish in Athens observing and absorbing the life of the pastor, Father John Orr, and like the other seminarians on summer assignment, he has been active in the liturgy.
“I don’t impose a lot on them. For me, their major responsibility is their studies. They have to know the Bible before they teach the Bible,” Father Orr said. “But I also have liturgical requirements. If I am going to be at the altar, by golly they are going to be at the altar. Bo is very faithful to all the prayers of the Church, so that is very good.”
Additionally, Father Orr and the other supervising pastors encourage the seminarians to participate in parish business meetings.
“For me, I believe these parish assignments allow the seminarians to see a pastor’s life in a different context rather than just serving at the Mass,” Father Orr said.
On a rather random Friday in July, seminarian Bobby Denne was manning the front desk, answering phone inquiries about Mass times and sacraments, and buzzing-in visitors at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish office in Chattanooga. Mr. Denne spent eight weeks at the historic parish under the pastoral leadership of Father David Carter.
“Being a seminarian on a summer assignment is like being an auxiliary guy, whatever the need is, they want you to try to fill it as best you can,” Mr. Denne said. “It is great because it gets you experience in lot of different areas. This week I might be working the front desk, last week I was maybe doing a lot more catechetics, running classes, and things like that. I have also spent the last couple of weeks working with the Hispanic community. So, you wear a lot of hats and get used to shuffling from place to place and doing various things.”
On that same Friday, Mr. Denne served at noon Mass.
“Long before seminaries were founded, the way someone became a priest is that they would do an internship—an apprenticeship with a priest and a parish,” Father Carter said.
“With the Council of Trent and St. Charles Borromeo being one of the big implementers of seminary formation and education, the Church has gone to a more structural model where you go to an institution to learn academics, spirituality, human and pastoral formation, all these things. And it’s done in kind of a remote environment, a sterile environment, probably a more insular environment, and that is good,” Father Carter added. “But the Church has discerned, as always, there is a need to get back to the front lines, get back into the lives of people in the course of formation as a priest. So, it’s a standard part of seminary formation. Everybody goes through it. You go to the front lines, to the parishes, to learn the ropes, to learn what it’s like to be a priest.”
A.J. Houston’s path to the priesthood is unique among the Knoxville seminarians. As a U.S. Army reservist, 1st Lt. Houston was assigned two-week duty as a field chaplain last summer at Camp Adderbury in Indiana. This summer, around an additional field chaplain assignment in Florida, he was home in East Tennessee, working at All Saints Parish in Knoxville for the second straight year.
“I find myself filled with energy and joy, which is a very good sign,” Mr. Houston said as he neared completion of his summer assignment. “I am called to be at a parish and not at seminary. There are so many people to meet, so many lives you can journey with. I think that’s a wonderful calling as a priest. I generally serve two Masses every day and then just be available in the office to help with anything anyone needs, so I’ve done some maintenance work and talked at parish book club meetings. I’ve been on hospital visits and served at weddings and funerals.”
Summer assignments kept the seminarians busy, but coming back to their home diocese offered an opportunity to reconnect in another important way. George Vallejo and Nicholas Hickman are continuing their studies at Conception Seminary College in Missouri, which is located more than 12 hours from Knoxville and more than eight hours from their brother seminarians at St. Meinrad.
“It’s great to see the guys that are at Meinrad in theology because we really don’t get to see much of each other unless we are (in Knoxville) for breaks,” Mr. Vallejo said. “It’s good to see them and to form relationships with them because, God willing, we will be brother priests in this diocese one day, so it’s good to know who you will be serving with. But also they offer a lot of good insight … they offer suggestions, advice, and they can really be a listening ear to us guys who are still in the college seminary process. Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know them and growing closer to them, and I am excited to see where we go in the future.”
Before heading back to St. Meinrad Seminary for fall semester, Daniel Cooper had time to reflect on his summer at St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport, which included duties expected of diocesan seminarians, and other tasks that fall into a category that likely isn’t covered by his theologian-teachers in Indiana.
“This summer I had the opportunity to assist at Mass, be present in the office to assist with day-to-day operations, assist with baptisms and funerals, visit the sick both at home and in nursing facilities by taking them Holy Communion, leading a station during vacation Bible school, and helping with various projects around the parish,” Mr. Cooper recounted.
“I was also able to join the parish pastor, Father Michael Cummins, in one of his passions: feeding wolves at Bays Mountain animal habitat near here. In all these areas I was provided with a really solid understanding of the different things that a parish priest finds himself doing in a given day. There were days of constant on-the-go activities as well as days of less active time,” Mr. Cooper added.
The future for Deacons Joseph Austin, Neil Blatchford, and Andrew Crabtree is a little easier to see. All three Knoxville seminarians are in their final year of study for the priesthood. They were ordained to the transitional diaconate by Bishop Stika in May, and before returning to St. Meinrad for their final months in the classroom, they used the summer to better acclimate themselves to what lies ahead.
Deacon Blatchford was assigned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga under the leadership of Father Arthur Torres. He acknowledges that his growth as a seminarian over the past few years and his recent ordination to the diaconate have had a profound impact.
“It’s changed me in a way; it’s made me a lot more responsible,” Deacon Blatchford said with a smile. “It’s made me a lot more attentive to detail so that I can bring Christ to people. I want it to be perfect. It worries me and it stresses me sometimes, but at the same time it brings great joy.”
God willing, Deacons Blatchford, Austin, and Crabtree are now less than a year away from becoming priests in the Diocese of Knoxville, which made this year’s summer assignments even more vital.
“We are definitely keeping our eyes on the priests, like Father Arthur, even more,” Deacon Blatchford said. “I am watching the way he celebrates Mass and how he moves when he flips the pages and his different actions and how he celebrates, and also with (associate pastor) Father Zach (Griffith), how they go about their day, how they organize their day, just kind of knowing so I can plan when I am a priest, that I should be doing this around that time.”
Father Torres called Deacon Blatchford’s assignment to OLPH a blessing “because people have experienced firsthand his homilies. He has visited the sick, and our parishioners have seen him walking around and praying.”
“It was important for Deacon Neil to work with us closely, especially with the sacraments, so he knows how to celebrate them, and how they are performed for the people of God,” Father Torres said. “(Deacon Blatchford) has done well in that regard. We did ministry at the hospital, and we also have gone to house blessings. Living with us allows him to be part of a community of priests with Father Zach and myself.”
Deacon Andrew Crabtree was assigned to St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville and said this summer was “incredibly humbling” because he now understands the expectations that come with being a cleric.
St. Alphonsus provided an excellent opportunity to dive deeper into the personal makeup of a parish,” Deacon Crabtree said. “The opportunity to preach, teach, and offer some of the sacraments allowed me to learn from the people and get to know the idiosyncrasies that is parish life and the great desire of the faithful to know and experience God more fully.”
For Deacon Joseph Austin, summer was especially active due to his liturgical duties at the cathedral in Knoxville and assisting with the diocesan office of Youth, Young Adult, and Pastoral Juvenil.
“Going to youth camps helped me to realize that while different forms of communication are necessary to reach people at different stages of life, there is a perennial human concern for reaching out toward that which is true and good,” Deacon Austin said.
It’s been a few decades since Bishop Richard F. Stika was a seminarian assigned to a parish. The leader of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee said that during his era seminarians were often assigned as acolyte interns for six months. He acknowledges that parish assignments can be beneficial for the parish and eye-opening for the seminarian.
“I think they see how priests interact with themselves inside the rectory and how they work with the parish staff. You are part of a team.” (Being a new priest) is like being a rookie in baseball and now all the sudden you are standing before 45,000 people and the fans are saying ‘you are going to be Babe Ruth or Bob Gibson.’ One of the great experiences about being assigned to a parish before being ordained is that a seminarian gets to experience the joy of the priesthood and some of the very big challenges that face a priest every day of their lives,” Bishop Stika said.
Summer parish assignments offered the seminarians a break in other ways. On his off days, Michael Willey spent time navigating white water on the Ocoee River, Bo Beaty reconnected with friends and read a few books, Bobby Denne would meet his dad, a newly ordained deacon of the diocese, for lunch. In some ways, the seminarians agreed that being at a parish reminded them of the real reason they chose a vocation to the Catholic priesthood.
“I feel at home. I feel at peace,” George Vallejo said.
“I can definitely see myself doing this. It has also been good here at St. John Neumann this summer getting a taste of parish life and what it means to be a parish priest. You can have a baptism in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon, and a funeral all in the same day. But to be that pastor, that shepherd for people at their high points and their low points. I feel comfortable… and hopefully, God willing, one day I will be able to shepherd them,” Mr. Vallejo said.