German seminarian explains the rationale behind the required 'gap year'

The big Catholic story in October was the synod on the family, but October also saw a plenary session of the Congregation for Clergy, which met to examine the "ratio" (program) for priestly studies.

This month, I would like to share two conversations about frontiers in clerical formation. The first is a conversation I had with seminarian Moritz Hemsteg of the diocese of Limburg, Germany, who explains why the German bishops' conference requires a "gap year" from seminary life between philosophy and theology studies.

Collura: Moritz, what is the rationale behind the gap year?

Hemsteg: The idea is that you get to experience life in a new environment ... not in your parents' place and especially not at a seminary, not in an ecclesiastically shaped environment.

First of all, it's because you would meet many laypeople, including women, and get to experience the life of a young man in his early 20s, which is far different from the experience of the seminary. The seminary has to be clerical, of course, because it prepares you for a clerical life; but German seminarians are supposed to experience another environment, too.

The other reason for the gap year is to experience how to manage your spiritual life on your own, since in most ecclesiastical houses, you have not only prepared meals but Masses, Liturgy of the Hours, etc. As diocesan priests, we'll have to do that on our own, and the German bishops felt that if we're going to be responsible for our own lives, we should have learned that somewhere.

But I think the most important thing has to do with your own vocation, so that after you have experienced some time in the seminary and some time off -- at least one year, maybe even two years -- you can compare both experiences and discern between the two ways of life. Because at 20, you only knew one way of life, and then you entered the seminary. But if you have experienced both, you can judge, in a better way, which is suitable for you.

Most seminarians I've talked to said it felt like seminary only really began once they returned from their gap year; the first time they entered had been more like a period of orientation.

Does the bishops' decision have to do with the kind of priest they want to form?

They expect their priests to be open-minded and world-affected. During my summer vacations, I got to know seminarians studying at Polish faculties. I think you can grasp a very tangible difference if you compare the German seminarians to the Polish ones. They have a different view of the church, of how a priest should behave, because their experience is quite different.

In Germany, every seminarian is required to study at the faculty of a normal university. ... At my university, something like 90 percent of the students are nonseminarians. So on the one hand, the faculties rely on the seminarians, but the seminary doesn't have its own lectures; it's connected to what I would call a normal theological faculty.

What do seminarians discover during their gap year?

I think this depends on your interests, which can vary. Many discover another world abroad. I know people who went to Rome, Canada, and even the Philippines. That is only possible because the German dioceses are very generous to seminarians financially.

Do most seminarians return after their time off?

Of course, there are those who do not re-enter. Perhaps they find a girlfriend abroad or enter a religious order they hadn't known before.

As for those who re-enter ... I think this gap year helps you to keep distance from the seriousness of the seminary. When you enter at 20 years old, you think everything the rector tells you is celestial law. Get up at 7, do everything they tell you -- this is the only way of life you can experience. You're naive, you listen to everything the priest tells you, you want to do every special liturgical thing that you're experiencing for the first time.

But when you re-enter, you have a broader view on things, some distance. Being able to say, well, this particular routine or this devotion may not be the thing for me. That autonomy is a great discovery from your year abroad. You can say, "Well, I've learned this and that ..." And our rectors would accept that.

But that of course depends on the seminary, how much the authorities trust you, how much they invite your own responsibility. There are seminaries in Germany that are different, but that's the case in the interdiocesan seminary where I am in Frankfurt. It's run by Jesuits, not by a diocese. That makes us more independent.

Do you see any drawbacks to this program?

There are no drawbacks in terms of the integrity of the discernment that the gap year allows you to do. Of course, the church wants to have loyal priests, and one of the vows at ordination is obedience, so I can understand that some bishops are a bit curious about this thing. They say, "Oh, I don't know what they're doing and what ideas they're bringing into my diocese!" The skeptical view of the hierarchy.

In other words, seminarians usually come back less clerical.

Well, you can have your own experience. If a seminarian wants to be clerical, he has every opportunity during the gap year, when he's far from the Jesuits in Frankfurt!

Some people go to Rome, where one would experience a more traditional image of the church due to the papal liturgy and the importance of Christian history throughout the centuries. That may include a more clerical way of spending your gap year, and it would be accepted as well. I think the idea of vocations that our rectors have is getting to the idea of your life that God wants for you. Getting to the "primordial self" -- maybe that's the idea of vocation. So there are very clerical seminarians even after they spend a year abroad, and if that suits you, you can have that in your gap year, and you wouldn't have it in Germany, and then you can decide.

How are you spending your gap year?

I am studying theology at Boston College. I have a small room in a house. The landlady may be 60 and her children have moved out and she's renting some rooms. It's like living semi on my own. It's nice. I like it.

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