By Fr. Thom Hennen
My office is currently in the process of collecting and reviewing application materials for prospective seminarians for the fall. We are blessed to have several applicants this year, which could push our overall numbers up significantly. For this reason, our diocese is also kicking off a special seminarian education appeal this Sunday to coincide with the World Day of Prayer for Vocations and “Good Shepherd Sunday.” With this in mind, I thought the readers of the Messenger might appreciate hearing about the admissions process for seminary candidates for the Diocese of Davenport.
We don’t just keep a stack of applications sitting at the reception desk at the diocese for anyone to pick up and fill out. A lot of relationship building happens before I offer someone an application. Usually, I receive a phone call or e-mail from a man who is interested in discerning the priesthood further, or perhaps it is someone I met in my travels across the diocese or at a discernment event. I will arrange a face-to-face meeting and conduct an initial and very informal interview to get a basic sense of who he is and whether or not he might be a good candidate.
If that initial meeting goes well, we will agree to meet again in a few weeks for a follow-up visit. I will also encourage the candidate to attend some discernment events and, as things progress, to visit one or more of the seminaries where we send our men. It’s hard to discern if seminary is the right thing just peering in from the outside.
After several visits, sometimes over a period of months or even years, hopefully we get to the point where we mutually discern either that the man may not be called to the priesthood (at least not at this time) or that he is ready to take the next step and apply for sponsorship for priestly formation by the Diocese of Davenport.
The application is fairly lengthy and very thorough. We inquire into the applicant’s family background, educational and employment history, relationship history, financial situation, personal interests and hobbies, prayer habits, perceived strengths and weaknesses and what draws him to the priesthood. Of course, we need sacramental records as well as official transcripts from high school, college and any graduate studies, as well as three letters of recommendation.
As with all volunteers and employees throughout the diocese who may be working with minors, any applicant for priestly formation needs to pass a criminal background check and complete the required safe environment training.
We also ask for a medical history, a full physical, and we arrange a complete psychological evaluation, including several written tests and an interview with a psychologist. The psychologist produces a full report for us and makes a general recommendation regarding the applicant’s suitability for formation and possible future ministry.
The Seminarian Admissions Board (composed of three priests — including me, a permanent deacon and a lay woman with a counseling background) then reviews all of the application materials. Candidates who already have a college degree are also interviewed by our Seminarian Admissions Board. I rely heavily on the collective wisdom of this group. For the college candidates, we typically waive the panel interview as we will have a few more years to get to know them and will interview them in between college seminary and major seminary. Finally, the Seminarian Admissions Board makes a recommendation to the bishop, who meets with the candidate and makes the final decision.
Of course, once a candidate is accepted as a seminarian, the real “vetting” process begins as he applies to and is sent for five to eight years of formation and further discernment at one of the five seminaries used by our diocese.
I don’t write this to impress anyone or to scare away any potential candidates who might be reading this. This is all very accomplishable. A friend and veteran vocations director once told me how he explains the extensive application process to his candidates: “You tackle this like you tackle eating an elephant: one piece at a time.”
The bigger point is that the church takes this very seriously. The fact that we need more priests shouldn’t mean that we accept less carefully screened candidates. In fact, I’m convinced that having better candidates and better seminarians will not only mean better but more priests to serve for many years to come in the Diocese of Davenport.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)