In love with Christ: a journey to the priesthood


Seminarian Patrick Schultz is in his fourth year out of nine on the road to becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Once complete, the seminarians are assigned to parishes based on need. Photo by Thomas Song.

Frank Yonkof

With iPad in hand, Patrick Schultz is almost late to class on his first day back from spring break.

He walks swiftly down the hall and slips into his 3:30 p.m. Catholic Experience class where the professor makes note of his arrival. “What’s this I hear, you were in Hawaii over break? Strike one,” the professor says with a smile.

The 22-year-old senior is dressed in jeans and a trendy button-down collared shirt. He sports a fairly thick beard and black-framed glasses. Upon first glance, it would be hard to tell Schultz is a seminarian at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe.

“When most people think of seminarians, they think behind the wall, cloistered, praying all of the time and no contact with the outside world,” Schultz says. “But the thing is, we’re 100 percent regular college students.”

Today’s class at John Carroll University is much different, the professor announces. Instead of discussing issues within the church, the class will watch a classic western movie — “The Searchers,” starring John Wayne — and analyze its Roman Catholic themes.

“Put an amen to it!” Wayne shouts a few minutes into the clip, as he attempts to break up a funeral. Schultz and the other students can hardly contain their laughter.

On the drive back to the seminary after class, two of his brother seminarians poke fun at the movie. “I reckon you want me to say Mass here,” says Michael Joseph, in his best John Wayne impression. The conversation quickly turns to ‘80s music, and soon the car is filled with lyrics from Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

“Many people think we just sit here all day,” says seminarian Kevin Klonowski as he folds his hands in prayer and bows his head.

The car pulls up to Borromeo Seminary, with its bell tower shooting up from the center of the complex, 20 minutes later. In many ways, Borromeo is how one might imagine a traditional Catholic seminary: The sprawling brick compound features seven different courtyards, and the walls are adorned with statues of saints and paintings of bishops.

For nine years out of a seminarian’s life, this is his home. The studies gradually grow more intense, but eventually Shultz will lie face down in front of the altar at St. John’s Cathedral and be ordained by the bishop.

Although he was baptized Catholic, his family rarely went to Mass more than twice a year when he was younger. He attended religious classes for a year or two after his first Holy Communion but distinctly remembers stopping after that.

“I was pretty much un-churched from second grade until my junior year of high school,” Schultz says. “We turned into the CEO Catholics, those Christmas, Easter only Catholics.”

When he was a junior at Hudson High School, a girl Schultz had a crush on brought him to a youth group retreat with his local parish. He recalls feeling like an atheist at church camp.

But his mind began to change one night when the group prayed before the Holy Eucharist, what Catholics believe to be the body of Christ. He noticed his peers were responding to an alternate reality that he was unaware of.

“The realization kind of dawned that they had something I didn’t have, and whatever it was, I wanted it,” he says.

Schultz fell in love with the church. After numerous questions about the priesthood and much personal debate, he got an application packet for Borromeo Seminary his senior year but was hesitant to fill it out.

“I was afraid if I were to even open the folder, a Roman Collar would jump out and grab me around the neck, and I would be doomed for life,” he says.

In an effort to appease God, Schultz decided to attend the Catholic-affiliated University of Dayton. He hoped that once he found good friends and a girlfriend, the sense of being called to the priesthood would disappear. But it didn’t, and at the end of his freshman year, he enrolled at Borromeo Seminary for one year to see if the religious life was his calling.

To his parents, his vocation to the priesthood came as a huge surprise. They couldn’t see how he would be happy in the seminary. His dad was afraid he would be wasting his talents there, and Schultz felt his parents were being unsupportive of his choice. However, in the last two years, his parents have come to share his happiness about seminary life.

“I just couldn’t reconcile all of those things my parents were saying with what was in my heart,” he says.

Schultz says the last three years have been the happiest he’s ever felt, but he acknowledges that there is a lot seminarians must give up when preparing for the priesthood. He often talks to friends at other colleges about their relationships, but dating is forbidden at Borromeo Seminary in order to prepare men for the celibate lifestyle of the Catholic priesthood.

“To think that loneliness is not a part of it is to misunderstand it,” Schultz says. “You have to sit with the realization that first and foremost, you are going to bed by yourself at night.”

Living a normal college life, despite restrictions

Life was hard when Schultz entered the seminary. He was not used to having a schedule but eventually grew into the routine of seminary life.

On a typical day, Schultz wakes up at 5:50 a.m. and is in the chapel by 6:20 a.m. He does about 40 minutes of personal prayer before his brother seminarians join him for the community morning prayers, which are the same passages prayed by clergy all over the globe.

After Mass, breakfast and an hour of working out, seminarians are off to class in either the seminary or John Carroll, until evening prayers at 5:45 p.m. when the community gathers again in the white chapel with vaulted ceilings. Three hours later, the seminarians will gather in the same place for night prayers, following dinner and recreation or study time.

Seminary life quickly teaches the young men to manage their time well. Once they become accustomed to prayer and studies, it’s easy to fit in a half-hour game of ping-pong or ultimate Frisbee, or a 15-minute game of NFL Blitz. Schultz’s group of friends usually goes to a sports bar or grill once a week or explores downtown Cleveland on the weekends, though they have to be back by the 1 a.m. curfew.

The main goal of Borromeo Seminary is to give the seminarians four yeas to answer one question: Is this for me? While some may see seminary life as restricting, Schultz lives a relatively stress-free life compared to other successful college students. There are no cover letters or resumes. All he has to do is study hard and pray hard and decide if this is the lifestyle he is called to live.

Although Schultz is approaching graduation from John Carroll in May, he is not even halfway done in his studies for the priesthood. Young men spend nine years in the seminary before ordination.

The daily routine of study and prayer will continue for Schultz this upcoming fall when he enters graduate school at St. Mary’s Seminary in another wing of the massive complex where Borromeo Seminary is located. He will learn how to become a priest and deal with the challenges of the vocation. For now, undergrads study philosophy and prepare for a religious lifestyle.

Dealing with the emotions

The seminary can sometimes be a bumpy ride. Because the school prepares men for a life-long vocation, emotions can range from high to low, and mentors are there to help.

“My prayer life right now is really dry,” Schultz says. “I go to the chapel, and it feels like I’m just throwing things up against the ceiling and nobody is hearing me. You go in-between both those spectrums, and they help you sort through it.”

In addition to academic advising, Schultz meets with a formation adviser once a month to sort out the spiritual questions in his life. The mentor’s job is to help seminarians sort through the emotional rollercoaster they sometimes experience and analyze the meaning behind it.

One topic that often comes up is celibacy, which is talked about among the seminarians, Schultz says. It’s not something the school pushes aside, and mentors address it when needed.

For some more than others, celibacy is a subject that is difficult to deal with. Society tends to idolize marriage, Schultz says, so it’s no surprise that celibacy seems to go against the norm. Two years ago, one of his friends left the seminary and is now engaged.

“The men that come to the seminary today are courageous,” says Thomas Dragga, Borromeo Seminary director. “In many ways, they’re doing something counter cultural. Their peers have a hard time understanding.”

There are a few worries that remain in the back of Schultz’s mind. Priests are often invited into situations involving death, and he fears he might not have the right words for a grieving family. What do you say to a crying mother who just lost her infant, he wonders.

“All you can do as a priest, I think, is to be with the person and pray with them,” Schultz says. “Knowing the best you can do is just stand there with somebody and pray, and that certainly seems tough.”

But Schultz hasn’t even begun his training on how to deal with situations like these. He still has five years to work the questions out. Until then, he looks forward to going to the grocery store in his white Roman Collar. He looks forward to presiding at friends’ weddings and their children’s baptisms. Most of all, he looks forward to holding the Holy Eucharist high above the altar.

“I’m in love,” Schultz says. “I’m in love with Christ. I’m in love with the church. I happen to be of the belief that Christ is good. He’s worth my life.

“You do crazy things when you’re in love. Like be celibate.”

Contact Frank Yonkof at [email protected].