Every January, the approximately twenty five men who have just entered seminary at St. John Vianney are “sent out ‘two-by-two’ for a whole month – to be immersed in the lives and service to the poor.” On February 5th, the last of these men returned to Denver from their various immersion destinations with their fair share of fascinating stories and desire to continue to serve the poor.
The first year of formation at SJV is called Spirituality Year (or SY). “The purpose of the Spirituality Year is to allow each seminarian to lay a foundation of rock for his priestly life,” remarks Fr. Jim Thermos, Director of the Spirituality Year here at SJV. “The first four months of SY are marked with steady spiritual growth that is the fruit of stable regularity and a three day retreat. The seminarians return from Christmas break ready to put their deepened life-in-Christ into action. They are sent out two-by-two to serve the poor in various missions for 30 days. This outpouring of self (and learning to trust in the loving Providence of the Father) is critical. Without it, the seminarian would become turned-in on himself and his life for the remainder of the Spirituality Year would become quite tedious. ”
Upon their return, we sat down with two of the SY men to ask them about their experiences. Both are seminarians for the Diocese of Helena, MT: Samuel Mota-Martinez and Tyler Frohlich.
SJV: How did you guys feel before going on immersion? Were you worried or scared?
Mota-Martinez: In my situation, I felt really open, ready to go. I had a good Christmas break: it was long enough for me to get refreshed and I was ready to get to seminary to see what immersion was going to be about. I was excited to find out who I was going with and where I was going.
Frohlich: I wasn’t focused on immersion, because we’re told all year to be present where we’re at, the Lord gave me the grace to be where I was, even in the 3 days prior to leaving. The openness: not really nervous, but excited.
SJV: Where was the excitement? Why were you excited?
Frohlich: I was excited because it’s an adventure with the Lord. That’s just really cool to go to a new place and not know what it’s like: not to know anyone there, but to know that the Lord has something for you,
Mota-Martinez: I know for me, previous travel experiences, what you’re going to do is cool, but also the people you go meet, If you had never gone to this place, you never would have met them, so I was really excited to meet the people I never would have met if I had never gone. I was excited to see how the Lord was going to use me in some mysterious way to serve them.
SJV: Relate one really moving or touching experience you had.
Frohlich: I had a man come up to me in the middle of the day said I need to talk to you. This is right about at the midway point when we had established relationships with the people, and we went to a room, and he broke down into tears in front of me and told me that, first of all, he was contemplating suicide, and he also told me, he said, “I haven’t been living my life well or properly. I had an experience today of the Lord and I really want to change.”
Just to listen to him and to be the instrument of God in that, was really beautiful for me. I was able to tell him that God’s love for him is unconditional, that he does matter, even the situation he is in does matter. And I was able to guide him to people that could help him, more than I could. But it was just being that simple instrument that may have been the first step or the second step to a better life in the Lord.
He kept telling me, “One thing the Catholic church does right,” because he’s not Catholic, “One thing they do right is confession.” And then he expressed his desire to join the Church. Or at least to learn more about it. That’s really beautiful because the poor and the homeless need to be just as much part of the church.
It was amazing just to be able to be an instrument of God in a very small way, a very humble way, knowing your unworthiness to do that, but that he chose you, and that it quite possibly saved or changed someone’s life.
Mota-Martinez: I guess I’ll give a little context first. I never knew my grandparents. On my mom’s side, they passed away before she got married, and on my dad’s side, they were in California and I was in Washington state, so I would see them only once a year, and they would only speak Spanish. And they passed away both within six months of each other during my sophomore year in High School, so I just never got to know them: I never got a chance to take care of them, to have a meal with them, to make a meal for them, or drive them places.
So this past month I got to take care of the elderly. I brought this back to prayer and I realized that I did have a poverty in that I didn’t get to know my own grandparents, but during this month, the Lord gave me, like, 40 grandparents, who were loving me, and I got to love back. With that there are just a bunch of little situations, whether it was feeding them or walking them from the chapel to the meal room, or simply in being with them, because some of them have varied mental or physical limitations, and some of them were of Navajo culture and heritage, some of them didn’t even speak English at all.
So actually I remember I was at lunch: typically we would serve lunch and then we get to eat with the residents, I remember I was sitting down finishing my lunch and one of the grandmothers, she was getting up in her walker to walk off, but she looked up and just gave me the biggest smile—I don’t know— it just lit up the room, and man, that was awesome. She didn’t say anything, but in that smile I just felt God’s love for me, and I realized that I didn’t know my grandparents, but I know they loved me and that they’re loving me from heaven where they’re at, and they’re watching down on me. This woman who I’m not related to and got to serve, who I got to pour out a measure of love through God’s grace, gave me a huge gift in that smile. And I was realizing my grandparents, they do love me. So that was a huge gift she gave to me.
SJV: What was difficult about immersion?
Frohlich: For me it was kind of accepting where you’re at and where other people are at.
The seminary is a place where everyone is going towards Christ in the Church, and that’s really beautiful and good to see, but obviously on the street there’s a lot of strange ideologies. The choice to love those people—because they would be very open about that. They would come up to you and ask you questions that would challenge your faith and then they would make remarks against your faith, or just kind of obscene things sometimes, sometimes just misunderstandings—to love them through that, and to choose love rather than some type of selfish anger, or putting yourself on a pedestal because you had the blessing to be educated—to choose that love is really difficult. And then to find that balance between defending the church and loving that person still, because there are things said that you couldn’t necessarily let go, but most of the time, choosing to love and choosing to listen rather than immediately jumping to defense, and seeing where their brokenness is, and loving them in that. Because that’s what the Lord does for us, just listens and he’s there, and that’s the gift of himself. Choosing to love.
SJV: What’s your biggest take away from immersion? How has it changed you, deepened your vocation, or strengthened your relationship with Christ?
Frohlich: There’s two things for me. First is I know that liberal society and Christianity says “don’t judge, don’t judge,” and they mean different things in different ways, but I was able to see the depth of the lack of our ability to judge. We have no right or place to judge anyone in any place or situation, because we don’t know where they’ve been. By sight, by talking to someone, just by surface level conversation, you cannot judge. That is God’s, that is only God’s duty and his job.
And that everything is providence: that’s the other thing. We read He Leadeth Me (Walter Ciszek), which fit perfectly. Me and my partner were able to read it together side by side and kind of talk about it. But every situation you’re in, whether it’s dead time or choosing to love or even the good things— often I think we think of God’s providence as penitential: “I need to go suffer, I need to go suffer.” What about the times where it’s like, “Go relax and hang out with your friends, I want that joy for you, that’s my providence, I’m giving that to you”?—that everything is providential and it’s not a controlling providence, it’s the ability to choose his will in the moment and to receive that. That depth of relationship with the Lord, that’s new for me.
Mota-Martinez: I definitely reflected a lot about how I need and desire both prayer and work. Both of those things feed each other: the prayer gives the work meaning, and the work allows the prayer expression. It allows you to bring that forth. And I just kind of reflected overall in the Church how we have schools and hospitals and nursing care facilities all over the place. And you’re like, “Wow! There’s no other comparable organization like that.” Well that makes sense because it’s deep, it’s rooted in prayer, and that prayer has lived itself out, and it’s varied in the diverse forms.
So really realizing for me that I desire that prayer time and also that I need and desire that work to express and to serve other people, and that I can’t just pray and not do any thing, or stop praying and think, “I’ll just work, work, work.” The necessity and balance that you need both of those two pillars was a big takeaway, because during that time I was able to experience days where we didn’t pray and we just worked or days where I just prayed and wasn’t able to work.
But in days where I found that balance, they were super fruitful and allowed me to think more about the other: think about the people I was with and not be so worried about what am I feeling; not to be with those other people, that was God’s will for me in that moment. And maybe I feel like, “I don’t want to be with this person right now,” but no, I’m called to be here because I was sent here: literally sent here. Yeah, so, work and prayer.