As one of only two archabbeys in the United States, St. Meinrad seminary prepares young men for the priesthood in the era of Pope Francis.
Jeff Dufresne’s alarm clock beeps at 6:30 a.m., signaling the start of another day at the seminary. His small room is lined with bookshelves stuffed full of his favorite books, and between the shelves are religious images and old maps from his high school geography class.
As he looks out his window facing the library, he says his personal morning prayers and walks down a couple flights of stairs to have breakfast and a cup of coffee in the dining hall with his fellow seminarians.
He is just a few minutes walk from his Catholic Social Ethics class at the St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. Jeff’s mind is focused on the day ahead: communal morning prayer, academic classes, mass, evening prayer and finally, free time. All the monks and seminarians at St. Meinrad observe the Benedictine lifestyle of simplicity and obedience. While this is a simple life, it is far from easy.
Jeff, a 27-year-old in his third year of seminary, is just one of 123 seminarians from many different American diocese training at St. Meinrad this year. Over the past few decades in America, the number of priests has decreased while the number of Catholics has increased. Today, one in every five parishes doesn’t have a resident priest.
Yet St. Meinrad’s enrollment has nearly doubled in the last decade. This is partly due to the recent encouragement from Pope Francis to join the consecrated life and partly because there are less seminaries training priests. Today St. Meinrad is one of only two archabbeys in the United States and one of nine in the world.
As Jeff leaves his room after breakfast for morning prayer in the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, he walks along the wide pathway outside his dormitory. The 250 acres of St. Meinrad’s property spreads out as he passes by the large building emulating gothic architecture that stands out in Southern Indiana.
The dormitories, dining halls and classrooms are in one long building surrounded by trees that connects to the tan and gray colored cathedral. Next to the cathedral lies the secluded monks’ abbey that is closed to visitors. Despite this, visitors from all over the world visit St. Meinrad daily and stay in the simple and clean guest house at the front of campus.
When St. Meinrad was founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks from Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the initial goal was to educate young men for sacred ministry. They had originally come to Southern Indiana per the wish of a local priest who needed help training a group of German-speaking men to become Catholic priests. The monks of St. Meinrad Abbey went on to aid in the founding of Benedictine monasteries in northern Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, South Dakota and California.
Today, along with training priests, St. Meinrad also houses 98 Benedictine monks and officiates 1,300 oblates, individuals dedicated to the religious life without having taken religious vows.
A life of poverty, chastity and obedience is unconventional today, but St. Meinrad seminarians are inspired by Pope Francis’ call to be unafraid in the face of controversy. Deacon Jerry Pratt, a 50-year-old St. Meinrad seminarian, says that it’s critical that priests are trained to face this modern world. “If you stop growing, you’re dying,” he says. Each seminarian at St. Meinrad has a different background and reason for choosing to be a priest at this time. However, they all unite for one common goal outlined in their mission statement: to serve and evangelize the world.
Jeff arrives at the chapel for morning prayer along with his fellow seminarians, all dressed in khakis and polo shirts, as if they were about to play a round of golf. They begin to chant the Liturgy of the Hours in a unison voice and pray the Psalms as a community. “This reminds me that we all share the same mission,” Jeff says. “To be formed for the priesthood.” Sharing this mission comes with an understanding of sacrifice that outside parties never could. The transition from everyday life to a life of consecration is one that affects nearly every aspect of a training priest’s life, as well as his family’s.
Jeff and his family had just finished eating dinner at his home in Beavercreek, Ohio. As they cleared the table, Jeff said he had news that would change his life. He looked at his parents and four younger siblings and told them he had decided to become a priest. “I thought it was big news, like game-changing news,” he says. It wasn’t. “There were no shocked looks, there were no gasps of surprise, a jaw didn’t drop in the whole group. They just said a collective ‘We told you so.’”
As he was growing up, Jeff’s family and parish community encouraged him to join the priesthood. They told him that they saw the attributes of a priest in him. He treated others with love and was devout in his faith.
At first Jeff didn’t see the priesthood as something he was called to. For one thing, he wanted a family. He dated a girl for three years and was intent on marrying her. Jeff wanted to make sure that God was calling him to marriage with her, so he began to pray. During this time, he enrolled at Marian University in Indianapolis, IN, where he also worked as a pizza delivery man. Little did Jeff know that delivering a pizza would lead him to becoming a priest.
Jeff was 21 when he walked into a hospital elevator in Indianapolis to deliver a pizza and started up a conversation with a priest he had recently seen at a funeral.
“Hey Father, aren’t you a priest at St. Monica’s?” said Jeff.
“Yes, I am,” said Father Dustin Boehm.
“I get called here a lot,” Jeff said. “I bet you get called here a lot too.”
As they talked, Boehm told Jeff how he continued to preach love in the face of adversity of the modern world. The doors to the elevator closed, and Jeff wondered what it would be like to deliver Christ’s love to people instead of delivering pizza. This conversation along with Father Dustin’s mentorship helped Jeff realize God was calling him to be a priest. After joining the seminary, Jeff transitioned from his own plan in life to God’s plan.
Seminarian Andrew Thomas had a different development in his faith after coming to St. Meinrad. After struggling with his own self worth, he grew in his faith through authors like Henri Nouwen, whose work he was assigned to read in seminary. “I had to break through my own scar tissue to realize how loved I am,” he says.
Like many other seminarians, Andrew went to the seminary straight out of high school in Vincennes, Indiana. He feels his calling to the priesthood most intensely when he can see Christ living and working in people’s lives, he says. Every Wednesday he visits a nursing home and talks to the residents for four hours. The yearly ministry requirement for each priest also includes visiting prisoners and teaching in a parish.
After his morning prayer service, Jeff walks to his 8:30 a.m. Catholic Social Ethics class. This course of about 25 seminarians has been an opportunity for him to discover the Church’s teachings. They apply what they believe to the issues they will someday encounter in the parish and the community.
The education required to become a priest is similar to that of an intensive bachelor’s degree program. Each seminarian must complete 120 credit hours, including both academic and spiritual requirements. The latter involves attending chapel three times per day, meeting with a director and counselor every two weeks and having an active personal prayer life.
One part of Jeff’s education was to live in Mexico with a host family for the summer. Because of the growing number of Spanish-speaking Catholics, priests are expected to be fluent in the language. Jeff had six hours of Spanish tutoring each day. He says this was not an assignment he would have chosen for himself because of the rigorous studying involved, but he came out of it with a transformed view of ministry. The experience helped him relate to his parishioners, many who came from Mexico. He found community with his host family and now teaches a class for Spanish adults as a part of his Wednesday ministry.
eacon Jerry Pratt was never a great, or even willing, student, but he enjoys the classes at St. Meinrad. Some of these classes include homiletics, canon law, Catholic social ethics and catechetical ministry. The coursework teaches how to give a sermon, how to minister the people and the law and ethics of the church. Unlike Andrew, Deacon Jerry joined the seminary later in life. He converted from Protestantism after he had jobs as a youth pastor, college recruiter and bank manager. Jerry always thought he was living the “normal life.” When he had accomplished everything he set out to, he looked at his life and asked himself, “What’s left?” Although he has had doubts about joining the priesthood, he knows that God is calling him to study at St. Meinrad for a reason.
Part of that reason is the support and sense of community he’s discovered throughout his journey. “It’s fascinating to me that we can come together in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “There’s still that calling among us.”
This calling to a life of poverty and obedience is not easy. Seminarians must give up their careers, their money, their chance to have a wife and family and their own plans for their lives. Before coming to St. Meinrad, Jerry was in two long-term relationships. Both times he bought engagement rings but then returned them. Something just didn’t feel right.
Even if seminarians were allowed to have families, Jeff, Jerry and Andrew all say they would not. Priesthood requires giving all of themselves to God, they say, including all of their time, money and obedience. “Either I want to be an awesome father or I want to give everything I can to Christ,” Andrew says.
With the shortage of people committed to the consecrated life, Pope Francis is reexamining the tradition of male leadership in the church at the deacon level. Although he has not discussed the idea of allowing priests to marry, he has initiated talks to allow deacons to marry and women to become deacons. In regard to women deacons, a role traditionally held by men, seminarians say they will follow whatever Pope Francis suggests.
As the pope initiates new ideas and rules like the acceptance of gays and potential female deacons, St. Meinrad must adopt them into their curriculum. Jeff’s classes do this by integrating new religious ordinances daily. If the church community discusses an issue, Jeff’s professors email him the day after and ask him to be ready to talk about it in class. “We’re always thinking about issues through the Pope,” Jeff says.
The modern church
After finishing his classes, Jeff walks back to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel for midday mass. This mass is a celebration of the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood, which reminds the seminarians that they are called to be in communion together at the altar and in life. This sacred moment re-centers Jeff on his calling.
Becoming a priest is a daunting task and Jeff sometimes doubts his decision. He often questions if he is worthy and has the ability to serve thousands of people daily. He says his faith sustains him in these moments. “Underneath all the doubts is the certainty that God’s calling me to do this,” Jeff says. “I am confident He will supply all I need.”
Jeff is not afraid of being a priest in the modern world. “I believe that God is working in the world and in the church,” he says. “Even when it seems like things are going to fall apart. Even when it seems like nothing is going our way. I believe that God still has his hand in things to steer them toward the good.”
It's no secret that the Catholic Church has faced intense and widespread criticism over the last two decades, primarily for scandals involving priests guilty of sexual abuse. Pope Francis’ ordination came at a time of significant change. His Jesuit style, less conservative than the popes before him, enabled the Catholic Church to begin adjusting for a new, modern era. He has challenged the church to be more inclusive by welcoming single parents, gay people and unmarried cohabitates. Those at St. Meinrad say they are prepared on a daily basis to adjust to anything and everything the pope requests.
Deacon Jerry Pratt says it is essential to adapt to the needs of the people. He suggests looking at the way Protestant “megachurches” engage their members in worshipping God. While the Catholic Church requires many practices, it also allows the freedom to be spontaneous.
fter a long day of classes, studying and prayer, Jeff walks back to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel for evening prayer. The sun is beginning to fall behind the trees and a light breeze rustles the bright autumn leaves. “Evening prayer is like a deep breath at the end of the day,” he says. “It reminds me that God is with me in all challenges of reformation.”
Nearly one hundred monks and over one hundred seminarians live, learn and adapt to the modern world on St. Meinrad’s campus. It’s surprising to find them at the end of their busy days so serene and silent at evening mass, which is called Vespers. They enter the church individually and bow at a figure of Christ on the cross before taking their places in rows facing each other. As the five o’clock bell tolls, signaling the start of the service, the cathedral is silent and the seats are filled.
In the presence of lay members, tourists, office employees and tourists, they begin to sing. In a low, thundering tone, the monks proclaim, “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory.” The line echoes from throughout the cathedral over the quiet surrounding hills of St. Meinrad.
Father Columba Kelly, a St. Meinrad monk, never imagined he would be writing chant used by monasteries all over the world. After living in Rome to get his doctorate in Latin chant, Kelly returned to St.Meinrad in 1965 to find a changed church. Vatican II decided that the mass, formerly in Latin, should now be sung in English. Simply translating the Latin to English would not allow it to flow correctly, so Kelly was appointed the choirm aster of the archabbey and began to create his own English chant.
Gregorian chant is a single-line melody that has the sound of spoken text. This emphasis on the words focuses the chant on the meaning behind scripture. Kelly writes his chant in a way that connects with the past, but is sung in Midwestern English. “You learn these formulas like a jazz musician learns riffs,” he says. He starts writing by praying over the text, and then he compares the Latin and the English texts. He takes the English scripture and reads it out loud, letting the natural cadence of his words form a melody.
The St. Meinrad monks sing Kelly’s chant every day. “Doing it together is not like doing it alone,” Kelly says. “This is the voice of Christ singing.”
Abbey businessesThe sprawling grounds of Saint Meinrad are home not just to monks and seminarians, but also to a pair of thriving businesses. Abbey Caskets and Abbey Press are located mere steps away from the center of the campus. Originally staffed and run by the monks, the businesses now function separately. A board of monks still has a voice in the decisions and oversees certain operations.
Benedictine monks, in particular, are known for their simple burial caskets. The sparsely designed pieces became popular a number of years ago and were heavily requested during and after visits to the monastery. Abbey Caskets was formed in 1999 and has grown to include many different styles and even urns.
The Abbey Press has printed religious pamphlets and books since 1960. Most notably they produce “Elf Help” books for children and CareNotes, both of which have sold millions. They are distributed by churches and hospitals in order to help children and adults cope with difficult situations like death and illness.
New priest, veteran priest
Father Meinrad Brune and seminarian Jeff Dufresne compare their experiences at St. Meinrad.
Jeff Dufresne (seminarian)
● Age: 27
● Why did you decide to join the priesthood? I worked in campus ministry at Marian University and got to see the priestly ministry up close.
● What was the hardest thing for you to give up? I went from making a world for myself to one where I was obedient to higher authorities.
● Who is your role model? Father Dustin Boehm. We first met when I was in college delivering a pizza and he really influenced my decision to become a priest.
● What is your favorite St. Meinrad food? 3 Pig Pizza (pepperoni, bacon, sausage) from the campus pub.
Father Meinrad Brune, OSB (veteran priest and monk)
● Age: 83
● Why did you decide to join the monastery? I had an older brother at St. Meinrad and got to know the monks.
● What was the hardest thing for you to give up? Having a space to myself. You have to live with 90 other men. We all have strong opinions and behaviors.
● Who is your role model? Father Rupert and my mom and dad.
● What is your favorite St. Meinrad food? Fruit cake. The monks used to make it from my mother’s recipe, but now a local woman makes me a loaf every Christmas.