Path to Priesthood

Path to Priesthood
Seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s value spiritual growth, fraternity
Photo by Graham Cullen

Photo by Graham Cullen

It’s 4 a.m.

The room is quiet. A small fan’s hum makes the only sound, and a desk lamp provides the only light. A crucifix hangs above.

Matthew Hoelscher begins each morning in this small, dark and simple bedroom, the setting for his favorite time of day: morning prayer.

“Lord, open my lips. Lord, send your mercy and your truth to rescue us from the snares of the devil, and we will praise you among the peoples and proclaim you to the nation,” he reads silently from the Liturgy of the Hours, a Catholic book of prayers, hymns and psalms that leaders in the faith are tasked to read daily.

“It’s cyclical. It always repeats,” he said with hands folded on a recent Thursday morning. “It keeps us in line with the thought and mind of the church.”

Texas native Hoelscher, 31, is a Catholic deacon and one of about 3,700 men enrolled in a seminary in the U.S., according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

He helps make up the body of 165 seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, the country’s second-largest Catholic theologate, and its oldest, founded in 1808.

The seminary sits on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University, a Catholic liberal arts college, so seminarians are free to use the college’s facilities such as the library or gymnasium.

Aspiring priests come from 28 different dioceses from around the country to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

It’s a place to mold their spiritual fervor and determine whether the priesthood is God’s plan for them, said Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, the seminary’s rector.

Hoelscher’s morning prayer is spent with two cups of coffee. His bedroom is sparse to eliminate distractions. His few possessions include pictures of saints, a collection of spiritual books, a few family photos and a wardrobe of black clerical clothing and white collars, worn to signify his devotion to God.

After finishing prayers set for that morning, Hoelscher switches to spiritual reading.

He intently reads through pages of “Christ: The Ideal of the Priest” and underlines key texts almost methodically.

“This one is all about what is a priest and what does it mean to act in the person of Christ,” he explained. “It’s fanning the flame.”

Hoelscher said he enjoys the early mornings the most.

“It’s the only part of my day where I can choose what to do. It’s a gift I can give to the Lord,” he said. “After that, you’re always on.”

The rest of his day is in line with many other seminarians.

It is spent attending Mass, prayer services, classes and seminars, as well as studying, yet a handful of unconventional moments do fill in the gaps during a day in the life of a seminarian.

‘God called me to serve’

Every seminarian’s story is unique, but the reason for taking the path to priesthood is nearly unanimous: “God called me to serve.”

Hoelscher had fought the calling for six years. He graduated from the University of Dallas with a theology degree, followed a girlfriend to Illinois and became involved in a Catholic church in the diocese of Peoria, Ill., as a youth minister.

He’s always loved baseball, so at the time he wanted to eventually build a network of youth and open a baseball training camp for young athletes.

After three years as a youth minister, he realized he couldn’t fight God’s calling any longer.

“It became pretty clear to me that I was trying to pull one over on God,” he said. “God was calling me to be a priest.”

He applied to the diocese of Peoria, which sent him to Mount St. Mary’s, where he is in his sixth year.

Come May, Hoelscher will have completed his tenure and will be ordained a priest to lead a parish.

Howard Jankowski, 31, of Fort Wayne, Ind., taught English at a high school before deciding to apply to seminary. While teaching, he became involved with youth leadership programs at a church across the street from his high school.

He said he would find himself ministering to many of the students he was also teaching at the neighboring school.

“Through that, it was clear to me that God might want me doing priesthood ministry,” he said. “My heart literally went across the street.”

Thomas Gallagher, 26, of Yorktown, Pa., said his heart was set on joining the military, but he started thinking about the priesthood during his junior year at George Mason University.

He went to a Catholic fellowship conference and soon realized where he was being called, he said.

“If I believe that the Eucharist (consecrated bread and wine) is him, I need to give my life to him,” Gallagher said. “He took over my life. He took over my heart.”

Gallagher plans to serve as a military chaplain for the U.S. Marine Corps when ordained a priest, he said.

Seminarian Chase Hilgenbrinck, a deacon at Mount St. Mary’s, heard a calling that made national headlines.

He was a professional soccer player for the New England Revolution when he felt called to serve Christ off the soccer field as a Catholic priest. His decision drew media attention when he made the switch in 2008.

Hoelscher and Hilgenbrinck have become close friends since they both entered the seminary at the same time from Peoria, they said.

About 10 to 15 seminarians per year will come to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary but decide being a priest is not for them, Rohlfs said.

Rohlfs and many at the seminary said that’s a “win-win” situation.

“We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t filter in and filter out,” Rohlfs said.

“Even if they don’t go on to become priests, they received a great spiritual education and can go out and live a godly life,” Hoelscher said.

Seminarians are assigned priests as spiritual directors to help discuss their calling, Rohlfs said.

Hoelscher said he meets regularly with his spiritual director among a number of other advisers to discuss his spiritual progress.

Catholicism requires priests to live a life of celibacy. They cannot marry.

Hoelscher said that doesn’t bother him, even though he has three sisters, all of whom are married.

For him, “It’s just a different kind of love” that he has chosen in life, he said.


A crucifix isn’t the only object adorning the walls of Hoelscher’s room. Hanging on adjacent walls are his mountain bike and hiking backpack he uses to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail with others during breaks between semesters.

Though focused on strengthening their individual relationships with God, the seminarians do value fellowship, and it is encouraged, they said.

Hoelscher also spends time exercising and playing sports when he has the chance. He faced a fellow seminarian in a racquetball match at Mount St. Mary’s University’s athletic building on a recent Thursday.

A recreation room also lines the basement of the seminary and is complete with a seminary bar that serves beer and wine at least four nights per week.

Bar conversations during a recent December evening included anything from a class’s final exam, to the history of Santa Claus, to the process of brewing beer, to such lessons from other priests as how to properly react to seeing an attractive woman enter a room.

A pool table, pingpong table and large flat-screen television with leather lounge chairs are also in the room.

Bartender Brian Bursott, in his second year at the seminary, said he is brewing his own beer and hard cider at the seminary. He expects to serve them at the bar in the spring.

Tending bar is Bursott’s house job, something each seminarian is assigned while living at the seminary. House jobs are a way to help maintain the seminary and promote community, Hoelscher said.

Positions include barbers, librarians, custodians, house job enforcers and even dog-walkers for Rohlfs’ pet dog Coby, a pug.

“Everyone has a job,” Hoelscher said, adding that his job is now serving as vice president of their student government association.

Fraternity among seminarians is found in most aspects of seminary life.

Hoelscher said nine seminarians are named Matthew, giving as good a reason as any for the Matthews to gather for regular dinners.

Preparing for a parish

Mount St. Mary’s puts its seminarians through four years of theology courses before moving on to upper-level seminars. During that time, each year focuses on an aspect of personal and spiritual growth.

The seminary’s four pillars of formation are spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral, Rohlfs said.

The spiritual pillar prepares aspiring priests to commit themselves to prayer and get in the habit of spending about 3.5 hours per day in prayer.

The intellectual portion educates seminarians and teaches such practical issues as how to preach and communicate effectively.

The human formation teaches seminarians to be “Christian gentlemen,” Rohlfs said.

“If you’re uncouth, or if your personality throws people off, you need to work on that,” he said. “If we see something you need to change, we’ll tell you.”

He said priests are “public people,” so as much as they need to have knowledge of the faith, they need to be approachable and connect well with others.

The fourth pillar, pastoral formation, applies seminarians to parishes to provide them with actual experience of what priest work entails.

Hoelscher is assigned to a parish in Waynesboro, Pa., where he spends each weekend to help lead Mass.

He also serves as a chaplain for Mount St. Mary’s University’s women’s lacrosse team.

He and Rohlfs said this is another way for seminarians to experience a part of what it’s like to lead a parish.

Hoelscher attends team meetings and is on the sidelines at every game.

“We’re going to see the normal people,” he said jokingly on the way to a lacrosse team meeting during a recent Wednesday.

He said players frequently come to him for prayer requests or questions about Catholicism, and he encourages them to attend Mass.

Jankowski said the seminary environment is designed for seminarians to focus on their spiritual growth.

“I like that the No. 1 objective here is to focus on my relationship with Christ and my prayer life,” he said. “When you’re working full time, you don’t have that luxury. God willing, it will work out.”

A grotto lies between Mount St. Mary’s University’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and the seminary, which houses St. Bernard’s Chapel.

A sign hanging on Rohfls’ office reads “Keep calm and carry on.”

Lining the walls of the seminary are illustrations of the Virgin Mary, past popes and Pope Francis, recently named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.

Between prayers, Mass, services, classes, working at a parish and other tasks, seminarians do not have much time for themselves.

Rohlfs said priests must be available to the public and easily accessible throughout the day.

It’s not uncommon to see a seminarian with a smartphone or have a Facebook account. Nearly all of them use a laptop — though a software called “Covenant Eyes” runs on each laptop to send regular Internet browsing history reports to their spiritual advisers as an accountability check.

Hoelscher says the seminary encourages the use of smartphones to easily respond to calls, email and text messages whenever needed.

Rohlfs said part of being a priest is being available to their parishioners.

‘Wash, rinse and repeat’

Moments of recreation and fellowship fill in the bits of free time, but many seminarians have their days and times predetermined.

The average day of a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s is much like any other.

Hoelscher wakes up around 4 a.m., though others may wake up a bit later, but everyone is ready to start their day before making it to 7 a.m. daily Mass.

He said their days rely on Mass and community prayer services serving as “anchors” to their schedules.

On most days, the seminarians are faced with prayer, hymnals, Scripture and reflection alongside Mass, meals, confession, classes, reading and studying.

After a recent morning Mass, Hoelscher had a quick breakfast of cereal before making it to Catholic Medical and Sexual Morality, his first class of the day. Then, he traveled down the hall of the seminary to Ecclesiology II, which teaches the foundation, principles and goals of missionary activity.

With a rector’s seminar on tap for later in the afternoon, Hoelscher fits in a quick lunch, a planned racquetball match against a fellow seminarian, and some studying. He also takes a few moments to check email and “stay up with current events.”

Gallagher described his seminary schedule over a beer at the seminary bar on a recent Wednesday evening.

“I wake up. I have morning holy hour. Then, Mass, class until 2 (p.m.), and I work out. Then, 20 to 30 minutes of adoration, then prayer time and community prayer,” he said.

He said he then usually meets one-on-one with his cadets to give advice since he serves as a chaplain for Mount St. Mary’s University’s ROTC program.

“Then, I crash, and wash, rinse and repeat.”

Hoelscher’s day ends the same way it began — in prayer.

“It’s easy to pray here. It’s a good place, it really is,” he said. “After six years, I can say that. … I’ll miss it.”

He reflects on John 15:16, his favorite passage from the Bible: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit.”

Follow Daniel J. Gross on Twitter: @DanielJGross.


Mount St. Mary’s Seminary

16300 Old Emmitsburg Road, Emmitsburg


Founded in 1808

Trained 2,600 men for priestly ministry since its founding

165 current seminarians

“Mount St. Mary’s Seminary strives to be a spiritual place that fosters a way of life and provides an atmosphere for excellent priestly formation in all its aspects: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.”

“Founded in 1808 by the French immigrant missionary priest Father John Dubois, the Mount has a 200-year history and solid tradition of excellence in the formation of candidates for the Catholic priesthood. Graduate study at the seminary is also open to a limited number of non-seminarians.”

Notable alumni:

The Most Rev. William B. Friend (1959), bishop emeritus of Shreveport, La.

The Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn (1960), archbishop emeritus of St. Paul-Minneapolis

The Most Rev. William E. Lori (1977), archbishop of Baltimore

The Most Rev. Michael O. Jackels (1981), archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa

The Most Rev. Edward J. Burns (1983), bishop of Juneau, Alaska

The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley (1983), archbishop of Oklahoma City

The Most Rev. James D. Conley (1985), bishop of Lincoln, Neb.

The Most Rev. Barry C. Knestout (1989), auxiliary bishop of Washington

Source: Mount St. Mary’s Seminary

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