Monday 15 April 2024

First-year seminarians will unplug from technology starting in fall at Detroit seminary

Starting in the fall, seminarians at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit are going to have more prayer time and less screen time.

The sixth edition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation, or PPF, which began to be implemented last year in seminaries across the country, mandates a “propaedeutic” (pro-pih-DOO-tic) year for all men first entering into seminary.

Following this guidance, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit will implement a year of preparation for first-year seminarians starting in the fall of 2024, when men discerning the priesthood will focus on personal and spiritual growth, and less on academic work.

A key feature of the propaedeutic year — “propaedeutic” meaning preparatory or preliminary — will be limited screen and device time and more time dedicated to forming a sense of collegiality among seminarians, helping them to develop a spiritual life rooted in prayer as they discern the vocation to which God is calling them, said Father Stephen Pullis, director of graduate pastoral formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, who will lead the propaedeutic year program at the seminary. 

“We started it in a small phase this year for those who came out of high school, but for next year, it will go into effect for all new seminarians,” Pullis told Detroit Catholic. “It’s a new year at the beginning that focuses more on human and spiritual formation. It has fewer classes, a different rhythm of life to help them adjust to growing in their human formation and growing spiritually as well.”

The first year of seminary formation will be about becoming accustomed to seminary life, forming good prayer habits and growing in virtue and friendship with fellow seminarians and with God, Pullis said. To achieve this, seminarians will be asked to limit the time they spend with technology, including smartphone usage, to be more present in their surroundings. 

The change of schedule comes after recommendations from the Holy See on what seminarian formation needs to encompass to form priests centered in prayer, Pullis said.

“One of the challenges men coming into the seminary often have is they used to be very busy,” Pullis said. “We are used to a life on devices, social media, email, lots of noise, and that can be a difficult adjustment to listening to the Lord’s voice.”

The propaedeutic year doesn’t replace anything in seminary formation, meaning overall priestly formation will take an extra year, but it shouldn’t cause extra burdens. The goal isn’t to shun technology, Pullis said, but to place technology and worldly needs in their rightful place.

“It’s about forming the habits of a man whom the people of God can turn to as a priest,” Pullis explained. “These include habits around the use of technology, the use of free time and relating to each other in good, healthy ways, especially in a world with such an emphasis on technology where it has gone from being a tool to something that dominates us.”

Exact rules and technology limitations for first-year seminarians in the propaedeutic year are still being worked out, but the overall goal is to help men better hear God’s voice as they get used to life in the seminary.

“We look at seminary as someone would look at dating or engagement before marriage,” Pullis said. “It’s a time to say, ‘Is this where God is calling me to be?’ Of course, any man who has decided to enter the seminary has already prayed, but our relationship with the Lord will still need to continue and grow.”

Pope Benedict XVI declared priests need to become experts in the spiritual life, Pullis pointed out. But to do that, a man first needs to make his life quieter to more easily hear the Lord’s voice. 

“The challenges for a man who enters seminary this year are different than when I entered seminary,” Pullis said. “A lot of it is technology and anxiety and the speed of things in the world. Some of that is good — it puts us in contact with people we wouldn’t know otherwise. But so much of that can be a distraction or a temptation to trust in ourselves over the Lord. The propaedeutic year, while a mouthful of a word to say, is especially needed for men entering seminary out of the world now.”

The propaedeutic year has been installed in other seminaries around the country and has yielded positive results for seminarians who appreciate the time to unplug from the outside world and reconnect with the people and community in front of them, Pullis said.

Withdrawing from the public to go and pray in private is a practice that’s been around since the Old Testament. The Church has always seen a wisdom in decompressing in order to better discern the word of God.

Still, seminarians going through the propaedeutic year aren’t going to become monks or hermits; they’ll still live in community, visit family and their home parish, but it will allow them to break from the constant stream of tagging, sharing, retweeting, and reposting, Pullis said.

“I’ve seen both in potential seminarians and young people in general and in my own life, the way social media can lead to tremendous unrest and a sense of measuring myself against what other people are doing; it can lead to an idea that my life has to be perfect. It’s an ‘Instagram-ification’ of my life that shows the coolest vacation, the most exotic food, that I’m having the best time of my life, and of course that doesn’t correspond to reality,” Pullis said. “But it also becomes a real distraction from where God has put me.”

Unlike a book or a movie, with a beginning, middle, and end, one can always refresh social media, creating a generation that is constantly checking one’s notifications.

“It creates an appetite that doesn’t have a finite end and doesn’t fulfill us,” Pullis explained. “You see that on the scientific side, how it can change our brains, it makes us less attentive to the people who are in front of us.”

Pullis added that first-year seminarians will find plenty of opportunities to fill that social media void: pursuing hobbies such as movies and sports, having conversations, or even scheduling the increasingly rare downtime people crave in the 21st century: just being for the sake of being.

For the faithful in the pews, having priests more attuned to the present can only be a good thing, Pullis said.

“The Church asks, ‘How can we help the people of God have the best priests possible?’ Because we live in the world, that’s going to depend on the gifts and challenges of the world. What are the potential pitfalls?” he said. “The Church wants you and your family to have the best priests possible.”