Madison Diocese seminarians are attending 11 different seminaries this year, giving them an opportunity for a variety of formation programs and experiences.
Two seminarians, Chad Droessler and John Putzer, are in their second year of theology studies in Louvain, Belgium. They discussed their experience there via the Internet.
As Putzer explains, "We live, pray, eat, and sleep (and have formation classes) at the American College of Louvain, but we take our theology classes (and receive our degrees) from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Catholic University of Louvain).
"This means that we have classes with students from around the world who are not seminarians or religious. This is similar to the North American College in Rome and some seminaries back in the States, but many seminaries in the U.S. have programs independent of a university."
Four pillars of formation
Droessler notes that all seminaries are structured around four distinct pillars: human, spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual formation. "But, how that plays out is distinct for each seminary," he said. "Our seminary is unique in that it is quite small; currently we have a total of 11 seminarians from across the U.S."
He adds, "Living in a small community has many benefits, in that you get to know each person on a more personal level. This environment made my transition from home to this seminary more simple in some regards, as I lived in a smaller community (Cuba City, Wis.), attended a smaller high school and college (Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa)."
Typical day at the seminary
A typical day at the American College is filled with prayer and study. The seminarians begin the day with Mass at 7:30 a.m., followed by breakfast, classes, lunch, and more classes. The day ends with evening prayer and dinner.
On Monday and Friday they have formation classes at the seminary, such as homiletics, liturgy, human formation/celibacy, and spirituality. At the university they take courses in theology (pastoral, moral, systematic, Scripture, Church history) and a few canon law and religious studies courses.
Especially interesting to Droessler this year is a formation class where seminarians are learning the art of writing icons. "As part of the class we are painting the image of Our Lady of Kazan. On the whole this experience is quite a profound encounter with Our Lady and the Christ Child, as icon writing parallels the spiritual life," he said.
Seminarians can add other activities to their schedule. Putzer said, "My personal schedule includes a holy hour (usually in the morning before Mass), exercise, and study. I try to keep the evenings free to relax with seminarians or catch up with family/friends back home."
On Fridays, instead of having Mass in the morning, the seminarians attend Mass at 5:30 p.m. followed by dinner and Pousse Café (literally, "push coffee"), which includes after-dinner drinks.
Saturdays are generally free and the men often take day trips or catch up on studies.
Opportunities for travel
The opportunities for travel in Belgium and other parts of Europe has been a great benefit of studying abroad, they said.
About two weekends a month they go out to various English-speaking parishes for pastoral experience. "I have been helping out at a military base: SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Powers-Europe)," said Putzer. "It's a NATO base with all branches of the military, and so it is a very diverse group.
"It's really been a great experience and encouragement for me because it breaks up the sometimes tedious study schedule and gives me exposure to ministry. The pastor of the parish has been a great example and inspiration of priesthood as well."
Added Droessler, "Being so close to other European countries I have been able to travel to Germany, to a U.S. Airforce base (Spangdahlem) for my pastoral assignment. Furthermore, I have had many opportunities to travel around Europe and even to the Holy Land."
Both seminarians have traveled quite a bit in Belgium. Droessler said, "I recently visited the city of Ypres, Belgium, site of many famous World War I battles. It is a very prayerful site, with vast expanses of headstones in fields of dazzling wild flowers, marking the final resting place of thousands of soldiers."
Putzer mentioned visiting Bruges and Ghent, two ancient Belgian towns with many surviving medieval buildings, churches, and castles; Antwerp, a major port city in the northern part of Belgium that touches the English Channel; Brussels, the capital of Belgium and a center of the European Union; Waterloo, where Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated; and Westvleteren, a small town where monks brew what is ranked as the best beer in the world.
Putzer said two of his favorite aspects of Belgium are the food, including excellent fries, Belgian waffles, "fantastic" beers, and, of course, Belgian chocolates, and the historic buildings.
Other countries Putzer has visited include Italy, France, England, Ireland, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Keeping in touch
Do they miss the United States? "It can certainly be difficult being so far from home, especially at the holidays," said Putzer. "I think it helped that I went to college seminary in New Jersey, because I was used to not coming home quite as often. I still do miss my family, friends, and the diocese back home and I also miss the familiarity of culture and people in the U.S."
However, he and Droessler said the Internet "really helps shorten the distance." They can e-mail or call their families in an instant. They both also have Webcams so that they can see and speak to family and friends.
They both would recommend the study abroad experience to others. "I think we have excellent formation and theology programs here, and the opportunities of studying in Europe are amazing," said Putzer.
"I am extremely thankful to the Diocese of Madison for this opportunity to study here in Belgium," said Droessler.