Diocesan Seminarians Continue Studies Online, Continue Their Priestly Formation


By Tony DeGol

Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown seminarian Justin Treon would have treasured his installation in the Ministry of Lector anyway, but thanks to the coronavirus, he will remember the milestone forever.

The ceremony for Treon and other eligible seminarians happened on March 18, just as Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe was in the midst of shutting down in response to the pandemic.

Typically, the installation would have occurred within a Mass with family and friends of the seminarians present. Because of the circumstances, seminary leaders opted to move forward with a simpler ceremony during Vespers with only the monks present. The bishop of Covington, Kentucky, who was visiting the seminary at the time, presided.

“No guests were allowed, so it was definitely a bummer,” noted Treon, a member of Saint Aloysius Parish in Cresson. “But it was still a very nice ceremony. Looking back, I’m happy they kept it going.”

For the remainder of the semester, Treon and his brother seminarians at Saint Vincent are working digitally at home.  Michael Pleva and Mark Groeger are the two other Altoona-Johnstown seminarians who attend Saint Vincent.

“It’s a new experience,” said Pleva, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Altoona. “It’s kind of different because we’re learning online and there’s not a lot of engagement, but the classwork is the same. Now you have the freedom to make your own schedule, which includes your academic work and fitting in prayer.”

Groeger, too, is getting used to digital learning, and he is especially pleased with how this time is strengthening his spiritual life.

“It’s almost easier for me to get lost in prayer,” he observed. “My prayer life is growing much more than I thought. It’s really the foundation for me in all of this.”

Seminarian Jacob Gindhart attends Saint Mark’s Seminary in Erie, which is also closed for the remainder of the semester.

A member of Queen of Peace Parish in Patton, Gindhart was homeschooled for six years, so the concept of studying digitally at his family’s home is requiring little adjustment. However, he does miss the structure that only seminary life can provide.

Much to his delight, Gindhart is engaged in a spiritual program with three seminary buddies, which will continue through Easter. It allows him to maintain regular phone contact with fellow seminarians while he strives to keep his relationship with the Lord going strong.

“It offers a lot of fruit if you can rise to the challenge and meet it,” Gindhart emphasized.

The biggest adjustment for seminarian Brian Norris has been the absence of daily Mass, which is celebrated in the middle of the day at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

“It was the high point of the day for me,” noted the Saint Mary Hollidaysburg parishioner.

Norris’ situation is slightly different than his brother Altoona-Johnstown seminarians. Currently, Saint Mary’s Seminary is closed until at least Easter, unlike Saint Vincent and Saint Mark’s, which are closed for the rest of the semester. At this point, it is unclear if Saint Mary’s will eventually close for the rest of the academic year.

Regardless, Norris is also continuing classes online and working on his spiritual formation.

“I’m still able to do my Holy Hour and pray, which sets the tone for my day,” he added.

All of the seminarians appreciate the prayers and support they receive from faithful throughout the diocese, and they offered words of encouragement for everyone in these trying days.

“God is in control,” reminded Pleva. “God never abandons us in times of crisis. He gets us through the storm. This is a time for us to really connect ourselves to the cross of Christ and experience that in a new way.”

Treon pointed out that now, more than ever, we must make time for real conversation with God.

“I think we will come out stronger if everyone takes that time,” he theorized. “Who else do we have to lean on now?”

Added Norris: “This is really a time to sit in silence and be okay with that. Maybe it’s a time to try a new prayer or read the Bible.”

These are days when we must pursue or relationship with God differently, but not any less, Gindhart suggested.  

“If we can harness that, it provides an opportunity for spiritual renewal in our diocese and the world,” he said.

Groeger, a member of Saint Peter Parish in Somerset, believes true rebirth can come from our present trials.

“So many people who have fallen away are turning back to God,” he remarked.

[Photo: Front row (left to right): Brian Norris; Justin Treon; and Michael Pleva. Back row: Mark Groeger; Bishop Mark; Jacob Gindhart; and Father Matthew Reese, Diocesan Director of Vocations.]