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Spiritual adoption of seminarians shines light on vocations

As Mark Madden sat in front of the classroom, the children peppered him with questions:

What's your favorite food?

What's your favorite movie?

Do you like chicken nuggets?

What's your favorite book?

Then came the deeper questions — well, mostly. What's it like in the seminary? If you're on a silent retreat, are you still allowed to yell if a tree is falling down?

Madden, a third-year theology student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, indulged the students as he described his discernment to the priesthood. Madden and eight seminarians made a visit to Immaculate Conception School in Old Monroe in early January. It was their way of saying thanks and to get to know the students, who last fall spiritually adopted all 50 seminarians from St. Louis.

Sure, Kenrick-Glennon seminarians have been spiritually adopted by other schools in the archdiocese over the years. Immaculate Conception principal Janice Palmer was inspired by seeing it in Catholic schools in Wichita, Kan., where she previously taught. Students began writing to seminarians last fall and sending care packages. As Palmer explained it, "the kids were so excited every time they got a reply."

Seminarian Dane Westhoff began spearheading the visits, the first of which took place in December. Westhoff, who went to Immaculate Conception School, remembers seminarians would occasionally come to school to talk about their vocation. While he doesn't remember much about what they said, "I do remember their presence." Westhoff was a carpenter for 12 years before joining the seminary in 2013.

The guys' visit didn't just end with a talk in the classrooms about their vocational calling. They spent time with the children learning about virtues, then later had lunch with them, and sat in the hallways at recess to play cards and board games. The visit ended with an intense game of dodgeball between students and seminarians.

"Being more of an active presence makes so much more of a difference," Westhoff said. "It would be wishful thinking to think that a lot of them would ... think about the seminary. But the more ideal part is they get involved with not just the priests here but other priests as well. You know, 'Oh, I remember him when he came to my grade school.' This gives you more of a familiarity with all the priests in the diocese. To be able to know some of these guys before they were priests, and see them somewhere else out and about would be great."

Back in the classroom, seminarian Mark Madden talked about how he waited until he was 33 — the age at which Jesus died on the cross, no less — to enter the seminary.

"Are there dorm rooms?" asked sixth-grader Zoe Dake. Madden described the hallways of Kenrick-Glennon, with its dorms, refectory and common areas. "It's just like any other college experience, except we pray every day, and go to Mass every day," he explained.

Madden told them about going on a silent retreat. The kids were perplexed.

"So, on this retreat do you actually go and not say anything?" Zoe later asked.

"What do you say to someone if a tree is falling down?" Sean Nicholl quipped.

Madden took their questions with a hearty dose of humor. ("If a tree is going to fall on somebody, you don't want to stay silent and let it fall on somebody," he said with a laugh.) But Madden also explained the importance of the silence.

"We want to hear what God is saying to us in our prayers," he told them. 

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