Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Philip Okwama and Br. Jason Stronach head to class on a blustery day at Mount Angel Seminary.
Ed LangloisST. BENEDICT — Referring to the early church at Corinth, St. Paul wrote that there are many parts, yet one body. The notion still applies as men at Mount Angel Seminary ponder how to serve the people of God.
Of the Catholic Sentinel
Two seminarians explain their differing paths, plus their conviction that each way of life complements the other.
Philip Okwama, 31, is in his third year at the hilltop seminary. He plans to spend his life as a parish priest in western Oregon, promising celibacy, simplicity of life and obedience to his archbishop.
As a boy in the southern Kenyan town of Migori, not far from Lake Victoria, Philip was summoned one day to prepare the parish house for the arrival of a new pastor. On the way back home from cleaning, he and his two younger brothers walked past the home for widows, usually a sad and quiet place. But on this day, the women were standing around a man and laughing heartily, sharing stories. What kind of man, Philip wondered, could bring such brightness to a place like that?
The following Sunday, the boy hustled to church to serve Mass and from the sacristy, vested and ready to preside, was the very fellow who had spent so much time delighting the old women. As the years went by, young Philip observed as the new pastor lived humbly for others and inspired the whole parish to do the same.
"He evangelized the parish," says Okwama, slim and bespectacled. "He called parishioners to care for others in need, to be with them, share time, accompany them. Giving money was good, but it was not enough."
That kind of service, with Eucharist celebrated in a way that compels people to love in the world, is what Okwama hopes for in parish life. He has some good tools for the ministry — he speaks English, French, Swahili and his tribal language, Luo.
Brother Jacob Stronach, 41, is about to be ordained a deacon during his fourth year of seminary. Brother Jacob has opted for Benedictine monastic life, and will spend most of his years at Mount Angel Abbey in prayer and work. He has professed vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life. Chastity and simplicity are an assumed part of the monastic way.
Born into a Pentacostal family, young Mark Stronach lost links to faith life until crises hit in the mid-1990s. Both parents died of cancer. He gazed at his father's lifeless body and embraced the idea of an everlasting soul. That started an intellectual and spiritual trek that would eventually bring him to the abbey's door.
"My whole view of the universe, if I really believed in the immortality of the soul, was starting to change," he says. "I came to God through his pain installment plan."
As he healed, he sought out reading on religion. He decided the most substantial ideas and systems could be found in Catholicism. The history of the church impressed and thrilled him. The writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century scholar, were especially articulate and inspiring.
He called the parish in his home town at the time, Corvallis, and entered classes for those who want to join the church. Before long, he felt a call to serve as a priest and was consulting with vocations directors. A friend invited him to Mount Angel and he went, aware for the first time that there is a monastery in Oregon.
After discussions with spiritual directors and increased self-awareness, he considered joining a religious community. He looked first at the closest, the Benedictines of Mount Angel, and he knew it was a good fit.
"I was feeling a desire for longer time in prayer, study and silence," he says.
Okwama, considering his story and Brother Jacob's, cites St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wrote that the varied vocations of the church are best understood as different ways to love. Monks, Okwama says, live at a monastery where visitors — including seminarians at Mount Angel — can come "draw the living water." Diocesan priests, by comparison, go out to the world to point out and express the love of God in daily life.
"The monks are really teaching us to live in humility," Okwama says. "They teach us as future pastors to give that kind of servant leadership."
Brother Jacob is in the middle of an intern year at Sacred Heart Parish in nearby Gervais. He calls the pastor there, Father Ron Nelson, "an edifying example." Parish priests, the monk says, because they are so much in contact with the world, offer a good model for the task of all Christians — bringing sacred truths to a society that is becoming more and more secular.
With that, Okwama and Brother Jacob set off side by side on a blustery afternoon at the hilltop abbey, headed to a class on scripture.