A mask-clad Juan Carlos Reynoso, a seminarian from the Diocese of Fresno, California, attends class at the hilltop seminary. (Courtesy Mount Angel Seminary)
A mask-clad Juan Carlos Reynoso, a seminarian from the Diocese of Fresno, California, attends class at the hilltop seminary. (Courtesy Mount Angel Seminary)
ST. BENEDICT — Theology textbook? Check. Rosary? Check. Face covering, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer? Triple check.

No one could have anticipated a year in which these latter supplies would be as necessary for seminary formation as clerical attire or a pocket guide to the breviary. This year demonstrates that knowing the outcome of future events is a task best left to God.

Recognizing that they are not God and therefore not in control of the circumstances, Mount Angel seminarians have embraced a spirituality of acceptance, trust, gratitude and innovation as they resume in-person instruction and priestly formation.

In keeping with state directives for in-person instruction and residential programs at institutions of higher education, the seminary developed plans and practices to protect the health and well-being of the hilltop community and beyond. While more expansive in scope, the policies include practices based on the consistent refrain of public health authorities: Watch your distance, wear your mask and wash your hands.

Students are divided into two cohorts, based on residence hall, which do not meet in-person. While that setup leaves the sense of a united community more nebulous, “for those within our cohorts we are able to get more familiar and acquainted as we commune by watching movies and going on walks around the hill to pass the time,” says seminarian Carlos Nagore, from the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona.

Other communal activities that were a staple of seminary life, such as pick-up basketball and soccer games, have been suspended. But students can still exercise individually or engage in leisure activities that can be done with safe distance, such as running or biking.

The cohorts create opportunities for interpersonal development, problem-solving and conflict resolution. “Based on the environment, we’re forced to get along,” admits Thomas Johnson, of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, Montana. “We can’t not get along. Nothing is left to stew; it has to be addressed,” he said, adding that “love has more weight when it’s harder to do.”

Video conferencing continues to play a major role in education and communicating with friends and family. While most classes are in-person with face coverings and an added Plexiglas shield for instructors, some professors have opted for digital instruction. Marc Gandolfo, a seminarian from the Diocese of San Diego, suggests that increased reliance on digital communication “has shown our human need for interaction and community.”

Amid the challenges, there is a deep gratitude among the seminarians for being back at Mount Angel. The seminarians foster a culture of mutual support and fervent prayer for each other and the needs of the world, which increased especially during the wildfires.

Seminarian Scott Borba, from the Diocese of Fresno, California, is convinced that “our loving Lord and Mother have picked us to be here during this time.”

“They obviously are preparing us for something right now,” Borba said. “To be able to get through these times, we have to develop great compassion, to love appropriately, [and be] hyper-resourceful with everything we are doing. This time is increasing our spirituality, which is allowing us to become holy, holy priests.”