With an accreditation visit from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) set for March, Holy Week approaching in April, and ordination plans underway for May, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary made a tough decision as COVID-19 bore down on its 100 resident seminarians and faculty. Its board approved the recommendation of the rector and other priests at the seminary to shelter in place as an active faith community serving the COVID-19 hotspot of south Florida.
If life in lockdown brought challenges, it also brought unanticipated opportunities, says Father Alfredo Hernández, who at the time of the lockdown was academic dean and is now acting rector/ president of the seminary. His assessment: “I saw leadership develop in ways that wouldn’t have happened without this opportunity.”
Hernández reflects on the positive outcomes they experienced during the two months the school lived in a self-imposed bubble.
Q Tell us about your thinking leading up to the board’s decision.
A The news was changing every day, and a key element was our ability and commitment to discussing the issues with everyone who had a leadership role. Emotion was in play, but ultimately we asked ourselves: Are the seminarians safer here or safer going home? We had constant dialogue, we listened, and we weren’t afraid of hearing contrary opinions. The decision was not a slam dunk by any means. One of the priests said, “If we decide to stay, and we lose one seminarian to this, it could destroy the seminary.”
Q An important part of a seminarian’s spiritual formation is doing pastoral work in parishes. Were students able to continue to interact with churches even though they were in lockdown?
A These are tech-savvy guys. They took the initiative to record daily video reflections — two or three minutes long — and post them on our seminary’s Facebook page. Each message was timely and included a place for comments and prayer requests. The posts really filled a void. We were one of the largest worshiping communities in the world still praying together and giving access to the sacraments. Our rector helped us see that we were a privileged community.
Q Seminarians are typically at home during Holy Week. How did it play out at the seminary?
A Because we were going to celebrate Easter together at the seminary for the first time in 30 years, we planned a beautiful service. We were able to put the entire celebration online as a gift to the wider church. The same technology enabled us to live-stream graduation and ordination ceremonies.
Q How did your community address the tension that was engulfing the world at the time of your decision?
A We tweaked the schedule to make it more flexible. We moved Mass later in the day so the seminarians could get some extra sleep. On weekends, our senior seminarians took charge of planning cookouts, social events, and special music. We recognized that people can’t live in a state of constant tension. Everyone needs joy.
Q How did you manage the ATS visitation? Did you have to postpone or cancel?
A Neither, thanks to Zoom. I think we were the first fully virtual accreditation visitation!
Q What would you say is the most valuable lesson learned fr om your lockdown experience?
A The grace I shared with the priests, faculty, and students: In the vision of the Catholic priesthood, fatherhood is very important — the ideals of strength, patience, and caring. I can tell you that praying in the chapel and looking at our guys, I experienced that sense of talking to them as a father, in a way I haven’t in 31 years. I was just hoping that I could do enough to help them, and asking God, our heavenly Father, to help me and them.