One typical, cold, mid-January afternoon in 2022 was anything but typical for first-year Saint John Vianney College Seminary seminarian Jack Massmann from the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Sitting on the damp pavement of downtown Minneapolis, he conversed with a woman holding a cardboard sign. As she shared openly about struggles with her past, family life and homelessness, she casually mentioned her daughter’s birthdate.
Upon hearing the month, day, and year, Massmann responded in astonishment, “That’s my birthday.”
Within minutes, a spiritual bond formed between two strangers — one, a mother experiencing homelessness, and the other, a young man discerning priesthood.
Christ in the City, Twin Cities Edition
Christ in the City, a young adult apostolate in Denver, helped make this providential encounter — and several others — possible for eight SJV seminarians in January. According to its website, the organization seeks to “create a culture of encounter, where each person is seen, known, and loved,” particularly the homeless.
Young men and women from all over the country commit to serve every year, walking the streets of Denver on assigned routes almost daily to befriend and support the poor. Along with ministry, the missionaries take theology and formation classes and live together on the same campus.
In 2019, Christ in the City began extending its work to cities outside Denver.
First-year missionaries Reed Carlson and Chas Canfield and Director of Homeless Outreach Samuel Schultz (a 2016 SJV alum) joined up with the eight seminarians and priest formators Fr. Michael Kearney and Fr. Colin Jones on the campus of Holy Cross parish in Minneapolis. The three Christ in the City staffers — two of whom are former seminarians – -led the mission, giving participants a taste of the organization’s ministry and formation. Each day included a presentation; topics covered were “non-violent communication” and vulnerability. During these sessions, the seminarians participated in communication exercises with one another; the goal was to learn how to identify one’s emotions and needs, and convey them in a way that is not presumptive or judgmental of others.
Lunch naturally became a time for community. Then, it was time to hit the streets.
With plastic bags of socks, bottled water, and granola bars, the men went out in small groups to St. Paul and Minneapolis, each led by a Christ in the City team member. The goal was very simple: to acknowledge the humanity of the homeless through conversation and learning their stories; the “blessing bags” were only secondary. Carlson, in his first presentation of the week, said, “One of the most important parts of what we do is focusing our conversations on the person, not on how to fix the problem, so we shift from task-oriented to people-oriented.”
He was clear to make the difference between a social worker and a Christ in the City missionary: “A social worker solves problems … our goal is to accompany toward the good.”
Which is why the mission trip was a perfect opportunity for men discerning the priesthood.
The priesthood and poverty
Throughout the week, the Christ in the City leaders often tied learning topics to seminary life and the potential vocation as a priest.
Kearney commented on the universal importance of encountering the poor, whether men who come from rural or urban dioceses.
“You have the freedom to prepare a gift that can be used in any diocese,” said Kearney, a priest from the diocese of Joliet. “We’ll always have the poor, the sick, the suffering. As a priest, you’ll have to be able to go into a hospital room, and engage not only the sick, but their family members. Or you’ll have to enter into a funeral home. And so the gifts that you use in street ministry, being able to engage people in basic conversation, is important to learn.”
First year seminarian John Paul Narog (Diocese of Duluth) signed up for the mission trip in order to have more opportunities to connect with those outside of seminary, but also attested to the impact of the formation and overall ministry to the poor on his discernment.
“It helps me to see, what does the life of a religious that works more on the streets and community-based things look like,” Narog said, “and then also as a parish priest, [asking] are there programs that I can create, be part of, that further ministries like this?”
General people skills are not the only benefits to be gleaned in formation and ministry, evidenced in Canfield’s presentation. The former seminarian spoke on the importance of vulnerability while discerning priesthood, sharing his experience of it before, during, and after seminary. He encouraged the men to share their hearts with their brothers, which in turn will pave the way for being open with others. At the heart of this is sincere connection and relationship, he said, which includes bringing to light the shame one so often tries to hide.
Drawing from Canfield’s experience, those experiencing homelessness have nowhere to hide their shame, and many in society do not acknowledge them because of it, perhaps because of a subconscious revulsion to acknowledge their own interior wounds.
But the Catholic Church teaches the very life of the priest is to be a tangible presence of Jesus Christ, willing to dive into the dregs of humanity’s fallen condition in order to heal. And in order to be an effective channel of grace to others, he must first be vulnerable.
“Meeting people in that [brokenness], and seeing that in myself…and saying, ‘I am here to walk with you’,” Massmann reflected. “That’s something a priest is called to, walking with his sheep along the journey … and being willing to stay in that place of discomfort.”