DOMINICAN REPUBLIC | Harvesting beans, assisting with the celebration of Mass, walking to school an hour in the dark, helping anoint the sick. It’s all part of a new immersion, mission experience forming seminarians. The first 15 seminarians to participate include two from the Diocese of Orlando, Andres Sanchez and Jacob Donnay.
“Accompanying and forming 15 seminarians in the mission fields of our sister diocese of San Juan de la Maguana was the best seminary setting I could ever imagine,” said Father Dominic Buckley, Director of Discipleship Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach. “We all want priests who are loving, prayerful, close to those in need, and joyful. This is just what I saw unfold in the lives of the seminarians who encountered Christ in the people of God of Las Lomas.” He told the men, “Their hearts would be pierced out of love for the people,” and that’s exactly what happened.
Weaving mission work into discipleship courses was Father Buckley’s idea, born of his own time spent on mission as a young seminarian. Accompanying him was his mission mentor, Father Fred Ruse, who lived and worked in the Dominican Republic for more than a decade.
For Mission Director Raquel Cespedes, the visit was an answered prayer. “I was concerned about the absence of the priests there,” she said. Understanding the demands of priests, she wondered, what if they were helped by seminarians? “I prayed and prayed about it and, a few months later, Father Dominic reached out to me. It was truly God’s plan. Prayer accomplishes everything.”
The trio decided seminarians should fully immerse themselves in the lives of the residents and live like a missionary priest. What developed was something different from all previous mission trips.
“Living, as it were, in the souls and hearts of the folks in Las Lomas required an encounter with their day-to-day reality,” said Father Ruse. He felt it was the way the seminarians could understand the priestly and pastoral ministry in such a setting.
Informed they were going to a very rural area, seminarian Andres Sanchez expected to experience poverty like never before. He discovered a “radically different culture”. The residents of Las Lomas fostered a sense of community and belonging.
Spiritually, he was stunned. Due to the lack of priests, none of the nine communities of Las Lomas had participated in the celebration of Mass since Easter 2023. The two deacons in the mountains, fruit of the Orlando mission, were spread thin already.
“My biggest take away is how much they were starving for the Eucharist,” said Sanchez. “How much they were starving
for a spiritual guide, a presence in their town. They had a faith so pure, even without having anyone give those things to them, they were still yearning for that.”
Walking from village to village over muddy, broken roads, he recalled St. Paul. “St. Paul was going through all these towns – Corinth, Philippi – all places in the same region, but separated by a lot. It almost felt as if we were trying to keep the villagers connected and united… and to help them realize they’re spiritually united, even though they may not see each other on a regular basis.”
That unity became evident as everyone gathered to support almost 100 children for the Sacrament of First Holy Communion. Sanchez acknowledged it was an “emotional” experience. “It really formed all of our fatherly hearts as we’re growing in our spiritual fatherhood,” he said.
After spending a day picking beans and shelling them, Sanchez learned how hard the people work to put food on the table. It brought his own “attachment to comfort” to the forefront. “I’m glad I was really stretched here,” he said. “I left more affirmed in my vocation to the priesthood than I’ve ever been.”
He was surprised, despite difficulties, no electricity or running water, the villagers shared a child-like faith. “It started to click,” he remembered. “All of these studies, all of these essays we’re writing – the whole point of them is to have a child-like dependence on the Lord, to know Him in a way that is deeply personal… They had what I was seeking. You can read 100,000 books, but that’s not how faith is grown. It’s lived.”
Fellow seminarian Jacob Donnay said what made the greatest impact on him was the lack of and need for a local priest. Despite not having a priest or the spiritual guide they craved, despite their poverty, he noted, “These were certainly happy people.” He recalled a conversation with a former Missionary of Charity. She told him Mother Teresa often emphasized, “There is joy in poverty.” “Just because someone is in poverty doesn’t mean that they’re not happy or they’re not joyous,” Donnay said. “I definitely saw that on this trip.
Yet what impacted Donnay the most was Father Ruse’s example of how well he connected to the people.
“It’s important that we provide the Sacraments to the people of the world, to the people in the missionary area in third world countries, as well as in the United States,” he said. “It’s really our calling as a priest to be able to do that. God willing, someday, I will be able to do that for the people.”
This is the hope of the mountain people as well. When they were asked what they wanted for their communities, they said they wanted “real priests who are approachable— not so far away.” In Pope Francis’ words, they wanted “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, January 11, 2024