Student Mission Placements Accomplished!
By Chris Gramke
Glenmary students travel many roads on their journeys to becoming fully professed missioners. These students attend classes, complete their academic work, and meet regularly with mentors and directors along the way to becoming Glenmary priests and brothers.
But perhaps the greatest lessons they learn—and the greatest incentives they have to continue their efforts—come not from knowledge obtained in the classroom, but from their actual experiences in the field, when they spend time at various Glenmary missions in Appalachia and the South. These experiences are called mission placements, according to Glenmary formation director Father Dan Dorsey, and there are no substitutes for what the students learn during the temporary assignments.
“The more mission experience students can get, the better,” said Father Dan. “It gives them the real flavor of what is yet to come.”
Missioner: Working With Veteran Glenmarians ‘Priceless’
Brother Jason Muhlenkamp can attest to Father Dan’s statement. He professed his Final Oath in 2015 and is serving in his first full-time assignment in two Georgia mission counties. When Brother Jason was a student in formation, he found the mission placements an invaluable learning opportunity on his path to becoming a missioner. According to him, the chance to work alongside veteran priests, brothers and coworkers in the missions was “priceless.”
He said “I found the mission placements energized me to complete my school studies and helped instill in me a missionary zeal. They amplified the importance of ministry, presence and relationships. They let me put my hands in the dirt literally and figuratively. People in the counties became an integral part of my formation and affirmed and kindled my call to serve in the home missions.”
Students in these placements participate in a variety of ministries—for example, working with and teaching mission youth; visiting and administering Communion to homebound people in their residences and those in nursing homes and hospitals; ministering to inmates in prisons; doing repair and maintenance work at the missions or around the counties; and spreading the Good News to all they encounter.
These and other hands-on experiences reaffirm their commitment to the goal of becoming Glenmary missioners.
Vocation Director: Placements Likely the Key Part of Formation
A critical aspect of Brother David Henley’s job as Glenmary vocation director is to recruit men who have been called to a religious vocation and are considering joining Glenmary as priests and brothers.
Right now, Glenmary has 12 men at various stages of formation, with more to come. He feels that their mission experiences are probably the most important part of the formation process. “Being in the mission field gives all our students a chance to put into practice what they have been studying in school,” said Brother David.
“They are not only learning but are helping serve the people of God. They learn from the priests and brothers and get to experience these men’s simple living and dedicated service to people in mission areas.”
Student: Experiences ‘Fuel Us in Our Formation’
Jose Carlos Miguel Lopez reentered the Glenmary formation program in 2014. He is studying to become a priest, and he has already been on several mission placements.
His most recent was during the 2015 Christmas season, when he spent time working at Holy Family mission in Lafayette, Tenn. It resulted in his most touching experience to date as a student.
“One of my best experiences there happened when I worked with the mission youth group,” Jose Carlos explained. “I accompanied them to a local nursing home to sing Christmas carols to the elderly residents. Afterwards, we stayed and visited with the people and then gave them hugs as we left. One of the residents told me that the last time he received a hug from anyone was 20 years ago. That is something I will never forget.”
Jose Carlos’ experiences in the missions have helped reinforce his choice to continue his formation and become a Glenmary priest.
“One thing that makes me want to be a missioner is seeing those people in small towns who would be neglected if it weren’t for Glenmary,” he remarked. “Being at the missions fuels us in our formation, because we forget about school for a while and get to spend time with and have an impact on the mission-area residents. That gives me the courage to continue my studies so I can help them.”
Student: ‘I Know Now I Can Help’
Daniel Ochoa, who is also pursuing priesthood, agreed with Jose Carlos’ opinion that firsthand mission experiences help confirm the desire to become a Glenmary missioner.
“An experience that stood out for me was taking Communion to an elderly lady who lived a few miles away from the Blakely, Ga., mission,” said Daniel, who has been in formation since 2014. “I also visited tracheostomy-ward patients in the hospital. I did not take Communion to them because most of them could not swallow. However, I talked and prayed with them. I especially remember a patient I’ll call Anna. She could not talk and was very weak. She was always glad to see me. I would read the Gospel of the day to her and say a prayer. Her family lived far away, so she had very few visits. I know my visits brought joy to her on those days. These experiences of visiting the sick and elderly were very humbling. They made me realize how much need there is for missioners, especially Catholic ones. People in many U.S. rural areas are lacking the presence of priests and brothers because there are not enough of us. That’s what keeps me going, knowing that I can help these communities.”
Mission Member: Students Have ‘Profound Impact’
Maria Taylor, a parishioner at St. John Paul II mission in Rutledge, Tenn., points out the profound impact Glenmary students can have on mission members. Parishioners get attached to these students and also recognize the immediate benefit to their faith communities.
Maria has seen several students come and go during her six years in the parish. She is glad when they are present to help the pastor, Father Steve Pawelk. The names may change, but one thing remains the same in her eyes: their enthusiasm and eagerness to serve.
“That is the best thing about having them as part of our mission,” Maria said. “They are so eager to get involved and become part of the community. They share their love for what they do with us, along with sharing their cultures. The exchange of cultures between the mission members and students is a great educational experience, especially for our children.”
Maria and her family got to know student Charles Aketch so well during his time in Rutledge that her mother, Marina, refers to Charles as her “13th child.” Maria remarked that “my family really took to Charles. He has such passion for what he does. He showed us so much love, and you could see that he just loves people. He is very good about staying in touch with us, whether through cards or phone calls. He has that special gift of opening his heart to everyone.”
Formation Director: Students Learn Each Place Is Unique
According to Father Dan, all the students attest to the fact that there are many benefits to working in the missions. In addition to learning the need to become “self-starters” while in the field, he said that all the students eventually figure out that each place they work is different and unique—and that what works in one mission area may not necessarily be applicable to another. In order to help the students realize this fact, Father Dan gives every student an extra “assignment” to complete for each mission placement.
It’s called “10 Questions With 10 People.” The student’s job is to meet and talk with 10 mission-area residents from different segments of society—over a six-month period—about the mission county where they work and live. The 10 residents include people such as a law-enforcement professional, a funeral director, a real-estate agent, possibly a pastor from another denomination, and others. Only one person on each list is Catholic; the point of the exercise is for the student to learn about the county in which he’s working.
“I’ve always found that funeral directors and real-estate brokers know the most about the area,” said Father Dan. “They know the people because they interact with them; they know about the community’s problems and relationships. They see it all and are valuable resources for the student.”
Student: ‘I Learn People’s Cultures, How to Evangelize’
Glenmary student Richard Toboso, who began Glenmary formation in 2013, echoed these sentiments. He finds that talking with county residents is the best way to learn about a mission county and to get to know firsthand the various cultures you have to understand—and the people with whom you have to communicate—in that area.
“Mission placements help us learn the people’s cultures, especially for those of us who grew up in a very different culture,” Richard said. “My mission placements give me a chance to socialize with various people in the missions and counties. For example, my placement at Lafayette and Celina, Tenn., gave me the opportunity to learn how to evangelize to both Catholics and non-Catholics by being present at various activities held at the missions and throughout the counties. That was a great learning experience for me as a student missioner.”
Missioner: ‘I Learned Importance of Being Versus Doing’
Brother Craig Digmann—who professed his Final Oath in 2011 and has been serving in his first mission assignment in Maynardville and Rutledge, Tenn., since then—went on three mission placements as a student during his formation years. He said the placements were “crucial” in helping him become the missioner that he is today.
“One of the greatest things I learned from my mission placements is the importance of ‘being’ versus ‘doing’ in our mission work,” he explained. "When I first entered formation, I was all about what I could ‘do’ to help the poor, what I could ‘do’ to help bring about God’s kingdom, what I could ‘do’ for God. I gradually learned through reflection and prayer that it was not I who was ‘doing,’ but it was God! I was simply God’s instrument that God was using to build the kingdom here on earth.”
Missioner: ‘I Learned to Await Surprising Presence of Grace’
Father Aaron Wessman—who professed his Final Oath in 2011 and was ordained in 2012—recalled from his student days that one of his first mission-placement experiences was ministering to prisoners in a local jail. At first he found the experience intimidating and a little frightening. “It’s a place society wants to avoid,” he said. But as in many missionary encounters, he remembered that grace is often waiting in the most unexpected places.
“I found in the prisoners faith that inspired me, hope that challenged me, and trust that invited me to question my disposition toward life and others. In short, I learned to always await the surprising presence of grace, and to never presume that God is not already working in places that missioners will only later encounter.”
Vocation Director: ‘Specialized Training’ Is Still Needed
According to Brother David Henley: “Father Bishop, our founder, insisted that our students needed to have ‘specialized training’ to be missioners in Mission Land, USA, and I think the bulk of that training comes from shadowing our missioners in the field while we are students.
“It’s there that students can see and learn how missioners use their gifts in their ministry and how the students can do the same.”