New program prepares seminarians for challenging calling

By Lidia Wasowicz

Immersed in prayer, Filipino immigrant Kyle Franz Laluces, 30, of Daly City, feels a strengthening of his lifelong love for the Church and a surging of confidence in the path he chose following a “sign” from St. Joseph.

His classmate at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, native San Franciscan Joseph McIntire, 24, is similarly intensifying his commitment to serve Jesus rather than shun Him, as he did during his embrace of atheism.

Both men attest to a deepening discernment during the inaugural “Propaedeutic Year,” an introductory course preceding formal studies launched to help prepare would-be priests for an increasingly demanding calling.

“More so than in previous generations, men aspiring to the priesthood are in need of a period of preliminary formation in which they are afforded the opportunity to focus on developing the foundations of a solid spiritual life as well as healing the wounds associated with family and societal breakdown,” said Father Mark Doherty, St. Patrick’s president-rector.

The breakdown has had caustic consequences, corroding views of men’s identity and paternal role and of vocations and the spiritual fatherhood of priests, said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone.

“There’s so much that is toxic in the culture now – and this is the culture they’ve grown up in – they need a year just to detox,” said the prelate, who began envisioning the program after observing what would become a model for St. Patrick’s at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver more than a decade ago.

Through the years, Church leaders considered steps to most effectively narrow the growing gap between secular and priestly lifestyles.

The April 2022 Vatican approval of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ revised norms for priestly formation – called for universally by Pope Francis in 2016 – makes the preparatory period mandatory for all seminaries in the country.

“St. Patrick’s Seminary took a leadership position in being among the first seminaries to develop a program before the (governing Program for Priestly Formation) was promulgated,” said Anthony Lilles, professor of theology, former academic dean and an architect of the plan styled after the one he co-created in Denver.

Arriving on the scenic, 40-acre campus Aug. 14, 2021, the first class comprised eight candidates, ages 23 to 38, with Laluces, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy, and McIntire, a member of St. Stephen Parish, representing the San Francisco Archdiocese and two men each coming from the Archdiocese of Portland and the dioceses of Stockton and Spokane.

They spent the first nine months on site, residing in a seminary wing comprised of its own chapel, breakfast nook, classroom, recreation area and adjacent rooms near the quarters of program director Father Gary Thomas.

Joseph McIntire and Kyle Laluces converse with Father Gary Thomas. (Photos by Dennis Callahan)

In what Laluces called “a complete game changer” and McIntire a welcome “step away from the chaos of the world,” the Propaedeutic men prayed more than two hours a day, studied, read Scripture and spiritual classics, reflected, attended liturgies, discussed theological topics ranging from God’s spiritual fatherhood to the Church’s catechism, labored manually – raking, mulching, weeding, removing and replacing 200 window screens, steam-cleaning 14 4-to-5-foot-tall outdoor Stations of the Cross – and fasted from technology and other impediments to building community and fraternity with each other and with Jesus.

Off-campus, they took on Field Education assignments. They distributed food, painted walls, sanded ceilings, administered medicine in a hospice, taught catechism to fifth graders.

The last proved the favorite activity for McIntire, a Baylor University biology graduate who espoused atheism until “some fiercely intelligent, well-catechized and virtuous Catholics who loved to argue as much as I do” pulled him “kicking and screaming” back to his childhood faith.

For Laluces, whose calling clarified with additional praying during the pandemic, the daily Holy Hour brought the greatest joy.

Having dismissed childhood friends’ predictions of Holy Orders in his future, the computer scientist who immigrated in 2016 sought a sign from St. Joseph. It came the day after his May 1, 2020, consecration to the patron saint of workers during an unexpected conversation with a former fellow student at St. Joseph Catholic School in Quezon City, Philippines.

“Out of nowhere, he goes: ‘You know Kyle, ever since we were classmates, I always thought you were gonna be a priest,’” Laluces recalled. ‘“Why didn’t you do it?’”

He was admitted to St. Patrick’s the day his pastor offered a votive Mass for Mary’s spouse. He entered the program during the Year of St. Joseph.

Laluces and McIntire also prized Sunday outings to parishes, where they practiced meeting and greeting the congregation.

“If you’re a parish priest, a shepherd of the community, you must know how to interact with people you don’t know, especially those who may be coming to your parish for the first time,” Father Thomas said.

The group critiqued the day over pizza, burgers, Mexican food or other affordable fare.

They routinely met with Father Thomas, their spiritual adviser, a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist for one-on-one assessment and introspection.

Kyle Laluces and Joseph McIntire with Father Gary Thomas. (Photo by Dennis Callahan)

Discussion of topics such as discernment, communication skills, conflict management, depression, anxiety and celibacy “assisted the men with their own insights and interior growth as well as in preparation for their future ministry,” said psychiatrist Dr. Cynthia Hunt, associate director of human formation and director of counseling at St. Patrick’s.

On Saturdays and other “free” days, they traveled to San Francisco and Carmel, toured basilicas and monasteries, bowled, tossed frisbees, walked on the beach, hiked, enjoyed ice cream, played soccer and volleyball, visited family and friends and privately enjoyed the bucolic campus.

For the program’s final three months, starting May 7, they focused on pastoral formation with off-campus assignments – workshops, retreats, parish ministries, service with the Missionaries of Charity in New Mexico, a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a healing seminar in Florida – before beginning seminary studies of pre-theology or philosophy Aug. 25.

The experiences have “done me a world of good on a personal level” and “set all of us up with a rock-solid foundation upon which, God willing, the rest of our formation is going to be built,” Laluces said.

McIntire also grew “in my desire and confidence to be a priest” and gained “a much more mature view of the priesthood, marriage and where God is calling me.”

Equally pleased, his team “could not have hoped for a better start to the program,” Father Doherty said.

For anyone who might wish to give it a try, he added: “The Lord is never outdone in generosity. If He is calling, do not be afraid to say, ‘Yes.’”

Award-winning journalist Wasowicz, former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International, has been writing for Catholic San Francisco since 2011. Photos by Dennis Callahan.