Adjacent to Normal: A Seminarian Q&A

by JOHN GARRYContributor

Samuel Bellafiore and Roger Velasquez are seminarians, young men in training for the Roman Catholic priesthood, at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

The Quadrangle: I’ll start with the most obvious question, what drew you to the priesthood?

Samuel Bellafiore: So, I’m from upstate, from Albany. I was raised Catholic, my family went to Mass. And there was, since I was really young, a desire I couldn’t explain. To be a priest. And then at a certain point, especially early in high school I was like “oh, be celibate? I don’t think so.” And so, I kept going to church, but I really didn’t want to be there and in a lot of ways hated God. I wanted nothing to do with it but over time this desire in me kept growing. Even though at a certain point I decided I was an atheist, I still wanted to be a priest until I got to a point where I wondered, “Can I be an atheist and a priest?” And that didn’t seem like it was going to work! But I think the main part of it was discovering for myself something I think is true of all human nature, which is that we are not satisfied until we’re giving ourselves in total self-sacrificing love.

TQ: For you [Mr. Velasquez], how did you come to this?

Roger Velasquez: I think when you love something and you believe in it’s easier to be freed of yourself and be who you want to become. Faith was something that was very part of my family. Growing up as a kid, I grew up in a very Catholic family. I think I was nine years old when I thought of becoming a priest, but that’s the thought of on a child, you know? Like I could be a fireman or whatever. But I saw the role of the priest as very important. I was born in El Salvador and the priest only came once a year to my local church and that was an important figure because it was a part of the community. Since my dad lived in the United States and my mom lived in El Salvador with us, faith was something the connected the family. It was where we had communion, you know? In the Catholic Church we receive the Eucharist, and that’s where we belong. Coming here to the United States, church he was not as much a part of my life, it was more video games or whatever, anything else, but there was something in my teenage years that was just lacking. I would have to say that was my faith. Just growing up as a kid, it was very alive, and I was I was very fulfilled very content. There’s something the spiritual life gives you what other things can’t, and so I had that void in junior high school. The people I looked up to in my life at the time would be my dad and my mom, with their big sacrifices and everything. And their inspiration is basically the faith. They know God and they know Jesus and it’s something real. And so, I’d just follow my dad and my mom to church. It was the moment of me discovering my vocation, going back to trace my roots as a kid, you know. I had thought about being a priest [in the past], but then I was feeling that there was something inside me, a question about priesthood. And so, I pursued it. I asked my priest, my advisors, and it’s been now eight years. I went through college, finished that, and I’m now in the major seminary.

TQ: You said that growing up, you had a priest that came only once a year. That kind of shortage, not to that degree thankfully, is happening in America now. Being in seminary now, what would you say is the best way to encourage vocations, to bring them back to the levels that they were a few decades ago?

RV: I think you really have to be present, be present to the people, and not to expect them to come to you.  Be out there, like we’re here in Manhattan College. We’ll just be talking and every once and a while a student will come by and talk about their life, or anything. So that’s what you do, you be present yourself. They want the real person.

SB: I think, something that’s really important for this, that everyone needs in their lives and is hard to get, is just time for silence. To be quiet and sit. When we sit, we’re confronted with thoughts about what’s frightening, or what’s joyful, about whether we’re even happy. Those are important questions that occur to us naturally, but it’s hard to listen. And I think when we listen a little more carefully, it can help point us in the right direction.

TQ: Student ministry is obviously really important. A lot of students, this is their first time on their own and like you both described they experience a period where they think “What’s really the point of going to mass, or I don’t want to be here.” What do you think is the best way to prevent people from falling away in college?

SB: I think—What did it for me, and what I think what a lot of people really need, is community.

It’s really easy to get isolated or kind of lost in the shuffle. But, you know our whole lives are kind of made up of people who support us, or wounds in our lives are made up of places where people didn’t support us. I think it’s important to seek out groups, or friends, or mentors who could be that support.

RV: I’ll go along the same lines with Sam. Friends are the biggest thing. I mean I’m here in the seminary, and I still have my friends outside and those are like my support group, you know. People that can always check with me, I can check with them. I entered the seminary and people call me more now! There’s more to talk about!

SB: When you start seminary, people think you have all the answers.

RV: In college, you’re dealing with all these questions, “what am I doing?”, “who am I coming to”, so you’re searching for answers.  I think the best way to do it is to talk to someone else.

TQ:  Like you mentioned, you have friends outside the seminary, and I think that a lot of people have this perception of priests and seminarians as extremely strict and having no lives outside what we see on the altar. What are your interests that are not related to being seminarians, or something people might be surprised to hear a priest is interested in.

SB: My passion is singing. I studied music in college and I’ve always loved singing, it’s something I’ve done for my whole life and it’s a real outlet for me. So, I sing in the seminary, but I also sing in a semi-professional choir in the city. So, on Wednesday evenings after we come here I take the train down to Wall Street and sing in a choir. It’s a gift that God has given me. It’s part of our lives that we all have gifts like that, and whatever your call is, you’re still a human being. Exercising those things helps you be who God wants you to be. I also love Chipotle. It’s universal.

RV: I encounter this a lot in my family and friends. Sometimes they would take me out to dinner when I’m home and eventually they ask me what I do. I say, “Oh I’m studying to be a priest” and they say “wow, you’re studying to be a priest, but you’re still out here?” Here I am going to a winery or having a beer and they say, “I didn’t think you guys could do that kind of stuff.” But no, we are we’re very normal, you know.

SB: I don’t know if I’d say we’re very normal.

TQ: Adjacent to normal?

SB: Right.

RV: I think that anyone who wants to be a priest is kind of weird, in a way.

TQ:  It’s very daunting for someone who might want to become a priest, especially with things like, you know, celibacy, or the degree of responsibility. So, for someone who’s discerning and may be nervous about it or scared about it, either for the priesthood or if they’re a woman for religious life, what advice would you give? What would you say to someone who’s early on in this process and may be quite freaked out by it all?

SB: Something I keep coming back to is this story in the Gospel of Jesus telling Peter to walk on the water. And Peter doesn’t want to get out of boat; we’re happy in the boat of our comfort zone and we don’t want to step out. I found just reading that passage, over and over again, and just kind of asking myself questions about it, how I relate to Peter in the story, and considering the fact that Jesus really has all these storms under control.

RV: It’s okay to be nervous. God wants you, you know? You’re not the perfect product. That’s what seminary is for, not that anyone will ever be ‘perfect.’ It’s ok to be afraid. It’s said that if you’re nervous, it’s a sign of love. It’s a big step in your life. God always reaffirms you. I entered into the seminary and I had many fears, whether it was money to go to school or wondering if I can even do this, but God always provides. So, you have to make that leap of faith.

TQ: What would you say is the biggest misconception about the priesthood, or religious life, or the church in general that you find a lot of college-aged people might have?

RV: Something which Pope Francis keeps saying, you know, that we only worry about homosexuality, or abortion or birth control, all of those things. Like the you were saying before, we’re regular folks, we want to talk and be very open. Some feel that they should not go to Mass simply because of those issues, but the faith isn’t only about that.

SB:  Two things. I want people to know that in the church, they belong. And when you’re in the church, you’re home. And you know we all have we all have messy and confusing lives, that are not always the way we want them to be, or the way other people want them to be. And that’s okay. Jesus is okay with mess. About the priesthood, I think [the biggest misconception] is that our lives are perfect. Our lives are not perfect either. We do not have everything put together or figured out. That’s really important for us. That’s what gets me up every morning, and keeps me praying, and keeps me humble. That I don’t have it all together.

RV: You don’t have to have an answer to just, you know, come and go and want to develop a relationship with God. You can’t make the determination based just on one thing. There’s also a lot of misconceptions in the media, so you can’t just be driven by those things.

TQ: Last question, if you had to pick a favorite saint—and you don’t have to pick St. Jean-Baptiste De LaSalle—who would it be?

SB: I actually went to a Christian Brothers High School, so I think [St. Jean-Baptiste De LaSalle] is pretty cool! Someone I really like right now, you might have to do a bit of searching for, is the Japanese St Peter Kibe. Who, because of racism, was prevented from being a priest for twenty-five years. He built his own ship to go become a missionary in Japan, where he was from. The ship sank. He was persecuted in Japan and died for his faith.

RV: I’d like to talk about Blessed Oscar Romero. He was a bishop in El Salvador, and I admire him a lot because it is kind of my history. It’s my family roots. I admire him because although he studied in Rome and everything, he was very courageous about speaking the truth and not being afraid. I admire the witness of his life and his virtue. It encourages me to continue, and to never be afraid.