Darrell Segura stands between parishioners for a celebration during his pastoral year at a parish in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Courtesy Darrell Segura)
Darrell Segura stands between parishioners for a celebration during his pastoral year at a parish in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Courtesy Darrell Segura)
ST. BENEDICT — Even during a pandemic, seminary is not all about books. Pastoral experience is so important to the discernment of men considering priesthood that they brave the virus to serve in parishes, donning masks, keeping distance as much as possible and learning about the spiritual and corporal needs of the people of God. Even at a distance, seminarians were able to touch people’s lives.

Darrell Segura, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, served his pastoral year at Santa Maria de la Paz in Santa Fe. Spiritual life topped his list of tasks.

“I helped my pastor when the pandemic hit and was participating in Mass, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the rosary for the health and safety of our parishioners and everyone around the world,” Segura said.

Communication came next. He used the phone — a tool parish priests must embrace — to check on parishioners. Segura also sent letters, cards, and information to keep parishioners updated on the latest Mass attendance regulations and safety measures.

Seminarians such as Segura became parish technology experts, teaching pastors how to livestream worship. Segura helped get the equipment necessary to broadcast, a capability the parish did not have before the pandemic.

“The most important thing that I learned was how to be a good spiritual father during a very chaotic time,” Segura said. “I learned this by observing my pastor. He had a very hopeful spirit and found ways of reaching out to his people.”

For two weeks straight, Father Daniel Balizan spent hours every day calling parishioners to check on them and give hope. Segura will not forget that dedication.

“I like seminarians to learn that being a pastor is not just about celebrating the sacraments but about being involved in the lives of the people,” said Father Balizan.

The priest recalls that Segura lent a hand in cleaning up the house of a low-income woman who is a hoarder. “He was not afraid to get down to do the dirty work that needed to be done,” Father Balizan said.

Though it was a challenge not to meet more parishioners face to face, Segura came away thinking that communications technology is a real gift from on high.

“It is a blessing that we were able to stay connected as a parish family and give each other support through technological means,” he said. “However, I did learn that we need the physical presence of others to live as healthy human beings. Sometimes, we take our relationships for granted. The pandemic helped me to be more grateful for the people in my life.”

Juan Carlos Reynoso, a seminarian for the Diocese of Fresno, served for the year at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Bakersfield. He focused on evangelizing under adverse conditions.

One of his fondest memories is accompanying his pastor with a mobile eucharistic adoration unit. With Reynoso driving the van, they visited neighborhoods all over the parish with the Blessed Sacrament, maintaining both respect for the Lord and for social distance from worshippers.

Reynoso helped make short videos with reflections on Holy Week and instructions for catechumens, a new task for him.

“I am not good with technology,” he admitted. “But it was an opportunity to learn a little about how to bring Christ and his message of salvation to people who are in need of him.”

He phoned parish elders to check on their health and spirits. He took Communion to nursing homes before the pandemic. Once Mass began again, he helped move chairs, tape off pews and clean.

“This unique pastoral experience has taught me that people are thirsty for Christ,” Reynoso said. “They told me that the quarantine made them see how important the holy Mass is and how much they missed the sacraments. I learned that the evangelizing mission of the church has no rest, that the most difficult moments are when people need more of Christ.”

Trying to carry out ministry at a distance taught Reynoso the value of human contact. People communicate with movement, gestures and facial expressions, all cues to the pastoral minister.

He also learned about the importance of brotherhood among priests.

“In my pastor I was able to find spiritual and moral support,” he said of Father Michael Andrade. “I saw a man of faith who works hard to make Christ known to those in need.”

Father Andrade said Reynoso did amazing work. “The only problem is that he was not ordained yet and able to jump in to say Mass.”

The priest explained that his own pastoral year was key for discernment, showing him what the life would be like and helping him understand priesthood more deeply. He hoped the same for his protégé.

“I wanted Juan to grow in his vocation as a priest, to have his vocation enlivened and strengthened by seeing what it’s like to serve God’s people,” Father Andrade said.