Bowling was the common ground that connected seminarian Michael Nufable to a guest he was serving at St. Mary's Center, a community center for low-income seniors in West Oakland, as part of a social justice immersion program offered by the diocese to those who are studying for the priesthood.
For Nufable, who grew up in St. Patrick Parish in Rodeo, an important part of being a priest includes "having an open ear and listening to the people of God."
Many of the people Nufable has met during his immersion experience come from tough backgrounds. But what's that hasn't stopped the conversation. "The most important thing is to listen, in any location, to have a listening ear," he said.
The encounter that emerged from the common ground of bowling is an example of what the social immersion program set out to do for eight seminarians, who are in various stages of formation.
Deacon Matt Dulka, who directs the Maryknoll Mission Center in San Lorenzo, led the program, along with John Watkins, diocesan Life and Justice coordinator.
The seminarians stayed Monday through Friday at the Maryknoll Mission House located on the campus of St. John the Baptist Church in San Lorenzo, starting each day with morning prayer and Mass.
Then they were off to service agencies within the diocese. In addition to St. Mary's Center, they served at St. Vincent de Paul and at Oakland Catholic Worker.
The program used Pope Francis' "Evangelii Gaudium" ("Joy of the Gospel") as a framework, to encounter God in their experiences of the days.
"It seemed to really hit home with them," Deacon Dulka said.
"Mission is like a treasure hunt," he said. The treasure is finding the encounter with God.
Not only were they touched by the people they served, but by volunteers and staff at the places they served, Deacon Dulka said. "They witnessed to them what it means to serve others," he said.
At day's end, there was time for theological reflection. Staying together in community also added to the cohesiveness of the group, he said, and gave them an opportunity to reflect with each other on their experiences.
Maryknoll's mission most often involves serving abroad. This program offered an opportunity to make the connection between poverty in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
"A goal of the church is to build a community of missionary disciples," Deacon Dulka said. "They saw that in the programs they visited, but also in the people they served."
The experience was also about planting seeds. This summer, they have been seminarians. In many summers, many of them will be priests. Among the questions they might ask, Deacon Dulka suggested, are, "How do parishes become missionary disciples. What's the role of the priest in this?"
After the immersion program, some of the seminarians were assigned to an organization.
Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary's Center in Oakland, did a presentation for the group. Two seminarians were assigned to the center for further service.
"I think it's a great idea," Johnson said.
Garrett McGowan stayed for two weeks. When asked what the second-year seminarian has been doing, Johnson said: "He's mopping the floor. He helped with grocery bag distribution. He helped in the garden and with some painting. He's in the community center in the morning."
He was getting a good idea of what the center does, including its new peer counseling program, she said.
That spells success for Watkins, who said the immersion program's goal was to "connect mission to their vocation as a priest."
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