MT. ANGEL - A few years ago, Josh Jones was your typical Kennedy High School student - a guy who loved hanging out with friends, running cross-country, playing video games and trying to meet girls.
Today, he is past the midway point in a rigorous academic and spiritual formation program at Mount Angel Seminary that will culminate in his ordination as a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.
Jones, who moved to Mount Angel when he was 10, said his call to the priesthood came after his college graduation in 2005. With a major in computer science and a minor in math, he wasn't sure what career path to take, so he opted for graduate school and was accepted into a doctoral program in computer science at the University of Idaho. But his life unexpectedly changed before he even began grad school.
"The call first came right after I graduated from the University of Portland," Jones recalled. "I had been active in my faith for a number of years already but had never felt terribly interested in seminary . It was the summer after graduation when something started moving. There was a series of events in my life that really started awakening me to something greater than living for myself and trying to make money. I felt this strange yearning to discover what that is.
"I went on a retreat in New York that summer with a Franciscan group, and tried to figure what this (feeling) was about."
During his first semester in graduate school Jones did "a lot of prayer and reflection" about his life. He began to realize the times he felt most alive were when he was at the local parish or praying with a group of people in the chapel. His computer science studies began to feel more and more like a secondary pursuit.
An email "out of the blue" from one of the Franciscan priests he knew prompted Jones to ponder how he probably wouldn't receive a sign from God telling him which path to take and to consider that there is the element of free will in his choice. After prayer and reflection, he decided he wanted to move into an active "discernment process" to see if he was being called to the priesthood.
During his first semester of graduate school, Jones contacted the vocations director in the Portland Archdiocese and began a formal discernment. When the time came to take the next step of entering seminary, he was assigned to attend Mount Angel Seminary. Depending on age or background, some men from the Portland diocese are sent to other seminaries, but Jones said most go to Mount Angel.
Normally, a college graduate entering the seminary would have a seven-year program to complete before ordination. Two years of "pre-theology," emphasizing philosophy courses, precede two years of theology study, followed by a year of pastoral work in a parish or other ministry setting, and then two more years of theology. Since he had taken several philosophy and theology courses in college, one year of required pre-theology courses was waived for Jones, making his program six years long.
Jones is now in Theology 2, having completed one year of pre-theology and one year of theology, as well as the pastoral year, which he did earlier than normal. After this school year, he will have two more remaining. At 26, he is one of the younger theology students at the seminary; most of his peers are in their 30s.
Jones has a heavy course load this year. He is taking required courses on the Torah, History of the Reformation, Christology, Introduction to Preaching, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and Moral Theology. In addition, he is engaged in a regular ministry assignment at the Macdonald Center in Portland, where he visits with residents who suffer from chronic mental illness or other serious problems.
"They say Theology 2 is the hardest year and I have to agree. It is challenging."
While the seminary's academic program is daunting, Jones said it is only one component of the "Four Pillars of Formation" that "form" future priest-pastors. The other three pillars are spiritual, pastoral and human.
Spiritual development comes through common and individual prayer, daily Mass and private devotions. The "pastoral pillar" involves developing people skills and gaining experience working in ministry settings, while the "human pillar" refers to becoming a healthy, mature adult man.
Out of the 120 resident seminarians studying at Mount Angel, Jones is currently the only one from the local area. He said he goes home to visit his parents, David and Marlys, in town every week or two.
"There's a lot of people here that travel a really long way (to be here). I don't feel awkward until I look at them. We have guys from the Pacific (region) and Africa and they have a 24-hour plane ride to get home, while I can walk home in a few minutes. When I look at them it is a totally different experience."
Free time is rare for Jones, but he said he enjoys occasionally going out to dinner or a movie with some of his fellow seminarians.
Asked whether he is looking forward to completing the formation program and being ordained, Jones said, "We're always looking toward the end, we're always looking toward ordination, but at the same time there's a lot of growth and a lot of learning to be done along the way. I'm appreciating the time I still have to get ready."