PROVIDENCE — For seminarian Peter Cotnoir, three years living and studying at Our Lady of Providence Seminary have brought him one step closer to a dream of joining the priesthood. Cotnoir, who graduated from Providence College on Sunday and will begin his major seminary studies at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., this fall, cannot remember a time when he didn’t feel a calling to the vocation.
“I don’t really remember the first time I thought about being a priest. I was four or five at the time,” he said. “It’s different for everybody, but I describe it like when two people meet the person they’re supposed to marry and know. It’s like that.”
Cotnoir is one of 18 seminarians from the Diocese of Providence currently in priestly formation either at Our Lady of Providence Seminary or one of several major seminaries used by the diocese. Father Carl Fisette, vocations director, spoke to Rhode Island Catholic during an interview at the chancery about the importance of seminarian education. He emphasized a rounded formation that allows future priests to develop on the human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral levels.
“When you’re looking at this, there are different pieces. It’s not just an academic formation,” he said. “Pope John Paul II said the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ, so that’s where this formation comes in.”
Future priests typically spend between two and four years in minor seminary and another four years in major seminary. During this time, apostolic assignments in parishes and other ministries help them to develop pastoral skills, while regular evaluations and community living allow them an opportunity to reflect on their own faith lives and the importance of the vocation.
“We look to see them growing with the heart of a priest,” said Father Fisette. “Intellectually, you can look at their grades, but we’re looking for something much broader, much deeper.”
For Cotnoir, the call to the vocation of the priesthood began early in life and gained strength as he underwent a process of discernment. With a touch of humor, he recalled how at the age of 8 he contacted Our Lady of Providence Seminary and expressed an interest in becoming a priest. Though a bit too young for a vocations retreat, he was invited by then-Vocations Director Father Marcel Taillon to tour the seminary. Ten years later, he would cross the threshold as a seminarian and begin the journey of priestly formation.
Like his fellow minor seminarians, Cotnoir was required to make a financial investment toward his formation, taking out loans to cover the costs of an undergraduate education and room and board. As a major seminarian, he will depend far more upon the generosity of others. Catholic Charity Appeal funds assist with the living expenses and educational costs of major seminarians, making the completion of their formation dependent upon donations from the people of the diocese.
“These are their future priests, the people who are going to be their pastors,” said Father Fisette. “The people seek good, holy, educated men who are going to be their priests. It’s this funding that allows us to prepare them for that role.”
Though the educational and financial responsibilities make preparing for the priesthood no easy task, Cotnoir said he is glad for the years spent growing in faith and maturity.
“We have intense formation. We get a lifetime of formation in eight years,” he said. “That ability to grow deep in your understanding is something I wish more people had.”
He credits a strong foundation in theology at Catholic schools and his home parish of All Saints, Woonsocket, with helping to prepare him for life as a seminarian. Since entering Our Lady of Providence Seminary, opportunities to serve as a catechist and an outreach worker at the Office of Life and Family Ministry have helped him to develop the pastoral skills central to the role of the priest.
“Being more compassionate, listening more and really seeing the world as God and the Church sees it is something that I’ve grown into. I’m starting to transition into that fatherly role that I take on,” he said. “I’m grateful. It’s hard, but it’s good. Because every year I get done, I see myself having grown more and more.”
Though Cotnoir still has another four years of formation before his ordination at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, he looks forward to the day when he can join the priests of the diocese in their task as servants and leaders. In the meantime, he turns to his faith in God to carry him on the path of formation.
“By myself, I can’t do it all,” he said. “It’s such a huge task. It’s only really God working through you. By the time I’m done, God will get me where I need to be.”
During the celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to be particularly attentive to ways they may exhibit God’s mercy by serving the needs of those in their communities and around the world. To offer a donation to help the numerous ministries served by the annual diocesan Catholic Charity Appeal, please visit: https://providencediocese.thankyou4caring.org