Last fall, Jose Flores applied to UW-Madison and the University of Dallas, thinking he might want to become a pediatrician.
But something nagged at the high school senior.
“I didn’t feel really content,” said Flores, 18, who lives with his parents and two brothers on Madison’s East Side. “I have an ambitious personality. I want to do a lot, and I feel very strongly I could work hard enough to become a doctor. But I thought maybe I need to be doing more for God.”
So in January, he called the Rev. Gregory Ihm, vocations director for the Madison Catholic Diocese. The two sat down and talked. The upshot: Flores has applied to the diocese to attend seminary this fall.
“No, I’m not certain that I will actually be ordained, but I do trust that God will eventually lead me to where I can be the best version of myself, either to a secular vocation, or a religious one,” Flores told several dozen people during an open house March 27 at St. Ambrose Academy, the Catholic school he attends on Madison’s West Side.
The talk was billed as a chance to hear from an “almost-seminarian,” a student title quite common at St. Ambrose. Since the school’s founding in 2003, around 20 percent of its Catholic male graduates have entered the seminary, though not all have chosen to stay through ordination, said David R.J. Stiennon, president of the school’s board of directors.
The school has 92 students in grades six through 12. Flores is one of 10 seniors. Of the five male seniors, he is the only one so far who has applied to seminary.
St. Ambrose Academy, housed in the education wing of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, 602 Everglade Drive, mixes an academically rigorous curriculum based on the classics with a strong Catholic foundation. It was founded by a group of Catholic parents, not a parish, and is not directly connected to the diocese. However, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino officially recognized St. Ambrose as a Catholic school in 2004, and he has been an enthusiastic and involved supporter.
Morlino sought to increase the number of seminarians when he arrived in the diocese 10-plus years ago, and St. Ambrose has been a significant partner in that goal. There were six seminarians in 2003, 32 now.
Flores attended Madison public schools until high school, then decided to try St. Ambrose on the recommendation of a family friend. His freshman year, he read “The Odyssey” and started to learn Latin. He was hooked.
“I felt very accomplished,” he said in an interview.
The school gave him a better understanding of church doctrine and introduced him to an array of priests, who often drop by as guest teachers. Students are taught to be charitable, which Flores said got him thinking about all of the different ways to be charitable, including serving the church as a priest.
He has thought through the ramifications, he said, including a life of celibacy. “I will, in a way, have a family if I become a priest, just in a different way,” he said. “I think about all the joy I would have helping other people raise their children in the church.”
He will find out in a month or so whether the diocese has accepted his application, and if so, which seminary he will attend. Meanwhile, he has been accepted to both UW-Madison and the University of Dallas.
If he indeed ends up at a seminary this fall as he hopes, he will view the next couple of years as part of the continuing discernment process, not an irreversible commitment, he said.
“If God doesn’t want me there, he will lead me out,” Flores said. “As long as I’m open to all possibilities, I’ll be very happy, and that gives me a lot of peace.”