Note: This story is part of a series highlighting the 2019 Bishop’s Annual Appeal, which launches in February.
Thomas Skaja has been planting seeds as long as he can remember. Growing up on a farm near Gilman, he spent a lot of time in fields and gardens, places that gave him time to think and pray.
At a young age, he began to feel a tug toward the priesthood.
“It was more of a whisper that kept getting stronger,” Skaja said. “I believe that a big part of being able to hear that call for me came from being on the farm in the midst of silence. There’s a lot of noise in our world today and that makes it difficult to hear the voice of God. There were a lot of times when we were out in the fields or doing chores in silence. I think that was essential in listening to God’s voice.”
Skaja is in his seventh year of seminary. He attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona for four years and is now in his third year at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul. God willing, he will be ordained a transitional deacon in June and a priest in June 2020.
“The word ‘seminary’ comes from the Latin word for ‘seedbed.’ So it is really cool that we all come from normal homes and families and get implanted in this seedbed called the seminary, and from there we learn what it means to be priests, how the Lord is asking us to stretch,” Skaja said.
“In this seedbed, we are preparing for a life that is countercultural. It’s going to be tough at times. People might hate us for what we are going to say. That’s when we look to the martyrs, especially in our age today. They were thrown into jail for preaching the Gospel. It makes me consider what I am willing to do for my faith. Am I willing to lay down my life for Christ?” he said.
Among his influences are his parents, Mike and Kim, who instilled in him Catholic values.
“Faith was always important to me growing up,” he said. “Things like just being faithful in going to church and praying regularly were a normal part of my life.”
Skaja was also impressed with the priests who served in his home parish of Annunciation in Mayhew Lake, particularly Father Francis Britz and Father Tim Wenzel.
“Seeing their examples stirred something in me, and the call just got stronger over the years,” he said.
When it came time for Skaja to consider his post-high school options, he called the Vocation Office at the Diocese of St. Cloud. Then-vocation director Father Gregory Mastey assisted Skaja in discerning if the seminary was a good fit for him.
“We went on a couple of seminary visits. He met with me and my family, and we prayed about it,” Skaja recalled.
“I remember thinking that I needed to know within the first week or two of seminary if I was going to be a priest or not. When I first entered seminary, our rector told us to put that thought on the back burner, to focus first on becoming solid men in Christ, to focus on our prayer life and growth in virtue.
“At the end of the day, when a man enters seminary, if he gives himself to formation and prayer, he is going to leave as a good
father, either as a priest or as a husband and father, or wherever the Lord calls him. Worst-case scenario: He’ll leave a better man,” he said.
Skaja enjoys seminary life. Each day, he begins with a holy hour at 6 a.m.
“It is nice to pray in community, and it’s a beautiful thing to begin the day in prayer,” he said.
Then the seminarians share breakfast and typically go to class until about 11:15 a.m. They celebrate Mass daily at 11:35 a.m.
“It is a blessing to have Mass in the middle of your day,” he added.
Afternoons are generally free for study, and perhaps the occasional nap, he said. Each evening, seminarians pray evening prayer and eat supper together.
“We have house parties, play pool, etc. Playing ‘500’ is essential. That’s where the real fraternity happens. Right now there are about 80 guys at the St. Paul Seminary. It’s just a blessing to have that fraternal bond as brothers,” he said.
Once a week, the seminarians who are from the Diocese of St. Cloud — both from St. John Vianney Seminary and St. Paul Seminary — also meet for fellowship.
Skaja visits his teaching parish, St. Andrew in Elk River, once a month for the whole weekend and nearly weekly to help with faith formation classes.
“I love coming to my teaching parish, to come up for some fresh air and spend time in the Diocese of St. Cloud. These are the people that, God willing, I will be serving. It’s nice to have a personal connection with people from our diocese,” he said.
Skaja said he and his brother seminarians are encouraged by the outpouring of care from the people of the diocese.
“We are grateful for the support from the Bishop’s Annual Appeal and for all of the donations we receive. But we are especially grateful for your prayers, because entering the priesthood today is not a walk in the park,” he said. “To have so many generous people support us spiritually gives us strength and perseverance in answering the call.”
Bishop’s Annual Appeal launches in February
Each year, the St. Cloud Diocese launches a campaign called the Bishop’s Annual Appeal to raise funds that support vital ministries throughout the 16 counties of the diocese. This year’s theme is “Baptized into one Body” from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
In a letter being mailed this month to local Catholics, Bishop Donald Kettler states, “In baptism, [being of] ‘one Spirit’ makes us members of ‘one body’ — the body of Christ. As members of this body, we are sent on a mission to serve others as Christ, bringing his love, mercy and compassion to all those in need.
“The Bishop’s Annual Appeal serves the body of Christ into which we were baptized in so many important ways.”
Among ministries supported by the appeal are vocations, Catholic education, faith formation, marriage preparation, family life, pastoral planning, multicultural ministries, ministry to the divorced and the TV Mass for the homebound.
“I ask you to please prayerfully discern a gift to the appeal and join others around the diocese in supporting this important work,” Bishop Kettler said. “The need is great and your gift — no matter the amount — makes a difference in the lives of so many others.”
This year, the campaign will be announced in parishes on the weekend of Feb. 9-10. The following week, registered parishioners will receive a direct mail letter in their mailboxes.
On commitment weekend — Feb. 16-17 — parishioners are invited to bring their gift to Mass and place the special envelope in the offertory basket. Donations may also be made electronically or by U.S. mail.
“I am very grateful for every gift made to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal,” Bishop Kettler said. “These gifts help support ministries at the core of our Church’s mission.”
To watch Bishop Kettler’s appeal message on video, visit stcdio.org and click on “Bishop’s Annual Appeal.”
As disciples of Jesus, two of the greatest works we bring to the world are healing and the preaching of the Good News. As the role of lay leadership continues to expand, the need for good and holy priests for the works of healing and preaching continues to be vital. In the diocesan Vocation Office, we work each day to help priests of tomorrow understand and develop these gifts. There are many more young people eager to follow this call, but your support is essential to their ‘yes’ to God. I invite you to consider a generous gift to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, a gift that will allow new generations to be healed by Jesus in both word and sacrament.”
— Father Scott Pogatchnik, vocation director, Diocese of St. Cloud