Coming back to school at the age of 50 was not a problem for John W. Adams, who just completed six years of study at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. "Since I've been here it's very clear that we're all lifelong learners. That's how I feel," he said.
"Where would I rather be than studying about the thing that I love most, which is God? Being in a place like this that's so beautiful, 132 acres of God's country, being at a place where they have top-notch staff and faculty, and also a library that's one of the top in the Northeast for its field. I really love the process of learning and believe all of us as human beings are constantly learning throughout our lives. It was a wonderful challenge and a beautiful experience."
Now, as he prepares for his priestly ordination on June 7, he explains how he put a lifetime of book learning into practice.
Every seminarian does summer assignments at local parishes and field assignments in non-church locations. Deacon Adams, who has spent his civilian life as a psychologist, mostly working with the deaf community, did his field work in the Lackawanna Food Pantry and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He presented theological reflections to his fellow seminarians examining what he saw, what he did, how he felt about his duties and where he saw God in his work. This helps develop the four pillars of formation as outlined by Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation "Pastores dabo vobis," - the spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral.
At Roswell, Deacon Adams spent time praying with Tom, a man in his late 60s, dying of cancer.
"His family was having a very difficult time," he recalled. "When I was praying with him, his family was on one side and I as on the other. We were holding his hands. When his family would talk about how difficult things were, I would talk to him about prayer and he would keep squeezing my hand. I think at that particular time, he whispered in my ear, 'I'm ready.' Somebody said we were literally in the form of a cross, with the family on one side holding his hand and I'm on the other. What was amazing to me was he was in the middle. He was really the bridge. When we talk about where was God in all of this, right there in the person of Tom. We thought we were there for him. He actually changed all of our lives."
Midway through his studies Deacon Adams spent a pastoral year in Olean under the guiding hand of Father Gregory Dobson, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Parish. This year coincided with the implementation of the Third Roman Missal. Deacon Adams got to see how Father Dobson worked with other priests in the vicariate to decide which prayers would be used in the area.
He also got to witness Father Dobson's work at Olean General Hospital, where the seminarian did his clinical pastoral education.
"What I learned under Father Greg Dobson was a lot of pastoral experiences, how he would handle different aspects of ministry and liturgy in a pastoral way, how
he would respond to people who were suffering, how he would handle weddings, funerals," Deacon Adams said. "I think one of the most powerful things that he showed me was about funerals. He really celebrated a person's passing beautifully, and always made it very personal. You could tell that he really planned well to be present to the family to help them through that difficult time."
While serving at St. Mary's, Deacon Adams started a Liturgy of the Hours and a One in the Spirit group, which prays for people's intentions. Both programs still exist in the parish.
During his summers, he served at Our Lady of Pompeii Parish in Lancaster with Father Leon Biernat and Resurrection Parish in Cheektowaga with Father Conrad P. Stachowiak. Deacon Adams remarked on Father Biernat's energy, recalling one day that started at 8 a.m. and ended at midnight.
"He was demonstrating a lot of things to me about his ministry to people," Deacon Adams said. "It ranged from starting your day with a Mass, to working with the youth in the middle of the day, to Teams of Our Lady, which is a marriage group. It was such a variety."
For the past year, Deacon Adams has been serving his diaconal assignment at Resurrection Parish, home of the Deaf Apostolate. Interestingly, even though both he and Father Stachowiak worked with the deaf community, and had worked at St. Mary's School for the Deaf at different times, they hadn't met until three years ago.
Deacon Adams does not know where he will serve after ordination, but looks forward to being a parish priest or wherever he is assigned. He enjoyed his work on the medical front, and along with his deep history with the deaf and disabled, has an interest in interfaith relations.
"The one thing about my whole experience here academically, personally, spiritually, I have trusted the Lord and really surrendered to Him. Wherever He takes me I trust it will be His will," he said.
During his six years at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, Deacon Adams has developed a close friendship with Father Charles Amico, professor emeritus, who has no doubts John can live up to the challenges, due to his past work.
"The thing that impressed me especially was that he worked with people with disabilities, not only with the deaf, but in that community of the deaf; they were disabled. Anyone who gravitates towards helping the disabled, I think, has a good background for priesthood. We're all hurting in one way or another," Father Amico said, adding that the biggest challenge priests face is the diversity of the people they minister to. "You're like a doctor who's a general practioner. You have to really deal with people, men, women, adults, children, people who are very advanced in the spiritual life, people who are just far away. We're all sinners, but people are at different levels of sinfulness. To be able to deal with people at all these levels I think is one of the biggest challenges."