Laughter filled the air where two men reclined by an Italian coffee stand looking out over the city of Rome.
The Billings natives Marc Lenneman and Daniel Wathen chatted about how life had changed since their high-school days in Billings and how they both came to be in Rome.
Lenneman, 29, and Wathen, 26, along with Ryan Erlenbush, 22, are all Billings Central Catholic High graduates who became seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
And the relationship goes deeper still.
Lenneman and Wathen are cousins, Wathen and Erlenbush were high-school classmates, and Lenneman was Erlenbush's religion teacher at Billings Central.
Years later, Lenneman has completed his fourth year at the NAC seminary and returned to Montana, where he was just ordained as a priest in St. Helena Cathedral in Helena.
He will then go back to Rome to finish up his studies before he moves to Montana permanently as a priest for the Helena diocese.
Wathen also returned to Montana in June for his ordination. It took place in St. Patrick's Co-Cathedral in Billings on Tuesday.
His new duties are as a priest at St. Pius X Parish.
Erlenbush just finished up his first year at the seminary and is staying in Europe this summer.
Through different paths, each of these men discerned that God was calling him into the priesthood and, more specifically, a study of priesthood in Rome. And, although the journey was different for each man, all three say their time at Billing Central played a definite role in the development of their faith.
Lenneman says his journey began not as a high-school student at Central, but years later when he came back as a religion teacher.
Lenneman was a 22-year-old senior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., when he received a call from his former high-school religion teacher, Mike Martinson. Martinson told Lenneman about an opening at Billings Central for another religion teacher and wanted Lenneman to take the job.
At first, Lenneman turned down the request. But, after much prayer, he changed his mind.
Teaching at Central was one of the most enlightening and hardest times for him, Lenneman said with a pensive look on his face, as he strolled through the green lawn at the North American College campus, his normally energetic and upbeat tone muting for a moment as he thought. His light brown hair was cut short, and his trimmed mustache and beard added years to his otherwise-youthful face. Black rimmed glasses accentuated his eyes, which flashed with intelligence and excitement as he spoke:
"I had to learn so much to be able to teach … after the first six weeks I was ready to quit."
Lenneman said he was praying in the high school's chapel when he felt God telling him that he would never make it if he kept trying to do everything on his own. So, Lenneman began attending Mass at nearby St. Patrick's Co-Cathedral every morning.
It was during these times, he said, that he began thinking he could do more to serve God.
"The whole decision about leaving Central and going into the priesthood was really hard," Lenneman said.
But, in the end, he listened to co-worker Gary Goodrow, another religion teacher at Billings Central, who told Lenneman it might be better for him to show students how to live out God's plan than just teach it.
Lenneman said he got the last message he needed to make his decision when he went with a group from the high school to Rome for the jubilee year celebration in 2000.
"I knew it then that I should go into the seminary."
A year later, Lenneman returned to Rome — but this time to study to become a priest at the request of the bishop of the Helena diocese.
"He told me, 'Here in Montana we tend to think of the Catholic Church as the walls of the parish.' Being in Rome shows you it's so much more."
Wathen ran his hand through his short dark brown hair and smiled, revealing two large dimples in his cheeks.
"I think that Central set the foundation to what happened in college," he said. "Just to realize how you can combine elements of education with faith."
Wathen graduated from Billings Central in 1998. It was because of his Catholic high-school education that he knew he wanted to attend a Catholic college, he said. Wathen enrolled in Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in financial management.
Going into college, Wathen had never considered the seminary as an option. As a freshman, he and a friend went to a discernment group, but only with the intention of being a support group for his friend's roommate who was thinking about joining the seminary, Wathen recalled.
After listening to a priest speak about his experiences in the priesthood at a retreat, though, Wathen began to contemplate joining the seminary himself.
"When the priest was sharing his stories, I realized the priesthood could be fun and challenging and interesting. I had been in the view it was the same every day, but, after hearing him speak, I realized there might be more to the priesthood than I thought," Wathen said.
Still it took him four years to decide whether he wanted to go into politics or the priesthood.
When his last year of college came around, Wathen knew the time had come to make a choice.
"I would decide to go into politics, but then five minutes later I would ask myself again if maybe I should go into the seminary," he said. "I did that almost every day until finally I decided that maybe since I kept questioning it, I should try it out."
Wathen's next big choice came when he had to decide where he was going to go to seminary because the Great Falls-Billings diocese had given him two options: Chicago or Rome.
As he pondered whether he was prepared to handle studying in a foreign country, little did he know that his cousin, Lenneman, was having some of the same thoughts. It wasn't until Wathen had told his decision to the bishop that the cousins learned they would both be going to seminary in Rome.
"I actually found out through my mom what had happened in Marc's process," Wathen said with a grin. "It's really amazing we both ended up here from two separate bishops."
Wathen's decision made him the first seminarian in Rome from the Great Falls-Billings diocese in 25 years.
"Since then, these four years have been awesome. I've learned so much from the guys here," Wathen said.
Erlenbush graduated from Billings Central in 2002, but he knew even before then that he wanted to go into the seminary after high school.
Erlenbush was a sophomore in high school when he began running with the Rev. Steve Tokarski, the priest from St. Pius X Parish who often came and ran with Erlenbush's cross-country team at Central.
"He inspired me a lot," Erlenbush said in his calm, soft-spoken manner, reminiscent of Tokarski. "The way he dealt with people was really amazing. I saw that, and I thought I wanted to be a priest like Father Steve some day."
Erlenbush and Tokarski became good friends over the next three years. They shared many of the same outdoor passions, including hiking and running, and would talk about God while they accompanied each other in those activities.
Lenneman was Erlenbush's religion teacher at this time of spiritual discovery, but neither of them spoke to each other at the time about their thoughts about joining the seminary. They did speak about theology, and Lenneman often gave Erlenbush books to read that became influential down the road, Erlenbush said.
"At the time, he and I had chosen independently about going into the seminary," Erlenbush said.
By his junior year of high school, Erlenbush had told his parents of his decision, and he enrolled in St. John Vianney Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., when he graduated.
The first time Erlenbush heard of the NAC seminary was when he was a sophomore in college and Wathen was asked to go. Wathen had been a senior at Billings Central when Erlenbush was a freshman.
At that point, Erlenbush said he had no expectations that he might go there. At the end of that year, though, he was told that Rome might be a possibility for him as well.
Erlenbush's first reaction was not excitement, he said with a smile. But, after he talked more about the idea with Lenneman and Wathen, he began to have a change of heart. In the July 2005, Erlenbush packed his bags and was off to Rome.
When teacher, student and cousin were reunited, the three of them made up the largest representation from one high school at NAC.
All three men said having each other around has been a blessing. For Wathen, having Lenneman for guidance and support helped, especially in Wathen's first year as he was one of the few men who hadn't gone to seminary school before coming to NAC.
"It was nice because I could run everything through Marc," Wathen said.
He also had fun being that mentor, in turn, for Erlenbush, who joined the others in the fall.
For Erlenbush, having the two older mentors has been "a real blessing."
Wathen helped Erlenbush with the workings inside their diocese of Great Falls-Billings, and Lenneman helped him get a wider picture of Montana — as well as helping with his Italian at school because they attended the same Italian-speaking college, Erlenbush said.
For the most part, the three men led separate lives — "I think it's because we're from Montana that we tend to do very well independently," Wathen noted — but they always tried to take some time out to check up on each other and do a "Montana meal" at least once a semester. Occasionally they also reminisced about their days at Central.
Life at NAC
A typical day at NAC consists of getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready and going to bed around midnight. The days are full of prayer, school and responsibilities within the seminary.
Each seminarian attends classes at one of Rome's colleges, some of which are held in Italian and some in English, as well as attending formation classes at NAC. The formation classes are used to teach the seminarians the details of becoming a priest that they don't learn in class. This is when they really learn about what they are getting themselves into, Lenneman explained.
They learn everything from giving a homily, the explanation of the liturgy readings at Mass, to how to conduct marriages and baptisms. In the last years of their studies, this also includes doing ministry work out in the community.
"It gets busy … but, at the same time, there's opportunity to get out and run around," Wathen said.
About 160 seminarians studied at NAC this year, and everybody came from a different background. The men come from all across the country and range from 19 to 46 years old. Some are right out of college, and others have had successful careers in the business world that they quit when they felt called to the priesthood.
"The church is so big, each man can find his own way of approaching it," Wathen said.
All three said they had difficulties to overcome during their time as a seminarian — from language barriers to homesickness to bad media coverage of the church.
"I think you have to be pretty mature and solid in your faith to come here," Lenneman said.
When Lenneman arrived in Rome, he didn't speak a word of Italian. As he tried to explain exactly how this language barrier affected him on the first day of school, he couldn't help but laugh.
"I had missed the intensive course offered before I started classes, so, after the first day at the Italian school, I came out with four words written down for notes … and two of them were Jesus Cristo!" he said as he remembered his moment of terror.
"You have to learn how to let go of your life. There's a long process of being reformed, healed and taught anew," Lenneman said. "I wish it were like basketball where I could practice and work on it … but faith doesn't work that way. It's a gift."
As far as retention in the priesthood program, from a recent class, out of the 50 seminarians who started, 36 were ordained.
Lenneman looks at it this way:
"The only thing we're trying to do here is listen to God's voice … and God told some of these men this really wasn't what they were supposed to do."
The seminary, which holds about 160 seminarians, is capable of holding 220.
"This is by far the biggest national seminary in Rome. Most others have 30 to 40 guys," Lenneman said.
He said that, on the whole, the Catholic Church is struggling to recruit enough men for the priesthood, although each diocese is different. His thought on the matter is that the struggle has more to do with the culture of the world today than anything else.
"Instead of being taught to give ourselves away … we're being taught to be selfish," he said. "Vocations are out there, but they're not being cultured."
He noted, "Our job as new priests is going to be to water those seeds, and that happens through prayer."
Erlenbush said he thinks there is going to be a definite growth in numbers to the priesthood in the near future. He pointed out the large number of men interested in the seminary coming from his own high school. Already seven men in a six-year period have entered the seminary, he said.
"I can already see that in many places the vocation is blooming," he said. "There's really been an incredible amount of vocations that are coming out of Central. I think it comes down to the religion classes there and also to the priests who say Mass — Father Steve especially — who are encouraging young men in the schools.
"I think this is really a time of hope in the future."
Cynthia Reynaud, a 2003 Billings Central graduate, studies at the University of Idaho in Moscow.