By Fr. John Puntino, SDB
The COVID-19 pandemic forced changes to this year’s novitiate program even before it began.
After Novices John Castonguay and Kevin White flew to New York on August 1 so they could fulfill the State’s required 14-day quarantine before their first profession, Fr. Joe Nguyen, Master of Novices, and Fr. John Puntino, Assistant to the Novices, traveled to St. Joseph Youth Retreat Center in Rosemead, CA. There they spent the next week preparing a Novitiate Handbook and a Beginning Novitiate Retreat for the expected five novices due to enter on August 14.
Soon-to-be novices Paul Hotovy and Francis Nguyen arrived on August 7 and went immediately into quarantine. By the grace of God, they tested negative for the virus in time for the start of the novitiate.
The novitiate started on August 14 with Paul and Francis from the New Rochelle Province and Chris Green, Reegan Ledet, and Eddie DeLeon from the San Francisco Province. During the retreat, Eddie, who had hesitations before beginning the novitiate, discerned that he was not ready for Salesian consecrated community life. As a result, he returned to his family in Laredo, TX.
Once the retreat ended, the novices began to visit the Salesian houses in the Los Angeles area. Unfortunately, the group was unexpectedly exposed to some who had been recently in contact with a person who tested positive for the virus during a visit. That necessitated a delay of one week in Rosemead before the novices, Fr. Joe, and Fr. John could come up to Richmond in the San Francisco area.
Having reached Richmond on August 31, the novices began to settle in when a similar case of coming into contact with someone exposed to the virus triggered a second quarantine. Once again, by the grace of God, everyone tested negative and the mostly ordinary program of the novitiate began.
The novices have classes and conferences at the community residence in Richmond and travel to the Institute of Salesian Studies in Berkeley for Fr. Joe Boenzi’s class on Salesian Charism and Spirit.
The one important aspect of novitiate formation that is lacking because of the restrictions is the pastoral experience of interacting with Salesian College Preparatory students and West Contra Costa Salesian Boys and Girls Club members. This situation will continue as long as students attend class only digitally.
At two months into the novitiate, Paul, Francis, Chris, and Reegan have bonded well through the novitiate’s unusual beginning. They are using the time that they would have spent in direct pastoral experience to learn skills useful in ministry to young people. These include playing musical instruments, learning card tricks, and juggling.
“The Corona Novitiate,” as Fr. Joe has dubbed this year, is functioning well and making the best of the situation.