A six-year “blessing”

A Journey Ends At The Seminary

In an amazing narrative of an accomplished wife, mother and career nurse, Helenanne Hochendoner told the Byzantine Catholic Serra Club about the most recent chapter or her life at their April 18 meeting. She invited Serrans to journey with her as she worked to attain a Master of Arts in Theology at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius.

Helenanne began by speaking of her love of the Seminary from Day One: “It has its own special ambiance — the incense, the quiet, the surroundings, and most especially the chapel. It is a place of peace, a sacred place where the presence of God can be felt.”

Helenanne described her six years at the Seminary as a “blessing” that “has not stayed only with me, but has flowed to my family and others.” The Seminary experience, while the “most profound” in her life, was also most unusual in that she was surrounded, for the most part, by the students and faculty who were mostly male. Helenanne hopes “that changes and is changing,” especially since the Seminary’s online education program is up and running. Her experience is unique in that it was gained “in a man’s world.”

Helenanne felt a need to tell a little about herself and what brought her to the Seminary. Married at an early age to John, they have four daughters. She has a BSN with experience in a pediatric trauma program, ICU and burn units. With the encouragement of her husband, she left the profession to pursue further education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in History (CalU). It looked like a teaching career was on the horizon.

“But two events occurred that changed my direction completely,” she said. The first, a workshop in which she narrowed down her likes, priorities and values. And what remained? “My last two values were God and my family.”

Then came the hard part. Narrowing it down to one. “I deliberated the entire length of time they gave us. Finally, I picked God…First, I don’t think that I actually picked God as much as he gave me grace to pick him. Second, my family and I have been blessed with his blessing at that moment. I love my family better because I love him more. And, my experience at the Seminary helped me to get to that place and live it.”

The second, a happenstance meeting with Serran Gerry O’Connor at a football game. After searching for a church that would be easier for family attendance, Helenanne, through Gerry, came to realize that St. Pius was home.

With Helenanne and Gerry frequently getting together at St. Pius, Gerry shared about taking classes at the Seminary as part of her Cantorial training. This prompted Helenanne to check it out and apply. After having taken a class or two, Helenanne became a full-time student.

As a full-time student, Helenanne grew to love the morning Liturgy when her schedule permitted. She recalled one Liturgy during which the Canon St. Andrew of Crete was prayed: “It is beautiful and moving, both metaphorically and physically.”

Moved by the Canon’s retelling of salvation history, Helenanne hoped that she would continue to be able to participate in the Canon each year.

What’s It Like?

“First, it is a warm and welcoming place,” Helenanne said. Father John Petro was Rector when Helenanne’s Seminary studies began and “he always took time to stop, talk to me, and ask me how I was doing and if I had any concerns or
needs.” She added that current Rector, Father Robert Pipta, continues the same tradition of hospitality. Father (now Bishop) George Gallaro “always expressed interest in my progress, showed kindness, concern and hospitality. I smile every time I think of him.” Initially, Helenanne was the onlyfemale full-time student.

“I was a bit of an anomaly…I did have one female professor, Dr. Sandra Collins. I was not the only woman in the building.” The women on the Seminary staff “made me feel welcome and included; they were all very kind to me.” Since most of her time was spent in the classroom, she was essentially a woman in a man’s world. But then, the prime purpose of a seminary is to educate and form men for the priesthood.

“What usually happened in all my classes was this: whatever we were talking about, my perspectives and thoughts were sought to bring a woman’s point of view to the topic. They wanted to know what female laity thoughts and concerns were.”

Serra Club President Bill Kress, Helenanne Hochendoner

In return, Helenanne was able to gain insight into the point of view of men of different ages and backgrounds. She said, “It was never dull.” While her perspective was sometimes disconcerting, freedom of inquiry is welcome and mandated at the Seminary. The foundation of core and general studies in the M.A.T. program affords the student time to discern and decide what area of concentration upon which to focus.

Narrowing the Academic Focus

“It didn’t take me long to decide my focus was Biblical studies,” Helenanne said. Her love of history segued nicely into that academic area. Going back to her first value — God — her two interests find a home in the study of Scripture. “As you know, Scripture is a combination of historical events, narrative, songs, poems and much more. The concentration opened up a whole new world to me. I came to understand how to reverence the Bible as the Word of God, but also to treat it with academic respect and integrity.”

In Helenanne’s six-year “long haul,” she came to value the tutelage of Dr. Collins, “who did not give up on me when I could not see the forest for the trees… But she persevered, and so did John when I would lament that I could not do this, and together they helped my perseverance.”

With this encouragement, “I was helped to develop the ability to discern the Bible as a theological, academic scholar without losing my love for it as the Word of God.” Further studies enabled Helenanne to narrow her focus to explore women in Scripture, for God did not only use men to further his plan of salvation history. This area has received a lot of attention and work in the past several decades, which does not appear to slow down anytime soon.

The Bible can be a “text of terror,” legitimizing the inferiority and inequality of women to men. “The interpretation of Scripture can be one of ‘suspicion’ or one of ‘grace.’ According to Tikva Frymer-Kensky, ‘suspicion’ that the Bible justifies and advocates for patriarchy, male domination and female inferiority should be followed by the ‘grace’ that the structure of patriarchy was an historical given, but women were not treated
inferiorly, or as the ‘other’.” Frymer-Kensky goes on to conclude that this insight about women as being subordinate and powerless, but not inferior had much to do with how Israel viewed itself, having spent much of its history under the rule or domination of other countries or empires.

So, what is this saying? The women of Scripture, despite their characters being undeveloped, have much information to share from the few details presented. “When the historical context, social structure and word meanings are understood, women and their stories are opened up to us,” Helenanne said. “It tells us much about relationships, God, and his work of salvation history… and understand what God wants us to see in Scripture.” Helenanne explained, “this is just a small sample of the teaching, good work and research that goes on in the Seminary.”

It begs the question: what is its meaning and significance in our lives today? As for Helenanne, “I would say much. It helps us to understand what God might want from us; for example, charity, forgiveness, obedience to the Lord, endurance, perseverance and love of God and neighbor.” Finally, it brings us to know God, inasmuch as he would be known.

M.A.T. Project

The project is the final work any student — M.A.T. or seminarian — must do to graduate. The student choses a topic to be approved by the appropriate advisor. Helenanne chose to share a bit about her project. In her Scripture study, Helenanne came to see that much of it — especially in the Old Testament — had to do with relationships with God, nation, community and family.

In focusing on family ties, Helenanne was drawn to father-daughter relationships. There is a paucity of examples of this in the Old Testament, and among those most of them did not go well — especially for the daughters. Her question came to be if paternal relationships failed these daughters, could better paternal parenting improve the
daughters’ lives?

Helenanne looked into these relationship interactions via a socio-historical method — through their historical setting, their cultural values, Scriptural commentary and the Law. Her perspective was that of a woman, being someone’s daughter. She chose two stories: Jacob/ Dinah and David/Tamar.

Jacob and David are both esteemed in Scripture and by the Church. Their stories are more developed than most, providing a clearer view of motivations and detailed action. Both daughters were raped. Dinah was taken from her rapist’s house, never to be seen again. Tamar lived the rest of her life in isolation in her brother’s home. Neither father responded to these rapes, either to mitigate what had happened, or even to express paternal concern.

“Jacob was afraid because he was now ‘odious’ to the surrounding communities and David was only ‘angry’ when he heard ‘all these things’,” she said. Questions arose during research: Were the daughters at fault? Did the fathers respond in a manner appropriate to their culture and its values? Did the fathers follow the direction
of the Torah (Law)? Were the daughters deprived of the blessed and fruitful life mandated by God?

Helenanne’s Thesis Statement was: Some highly esteemed fathers in Scripture failed to parent their daughters, such that their daughters did not enjoy fulfilling the mandate of God, to be fruitful and multiply. The end result of her research was as it had to be: What significance does this have for us today, in other words, why does it matter that we know Jacob and David failed to parent their daughters successfully?

She attempted to make her case by taking into account research that proved and did not prove her thesis. Helenanne maintained that both Jacob and David are worthy of esteem despite their failure to parent their daughters. Their failures underscore their humanity. They brought their families through difficult times and contributed to God’s salvation history.

“Daughters and sisters can be and still are vulnerable in our society. (We) are obliged to discern with and for them, to help them to achieve their highest potential and be in relationship with God and others,” Helenanne

We must value their place and voice within the family and community. We must be loving and forgiving — especially when something goes wrong. “We must not be like Jacob and David who were silent and passive, at a time when their
daughters needed them most. “Lastly, as God forgives, so should we.” To forgive and reconcile in the most difficult of circumstances is the very nature of our loving God.

The spiritual journey of Helenanne during her time at the Seminary “frankly, that is the most important thing that happened to me.” She said that no words can even begin to describe this intimate aspect of her Seminary days. “It was hard and I cried many tears. But I left blessed with a much deeper love of God than I ever would have imagined.” Helenanne thanked the Serrans for the opportunity to share her experiences at the Seminary. While she was open to questions, the nature of her talk left few questions unanswered.