Seminary formation

What we’ve learned in the past 25 years and where we’re going

by Fr. Thomas Berg

By fall 2018 — after U.S. Catholicism’s summer of scandals — I was frequently being asked about the condition of our seminaries. Catholics have rightly wondered: Since The Boston Globe first confronted us with the depth of the crisis of clergy sexual abuse in January 2002, has seminary formation changed and adapted?

My answer quite simply has been and continues to be a resounding “yes.” In fact, if we look back over a bit longer period, the past 25 years, we find that already prior to 2002, seminary formation programs were on the road to improvement almost across the board. It can be helpful for laity and clergy alike to consider where we’ve come from, what these improvements have entailed, and some of the challenges that still lie ahead.

Some Background

A great gift to the Church in recent years has been the latest edition of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy in December 2016. This is the governing document for seminaries throughout the world from which, and in close adherence to which, episcopal conferences are expected to establish their own local governing documents for seminaries. In the United States, the latter is accomplished through the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), presently in its fifth edition (with a sixth edition currently in the works).

Updates to the PPF have often occurred in conjunction with the Holy See’s periodic efforts to examine the state of the world’s seminaries. The first edition of the PPF was promulgated in 1971. This was followed by revised editions in 1976, 1981, and 1985. In 1992, following an international synod on “Priestly Formation in the Circumstances of the Day,” St. John Paul II published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds).The fourth edition of the PPF was subsequently approved in November 1992.

A decade later, the Church in the U.S. was devastated by an initial wave of revelations of priestly sexual abuse and episcopal cover-ups. As a fifth edition of the PPF was nearing completion, a new apostolic visitation of all U.S. seminaries was mandated in 2004 and carried out over the next two years. A concluding report on this visitation was published by the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2008.

In January 2013, in one of his final yet significant acts of governance, Pope Benedict XVI transferred oversight for the world’s Catholic seminaries from the Congregation for Catholic Education to the Congregation for the Clergy. Later that year, Pope Francis appointed Mexican bishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong as secretary for seminaries within the Congregation for the Clergy, with responsibility for the formation of the world’s approximately 120,000 seminarians.

Prior to 2002, seminary formation programs were on the road to improvement.

Some significant milestones in priestly formation

The publication of Pastores Dabo Vobis in 1992 and the promulgation in 2016 of the latest edition of the Ratio constitute bookends, as it were, for a real renaissance in priestly formation in the U.S.

A significant bellwether indicator that seminary formation was taking a turn in the right direction was the establishment in 1994 of the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) at Creighton University.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, IPF has been exceedingly fruitful — as expressed in its mission statement — at assisting “in the spiritual formation of diocesan seminarians and priests” by providing “a more concentrated and integrated spiritual formation.” Ignatian in its approach and orthodox in its theology, IPF has pioneered an intense program of spiritual preparation for seminarians that becomes solidly foundational for their later years of formation.

But in this time frame as well, the figure of the seminary “formator” — a term referring to priests, deacons, and laity whose full-time ministry is the formation of future priests — has come into prominence. The term “formator” captures nuances all expressive of the crucial role these individuals play today as mentors, teachers, and guides of our men in formation.

In recent years, however, it has become apparent that formators also require training and preparation. Significant in this context has been the birth of the Seminary Formation Council (SFC) that today plays a vital — even prophetic — role in providing education, practical tools, spiritual enrichment, and fraternal support to seminary formators. SFC has developed a two-year certificate program, Seminary Formation for Missionary Discipleship, for those who serve in diocesan seminary formation, especially formation advisers, teaching faculty, administrative faculty, and vocation directors.

In addition to formation for formators, perhaps the single most important development, particularly in the last decade, is the improved screening of candidates and the use of Catholic psychologists. The Ratio foresees seminary formation teams collaborating with professionals in the psychological sciences.

The best seminaries today have a director of psychological services on staff — not to provide “therapy” for seminarians (were that necessary, it would have to be dealt with prior to commencing, or apart from, seminary formation), but rather to collaborate personally and confidentially with them in honing their overall human development.And in the U.S., we are blessed with a network of Catholic therapists well-formed in the Church’s understanding of the human person and well-qualified for such a role.

Another very significant development has been the integration of celibacy formation into the overall program of formation. Long gone are the days when figuring out how to live a celibate life was largely left as a matter for the seminarian to consult about with his spiritual director. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past 15 years, it’s that many priest abusers reached ordination in a stage of arrested psychosexual and emotional development.

There are different approaches to training and formation in affective maturity and a chaste celibate life, but generally our best seminaries approach this question from multiple angles: periodic formation talks, guest speakers, workshops, peer support and discussion groups, counseling services and periodic progress review in light of person-al benchmarks — all in addition to substantive and focused spiritual direction.

Challenges we will encounter

While our best seminaries are pursuing, with varying degrees of success, these excellent innovations, and as we look forward with hope, we are also realistic about the challenges we face.

There will be continued fallout from the Church’s crisis of clergy sexual abuse. Helping the Church heal from this tragic chapter in her history will be the task of our lifetime, and particularly of the most recently ordained and of the next two or three generations of priests.

The challenges of the culture are ever more virulent, so there is more to do “on the front end” as the candidates arrive for their initial phase of formation. We are acutely aware that more preparatory work is needed before the men arrive at the major seminary. And there is a broad consensus among seminary formators today that our seminaries urgently need to require of incoming candidates a year dedicated to intense human and spiritual formation prior to commencing major seminary.

The new edition of the Ratio emphasizes the need for just such a year of formation, building on the same concept already set forth in Pastores Dabo Vobis (62). To be sure, the concept of a special preparatory phase has a firm foundation reaching all the way back into the Church’s monastic tradition: Neophytes are to be provided with a special initial period of spiritual preparation and testing. In religious life, this corresponds to the periods of postulancy and novitiate.

Helping the Church heal … will be the task of our lifetime.

A few seminaries are already incorporating such a phase — also referred to as a “spirituality year” — into their overall programs of formation.

A pioneer in such a program has been St. John Vianney Theological Seminaryin Denver. Begun in 1999, their spiritual year is required for all seminarians prior to the first year of theology. Among other elements, the program comprises a healthy and much-needed “media fast,” in which the use of phones, television, computers, and social media are kept to a minimum.

Approximately three hours daily are spent in communal and silent prayer. In addition to spiritual conferences and noncredit course work in Scripture, the Catechism, and spiritual classics, the year also includes a month-long immersion in poor communities to engage in one-on-one pastoral ministry. The year culminates admirably with an Ignatian 30-day retreat. It is to be hoped that similar programs will become the norm for all seminaries.

Our approach to seminary formation has changed in dramatic ways in the past 25 years and is for the most part on a very promising trajectory. Catholics who love the Church would do well to pray daily not only for seminarians but for those who are dedicated to their formation process, that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead us along paths of responsible, prudent — yet daring and innovative — adaptations to seminary formation appropriate to our times and for the healing of our Church.


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