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Posted March 17, 2006

Drafting the New Program of Priestly Formation:
A Labor of Love

Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt

The late, beloved Pope John Paul II begins his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (March 25, 1992), (hereafter referred to as PDV) by referring to God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah to provide shepherds for his people after His own heart (Jer 3:15). That promise extends through the Old into the New Testament and down to our own times. In that context, ordained priests provide an essential element for the Church to live out her fundamental obedience to Christ’s two-fold command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). To ensure a proper and continuous response to those commands, adequate numbers of candidates must be both available and willing to hear God’s call and then to be formed according to the pattern of His Son’s Divine Heart. In this light, the formation and education of future priests becomes one of the Church’s “most demanding and important tasks for the future of the evangelization of humanity.” (PDV, 2)

The direction for educating and training priests in our present day is given by the Second Vatican Council in its decree, Optatam Totius. That direction was reformulated after the Council into norms which are contained in the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis of 1976, later revised in light of the new Code of Canon Law (1983) and reissued in 1985. It is this document, the Ratio Fundamentalis, that serves as the normative guide for governing all seminaries and which is to be adapted by each National Conference of Bishops to its own local situation. Here in the U.S.A., we are embarking on the 5th Edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (hereafter referred to as PPF). That is to say, this is the fifth updating of the application of the Ratio fundamentalis to our country.

My involvement with the 5th Edition began in November, 2001 when I became Chair-elect for the USCCB Committee on Priestly Formation. The Chair at that point was Bishop George Niederauer, who quickly asked me to serve as Chairman of the drafting committee. Accepting this challenge, I, in turn, sought out the best seminary or vocations personnel, past or present, that I have met: Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Bishops Greg Aymond, Earl Boyea, Curtis Guillory, Abbot Nathan Zodrow, OSB, Fathers William Baer, Mark O’Keefe, OSB and Kevin Rhoades (later appointed Bishop of Harrisburg). I then set out to ask Father Louis Cameli, who had edited the USCCB document on the Ongoing Formation of Priests, to be our general editor and was delighted when he agreed. Father Edward Burns, who serves as staff person for the USCCB Office of Priestly Formation, proved to be a valuable member of our committee. This, I thought, would constitute a full, active and resourceful drafting committee. But I soon learned that the Conference of Major Superiors felt there must be an additional representative of Religious Men who had experience with the specific formation of religious seminarians. So Fathers Robert Manning, S.J. and Daniel McLellan, O.F.M. were added to the mix and, gratefully so, for they made an invaluable contribution to our work.

Because so many in the seminary communities across the country are familiar with the 4th Edition of the PPF, I have chosen here to highlight what is new or, rather, given a new emphasis in the 5th Edition. Prior to forming my committee, Bishop Niederauer had surveyed the bishops and seminary rectors across the country on the strengths and weaknesses of the 4th Edition. The overwhelming response was that the Norms of the 4th Edition were, by and large, working well. “If it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it” was the message. However, all agreed that a greater restructuring of the document along the lines of the “Four Pillars” (i.e. Human, Spiritual, Intellectual and Pastoral) outlined by Pope John Paul II in PDV would be helpful. And so our committee set out to do just that. While all four elements were embedded in the previous 4th edition, the Holy Father’s outline provided a sharper focus for us.

Overall, our greatest attention was given to the following areas: 1) Human Formation; 2) Criteria for Admissions of Candidates; 3) Required Course Work in Philosophy; 4) Evaluation of Seminarians; 5) Ongoing Formation for the Newly Ordained; 6) Differentiation in the Norms between requirements, recommendations and suggestions. In limiting myself to these six categories, I, in no way, wish to give the impression that other concerns or aspects of seminary programming were not talked about or considered. My hope is that the reader will study the whole document and find fresh insight into matters that have been updated from previous editions. But the six areas I have listed above are essential components for understanding what is “new” about this 5th Edition.

Part I – Human Formation

One of the great insights that Pope John Paul II gleaned from the 1990 Synod of Bishops was the foundational importance of a “suitable” human formation to the work of preparing men for priestly service (PDV, 43). Using a brilliant metaphor to clarify what is involved here, the Pontiff writes:

“. . . it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man.” (PVD, 43)

In this context, the Pope goes on to speak of the priest as “a man of communion,” who exhibits “affective maturity” and “responsible freedom” in his ecclesial service to others.

Citing Pope John Paul II’s own treatment of human formation in PDV, 43, the committee lists ten characteristics of what a properly formed human person looks like: he is free to become who God made him to be; he has a solid moral character; he exhibits prudence and discernment in his judgments; he has a capacity to relate to others; he communicates well; he is in touch with but not driven by his feelings; he pays appropriate attention to his physical well-being; he can work with persons of different backgrounds and temperaments; he exhibits a simple life-style; and he is a person who handles situations well in the public square.

These attributes are essential indicators for how well a seminarian can integrate his physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions in a life-long commitment to celibacy. Though called to sacrifice his life in the married state, the celibate must embrace a universalizing love for all people. This requires the development of habits and skills to master his own feelings and passions especially in the area of ascetical practices and a daily examination of conscience. Here, self-knowledge and self-acceptance lead to the capacity for self-gift in imitation of Jesus, his priestly model.

While the document is straightforward in terms of the resources that seminaries must provide to assist a seminarian in his growth and personal integration, nevertheless it also states clearly that the candidate himself bears the primary responsibility for his own human formation. He, then, must honestly assess his attitude and motivation to live a life of celibacy, obedience and simplicity according to and not in dissent from the mind and teaching of the Church.

Part II – Admissions

Having just described the outcome of what a candidate should look like as a result of the formation program, the 5th Edition is realistic enough to admit that those desired characteristics are not necessarily found in their full actualization at the moment a candidate applies to the seminary.

Therefore, the document speaks of thresholds or foundations which refer to basic minimum standards that a candidate possesses, which give evidence of future potential. For example, does the candidate show signs of taking on responsibility? Does he have empathy for others? Can he work well together with colleagues? Is he faithful to his daily prayer? These are all signs that a person is so rooted in such basic attitudes or dispositions that he will likely respond in a positive way to the formational elements of a seminary program and thus to his future challenges as a priest.

In this context, the 5th Edition offers a warning against giving overemphasis to any one requirement in the admissions process. Interviews, written autobiographies, recommendations from his parish priest, friends and family members, observations during visits to the seminary as well as the results of psychological testing must be taken together in an attempt to capture an overall picture of the candidate. While our contemporary society places much emphasis on the role of psychological screening of candidates, such testing should not be the sole criterion for the acceptance or rejection of a candidate. Ultimately, the final judgment belongs to the bishop or major superior. Thus, the admissions process is always strengthened with the direct participation of the bishop or superior, whenever possible.

The 5th Edition also seeks to address the question of previous sexual experiences by the candidate, recognizing the influence of the sexually promiscuous society in which he lives. The document encourages open and frank discussions in this area between the interviewer and the applicant. Should there have been past sexual activity, the seminary must insist on a prolonged period of abstinence (i.e., three years) prior to acceptance into a program. At the same time, spiritual direction should be encouraged during the waiting program. Whenever a candidate gives evidence of significant unresolved issues, especially with regard to sexuality, it is better that he find assistance outside the seminary program first before making application to the seminary. That person can always reapply at a later date.

Part III – Philosophy Requirements

Another area of significant discussion, but which, in the end, enjoyed complete consensus, was one concerning the question of how much philosophy a pre-theology or college seminarian should be required to take. The 4th Edition had raised the norm to 24 credit hours, the 5th edition raises it to 30 credit hours.

This was not an arbitrary number. The purpose of a philosophy program is to provide the seminarian with a coherent vision of the human person and, indeed, the world. Such a vision is essential for the study of theology. This vision, then, is not about the comprehension of separate philosophical subjects as it is the apprehension of a body of wisdom. Our committee determined the courses that we thought were absolutely essential for this body of wisdom and only then counted up the credit hours. Included in our formula are the study of logic, epistemology, philosophy of nature, metaphysics, natural theology, anthropology and ethics. In addition, a history of philosophy should cover in a systematic and comprehensive manner the ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods.

The documents also insist that the entire philosophical program is supportive of a Catholic viewpoint and propodeutic for the study of theology. Since the writings of Descartes, a substantial doubt has been raised as to the possibility of establishing objective truth. Often religious truth, because it is not empirically verifiable, is relegated merely to the realm of subjective opinion. The Church rejects this notion and desires that the priesthood candidate have complete confidence in the fact that what he preaches and teaches is objectively true. In this regard, solid theological formation, while essential to the future priest, is not enough. He must be able to argue from a philosophical or “Natural Law” perspective to explain and defend why the Church believes what she believes and professes. To my mind, the increase of philosophical requirements is one of the most important developments of the 5th Edition.

The one issue debated on the floor of the USCCB General Assembly when this document was submitted for approval was whether a two-year pre-theology program “must” be required or “should” be required. The majority of bishops, hoping to get future priests out in the field sooner than later, voted for the latter. However, the requirement of 30 hours of philosophy will almost certainly ensure a two year pre-theology program. The committee thought this was essential not only for the sake of the seminarian’s intellectual formation, but also for his adopting to a “Catholic culture” of prayer, devotion and lifestyle. The Holy See concurred with our opinion by insisting that pre-theology programs have a duration of two “calendar” years.

Part IV: Regular Evaluations of Seminarians

One area in which both the commentary and norms of the 4th edition were rewritten was in regard to the evaluations offered by seminary faculty of each seminarian. Here the 5th Edition states that the context for such a process is meant to be a positive one which helps the priesthood candidate see the growth that is happening in his formative development. I recall when I became a seminary rector, the seminarians told me that the one thing they wanted to avoid were eleventh hour surprises in their evaluations. I could not have agreed more. This desire is reflected in the new PPF which states that the evaluation process should be clearly set forth in the student handbook, should contain written criteria, should involve as many members of the faculty as possible and should include regular feedback for the candidate, a mechanism for his response and the assurance of confidentiality. The latter is particularly important, especially when the seminary community is not large. Seminarians ought to be able to provide their own self-evaluation. Peer evaluation, under responsible conditions, is encouraged. Time away from the seminary, especially during the summer months, should likewise be evaluated.

The drafting committee also provided seminaries with a most helpful set of qualities to be evaluated under each section of the “Four Pillars.” These lists will help faculties to evaluate the standards which they are presently using in their own evaluation documents. Such qualities might also serve as the framework for conferences by the Rector or Spiritual Director as they address the seminary community during a given formation year. In addition, the canonical requirements for both Latin and Eastern Church candidates are also set forth in detail within this section.

Finally, it is recommended that candidates who fail to give evidence of formational growth should be advised to leave the program. All doubts should be weighed in favor of the Church’s well-being, over that of the candidate’s.

Part V: The Ongoing Formation of the Newly Ordained

The 5th Edition significantly augments the 4th Edition’s call for the ongoing education and formation of the newly ordained. When I was a seminary rector, I received the “free” advice of priests, religious and laity on the kind of course work that should be required of future priests. Often this would relate to the practical or administrative tasks of a priest.

The fact is that seven or even nine (theology and college) years of seminary training is never enough to teach today’s priesthood candidate all there is to know about every eventuality he will face. A seminarian only absorbs so much knowledge at any given moment. Therefore, it is necessary that a systematic program of instruction and formation of skills be continued after his ordination. Formation is a life-long process.

Pope John Paul II in PDV, 70 says:

“. . . one can speak of a vocation ‘within’ the priesthood. The fact is that God continues to call and send forth, revealing his saving plan in the historical development of a priest’s life and the life of the Church and society. It is in this perspective that the meaning of ongoing formation emerges. Permanent formation is necessary in order to discern and follow this constant call or will of God.”

The seed for encouraging this ongoing formation must begin during the seminary years. Yet the faculty must be deliberate in working with diocesan personnel to ensure that there is a systematic program in place that provides an easy transition for the newly ordained. The faculty itself becomes an important resource for dioceses to achieve the goals set forth. Again, the USCCB’s document, The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests (2001) provides a standard framework for accomplishing this important, if not essential goal.

Part VI: Differentiation in the Norms between the levels of their importance

As I indicated in the beginning of this article, the main focus of our committee’s work was concentrated on the commentary rather than the Norms. However as we reviewed the Norms, it became apparent that there was a lack of consistency in the level of importance given to one Norm over another. Our committee decided to review painstakingly each Norm to see whether the verb “must”, “should” or “it is recommended” would be used. I believe that this evaluation has provided a great service to our seminaries by clearly distinguishing essential elements from those that are just helpful. This should assist faculty and students alike in establishing priorities for their formation programs.

As a bishop and priest who has served seven years in seminary formation work, I cannot express enough the joy that I found in working with this drafting committee to formulate the 5th Edition of the PPF. I believe it was for all of us a labor of love.

At the suggestion of the Congregation for Education, the Bishops’ Conference asked only for a five year recognitio, in order to allow any insights gained from the current Apostolic Seminary Visits to be incorporated into a 6th Edition. But be that as it may, I am sure that this 5th Edition will provide a solid foundation upon which future adaptations will be made.

At the conclusion of PDV, Pope John Paul II urges all those associated with priestly formation to turn in prayer to “Mary, Mother and Teacher of our priesthood.” He professes that she best models for us the full response to God’s call. She serves as the perfect disciple who carries Christ’s Presence within her and resolutely shares that Presence with others. Jesus, the Eternal Priest, grew up being docile to her authority and being instructed by her example. May Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of all priests, continue then to watch over and guide the work of seminary formation in this country, ensuring that it leads faculty and seminarians alike closer to the Heart of her Divine Son.

Bishop John C. Nienstedt has been the Ordinary of the Diocese of New Ulm since 2001. He served as chairman of the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Priestly Formation from 2002-2005. He was the founding Rector/President of the reformulated Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit from 1987 to 1994.