success stories

Posted July 2, 2004

Formation for a Holy, Healthy, Effective Priesthood

Msgr. Dennis Sheehan
Origins June 17, 2004 Vol. 34:NO.5

“I am wondering if we are engaging some of our candidates at the deepest level of personal and ecclesial conversion,” Msgr. Dennis Sheehan said in the opening address in Boston April 13 to the 2004 convocation of the National Catholic Educational Association Seminary Department. He submitted “that conversion cannot be taken for granted at all today” and said, “I am asking for a reinstatement of an intentional fostering and evaluation of the basic level of conversion in a candidate for ordination.”

Sheehan said, “I am just concerned that as presently set up, the program of formation could be too external, too behavioral and not really at the heart of the seminarian’s journey of faith.” Sheehan also spoke of the priest as a minister of communion in a divided church and said that preparation of this role must begin in the seminary. “In my judgement the American church is riven at the present moment by more fractures and gaps than a healthy institution can sustain for a long period of time. Rarely before in our long Catholic history has it been more apparent that those who would exercise leadership in the church are called to be ministers of healing communion.”

Sheehan said that “at the theological level of formation we need to pursue a tactic and foster an ethos that seeks to include rather that exclude those with whom we differ. Civility is not just a civil virtue. The church today needs it badly and nowhere more desperately than in the community of its ordained ministers.”

He said that “formation must pay closer attention to the priest as bridge-builder, as peacemaker, as reconciler, as mediator of unity.”

Preaching was among other concerns addressed by Sheehan. He said, “The seminary will get nowhere in developing effective ministers of God’s word until it sets out deliberatively and emphatically to insist that clear thinking, good writing and the art of exposition are an essential skill in every candidate for ordination.

Quotes from Sheehan’s Talk:

“It is astounding to me how immune many of today’s seminarians are to the modeling of teachers and pastoral supervisors . . . In this generation, when so many come to us already chronologically and psychically older, it is far more difficult to change basic assumptions.” “Is he merely studying or is something more going on? Is he just showing up and behaving suitably or is something deeper at work? Is he present for liturgy, prayer and retreats or is he engaged, moving, changing? Is he being formed or transformed?”

“I know it will be hard to tell a bishop that his seminarian simply cannot think clearly and speak straight enough to qualify him for the pulpit. But what else can we do?”

“The last thing the church in America needs today is a pastor who clings to one vision, who debates straw enemies from left and right, who ridicules those with different theological views. Training for this, I modestly propose, can be an intentional part of every seminary program. I have no illusions that this too isn’t a hard sell. Imagine telling a bishop or vocation director his seminarian doesn’t know how to handle theological disagreement!”