As a priest ordained 51 years ago and one who ministered in seminaries for approximately 15 years, I have concerns about the formation I received, about the way I assisted in forming others, and about the way I see seminarians being formed today.
I spent 13 years in seminary, from a high school seminary to a two-year spiritual novitiate, and then seven additional years of college and theology formation. Almost all of those years were spent in the isolation of an exclusively male environment, including teachers and formation and spiritual directors. Only during the final two-and-a-half years of my theological formation in a newly established seminary did I spend time in a more open environment. There I had the option of taking classes outside of the closed seminary and with the opportunity to explore other places and interact with other people.
As I look back on my years after ordination as a seminary professor and guide in the formation of young seminarians, I notice some improvements. The seminarians I taught took college classes at an ordinary Catholic university, with young men and women as classmates and with women teaching some of the classes. The seminarians had the freedom to explore life outside the seminary buildings, as long as there were no formation programs taking place at the seminary. The seminarians were also expected to take part in some form of pastoral ministry outside the seminary. Most assisted in parishes with religious education and liturgy. However, for the most part, formation and spiritual direction were still exclusively the domain of Catholic priests.
Reflecting today on what I see and hear of seminary formation and what I see in recently ordained priests, I question whether we are truly forming priests for pastoral ministry in the world of the 21st century. Sadly, I notice that too many recently ordained priests appear to be focused more on promoting the special nature of their priesthood than seeing themselves called to be of service to the people in their parishes.
I recently spent some time with a small group of like-minded priests who share my concerns, and we discussed what we would like to see done differently in the way seminarians are prepared for ministry. Overall, we wish to see seminarians formed to continue to live out the values that were promoted by the Second Vatican Council and that Pope Francis has reminded us are still in the process of being realized.
By the values of the Second Vatican Council, we mean focusing on the church as the people of God with a mission in the midst of the secular world; we mean acknowledging the role of the laity and promoting ecumenical and interfaith commitment. We also envision the importance of praying in the common language of the people; hence the use of vernacular in the liturgy as a way of helping all to develop, experience, and share our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In this context, we encourage subsidiarity and collaboration in decision making in dioceses and parishes.
Unfortunately, we are aware that too many young priests do not seem to share those values. They think of Vatican II in less than positive terms. Many want to promote the celebration of the Eucharist in Latin instead of in the common language of the people, whether English, Spanish, or another language. They do not promote the other values of Vatican II, such as collaboration with the laity in decision making.
Secondly, we would like to see a greater emphasis on the priest’s call to service. We see the specialness of Holy Orders not in our separateness from the laity but in our call to be servant-leaders of God’s faithful people. Jesus exemplified this when he washed the feet of his disciples and when he affirmed that he was called to serve and not be served. Sadly, we hear too often of the newly ordained acting autocratically when they become pastors, making changes in parish procedures immediately rather than listening to and working with parishioners.
We would also like seminarians to be trained for a more pastorally sensitive approach to ministry. To accomplish this, we think that seminarians ought to live among the people in parishes, in homes or apartments with experienced priests and laity guiding them, instead of living apart, isolated in large seminary buildings. We would like to see even more classes taken with laywomen and men so that seminarians will experience firsthand how laypeople think and reflect on issues of life and salvation. To help seminarians see themselves as identified initially with all the “priesthood of the baptized” before ordination, we propose that they be allowed to wear clerical clothes only after they are ordained as deacons and truly share in the sacrament of Holy Orders as clerics.
Given the concerns about psychosexual development and living a celibate life in our modern society, we think it is imperative that seminarians receive greater guidance in preparing for their ministry as celibate priests. We think that seminary leadership needs to include women and men professionally trained in psychology as well as spirituality who can assist the seminarians and the other faculty in the formation process and the discernment of authentic vocational calls from God in a healthy and humane way. Hopefully, this kind of professional support in formation will aid seminarians in developing healthy ways of relating to women and men. This may also help prevent future instances of sexual abuse by the clergy and the cover-up by bishops such as we have seen in recent decades.
As a concrete help in the formation process, it is important that seminarians interact with women as fellow students as well as teachers, formation personnel, and spiritual directors. Realistically, priests spend a good portion of their time working with and ministering among women as well as men. Too often priests do not seem to show enough respect for the gifts that women have to offer the church.
These observations and recommendations regarding the formation for priesthood in the Catholic Church in the United States demonstrate why I think the Program of Priestly Formation needs significant revisions. The current seminary model was established nearly 500 years ago. Times have changed, and continue to change at an ever-faster pace. We are living in a secular culture that offers an abundance of religious and spiritual options. The dramatic rise of “nones” among us, the disaffiliation of huge numbers of our own “baptized-and-raised-Catholic” people, and the continuing paucity of persons drawn to service as priests: all these factors and more argue that the current model for the formation of priests neither draws sufficient numbers of men to enter the priesthood nor effectively serves God’s people.
We need a formation program that is pastoral in the spirit of Vatican II to meet the needs of our time and place. My group of fellow priests and I think the results will lead to a renewed and enlarged clergy that is more in touch with the modern world. That, in turn, will lead to a renewed church. Consequently, I hope our bishops will take our recommendations seriously and develop and implement such a program, drawing from the input of many diverse sources such as ours. What do you think?
Fr. Louis Arceneaux has been a priest in the Congregation of the Mission since 1966. After studying and later gaining a doctorate in theology at San Anselmo in Rome, he taught theology and served in seminary formation for 15 years before moving on to other pastoral ministry, including parish ministry, retreats, and promotion of peace and justice. He is presently on the leadership team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests and helped develop their proposal for renewal of seminary formation. The full text of the AUSCP’s priestly formation document, including a letter written to the U.S. bishops, is available here.