This article was previously published in the Spring 2019 issue of the Patrician Magazine.
In March 1992, St. Pope John Paul II released his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV) to the clergy and the lay faithful of the Catholic Church concerning the formation of priests in light of the circumstances at that time. Its lessons have as much, if not more, relevance for today’s society, more than 25 years later. Young men discerning the priestly vocation are faced with a society where increasingly “there is a lack of a genuine and full proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, [and] there is a rising spread of forms of religiosity without God and the proliferation of many sects” (PDV, 6). Subjectivism in matters of the faith have become more pronounced and there are many worrisome scandals within the Church herself that have directly impacted the ministries of priests and lives of the lay faithful.
Now more than ever, a sound human formation is a critical element of the foundation for all priestly formation. As St. Pope John Paul II wrote, “The priest, who is called to be a ‘living image’ of Jesus Christ, head and shepherd of the Church, should seek to reflect in himself, as far as possible, the human perfection which shines forth in the incarnate Son of God and which is reflected with particular liveliness in his attitudes toward others as we see narrated in the Gospels” (PDV, 43). A priest’s human formation must be such that his personality serves as a “bridge to Christ” and not an obstacle.
The seminarian’s ability to present himself and his views in a mature and balanced manner is critical for the establishment of trust and collaboration in healthy relationships. To serve as a “bridge to Christ”, the seminarian must learn how “to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments” (PDV, 43). Our seminarians’ vocations are discovered through the St. Patrick’s community that forms him into a “man of communion” with a high level of affective maturity. Seminarians learn to relate to men and women of various ages and backgrounds through interactions with fellow seminarians, faculty, and staff within the seminary. They are tasked to “not be arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console” (PDV, 43). Additionally, the seminarian must lead a balanced life that incorporates his physical and mental well-being in addition to his spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Only through a proper expression of Christian self-love can the seminarian have the capability to serve others in love.
This winsome behavior is only part of the story; it also needs to have its basis in a selfless love of others. Any “affective maturity presupposes an awareness that love has a central role in human life” (PDV, 44). To give oneself completely as a gift to another is to truly understand the ‘nuptial meaning’ of the body. For the priest, this means a call to the charism of celibacy – a supernatural gift of oneself completely to the Church in order to love and lead people to the Lord. Countering today’s cultural obsession with sexual expression, celibacy includes the beautiful gift of spiritual fatherhood in the imitation of Christ. Through an integrated celibate life, the seminarian gives his self-giving love to all in a more pure and complete way.
This is by no means an easy task. “Since the charism of celibacy, even when it is genuine and has proved itself, leaves one’s affections and instinctive impulses intact, candidates to the priesthood need an affective maturity which is prudent, able to renounce anything that is a threat to it, vigilant over both body and spirit, and capable of esteem and respect in interpersonal relationships between men and women” (PDV, 44). Those individuals with poor human formation can succumb to adverse societal pressures and inner temptations with sometimes disastrous results. St. Patrick’s seminarians discuss their development as a sexual person and areas for growth with their spiritual and formation directors, which can help deepen each seminarian’s moral conscience and lead to a more responsible use of freedom.
Proper human formation provides an essential element of the foundation for the grace received through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The grace from Holy Orders will not magically solve any inadequate human formation, but rather the opposite – proper human formation makes the priest a more perfect vehicle for the grace of God. Through our emphasis in human formation at St. Patrick’s, we are forming the priests of our future Church who will make themselves a “gift of self, the total gift of self to the Church, following the example of Christ” (PDV, 23).