A season of discovery: Dimensions of priestly formation in seminaries

Pia Matthews writes about the four dimensions of priestly formation in seminaries, which aim to create an integrated whole and form priests in the likeness of the Good Shepherd.

Inevitably, once it is known that I teach in a Catholic seminary, I am inundated with checks and requests: Do the seminarians learn how to cook or do first aid? Do they know about climate change? They should be taught about the role of women in the Church, the lives of people with disabilities, with dementia, with mental health issues, what it is really like to look after a family, finances and building maintenance. They should be up to date on safeguarding and protection of vulnerable people against abuse. These are all valid and important requests, and they should be factored into seminary studies. But they do not go to the heart of seminary formation. Formation in the seminary is more than about acquiring information or gaining theological expertise or being culturally aware or developing the tools needed for running a parish, as important as all of these are. And formation is not directed towards forming good seminarians. Seminary formation is forming men for priestly life and ministry, for serving the people of God. This is not to ignore significant concerns about what seminarians should know. Rather, if we get formation right, then the other important issues will also slot into place.

Formation: transforming the heart, soul and mind

The first hurdle to overcome is the view that intellectual formation, understood merely as ‘knowing stuff’, being informed, is the main aim of seminary formation. There is no doubt that the intellectual programme in seminaries is rigorous: generally, seminarians study two years of philosophy followed by three or four years of theology. However, intellectual formation is not the same as the intellectual academic programme. Intellectual formation is one of four aspects of formation, the other three being human, spiritual and pastoral. These four aspects create an integrated whole: for instance, intellectual formation provides the rational tools to understand what it is to serve in pastoral ministry and how to communicate the faith, and it impacts on the seminarian’s human and spiritual formation; pastoral formation makes possible a fruitful service, and it directs the intellectual, human and spiritual aspects towards that service; spiritual formation helps shape the quality of priestly ministry as it centres the seminarian on God and ensures that the other aspects do not simply become social work or intellectual activity for its own sake; human formation enables the seminarian to make a true gift of himself in God’s service through a deepening of his psychological, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation.

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