Forming priests

Ernest Skublics offers a contribution to the working party discussions urging on us the importance of residential training for the ministry

Even if there are only truly sacramental structures in the Church, nevertheless for the incarnational machinery to work, much equipment is required. Part of that equipment is an institution of theological education and priestly formation of the highest possible calibre. It needs to provide academic, personal, spiritual and ministerial/pastoral formation for future priests. So it behoves us to consider what this entails. What do we wish to see as the end product of the programme?

While over the centuries the profile of the Catholic priest, the understanding of the nature of his vocation, identity, functions and desirable qualities has seen changes of emphasis, and even within the same time-period and culture it is normal to see a variety of priestly types and personalities, we need to agree on some basic features and qualities we want to see in every Catholic priest.

Collegial participation

The priesthood (or the presbyterate) is not a free-standing office, but a collegial participation in the bishops office. This qualifies the priests self-understanding, both in relationship to his bishop and his local church, and to his brother priests in the presbyterium. This means that the full understanding of priesthood is inseparable from the understanding of the episcopate, which of course is rooted in our (communion) ecclesiology.

The priest therefore is not a self-sufficient, autonomous individual, a lone-ranger. His self-understanding, his spirituality, his ability to be a healthily relational human being, with maturity, humility and an ability to love and care for others must correspond to his 'ecclesiaF personhood. Priesthood is rooted in koinonia.

There are traditionally two emphases in portraying the priesthood that need to be held in balance. One is more iconic and sacramental, emphasizing the sacramental, moral and spiritual transformation, uniqueness and being of the priest, the other focusing on the function of the priest. The first emphasis tends to set the priest apart, stresses his call to perfection and holiness; the second prefers to see the priest as an ordinary man who has a job within and for the faith community.

The priest as an icon or sacrament of Christ to his people, and the priest who serves his community in persona Christi, must for both reasons be formed and assisted in his human development and maturing, in a wholesome way of relating to others (personal formation); he must be trained in the dynamics of his relationship with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in other words, the spiritual life (spiritual formation); he must acquire a sound theological education (academic formation); and gain the understanding and skills required for pastoral work with people (pastoral formation).

The functions of the priest, which he has under and in communion with his bishop, are proclaiming the Gospel, i.e. preaching and teaching competently, from small children to university graduates, celebrating the Liturgy and administering the Sacraments, and providing pastoral leadership.

Importance of seminaries

For all these complex competencies, and even more for the personal and spiritual formation required for a sound, civilized, competent and even holy priesthood, it seems indispensable that a candidate spend some considerable time in residential formation, i.e. in a seminary. The seminary residence is meant to form habits of living, praying, studying and wholesomely relating to others. Provision for such residence is sometimes a difficult challenge, especially when candidates for Orders are married. Yet, compromising on this score severely jeopardizes the desired outcome. Sadly, too many priests we know are ignorant, tactless, self-obsessed, opinionated and pastorally hopeless, not to speak of the many who have abused children and adults.

As we look into our needs for sound theological education and formation, and seek the systems and institutions to provide it, we should consult widely with those of authority and experience.

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