Seminaries put greater focus on human formation
CHARLOTTE — Ongoing education of seminarians and priests is in the spotlight after the May 18 release of the study, "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors," done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and partly funded by the U.S. bishops. Seminaries and dioceses have responded with formation programs designed to better prepare men for the rigors of the priesthood – one of the recommendations of the study but something that's already been under way for the past decade.
Since the 1990s, seminaries have undergone a fundamental change in how men are prepared for the priesthood. Beyond teaching seminarians theology, academics and how to be good parish administrators, seminaries have added "human formation" to their curricula. Human formation is the development of a range of skills, such as communication and stewardship, along with a focus on personal growth in maturity, respect for others and morality.
Documents in support of human formation in the seminary go back to the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council. The idea grew in popularity after Blessed Pope John Paul II issued his 1992 Apostolic Exhortation, "Pastores Dabo Vobis" ("I Shall Give You Shepherds"). The pope wrote, "It is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ."
Life in the seminaries began to change almost immediately.
Father David Brzoska, pastor of St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country in Boone, was a seminarian in the mid-1990s at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa. He recalls, "We had weekly conferences where we talked about how our strengths and weaknesses and our sexuality needed to be integrated into all areas of our lives."
By 2005 the U.S. bishops approved the fifth edition of the textbook "Program of Priestly Formation," raising the status of human formation by putting it on par with theological, academic and pastoral instruction – the so-called "pillars of formation."
By then Father Brzoska had been ordained and was the human formation director at St. Vincent's, where he judged the fitness of seminarians to be priests based in part on their human formation.
"They (seminarians) could be getting decent grades, but we could look at how they were interacting with others, how respectful they were, and we could sometimes determine that this person doesn't have the maturity level to proceed," he said.
Father John Allen, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle in Greensboro, also has direct experience with how human formation has become integrated into seminarian education. He served as dean of the school of theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
Emphasis on human formation at the seminaries has made it easier for the Church to discern who will be successful as a priest, Father Allen said. "It places an emphasis on human qualities like maturity and self-knowledge."
Allen also said many dioceses address the need for ongoing human formation of priests via retreats, conferences and education programs.
"All Christians – and priests among them – should strive to achieve in their personal lives a balance between contemplation and action, and a balance in terms of their own personality where attention can be paid to all things that are necessary for spiritual growth," he said.
Both Father Bzroska and Father Allen said a challenge for every priest is to keep his ongoing formation in mind as he tackles a demanding job that requires pastoral work, sacramental care and administrative demands. Additionally, priests are often isolated in far-flung parishes from other priests who can support them and share their understanding of the need for continued development in what can be a stressful, lonely and emotional job.
Bzroska said priests are commissioned to continue Christ's work and they do that as humans who have unique personalities and the shared desire to minister to the faithful no matter where or how God calls them. Human formation, he said, is a tool that gives a priest "good self awareness, self understanding and effective maturity."
-- David Hains, Director of Communication
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