Fr. Joe Mathias S.J

     On 29th June 2008, the solemnity of the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education with the approval and authorization of Pope Benedict XVI , published “Guidelines for the use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of candidates for the Priesthood “ (Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English published on 26th November 2008, No.48, pp.10-13 ). The document of this nature coming from Vatican is undoubtedly a sign of openness on the part of the official church towards human sciences like psychology in its efforts to unravel the mystery of human person . Moreover it is an affirmation of the intrinsic relationship between God’s grace as a gift to one who is called to follow Christ as Priest or Consecrated person and his/her freedom to respond to this call. Speaking of the contribution of Psychology to Vocational discernment and formation, the document para No.5 states:

     In as much as it is in the fruit of a particular gift of God, the vocation to the priesthood and its discernment lie outside the strict competence of psychology. Nevertheless in some cases, recourse to experts in the psychological sciences can be useful. It can allow a more sure evaluation of the candidate’s psychic state; it can help evaluate his human dispositions for responding to the divine call, and it can provide some extra assistance for the candidate’s human growth.

     The importance and necessity of psychological assessment in the discernment of vocation and formation of the candidates is all the more urgent against the recent scandal of pedophilia by clerics and consecrated persons in countries like Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, U.S.A, etc, Back home the Church in India is increasingly faced with situations of candidates with highly dubious motivation desiring to become priests or consecrated persons. The recent scandals among church personal in some parts of the church in India, are raising serious questions about the psychological maturity of those involved in these scandals. Finally in the wake of globalization and its adverse impact on the mindset “characterized by consumerism, instability in family and social relationships, moral relativism, erroneous vision of sexuality, the precariousness of choices, and a systematic negation of values especially by media”,(Cf. Guidelines No.5)having valid criteria to ascertain suitability of candidates has become all the more imperative .Besides these macro level challenges, the church in India at micro level is facing a very serious threat for the past few years unleashed by a fanatic and fundamentalist Hindu extremist group led by a diabolic facist ideology called ‘Hindutva’. Against this background the use of psychology as a tool in the discernment and formation of candidates to priesthood and consecrated life has become all the more urgent and necessary. This is precisely the focal point of discussion here in this paper to show the intrinsic connection between the Grace of God which is a gratuitous gift to the one whom God calls on the one hand and the inner disposition , motivation and the freedom of the one who is called to respond to this divine call, on the other.



     Vocation to priesthood and consecrated life is a gratuitous gift of God, and therefore as such it cannot be subject to any human scrutiny. I do not think any human agency can claim competence to assess a Christian Vocation, applying criteria based on human knowledge and skills. And therefore it would be presumptuous on the part of Vocation promoters, Formators or Major superiors to claim their right to assess the Vocation of someone else. Vocational growth and formation is no doubt a dialectic between Gods grace and the personal response and cooperation of the candidate. Therefore the Holy Spirit is the principal agent that sows the seed of vocation and nourishes it, but of course in and through the free response of the candidate who is called.

   The parable of Sower in the synoptic Gospels; (Mt,13:1-9.18-23; Mk.4:1-9,13-20; Lk.8:4-8,11-15), explain in a graphic way the intrinsic connection between the seed, the word of God, symbolizing Divine Grace and soil, the inner dispositions of the human nature with which persons respond to God’s grace. While God generously and gratuitously showers his graces, the effectiveness or fruitfulness of the seed, God’s word, his grace depends on the receptivity, assimilation by the soil, the human freedom, motivation etc. The healthier the soil, richer the yield. On the other hand if the soil lacks receptivity due to various obstacles, the seed , remains fruitless.

     Another inspiring parable the synoptics use to illustrate this close intrinsic relationship between divine grace and human response is found in Mt.9:14-17; Mk.2:17-22 and Lk-5:36-39, the parable of the new and old garment and wine and wineskins. Jesus by establishing new covenant wants his followers to wear a new garment that of love and compassion and likewise use fresh wineskins of freedom and dignity befitting the redeemed children of God, the new wine. In other words there cannot be a dichotomy or compartmentalization between Grace and Nature, Prayer and action, spirituality and psychology. The dualism leads to fragmentation, division, separation and alienation. The paradigm of INCARNATION has in fact reconciled and integrated the divine and the human , the grace and nature, contemplate and action, the sacred and the profane.

     The human in Jesus becomes a very powerful medium through which God’s compassionate love and mercy are mediated to the sinners, poor, sick and the marginalized. The post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Late Pope John Paul II , Pastores Dabo Vobis underlines that the human formation as the basis of all priestly formation. The document enumerates a series of human qualities required of the priest so that he may be. “a living image” of Jesus Christ…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 attitude towards others as we see narrated in the Gospels… The priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man”.(John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No.43.)




     The second Vatican Council in its Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius, No.3) states that “Under the fatherly guidance of superiors and with appropriate cooperation of parents, the students should lead a life which is suited to the age, mentality and developmental stage of young men and which fully conform to the laws of a healthy psychology”. And the same Decree in No.6 lays down the following 6 Norms:

  1. The rightness of his intention.
  2. The freedom of his choice
  3. His spiritual , moral and intellectual fitness,
  4. The suitability of his bodily and mental health,
  5. Any tendencies he might have inherited form his family
  6. His       ability to be as priestly burdens and exercise pastoral duties.

   The emphasis on these norms is definitely a major shift from the tridentine model of priestly formation that laid heavy stress on the moral, spiritual   and juridical dimensions of priestly formation. The church today, no doubt recognizes and accepts the contributions made by human sciences like anthropology, psychology and sociology in understanding the mystery of human person, in particular with reference to intrinsic relationship between the laws of human nature disposing positively to the receptivity of God’s gratuitous grace of vocation to priesthood or consecrated life or acting as blocks hindering both receptivity and personalization of God’s grace and vocational values.

     In the Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II, reiterates the same criteria cited in Optatam Totius with greater clarity and precision. This exhortation speaks of assessment of candidates at three levels: 1. Formal psychological testing; 2. In-depth interview based on behavioural patterns; and, 3. A serious review of the candidate’s personal history. In articles no.43 and 44, Pastores Dabo Vobis, lays down the following criteria for the assessment of candidates:-

  1. Human Maturity and freedom
  2. Functional ability       and availability for priestly formation
  3. Human wholeness and integrity
  4. Availability for authentic relationships
  5. Intellectual abilities

     It is important to note here that among the criteria, the two most important ones are:

1. The functional ability, and 2. Availability for formation. Given these criteria for the selection of candidates to priesthood and religious life, the Vocation Promoters, formators and major superiors, play a very crucial role. Pope John Paul II, in the Encyclical, Vita Consecrata, no.66,very well states this:

“Because sensitive tasks are involved, the training of directors of formation, who will fulfill their task in a spirit of communion with the whole church is very important. It will be helpful to establish appropriate structures for the training of those responsible for formation”.

     Therefore the recent Document by the Congregation for Catholic Education rightly states “A priestly vocation involves an extraordinary and demanding synergy of human and spiritual dynamics”.

(Ref. Guidelines for the use of psychology in Admission and Formation of candidates for priesthood No.2)



     It is only since Second Vatican Council the Church has gradually begun to recognize the contribution made by human sciences like Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology in understanding the human person. While it is true that Christian Vocation and Vocation to Priesthood and Consecrated life is a gratuitous gift of God to those who are called to follow Christ and as such no psychological laws can assess the presence or absence of such a call which undoubtedly belongs to the divine realm of God’s grace. However following the parable of the Sower in the Gospels, one can clearly see the intrinsic connection between the seed which is God’s grace on the one hand and the soil referring to human dispositions on the other. It is the latter, the soil the human disposition is the focal point of our discussion and it is here the human sciences like psychology or sociology can help us to have a scientific knowledge to understand as to how the human nature or personality functions with its inherent dispositions that either foster or hinder vocational growth. These inner dispositions find their outward expression in and through attitudes, freedom, motivation, emotions, belief systems, etc, which influence human behavior in terms of decisions, options, choices that are either in consonance (harmony) with vocational values or in dissonance (disharmony) with vocational values. Let me illustrate this part with some examples. Fr. Harry is a Parish Priest. He is all alone in a rural parish. There are moments in his life where he feels terribly lonely. He is strongly tempted to watch some blue movies or take alcoholic beverages. He resists this temptation resorting to reading some good books, listening to some music, doing some gardening or going for a walk. This way he is able to give expression to his inner disposition in consonance with his priestly life.

     Let us take another example of Fr.Tim, director of a social work centre. He is staying all alone. During the day he is kept busy with number of social work projects. When evening comes he feels very bored. To kill the boredom sometimes he takes to heavy drinking. At other times he browses through internet watching pornographic websites. He has also developed unhealthy friendship with one of the lady worker at his centre. Thus one can see the disoriented inner disposition in Fr. Tim that find unhealthy expressions behaviourally not in consonance with his priestly life.

     It is not all easy to assess one’s inner dispositions whether they are in harmony or not with one’s vocational values. Here definitely the scientific tools offered by psychology could be of tremendous help in discerning the inner dispositions of a vocationer. It is in this context, the Guidelines from the Congregation Catholic Education are quite relevant. Speaking of the initial discernment the documents states:-

     “Right from the moment when the candidate presents himself for admission to the seminary, the formator needs to be able accurately to comprehend his personality; potentialities; dispositions; and the types of any psychological wounds evaluating their nature and intensity”.

     The timely discernment of possible problems that block the vocational journey can only be of great benefit for the person, for the vocational institutions and for the Church. Such problems include excessive affective dependency; disproportionate aggression; insufficient capacity for being faithful to obligations taken on , insufficient capacity for establishing serene relations of openness, trust and fraternal collaboration, as well as collaboration with authority, a sexuality identity that is confused or not yet well defined”

     (Guidelines for the use psychology…No.8)



     The Document of the Congregation for Catholic Education. “ Guidelines for the use of Psychology in Admission and Formation of candidates for the priesthood”, No.2, highlights the following 10 qualities:

  1. the positive and stable sense of one’s masculine Identity;
  2. the       capacity to form relations in a mature way with individuals and groups of people;
  3. solid sense of belonging, which is the basis of future communion with the presbyterium and of a possible collaboration in the ministry of the Bishop;
  4. the freedom to be enthused by great ideals and a coherence in realizing them in everyday action;
  5. the courage to take decisions and to stay faithful to them;
  6. knowledge of oneself, of one’s talents and limitations, so as to integrate them within a self –esteem before God;
  7. the capacity to correct oneself;
  8. the       appreciation for beauty in the sense of “splendour of the truth” as well as the art of recognizing it.
  9. the trust that is born from an esteem of the other person and that leads to acceptance;
  10. the capacity of the candidate to integrate his sexuality in accordance with the Christian vision, including in consideration of the obligation of celibacy.


     While no one can rightly claim the prerogative to judge any vocation, one cannot deny the intrinsic connection or relationship between Grace and Nature as operative in human persons. Today it is theologically affirmed that Grace is built on Nature and Grace perfects human nature, And therefore there is no doubt with regard to the fact that the more healthy the human nature is in terms of freedom, integration, emotional maturity, etc., the more disposed and open the person will be to God’s grace, and, in turn will be able to personalize one’s vocation and be effective in ministry, On the other hand, the more sick the human nature is, the greater will be the obstacles in responding freely to and cooperating with God’s grace. Such persons will have serious personality problems, due to which they get alienated from God, self and community.

     It is precisely in assessing the suitability of the candidates and in promoting a holistic growth in them, psychology does play an important role with the following functions:-



               The Psychological assessment serves the pedagogical function in the sense the knowledge obtained through in depth interviews and psychological testing could assist the formator or spiritual director in giving a proper orientation with a view to foster the capacity in the vocationer to internalize vocational values and attitudes. The approach needs to be psycho-spiritual so has to promote a holistic formation in the candidates.


             Another very useful function psychology can play is to assist the candidates to go through a process of inner healing of psychic wounds. It is no exaggeration to say that a sizable number of candidates carry with them a baggage full of guilt, fear, shame, inferiority, hurt, anger, rejection. Some of them come from highly dysfunctional families with alcoholic parents; a significant number of candidates are victims of sexual abuse as children due to which their sexual identity gets terribly distorted. There is need for competent professional guides to deal with such serious psychological problems right from the initial stages of formation.


               Psychology can play important role in selecting candidates who have the physical and mental fitness to be priest or consecrated persons. A candidate may have a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life. And human sciences have no competence to establish one’s vocation. However psychology can definitely assess the suitability of a candidate from the point of view of one’s emotional or sexual maturity.


               Another important function psychology can serve is in relation to fostering integral human formation in a candidate. For example a candidate is overly emotional or impulsive in his behaviour due to which he/she often gets into trouble not being able to express emotions in a controlled manner. He/she might need counselling help to learn to integrate one’s emotions. There may be a candidate who has difficulty in relating to authority figures due to which either one rebels against authority, becomes hypercritical or avoids them with a lot of fear, fear of punishment, etc. Such a person would need help to learn to integrate and deal with authorities as an adult.


                Another crucial function psychology can play is to prevent from entering seminaries or formation houses candidates who have very serious mental problems; persons suffering from pathology like schizophrenia, manic-depressive (bipolar) or depressive (unipolar) personalities; paranoids, anti-social personalities (sociopaths or psychopaths); narcissistic personality; aggressive personality; histrionic personality; persons who have a long history of sexual acting out (homo or hetero). Persons with these severe mental or personality disorders may have a vocation to priesthood or Consecrated life. But the question one need to ask is whether given the severity of their pathology do they have the abilities or qualities required of a Christian leader as priests and Consecrated persons? And more fundamental question is whether they are free and capable of making such a serious choice to be priests or consecrated persons and thereby be effective and happy in a community, parish, presbyterium?



     The Church in India is presently going through a serious crisis of credibility and leadership among priests and consecrated persons. This crisis is further aggravated by the erosion of ethical and moral values in the society due to consumerism and materialism which unfortunately is a negative outcome of a hedonistic culture propagated by globalization. The criminalization of politics and politicization of religions by vested interests with the sole intention of capturing the vote bank is threatening the very survival of our country as a democratic, secular and socialist republic.

Given these challenges from within and outside the Church in India, the need of the hour is indeed for leaders among priests, consecrated persons and laity, of men and women of spiritual and moral integrity, endowed with all round psycho-spiritual maturity.

Pope Paul VI, in his Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967) in No.64 says:

“The life of the celibate priest, which engages the whole man so totally and so delicately, excludes in fact those of insufficient physical, psychic and moral qualifications. Nor should anyone pretend that grace supplies for the defects of nature in such a man”

The purpose of assessment is to discern the Vocation:-

     In any profession, persons are chosen on the basis of their competence. The priests and consecrated persons by vocation are public persons and as such are called to exercise leadership in various types of ministries in the name of the Church. He or she is not only called to proclaim the Good News, but by the very quality of their lives to be the good news. The medium itself is the message. Hence there is need to select and promote candidates who are men and women of God and thereby become men and women for others. Here are some of the parameters with which the discernment of Vocation needs to be situated:-

I. Candidates for Apostolic Community not Therapeutic community


     In the selection and promotion of candidates for priesthood and religious, the utmost attention should be given to ensure that the persons have the necessary faith and a sense of mission to be belong to and to form an apostolic community. In other words, they are available for the mission of Christ, imbued with a spirit of pastoral charity, service and sacrifice. And therefore to be discouraged would be candidates for a therapeutic community, persons who need constant professional care to deal with their personality or mental problems. Such persons may have serious difficulties with regard to interpersonal relationship, teamwork, etc.

II. Candidates as Companions & Brothers and Sisters and not lodgers and parasites


     The trademark of a disciple of Christ is his ability to become a companion or brother or sister to others, particularly within the ‘presbyterium’ and the religious community. We are not only our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers but also their makers through fraternal charity and compassion. And therefore it is important to discern the candidates’ capacity to enter into a companionship, and into a brotherly and sisterly relationship.

     Compelled by economic insecurity, careerism and individualism, many of the candidates for priesthood and religious life eventually turn out to be lodgers and parasites. Community becomes only a place for board and lodging, with no sense of responsibility. Very often they have their own private agenda or vested interests, different from the objectives of the mission entrusted to them, Thus a lot of time and energy dissipated in unless pursuits.

III. Candidates as Crewmembers and not passengers

     Priests and religious are chosen to be servants of Christ’s mission. They are chosen in order to be sent out on a mission. In this sense, priests and religious are crewmembers on a ship where they are entrusted with specific responsibilities. And therefore it is important to select members who can assume responsibility and are capable of being leaders. And therefore to be discouraged would be candidates who display the syndrome of ‘early retirement’ or go about with a style of life befitting passengers. They cannot be counted upon for or entrusted with serious responsibilities as priests and religious, and as a result they become a liability to the diocese or congregation.

     In the light of what has been discussed in this paper, it is needless to say that a proper selection of candidates for the priesthood and consecrated life is of the utmost importance for the future of the Church and the Congregation. A diocese or a Congregation has a right to choose men and women who are capable of living in a healthy way the priestly or religious vocation. One may have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, but sometimes the candidates may not be as yet ready to live happily one’s vocation. Hence let there be a proper selection of candidates using the science tools offered by the human sciences so that the Church and the Congregation deserves to get priests and religious who are capable of loving and serving God’s people.

Recommended Readings


Rulla, L.M., S.J; Imoda, F., S.J; Ridick. J., S.S.C. Psychological Structure and Vocation , a study of the Motivations for Entering and Leaving Vocation, Villa Books, Dublin, 1978.

Document: Congregation for Catholic Education,“Guidelines for the use of psychology in the admission and formation of candidates for the priesthood”, L’Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English, No.48, Wednesday, 26th Nov.2008.

Paul VI, Encyclical Letter: “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus” AAS 59, 1967.