Human Formation – Born to Love

“The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation” (Pastores Dabo Vobis 43).

stfrancisA study on the psychological and spiritual health of priests in USA was published with the title, “Why priests are Happy”[1]. The result of the study reveals a reality contrary to what most people presume in the context of the widely publicized scandals of the clergy in the west where celibate priesthood is assumed my many to be ‘a sad and lonely life that attracts psychologically unhealthy men’. The survey research was on 2,482 priests from twenty three dioceses around USA. The findings clearly show that “Priests as a group are very happy with their lives and their vocations. They are among the happiest of any people in the country” (p. 202). The factors that contribute to their happiness are deep spiritual life and good psychological balance. Those considering leaving priesthood are found to be coming from distressed childhood and having unresolved psychological problems. Their spiritual supports such as prayer, relationship with superiors, sacramental life are weak. I think this study could shed light on the actual situation of priests and religious elsewhere and on the need for a wholesome formation of candidates for priesthood and religious life in human, Christians and charismatic dimensions.

On the first day of our seminar on religious life we shall address some important aspects of human formation. A healthy person enjoys internal peace and mutually empowering relationships. The progressive growth into an integrated personality is mediated by the quality of the relationships from the early stages of life. In this paper we shall consider an important factor in human formation that play a vital role in the life of a religious: our attachment styles.

Formation of attachment patterns from early life and their impact on religious life

We shall look into our attachment patterns and their impact on the way we relate with our community members, family, friends and the people in our missions. The attachment theory of Bowlby is very helpful to understand the relational patterns in our lives.

Theory of attachment

The attachment theory of British psychoanalyst Bowlby is one of the most influential theories regarding the development of human relationships. Bowlby’s theory has spearheaded lot of research in human relationships and has offered valuable practical applications in helping professions . Attachment is the affectional bond between an individual and an attachment figure who, in the case of an infant, is the attachmentprincipal caretaker, normally the biological mother. In adults the attachment is usually mutual. Infants form attachments to a consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive in his/her interactions with them. The child’s attachment pattern serves as an “internal working model” which gets modified with age and experience. Internal working models are mental representations of self and others which help the individual to predict and understand their environment and interact with it. Acquired social skills get incorporated into the internal working model to be used in one’s relationship with peers, authorities and friends. Children usually interpret experiences in the light of their working models rather than change their working models to fit new experiences.

 Functions of attachment: Forming the Circle of Security

  1. Secure base (basic security to take off the growth journey-exploration)
  2. Safe haven (seeking refuge in a stronger and wise person in times of danger or difficulty)
  3. Proximity maintenance (assurance and nearness)
  4. Separation distress (effectively processing protest, despair and detachment to deal with separation and loss)

Bowlby and other researchers like Ainsworth and Mary Main have identified the following patterns of attachment:

  1. Secure attachment: The care given is perceived as a secure base for exploration. The child experiences some distress at the departure of caregiver, but it soon settles down to play. It seeks comfort and contact at reunion. The caregiver responds appropriately, promptly and consistently to the needs of the child. There is a secure, firm attachment bond with the child.
  2. Ambivalent or resistant attachment:The child responds anxiously to separation, clings to mother and resists separation. It is reluctant to return to play at reunion. Basically anxious because the caregiver’s availability is not consistent. The caregiver is inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful responses.
  3. Avoidant attachment:Child shows little affective sharing in play and displays little or no distress at departure of the caregiver and nor any visible response to the return. The child may ignore or turn away or with no effort to maintain contact when picked up. Child could be rebellious or just self absorbed. The caregiver gives little or no response to the child and discourages crying.
  4. Disorganized:The child manifests incoherent pattern of attachment. The caregiver may exhibit frightened or frightening behaviour, intrusiveness, withdrawal, negativity, role confusion and maltreatment.

Attachment in Adult relationships

The early attachment patterns lay foundation for later relationships, though there are other factors that come into play as a child grows. Certainly an early secure attachment pattern favorably influences an adult’s relationship patterns. Around 70–80% of people experience no significant changes in attachment styles over time. It shows that internal working models are relatively stable in the case of most people.

The following are a few affirmations deriving from attachment studies

  • People are biologically driven to form attachments with others, but the process of forming attachments is influenced by learning experiences.
  • Individuals form different kinds of attachments depending on the expectations and beliefs they have about their relationships. These expectations and beliefs constitute “internal working models” used to guide relationship behaviors.
  • Internal “working models” are relatively stable even though they can be influenced by experience.
  • Individual differences in attachment can contribute positively or negatively to mental health and to the quality of relationships with others.

 Four styles of attachment have been identified in adults: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant (Cyndy Hazan and Phillip Shavar)

  1. Securely attached adults tend to have positive views of themselves, their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and independence, balancing the two.
  2. Anxious-preoccupied adults seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming overly dependent. They tend to be less trusting, have less positive views about themselves and their partners,and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships.
  3. Dismissive-avoidant adults desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, dealing with rejection by distancing themselves from partners of whom they often have a poor opinion
  4. Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust their partners and view themselves as unworthy. Like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy, suppressing their feeling

Notice the following statements corresponding to the four styles of adult attachment:

Community life:

The relationships which a person develops in a religious community are influenced by the internal working models that he/she has developed in the course of time . Though there are many studies about the attachment styles among lovers, not much research is done on the attachment styles among religious. The significant persons in the community needs to offer secure attachment in order to foster an environment of “safe haven” in the community. A healthy community is expected to provide support to the members which includes comfort, assistance and information in difficult situations. Style of attachment influences both the perception of support from others and the tendency to seek support from the community.

Each person has a multiplicity of internal working models which are applied to different relationships. For example, one may be very friendly with people outside the community, but very demanding on one’s own community members.

Insecure attachment patterns bring into play different community dynamics such as covert coalitions, external bonding, and maintenance of clinging attachment to one’s family, friends etc. It is interesting to note that generally there is less tolerance of limitations of superiors and community members than that of the members of one’s natural family.

It is more important for superiors to offer secure attachments that facilitate more enjoyable community life for the members than to be “managers” of the group. The task of formators is to create secure attachments favourable for growth rather than drilling correct religious behavior in the formees. Personal growth resulting in joyful commitment requires secure attachments in life.

Awareness of the role of attachment styles in relationships helps us to build empowering relationships in religious life. it is possible to offer corrective experiences to provide a safe haven and a secure base for the growth process of community members and give them support in dealing with distress. Secure attachment bond helps superiors and formators to accompany the growth process of those entrusted to their care.

Attachment styles and spiritual life

Consecrated life is closely related to the attachment styles of the person who has chosen God as his/her ‘portion and cup’. The internal working models play a significant role in one’s relationship with God. Encounter with the Risen Lord offers the secure attachment necessary for consecrated life which calls for a radical following of Jesus of the Gospels. Experience of God as a secure base for missionary ventures, a safe haven of personal intimacy, a source of comfort in distress, and constant companion in life journey are fundamental for joyful living of consecrated life.. Consistency of God’s love is contagious. It gives consistency to the life of the religious who, in turn, becomes a secure base for all those who come into his/her life. Intimacy with Christ also effect corrections in the internal working models in the person which support healthy and life giving relationships. Conformity with Christ opens up two channels from the fountain of love in the heart of the disciple, vertically as passion for God and horizontally as passion for humanity.

Secure attachment and Pastoral ministry

Helping professionals like pastors, formators, counselllors and teachers have an important role in offering secure attachment for the recipients of their services to grow into whole

For your Reflection

 Recall your relationship with your superior, community members and friends, and identify the style of your attachment. How do you go about a distress moment in your life? Whom do you go in times of difficulties?

How can you make your relationship a secure base and safe haven for those who live in your community and work place?

Do you find in Jesus a secure attachment that gives strength to your other relationships ?

– Mathew Vattamattam cmf

 Suggested Readings :

Bowlby J (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. London: Tavistock Publications

Bowlby J (1988). A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. London: Routledge

Karen R (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Grossmann KE, Waters E (2005). Attachment from infancy to adulthood: The major longitudinal studies. New York: Guilford Press.



[1] Stephen J.Rosetti, Why priests are Happy, A study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests, Ave Maria Press, Indiana, 2011.

Related posts: