The urgency and difficulties of the formation of candidates for the priesthood

Fr. Giuseppe Magrin
In charge of the Formation Sector for the Clergy at the Cong. for the Evangelization of Peoples

The formation of priests is a delicate sector of the greatest importance for the vitality and mission of the Church in the world, even when the Church is seen as communion. The priest’s responsibility to lead the people of God to full Christian maturity so that it might witness and announce the salvation wrought by God in Christ has not diminished, on the contrary, it has increased. They, in fact, as living sacraments of the priesthood of Christ, are called by vocation to reproduce the features of Christ, the supreme Pastor who gave his life for the flock and in obedience and total dedication to the Father, to evangelize the poor. They must be models and pastors of the flock and evangelizers. The art of formation, already difficult in itself, has become more problematic due to a complexity of anthropological, social and ecclesial factors which are at the base of the epochal transformations of our humanity.
The Council fathers already had to take note of them in the mid 1960s. In the decree Optatam Totius, they asked to insert new elements into priestly formation responding to the conciliar decrees and constitutions, paying dose attention to the changed conditions of the times. And they confirmed that: «Animated by the spirit of Christ, this sacred synod is fully aware that the desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on the ministry of its priests» (OT, Introduction).
Moreover we must note another, not less important element: the impressive drop in priestly and religious vocations in the West and the flowering of vocations in the so-called missionary territories. While we give thanks to the Spirit who does not deprive the Church of the richness of charisms and ministries, we must at the same time recognize that the young Churches do not yet have sufficient means for the ministry of formation, due to the lack of qualified formators and of proven formative tracts.

The whole Church is called to take up this new and important challenge investing her best resources both in personnel and in goods, especially in the Third World where part of its mission is played out. The initiative, undertaken by Cardinai Crescenzio Sepe, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to create an organism that could help the young Churches in this difficult task, was both wise and well timed.

1. Priestly formation in a time of transformations

Formation tends to prepare the man of God for contemporary humanity. The path of thought and praxis following the Council once again put the Church into motion toward a deeper and more conscious penetration of its being and mission in the world. Lumen Gentium is the strong explicitation of the definition of its being. Gaudium et Spes is the guiding line of its mission and of the methodology for the reading of the signs of the times. These are two essential elements that must go together on equal footing because the Church must render the salvation of God concrete, existential and understandable, in the same modality of the incarnated Word.
For this reason, even though Christ may be the same yesterday, today and forever, even the choice of the settings and means of priestly ministry and proclamation must spring forth from the path of humanity. For the Christian community «is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation that is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds» (GS 1). For this reason pastoral methods are subject to continual renewal, open to new settings, called to fix new priorities, time after time, and to test new paths in such a way that contemporary man might understand and experience that Christ is the One who brings about his integral liberation and salvation. This is what is recommended in the conciliar document «The Church in the Modem World»: «Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man’s religious life as well» (Gaudium et Spes 4).

Humanity is in a period of giving birth to new world (FABC: new-born world) almost a caesura with its whole path taken up to now. This planetary transformation is not due to a unique and precise factor but to a complexity of elements that are synchronically immersed together. Religion and religions, culture, philosophy, technology, politics, communications have brought about a different vision of man and society, producing different cultural models, lifestyles and activities.
We are on an unstoppable path, whose outcome we are not yet able to see.

  • On the level of person

    A void of ideas and models has taken place in the great ideological constructions that leave man a fragmented, unfinished being in a continual search for meaning.

  • With the failures of the great radical and totalizing systems, a culture of the provisional came to be affirmed. Now nothing can be definitive and there is nothing that is worth committing one’s life to in a total and radical way.
  • A worldly, pragmatic and pseudo-aesthetic vision prevails in which universally shared values no longer exist. Man is his own measure, in as much as, time after time, according to need and convenience, he constructs the values and reasons for his own existence.

However other values are emerging, such as the search for authentic interpersonal relationships, a sense of solidarity, of justice and peace, a more convinced participation in the building of a civil society, volunteerism and the question of spiritual values.

On the level of society

  • The world has become a global village in which the civil society wants to actively assume the responsibility and the right of orienting the actual historical phase of globalization toward the construction of a humanity which is not decided solely and exclusively 011 the economic terrain but on exchange and respect for the cultural and spiritual values of persons and of human groups.
  • An international mentality is growing in which there is a new awareness of the fact that people are interdependent in all sectors of their life: economy, politics, culture, religion, human rights, etc. For this reason movements are being born which involve the civil society of the whole world, in one way or another, responsibility is growing, and with it knowledge, sympathy, solidarity and a sense of justice and sharing. A new world is about to be born founded principally on interrelationships.
  • At the same time, there are signs which point in a totally different direction such as a discriminating mentality caused by the defending of acquired interests and positions, a closed mindedness made up of new or dated intolerances and prejudices, in the name of cultural, religious and ethnic purity, for fear of diversity, a phenomenon which becomes acute by the exodal emigrations caused by endemic poverties or by armed conflicts.

On the level of cultures and religions

  • The religions whose deaths had been foretold are demonstrating an impressive vitality. They are becoming totalizing salvific messages, capable of gathering and of determining the path of humanity.
  • A new type of “cutthroat” proselytism is found in religions, giving rise in some of them to minority fringes which not infrequently resort to violence.
  • In general, religions understand and are engaging in a fraternal dialogue, seeking common values and the creation of a more unified, just and fraternal humanity. Intercultural and inter-religious dialogue are now pan of a consolidated praxis,

The Church’s response

The solicitude of the Church for the formation of the pastors of the People of God is in line with the ministry of Christ, who spent the years of his public life in announcing the Kingdom of God and in forming the community of the apostles and disciples.

The formation of future priests and consecrated persons is not a marginal factor for the building of the Kingdom in this world. In it, one could say, the synthesis between the assimilation of the Word, the Incarnated Word of God and the reading of the signs of the times is realized. A solid human, cultural and spiritual preparation, capable of sustaining and pushing toward an authentic and efficacious apostolic activity that must confront the challenges of our times, is called for from today’s pastors and evangelizers. In fact, formation cannot certify itself on methods and formulae established once for all times. It is a dynamic process that must continually be adapted to the deeper understanding of the Word of God, which each Christian generation experiences under the guidance of the Spirit, to then lower it as a seed in society.
A fact which has emerged in this our time is that the priest is not ordained for one diocese only but for the whole world, officially established in the Church of God as evangelizer, that is, as he who, while taking care of the community entrusted to him, places himself at the service of the Kingdom of God with the community, in the non-redeemed world or that which has not known Christ. Non believers, non Christian cultures, the culture which does not have Christ as a point of reference, the wrappings of marginalization, oppressive systems of death, systematic injustice, and all the structures of sin are the settings for his ministry.
For all these reasons it is necessary to form the man of God, through the assimilation of deep interior convictions which do not lapse in the face of the relativist, pseudo aesthetic and multiform climate of contemporary culture. It is the profound interior convictions which motivate the future presbyter in his mission, giving him courage and strength in the Spirit to announce and to witness to all the hope that is in us.

2. The fundamental key points of a formation for one preparing for ordained ministry

Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, on the formation of priests in the present circumstances (25 March 1992), offers a complete framework of formative orientations taking into account human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral aspects, on the basis of which the various Episcopal Conferences have made up the General Directory of Priestly Formation. I do not intend in this article to go into an analysis of the document, which I consider superfluous, since it has certainly been studied and meditated upon by the Episcopal Conferences of each nation and by those responsible for the works. I am more interested in focusing in upon some key points on which the formation of future priests depends.

The first key point: the contemporary mentality or culture
For today’s man, culture is the most precious and esteemed good. It imposes itself as the setting, or better still, as the fundamental dynamism of every form of social, economic, political, and international truly human life. Contemporary man perceives it as the constitutive element of his very being. It allows each man to not be an isolated individual, but a person in communion with those like himself, a member of a community built on solid bases which we call cultural roots. In a certain sense culture is the universe which a community creates for itself, with the representation of the past and the vision for the future, its conception of the world and the system of social relationships, its habits and beliefs, its reactions and behaviours, its way of communicating and of working. It is the place of interaction in which men exercise a reciprocal influence on one another and contribute to their humanization. Our master vision, our lifestyles are in a large part the fruit of the culture and ambient in which we live. So we can speak of Asian, African, American, European, Oceanic cultures. They are the normal vehicles of assimilation and communication of evangelical values. There cannot be a fracture between culture and Gospel. Nevertheless, to the extent that they are absolutized, cultures place serious obstacles to a vocational maturity.
At times there is the pretext of wanting to inculturate the Gospel rather than evangelizing the cultures. Under the pretence of re-reading the Gospel, taking as the point of departure our culture which each one considers the best there is a hidden cultural indigenism which hinders relations between cultures themselves but above all with the Gospel
Therefore an impassioned knowledge of Christian Revelation, which allows one to take on the
divine values underlying every culture (those «seeds of the Word» referred to in Ad Gentes 11b) and to let go of the disvalues with indifference, is needed. In the places of formation of future deacons and priests, we note that all too often differences of mentality between social classes, between castes, between ethnicities or tribes, differences of mentality within States or between States from absurd geographic confines, create almost insurmountable barriers of lack of communication.
The formation to an
evangelical mentality, capable of giving new meaning even to the words of our culture in order to express the divine message, must constitute the first great effort of formators in the seminaries.
It is not an easy formative process, nor are results taken for granted. And even if during the years in the seminary they seem docile to the formative proposals, we must remember that the effects we see after their ordination measure the consistency and the validity of initial formation. And the best, even if not the oniy, judges of the mentalities of pastors are always the respective Christians. They sense, almost immediately, if they
breathe the mentality of the present age and of the cultural environments that they have frequented.

The second key point:
places of formation

By place I do not mean the walled in structures, but rather that organic totality, that human and Christian climate which leads the seminarian to verify himself, to open himself, to confront himself and which fosters the growth of the future priests to the stature of Christ the Priest.
In this context the location and the logistics of construction have their importance. The simplicity and sobriety of structures must contribute to infusing in the seminarians the knowledge that they have chosen Christ as their only heredity and that their ministry does not place them in a privileged position in the society but at his service, with a witness and a sharing in the life of the poorest.
In the thirteen years during which I was International President of the Association
Apostolic Union of Diocesan Clergy, I visited many seminaries. I saw some that were very functional, others misplaced and disparate, even though recently constructed.
The planning of a seminary should not be entrusted to persons who do not know their finality and objectives.

The third key point: the formation of formators

The urgent and even more acute problem for the mission Churches is the lack of formators, who cannot be instantly created. In fact as individuals and as members of a team they must be humanly mature persons, models of Christ for the seminarians, learned in evangelical wisdom, experts in humanity, capable of discernment of spirits, impassioned for the Kingdom of God. A professional qualification, with specialized studies in Catholic Universities, alone is not sufficient for this. In fact initial formation seeks to build the apostolic personality of the seminarian, fostering the integral and harmonious development of all the aspects of his being.
The vitality and growth of Christian communities depend in large part on the formators in the seminary whose task it is to verify and accompany the vocational path of candidates to the priesthood.
It is from here that springs the pressing invitation of the Pope to the Churches to respond to the requests of Bishops in the missions who seek help and support for the formation of formators.
For these reasons, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, has established a sector for the formation of the Clergy in the dioceses dependent on the Congregation, with someone in charge and an initial team.
The team in charge will begin its activity in Africa in 2006 with the following 21-day courses: three in French, three in English, one in Portuguese to be held respectively in Burkina Faso, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Ex Zaire) and Madagascar; in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria; in Angola. At least three «formators» coming from each Diocese, and others who the Bishops choose to send will participate. More focused initiatives for individual nations or dioceses, according to requests, will not be excluded.

The last key point: spirituality

What is required today is a spirituality which is placed in the messianic line, in the power of the Spirit which forms the future presbyter to:
Make the radical decision for the Kingdom of God, which involves a total change in mentality, not infrequently an alternative to the human vision of good sense or to the logic of human wisdom.
To live with radicality the Gospel imperatives, signs not only of the following of the person of Christ, but also content and method of His mission, such as:

  • Poverty understood and lived, moreover, as an entrusting of self and of one’s apostolic action to the salvific power of his Word; as a necessary condition to be free to announce and witness to the Gospel with frankness and courage; as the capacity of becoming ali to all, living like the poor and with the poor, not thinking of putting one’s own life in order, nor the realization of one’s own project; as a stimulus to go «outside the walls» to go to the most humiliated and disinherited bands, in brief as total availability to God for the brothers and sisters of this humanity.
  • Non-violence understood and lived as a radical mentality of reconciliation, of justice, against and as an alternative to the culture and thirst for domination, discrimination and hegemony; as the capacity to create a new type of interpersonal human ecclesial and social relationship founded on love and solidarity in as much as members of the one human family; as interior maturity of not closing ranks on the line which separated right and wrong, but suffers in oneself the offence committed by my brother because he is a member of the family of God, and my brother. And this holds true on the level of the individual and of the group. «Overcome evil with good».
  • Persecution for the cause of justice understood and lived as a consequence of the witness of fidelity to God and to humanity which He has renewed. «If they hated me, they will also hate you, because the disciple is not greater than the Master». One must learn to totally give one’s very life for the cause of His Name, which is the name of justice and peace. Ours has become the time of the suffering and sacrificed witness and ministry because it often finds itself in opposition to the mentality and interests of «the world». To announce the Gospel of truth and of justice, to choose and to share the cause of the poor, to be the builders of dialogue between opposing religious and social systems, to be vigil sentinels of the dignity of man, all this is bought with the price of suffering, which reaches to the point of martyrdom.

It is in departing from this total dedication to their diocesan and parochial community that the ordained ministers live their diaconal, presbyteral and Episcopal consecrations. Their evangelical radicality must be reread taking as a point of departure the spousal dedication that does not allow for any type of betrayal and requires the complete gift of themselves, to the point of giving their very life as Christ did for His Church. Lived with his intentionality, celibacy takes on a meaning and value even in those cultures and religions for which only paternity counts.

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