Understanding seminary life: yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Wed, Jan 16th 2019 03:30 pm
Interim President-Rector
Seminarian Dan Ulmer collaborates with fellow graduate student Suzanne Lazzara and diocesan Director of Pro-Life Cheryl Calire during their pastoral ministry placement at the Mother Teresa Home.
Courtesy of Christ the King Seminary
Seminarian Dan Ulmer collaborates with fellow graduate student Suzanne Lazzara and diocesan Director of Pro-Life Cheryl Calire during their pastoral ministry placement at the Mother Teresa Home. Courtesy of Christ the King Seminary

 As we continue this Christmas season and begin the calendar year, the faculty, staff and students of Christ the King Seminary would like to offer you a blessed season of hope and joyous New Year of encounters with the Lord. We also believe this start to the new year is the perfect opportunity to give you a brief description of seminary life today as compared to around 50 years ago, as well as offer you a glimpse into changes that will be forthcoming.

Our purpose is to provide a clear portrayal of seminary life, while giving you some useful information to share with others. We want to reassure you that our formation process of preparing seminarians for the priesthood, as well as future deacons and other men and women for various ministries in the Church, provides them with the resources they need for a comprehensive development in their discipleship.

The formation process at the seminary involves several years of prayerful reflection and growth in discipleship to Jesus Christ in a community setting, so that candidates may become comfortable with and committed to their priestly identity in Him. The primary agent in the seminarian's formation is God - the Holy Trinity. Life in the seminary demands the integration of the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions of the candidate over years of community life, including feedback from the faithful in parish settings. In the years of discernment, the seminarian cooperates with God's call as he tries to take on the mind and heart of Christ.
The journey, then, is a growth in freedom in response to God's call and is meant to clarify one's vocation as consistent with God's will for that person.
In this brief essay, we shall compare both the application process and the life of seminary formation from the period before Vatican II to today. Afterwards, we would like to outline for you some forthcoming changes in seminary life that will add greater clarity to the various stages, discernment and growth of seminarians during their formation years.

The Application Process

Today's application process for a seminarian candidate usually takes almost a year as he journeys with his vocation director. The applicant shares his family history, educational and occupational backgrounds, sacramental life, and reflections on his vocational journey. Each applicant undergoes a comprehensive psychological assessment at an accredited counseling center and provides letters of recommendation from people outside his family. Finally, the applicant interviews with his local bishop and the respective seminary he would attend before being accepted. Fifty years ago, the application process varied more from place to place and was generally not as extensive. Though the process may have included some psychological testing, it did not include the detailed assessments, background histories and interviews in use today. Instead, it was more a matter of being recommended by one's pastor, accepted by the diocese and seminary based on briefer family information forms, and the use of simpler screening tests.

Today's Seminary Compared to 50 Years Ago

Prior to Vatican II the seminary formation program generally consisted of adhering to the particular seminary schedule and navigating the academic demands. Less attention was given to the seminarian's pastoral development and integral, balanced, personal formation. The formation teams consisted almost exclusively of priests, many of whom were primarily professors and not necessarily equipped to accompany the seminarians in their emotional and psychological development.
In the two decades following Vatican II, seminary formation underwent major changes, outlined as follows:
1970: The Congregation for the Clergy promulgated what essentially is a guideline for priestly formation (known as the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis).

1985: After the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, adaptations were made to those guidelines.

1992: St. John Paul II published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, "I Will Give You Shepherds" ("Pastores dabo vobis"), which further clarified the form and focus priestly formation should have. The various bishops' conferences around the world were tasked to apply these guidelines for use in their context.

2005: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the fifth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation. This is the guideline currently in use at Christ the King Seminary.
The PPF in use in the dioceses across the U.S. centers around the integral development of the seminarians in the four dimensions of life previously mentioned: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. These four dimensions of priestly formation provide the framework for assessing a seminarian's integral development and growth regarding God's call.
Because of these developments, today's formation teams still consist mostly of priests, but often have lay men and women members to contribute to the teams' insights. Our formation team at Christ the King Seminary is currently made up of three priests and two lay women, and has representation from all four dimensions of formation. Daily life in the seminary consists of regular community prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist, academic classes, and meals in common. Ours is one of only a few seminaries that educates seminarians, deacon candidates, clergy, religious and laity together in the same classroom and ministerial experiences. This allows them to learn from each other as they seek to develop collaborative working relationships, a model they will carry forward in their later service to the people of God.
The formation team meets weekly to review the life of formation in the seminary and the progress of the seminarians. Weekly, second- and third-year seminarians spend a day at a pastoral field education assignment outside the seminary. The formation advisor, the formation team, faculty assessments, and seminarian peer assessments give regular feedback to the seminarian so that he can come to an honest awareness of his strengths and weaknesses as he works with his spiritual director. When inappropriate behaviors are observed in a seminarian, he is challenged to confront them, assess his vocation, and respond accordingly.
During their second year of theological studies, seminarians have a follow-up assessment of their psychosexual profile with feedback from one of the professionals of the Diocesan Counseling Center. They also have access to professional counseling services if requested or deemed necessary by the formation team. Every seminarian also attends an approved clinical pastoral education program, usually in a hospital setting, to assist in his growth of self-awareness and ministerial presence. During a year of pastoral immersion in a parish, the seminary formation team, parish pastor, and a parish evaluation team of lay men and women accompany the seminarian's pastoral growth and offer feedback. All this remains a standard part of the formation process and discernment at Christ the King Seminary, as it does at most other seminaries. In summary, great strides have been made in the formation of seminarians for the priesthood during the past 50 years.

Forthcoming Changes

On Dec. 8, 2016, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a new set of seminary formation guidelines, "The Gift of the Priestly Vocation" (the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis), essentially a rewrite of the 1970 Ratio listed above. The USCCB, hopefully together with a broad-based team of consultors, will use it as a framework for updating the Program for Priestly Formation. Seminaries around the country will then make internal changes and shifts of emphasis in response to the new guidelines.

Though we cannot be completely certain of all the changes coming, there will be a shift in how the various phases of seminary formation are viewed. In addition to keeping an emphasis on the four dimensions of integral development (human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral), there will be a new emphasis on developing the seminarian's intentional discipleship as a companion and follower of Jesus Christ. As mentioned earlier, the basis and purpose of the formation journey is to take on a healthy priestly identity for the service of the people of God, what the new Ratio calls the "configuration" to Christ. There will continue to be personal and communal accompaniment as the seminarian grows in his interior life and communion with others. The new Ratio distinguishes the following four stages:
1. Propaedeutic or Introductory Stage - Before entrance into the seminary the new Ratio recommends that each candidate have an introductory (propaedeutic) year, which would form the basis of the commitment to the spiritual life. As such, it is a year of prayer and spiritual direction, an immersion in community life to allow for dedicated time of growth in self-awareness and of training in the catechism.
2. Stage of Philosophical Studies (Discipleship) - This stage continues the lifelong discipleship in which all the baptized participate. For the seminarian, the primary focus is the authenticity and maturity of his humanity, so that he can truly offer a free response to God's call. The area of human formation, then, provides the concentration of this stage, educating the seminarian "in the truth of his being, in freedom and in self-control."

3. Stage of Theological Studies (Configuration) - The years of theological training are designed to enable the seminarian to take on the mind and heart of Christ. The seminarian begins a journey of following Christ, the Good Shepherd and humble Servant, so that united to Him he can learn to live his life as a gift of self to others. These years of theological study allow the seminarian to establish a priestly identity of service and a missionary mindset of reaching out to those who go astray in their own discipleship.
4. The Pastoral Stage (Vocational Synthesis) - The document points out that this stage is designed for the period in which the seminarian has left the seminary, been ordained to the transitional diaconate, and entered pastoral ministry just prior to his ordination to the priesthood. The stage introduces the candidate to pastoral ministry and the new responsibilities he will conduct in a spirit of service. It also allows him to prepare for his commitment to priestly ordination.
The information offered here provides only a small glimpse into what the bishops may decide to amend in the present PPF. In the ongoing attempts to make priestly formation as comprehensively balanced and effective as possible, the process will always require the sincerity and integrity of seminarians and formators alike, and the prayerful support and accompaniment of the entire people of God.

In Conclusion
We hope this information on seminary life today lifts the veil on some of the mystery surrounding formation to the priesthood and gives you more confidence about the process. Christ the King Seminary remains an invaluable resource for animating the spread of the Gospel and strengthening our communities of faith in Western New York. We continue working to adapt to the changing demands of seminary formation, supporting all our students so that they may serve Christ in today's Church with faith-filled integrity and generosity. In this Christmas season, we welcome the Word made flesh, born in the simplicity, humility and poverty of a manger. God has promised to remain with us to the end of time and we await his return with renewed hope and eager anticipation. May what we have shared here reassure your trust in God's faithful promise to continue nurturing the Church with his Word and sacraments by preparing dedicated priests, deacons and lay ministers to serve us in the future.

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