10 Extremely Practical Suggestions to Improve Priestly Formation

Eamonn Clark

Due to recent events, priestly formation is on the brain of many Western Catholics. Everyone knows we should improve education, ascesis, accountability, etc., etc., ad infinitum. How do we do it?

While I am certainly not an expert, I do have relatively broad experience with priestly formation from a variety of perspectives. Here are 10 extremely practical suggestions, which could be put in practice in seminaries across the Western world, probably with some success.

  1. Un-Judaize the structure of the weekend. For autonomous seminaries, there is simply no excuse to follow the secular – and Jewish – logic of the Saturday-Sunday weekend. What this structure currently means is that seminarians party on Friday afternoons and evenings, when penance ought to be done. Saturday becomes the main day of rest. Sunday is the day to catch up on homework and other obligations. Not good. By shifting the weekend to Sunday-Monday, not only is the penance-rest paradigm fixed, but those with parish assignments during the year (especially deacons) are more able to engage with them. The current model often means jetting off from seminary to the parish Saturday afternoon, waiting around until the Vigil, and then helping Sunday morning masses and maybe some special event that evening. With a Sunday-Monday weekend, he can show up for the Vigil, be around all of Sunday, then be around for most of Monday, a normal day for the parish, its office, and its school if it has one.
  2. Have college seminarians do manual labor in a parish for one summer. “My hands were made for chalices, not callouses,” goes the sarcastic saying. Many young men who have generously offered their younger years to a formation program need a good experience of “real work” – and there is plenty of it to be done in every parish. Cutting grass, waxing floors, scraping gum off of desks in classrooms… The entitlement which can come with being a seminarian, especially at a young age, will be kicked in the gut. It will also give the young man a sense for what “normal people” do, and it will bestow an appreciation of the dignity of the work of all of his future employees. On the side he can help with some ministry, but his daily work is following around the maintenance crew or something similar.
  3. Put each seminarian in the cathedral or the curia for one summer. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for a diocesan bishop – especially a metropolitan – to meet with each of his seminarians maybe only once a year for a real talk. If this change were implemented, that sad reality would be much less of an issue. No longer will the bishop have an excuse for not being familiar with any of his men – he will have directly overseen them for at least a few weeks. Furthermore, the seminarian gets a perspective on that crucial part of the diocese, a definite advantage.
  4. As a condition for ordination, demand that each man make an oath that he has read at least once all of Sacred Scripture and every infallible declaration of the Ecumenical Councils and popes. How humiliating it is for a priest to have to confess to a parishioner that in fact he has not read the whole Bible – and yet, how tragically common this reality is. The laity may be less demanding with regard to the latter condition, but this is for a want of understanding of the seriousness of the matter, not a righteous sense of mercy. It is the business of the priest to know the Faith – how can he even pretend to be a Master in Israel until he can say with confidence that he has at least passed his eyes over these basic writings at least one time?
  5. Find families to “adopt” each seminarian in the house. In most locations, it is not hard to find an adequate number of pious and stable Catholic families who would be interested in such a ministry. The idea is for a family to get to know a particular man (or perhaps a few), to pray for him, and to have him come for a visit once a month or so. This keeps the local community invested in the success of the seminary, provides a special set of eyes for the sake of formation, gets the man out of the house and into a “normal” environment, and also provides the spiritual benefit of prayer. A little involvement in the life of a good Catholic family can be a very healthy experience for a seminarian, to keep him realistic about family life, to keep him “hungry” for ministry, and to keep him sane.
  6. Avoid assigning ministries or jobs which force a seminarian to “pretend to be a priest.” The reality is that seminarians are not priests, they are “laymen with an asterisk,” as it were. (This strange role-playing dynamic can also be confusing to others about the role of the priest.) There is a reason that Trent did away with the apprenticeship model of formation. Good mentors were not the problem – bad mentors were the problem, and no doubt many bad mentors simply let their apprentices try to stand in their places, either due to laziness or due to some misguided thought about having their men “try out.” Even the Catholic Encyclopedia article on seminaries, written in 1912, foresees only minimal pastoral work on the part of the seminarian. At least until immediate preparation for diaconate, the seminarian should almost exclusively be watching and being watched during serious pastoral work. He usually possesses neither the education nor the security to perform the duties which are more appropriate for priests, and he never possesses the grace of ordination.
  7. Have an extraordinary formator. This sounds strange until put next to its counterpart, which already exists in every seminary, namely, the extraordinary confessor. This is not a priest who is really, really good at hearing confessions; the extraordinary confessor is a priest who visits the seminary about once a month to hear confessions – and pretty much nothing else. He provides a safe opportunity to confess sins about, for example, cheating on a test, lying to the rector, or making some other mistake which would be difficult to confess to a faculty member, and difficult for a faculty member to hear. “Father, I cheated on your sacramental theology test – I actually don’t even know how many sacraments there are.” “Well, that’s awful, but I can’t do anything about it. You are still getting 100%.” Not ideal. Thus, the extraordinary confessor. However, perhaps this isn’t enough. Perhaps there is space for an extraordinary “formator” as well, like an auditor, who shows up once a month… Someone to complain to about, well, anything that is not appropriate to complain about to a normal faculty member. He would be half-way in the external forum, half-way in the internal forum. The identity of the seminarian is safe – he can say what is really on his mind without any fear of being found out, or, if there is such a fear, he can note it and let the extraordinary formator deal with it prudently. Whatever the case, this individual will have the dirt on every single man in the house, seminarian or formator, and it is up to him to manage it by regular meetings with the normal faculty and staff: but without ever revealing the names of any vulnerable seedlings, at least until absolutely necessary… like in court.
  8. Remove WiFi and Ethernet from residential halls. There are a number of advantages to this. Among them are the encouragement to gather together to discuss classwork and assignments, the need to go to a place dedicated solely to academic work to get things done, and the extra help to avoid misusing access to the internet in various ways. Of course, some will abuse the ability to connect with their cell phones, but the men who want the system to work will make it work; the ones who don’t will find a way pretty much no matter what is done.
  9. Incentivize more serious study by attaching it to room choice. In almost every house, the choice of one’s room is a big deal – near the chapel, away from the loud central A/C unit outside, on the bottom/middle/top floor, the window with the best view, etc., etc. Many places use a system of age, years spent in the house, lottery, and other “unearned” things. While some of these could factor in, why not also use GPA, at least for the top scorers? Then good grades are helped along by a friendly competition which has meaningful results.
  10. Once a month, the rector and head spiritual director choose together a special ascetical practice for the whole house. The hot water is turned off for the day. Lunch one Friday is bread and water. One Saturday night is a mandatory 3-hour vigil. These common experiences are good for the life of the brethren… When you suffer together, you grow together, and this develops unity, even if it comes partially through complaining!

Well, that’s it. Surely there are plenty more, but those are mine for now. Do you have any practical suggestions? Keep in mind that adding “one more thing” is always a big deal – the current programs of formation are already packed to the brim with “stuff.” Here I tried mostly to avoid adding more obligations and duties and mainly tried to suggest changes to the character of pre-existing realities. If you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments – including if you disagree with any of my own proposals!

A final thought, somewhat related to formation, but a little outside… It could be worth investigating a split-model for diocesan vocation programs… Namely, a “vocation director” who gets men into the program, and then a “director of seminarians” who manages the men already in. A young guy deals with the rah-rah, come join us kind of stuff, and an older, more experienced, less vulnerable guy (even a “retired” priest) deals with the men already in. Some dioceses already do it, and basically every large religious order does something like this. Just a bonus thought.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

One thought on “10 Extremely Practical Suggestions to Improve Priestly Formation

  1. I appreciate this post and I was ordained in 2011 and was in formation from 2003-2011. I would like to offer some input to each point and confirm that some of these are in place. (1) I often stayed in on Friday nights and got some work done. On 1st Fridays our seminary hosted a time for adoration and confession, so I often stopped by to pray and frequent the sacrament. In major seminary, I took Saturday as the work day until 1st vespers. After that I took some time for a meal out or often we would cook a meal at the seminary. We had a budget per floor for a meal out each semester. One weekend a month we were in our teaching parish to participate in and help at the Sunday liturgies. (2) During college seminary we often taught for a summer catechesis program or live in a parish to get a glimpse of parish life. Depending on the priest the tasks would vary from manual labor to pastoral visits. In major seminary we would often spend a summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. Other summers following that were spent either on the 30 day retreat or in parishes to expose us to different size towns/parishes. (3) Now as a pastor, I deal with clean up work often. I do my own laundry and some of my own household stuff. Since I am in smaller parishes, some of this comes to me because I am around or because I am able to do it. I am amazed at how helpless some priests are when it comes to very minor stuff! (4) I agree wholeheartedly. I am working towards this personally. I have friends who would read an article of the Summa each day to accomplish reading it by the end of their studies. Reading all of the Bible within a year is very doable for anyone. (5) The seminaries I attended did this for us. It was a great experience and I appreciated having a home cooked meal and being around families who were trying to live out their faith. I learned a lot from them and vice versa. (6) I agree. The bulk of my visits as a seminarian were for first Friday visits where I would distribute Holy Communion. As a deacon most of my visits were in the role of a chaplain to the nursing home or hospital. (7) I had good human formation in college seminary and sub-par formation in major seminary. (8) In college seminary we were just getting wi-fi in my last semester so spring of ’07. There were limits put on it such as filters and time limits from a certain point in the evening to sometime in the morning. I would disagree with removing them completely because of the access needed to the internet for researching for papers and e-mail. I was in college seminary but also on a campus with other undergrads. I ended up going to the major seminary that was on the same campus. We had good libraries that were open late so we could work there as needed. In college seminary we would do technology fasts from time to time and those were very beneficial. (9) Our rooms were set up as double occupancy and single occupancy. First year guys would have a room with another person. 2nd and 3rd year guys had a single and 4th year guys got a double to themselves. In major, we had rooms that had a sink in it and then we shared a shower stall and toilet with another person. We went by seniority as opposed to grades. (10) I think that this would have been a great thing to have. Our Wednesdays were set aside for human/spiritual formation.

    If you have any questions let me know.

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