Mary, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!
In the past the Church spoke about “training” priests or “preparing” priests. In more recent times the Church has adopted the term “formation”. In reality what the Church aspires to, is the “conformation” of priests. Thus, the seminarian and the priest, throughout his life, aspires to “put on Jesus Christ”. The seminarian and the priest must look like, act like, speak like, and serve like Christ. The desire must be to become an “icon” of Christ and to have the heart of Christ.
In the Apostolic Constitution, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds) of 1992, St John Paul II articulated four areas of formation. These are human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.
St Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Grace builds on nature”. Grace does not destroy our nature or overwhelm our nature. For grace to be efficacious the individual must have the capacity to receive the grace and put it into practice. Therefore, the human person must develop a capacity to collaborate with God, to be transformed and ultimately to be configured to Christ.
An ancient philosophical axiom stated “Know Thyself”, likewise, the human formation process is designed to allow the candidate an opportunity to come to a more complete understanding and appreciation of “self”. The seminarian and the priest must be able to accept the blessings which God has bestowed and also know the limits of his personality. The human formation program is designed to enhance the blessings and re-order the limits. All of the psychological sciences are employed to promote this understanding. In humility one acknowledges how blessed one is and one appreciates the work that needs to be completed so that the total submission and conformation to Christ can be effected.
The most fundamental aspect of spiritual formation is friendship with Christ. For a friendship to grow and deepen each must spend time with the other. Christ is always present; always available. The seminarian and the priest must put themselves in a position to encounter Christ. In prayer one asks Jesus to reveal Himself. This revelation occurs in the Scriptures, in one’s relationship with other people, and most especially in the Eucharist.
All of the spiritual exercises of communal and private prayer, lectio divina, imaginative prayer, devotions, and the daily celebration of the Eucharist bring the seminarian and the priest to the point of seeing, hearing and touching Christ. In that encounter, that friendship, one is conformed and configured. To Christ. One begins to love with the heart of Christ.
Historically the Church has seen intellectual formation as training in the ecclesiastical science of philosophy and theology. Philosophy being the “handmaid” of theology prepares the groundwork for theology. It is important to recognize that the course of study is not just about acquiring knowledge and passing examinations.
The intellectual program is designed with two objectives. First, it provides the opportunity to “know” Christ. Second, it ensures that the seminarian and the priest can authentically share Christ with others. There is a maxim that states “You cannot give what you do not have”: the seminarian cannot preach and teach Christ if they do not know Him.
The pastoral program is in many ways the capstone of formation; it brings together all of the dimensions of formation. In the spiritual formation one came to love Christ; in the intellectual formation one came to know Christ. The seminarian and the priest now become the hands, feet, eyes and ears of Christ. As Christ has “touched” them, they now go out to the community and bring Christ others. They have developed an “apostolic” heart and they make Christ present for others. They are men of communion; one with Christ and one with the mystical body of Christ.
Thus, the entire formation program is not just a series of tasks to be accomplished. Rather, it is about conversion, configuration and conformation to Christ the Good Shepherd.
Pastores Dabo Vobis – Link