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I heard a bishop recently describe what his formation team does at his seminary: “They’re there and they keep an eye on the guys.” And I cringed. Priests assigned to seminary formation are not hallway monitors. They are intended to be mentors, teachers, and guides—nuances all captured in the term “formator.” And seminary formation, we should hasten to add, is about much more than academics.

As Deacon James Keating puts it so well, “without committing to integrate human maturation, spiritual development, intellectual acuity, and pastoral charity within the man himself, a seminary risks simply being a school.” Seminaries must see the formation of the interior man as their central purpose. The new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy in December 2016, emphasizes not the completion of an academic curriculum, but the readiness of the candidate.

Seminaries that focus too heavily on academics, whose formators lack the skills, drive, and art of mentoring, are in fact creating unsafe havens for seminarians. Where focus on the mission of integration is lacking, space opens for disordered living: sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse of precisely the type that has grabbed headlines in recent months.

To this end, bishops must curtail overemphasis on academics. A radical step might even be to stop offering the MDiv. This would free seminary faculty and staff from the attendant headaches of maintaining an accreditation status. Yet de-emphasizing degree programs should not entail an impoverishment of solid intellectual formation. On the contrary, such a tack might actually open up the space to allow our men to engage in a more serene and contemplative approach to intellectual formation.

The drive to offer academic degrees is often fed by the hope of attracting lay students in addition to seminarians. Yet it is well known that lay enrollment at accredited theological schools has been dropping across the country for the past twenty years. And the drive to be degree-granting institutions creates an unhealthy and, frankly, pointless competition between seminaries. With a view to attracting lay students, seminaries devote time and energy to marketing and branding their institutions. In our day, the only branding any seminary needs is to be known as a trustworthy institution that produces happy, healthy, and holy priests. Period.

The Ratio governing clerical education divides seminary formation into distinct stages, the first of which is the propaedeutic stage. A few seminaries already incorporate such a phase (also referred to as a “spiritual year”) into the overall program of formation; most do not. The reason typically given for forgoing a spiritual year? It adds time to the formation process and delays ordination. The day has arrived for such concerns to disappear. The rush to ordination needs to be slowed.

The American bishops should not hesitate, in finalizing their next edition of the “Program of Priestly Formation,” to mandate a propaedeutic year for all candidates to the priesthood in accord with the Ratio.

With or without a spiritual year, priestly formation often begins during the college years. Historically the college seminary (preparatory to the major seminary or theologate, typically making up the four years prior to ordination) was meant to fulfill this purpose.

Today, however, whether existing college seminaries do so is uncertain. College-age candidates often have enormous gaps in their prior formation and upbringing. Many need to acquire “soft skills”—human interaction 101. They need to learn etiquette. They need basic catechetical formation. They need sound spiritual direction as well as the assistance of Catholic counselors to engage in the deeper work of discovering and dealing with their own woundedness. They need to be mentored in the art of chastity. Many need time to break deep-seated pornography habits.

If a diocesan college seminary offers little by way of this deep formation, and serves in practice to do little more than prolong the immaturity of the men in residence there, then ­bishops have no choice but to radically revamp these programs or shut them down.

And even when men have gone through a reputable four-year college seminary program, prudence often dictates that upon graduation, many of these men should nonetheless continue a process of maturation outside of seminary—including a period of gainful employment—while continuing to participate in formation ­activities until they are sufficiently mature to begin formation in the major ­seminary.

In these circumstances, bishops do well to consider a minimum age for beginning formation in the major seminary. How about age twenty-two, the candidate having a college degree in hand and a couple of years of work experience or perhaps even military service under his belt?

There could then follow, in most cases, up to eight years of formation: a spiritual year culminating in thirty days of Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, followed by two years of solid intellectual work in the Catholic philosophical tradition (even for those who hold a BA in philosophy from a secular college or university), followed then by four years of graduate-level theology and a year of pastoral internship in a parish.

A mandatory minimum admission age of twenty-two would mean that a majority of candidates would see ordination no earlier than age twenty-eight. The delayed maturation process of American teens, well documented of late, dictates such a step as basic prudence. My years of screening candidates for priesthood confirm this need. Men need time. Rushing men to ordination can be disastrous.

The sine qua non for effective seminary formation today is transparency. Bishops simply must demand that their seminary formators create and sustain it within their seminary communities.

The Ratio foresees this self-­disclosure happening by means of “regular and frequent” conversations with formators, while also acknowledging that the intended docility to the Holy Spirit will only be possible if between seminarian and formator there is an attitude of “mutual trust.”

Consequently, effective priestly formation presupposes that seminarians and formators together not insist too rigidly on the distinction between “internal forum” and “external forum,” that is, between matters that are to be dealt with privately (with one’s spiritual director) and matters that are the purview of the formation team.

It is noteworthy that the Ratio, without denying the validity of this distinction, proposes that seminarians and formators freely and regularly communicate on an interpersonal level—whether the matters in question be of a personal nature or deemed matters “of conscience” or not.

At present, the vast majority of seminarians in the United States understand this necessity. They know that the formation process requires an appropriate degree of self-­disclosure and transparency on their part, not only with their spiritual directors but also with their formation advisers and mentors.

There are different approaches to training and formation in affective maturity and a chaste celibate life. I suspect there are still plenty of deficiencies in this regard in our major seminary programs. Long gone are the days when figuring out how to live a celibate life could be left to the seminarian and his spiritual ­director. Now, the seminary ­formation team has to approach this question intentionally and from multiple ­angles: ­periodic formation talks, guest speakers, workshops, peer ­support and discussion groups, periodic progress review in light of personal benchmarks, substantive and focused spiritual direction, and counseling services.

The Ratio expects seminary formation teams to collaborate with professionals in the psychological sciences. The best seminaries will have a director of psychological services on staff. This individual, though not a member of the formation team, should be an integral player in the overall formation experience of every seminarian. In the U.S., we are blessed with a network of Catholic therapists well formed in the Church’s anthropological vision of the human person.

Some of the best approaches include peer support groups within the seminary that discuss issues of chastity. These can be led and co­ordinated by one of the seminary spiritual directors. Seminarians can also avail themselves of national support groups and programs such as the Angelic Warfare Confraternity.

Moral formation cannot remain simply academic. It’s not enough to do a series of courses in moral theology. That will have little impact unless seminarians are simultaneously mentored in character and virtue. While it remains possible, in some seminaries, for seminarians to engage in immoral behavior “below the radar,” the more we take this multi-pronged approach, the less this will be the case.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past fifteen years, it’s that many priest abusers reached ordination in a stage of arrested psychosexual and emotional development. Bishops should send their seminarians only to those major seminaries that offer positive and demonstrable ways of guiding men to healthy and integrated emotional maturity. Where there is any doubt about whether a candidate has attained such maturity, his acceptance into the seminary formation program should be deferred; if doubts linger after he has begun formation, ordination should be delayed, or if the case warrants, the man should be directed to serve the Church in the lay state.

It remains prudent to take same-sex attraction as an indicator of psycho­sexual immaturity, especially at the typical age of our candidates. If you’re twenty-one and experiencing same-sex attraction, you suffer lots of emotional turbulence. It would be imprudent to allow a man to approach seminary formation with all that turmoil going on inside.

This means bishops should adhere to the current discipline of the Church and refrain from admitting men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” This criterion was recently readopted in the new edition of the Ratio. Pope Francis confirmed it on two occasions this year, the most notable in May when he addressed the Italian episcopal conference.

A disturbing trend—as any bishop would tell you—is that shortly into their first years as priests, many millennial priests depart. Every year in the United States, approximately 450 men are ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Within the first five years, a percentage of those men fall into vocational crisis: They fall in love with a religious education teacher, they develop a problem with alcohol, they find themselves disappointed with a life that was not of their imagining, or they convince themselves they “need to take some time off.” Some end up in counseling. Others solicit the Holy See for a return to the lay state. Such outcomes can be devastating for the people they’ve served. In the majority of such cases, these men had wounds that they never disclosed or dealt with during their formation.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) annually collects data on forty-one major seminaries, sixteen collaborative college seminaries, and thirteen freestanding college seminaries serving American dioceses. As reported by CARA in 2017, one-third of the theologates surveyed reported fewer than fifty seminarians. As one CARA researcher herself put it, how is that sustainable?

The Church in the U.S. does not need seventy college and major seminaries. In the latest reporting year (2017–2018), eleven theologates have enrollments of one hundred or more seminarians, accounting for 45 percent of seminarians enrolled in ­theologates.

Total enrollment in theologates in the U.S. has plateaued since 1988. Over those thirty years, around 3,400 seminarians per year study in our seminaries. We’re not getting more vocations, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

So let’s reduce the total number of major seminaries to fifteen or twenty regional institutions. The criteria by which we reduce the number of seminaries should include evidence of the quality of a seminary’s formation program. To gather this evidence objectively, the USCCB should fund a longitudinal study of attrition at our major seminaries in the U.S., taking that attrition rate as a significant, though not exclusive, indicator of the quality of formation.

Let’s try to identify the seminaries that are getting formation right, and which ones are failing in this mission. Let’s pool and share the best formators (including laypeople and religious with experience in priestly formation), and from that pool establish teams of formators and professionals to staff a highly effective set of regional seminaries that hold the potential to offer the quality of formation our times require.

Bishops must insist and verify that the formation team members engage in their own ongoing formation. A doctoral degree does not render a priest automatically suitable to serve in the formation of future priests. Bishops must stop assigning to seminary posts priests who lack the skills and passion for formation. Newly assigned faculty should be required to fulfill a preparatory program for seminary formators.

The first quality to look for in a potential formator: He does not desire to move up any ladders. Rectorship of a seminary should not be seen as a reward or considered a stepping-stone to becoming a bishop. A reduction in the number of seminaries should make this task much easier.

I would like to think that the vast majority of our seminaries are healthy environments. Every seminary should have a clear sexual harassment policy and corresponding protocols. I think what we need (and what some seminaries are apparently doing) is to appoint an independent ombudsman that anyone (seminarian, lay student, staff member) can contact. But beyond being healthy, safe environments, seminaries must be places where candidates for priesthood can submit themselves to the action of the Holy Spirit, ­surrendering themselves to under­go the purifying and transformative work of ­formation.

Thankfully, a growing number of our theologates are genuine beacons of light in the present darkness. Seminary formation is undergoing a radical rethinking. The bishops need to support this process. We pray and we trust in the Holy Spirit’s enduring guidance that the transformations currently underway in priestly formation will continue to unfold fruitfully, and portend a very bright future for the people of God in a purified, holier Church. 

Fr. Thomas Berg is professor of moral theology, vice rector, and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics.

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