On Dec. 8, 2016, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy released a new document on the formation of priests, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutiones Sacerdotalis. It invokes Mary, “who is Mother of Mercy and Mother of Priests,” as the perfect model of the priest’s very existence as proposed by the Second Vatican Council.
Sections covered include General Norms, Priestly Vocations including the topics of minor seminaries and vocations arising among indigenous peoples and migrants, the Foundations of Formation, Initial and Ongoing Formation, the Dimensions of Formation – human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral, the Agents of Formation, the Organization of Studies and Criteria and Norms.
In the introduction, Pope Francis is quoted from his address to the Congregation on Oct. 3, 2014, in reference to the gift of the priesthood and the need to propose a serious journey of formation to men pursuing that vocation. “It means guarding and fostering vocations, that they may bear mature fruit. They are ‘uncut diamonds,’ to be formed both patiently and carefully, respecting the conscience of the individual, so that they may shine among the People of God.”
The document also acknowledges it is building upon the work of both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the encouragement of Pope Francis.
As the Congregation presents the characteristic elements they state, “The journey of priestly formation, beginning with the seminary years, is described… in terms of four characteristic elements of formation, understood as one, integral, grounded in community and missionary in spirit … which begins at Baptism, is perfected through the other sacraments of Christian Initiation, comes to be appreciated as the center of one’s life at the beginning of seminary formation, and continues through the whole of life.”
After promulgation from Rome, local churches – as represented by each nation’s conference of Catholic bishops, then took the principles handed down and reviewed how their own practices and programs for priestly formation needed to be brought in line with the revisions building principally upon John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, given in 1992 which set forth the four dimensions of formation.
In response, after a multi-year process carried out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and in joint discussions with the Holy See, the “Program for Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition” was promulgated among American dioceses in 2022 for implementation to begin this 2023-24 academic year.
Speaking with the Catholic Herald, member of the diocesan vocations team Fr. David Neuschwander shared that the sixth edition includes primarily a “change in emphasis” in how seminary formation is carried out. He noted how, in conversations with international priests serving in the Diocese of Superior from India and Africa, what is changing for seminaries in the United States are elements that have already been in place in many other regions around the world.
These principles, he also said, are built upon the foundation of the call to holiness for each and every baptized person, but taken to a higher degree for the men in formal discernment of the ministerial priesthood.
“The shift,” Fr. Neuschwander explained, “is away from a more academic emphasis … to one more on formation and relationship with God and others.”
He said how seminary has at times been “seen as a checklist or conveyor belt” process and that the new PPF’s goal, bringing the American priestly formation process in line with the Vatican’s indications, “recognizes the personal journey” of the seminarian. Each man is seen as a person with unique identity and needs, but the focus is less on completing a series of tasks and more on stages of development and maturity.
“The goal isn’t to take a bunch of classes, but to be configured to Jesus Christ, the great high priest and to live out his priesthood … The goal isn’t solely achieving a degree,” but a broader and more lifelong formation.
The most significant change, besides the terminology used for the various stages of formation, is the addition of a required propaedeutic year for any man discerning the priesthood. Those familiar with the formation process in religious congregations will see the similarities being integrated into this diocesan priestly process. This first year would be akin to a novitiate.
With a focus on human and spiritual formation, Fr. Neuschwander commented, “In our day and age that’s incredibly important because” our young people don’t always receive the formation that they used to get in their families or secular culture, which has still been predominantly Christian in nature.
Even with the seeds of a calling present, he continued, it is harder and harder for these men to robustly discern a call to the priesthood that until they’ve attained greater maturity.
“Especially in our American culture, there’s such an emphasis on performing and success,” he said, “many of our kids are driven by that, rather than ‘Who am I? Who is God? What’s our relationship? And that with others?’ Some difficulties in our modern culture that make it more difficult for young men to clearly hear that call.
“The propaedeutic year is meant to, in many ways, almost be a detox from modern culture,” he clarified. “An intentional separation from a lot of media, social media and technology to focus on human growth and living in community, simple work and chores, life of consistent and dedicated prayer and living according to the rhythm of the church year.
It’s “an intentional formation stage to help these men mature humanly and spiritually enough to help them discern where God is leading them,” Fr. Neuschwander summarized.
This concept is not entirely new, as various dioceses around the country have had various pre-seminary programs, but participation in these was discretionary and determined on a case-by-case basis. After the Vatican’s promulgation, and now the USCCB’s implementation of it, it is required for every man entering formal discernment, at whatever stage of education he enters.
In brief outline, after the propaedeutic year, rather than using the terms pre-theology, philosophy and theology to denote each stage of seminary, the new terminology is as follows: Discipleship, Configuration and lastly, Vocational Synthesis.
The Propaedeutic Stage is to last 12 months, whether entering out of high school or with college studies or a completed degree. The Diocese of Superior is using the program at St. Francis de Sales Seminary near Milwaukee for those entering as college graduates. Although there are currently no undergraduate-age seminarians, likely they would attend the program in place at Winona’s Immaculate Heart of Mary College Seminary.
During this stage, they live in community with priest formators and follow their own program of classes apart from those in philosophy and theology studies.
Once the Discipleship stage is entered, which lasts no fewer than two years at either the college or graduate levels, the focus shifts to intimacy with Christ and discernment along with Christian virtue and the study of philosophy.
The Configuration stage lines up with the study of theology and focuses on the priestly identity. Men who are in this stage, while still discerning, have been maturing personally and in their understanding of the call. They are in a period of configuring themselves, still guided by formators, to Christ the Shepherd and Servant and learning practical applications of that. Typically four years, this stage may be condensed to three-and-a-half years to accommodate the changes made to the final stage of preparation before ordination to the priesthood.
During the Vocational Synthesis, which is to take place once the man has been ordained to the transitional diaconate, has yet to be lived out in application as the USCCB’s revised Program for Priestly Formation is just going into effect this year and the Diocese of Superior does not have any seminarians at this stage.
It is intended to include a gradual assumption of priestly duties while residing full-time in a parish or other pastoral setting for a minimum of six months rather then merely during a summer.
All four stages are required for every seminarian and will occur sequentially without any overlaps.
Fr. Neuschwander called the changes, “Exciting, especially as our diocese is moving from maintenance to mission. A change in emphasis on mission is on the relationship – both relationship with God, which has always been foundational to the faith and intentional with others which is how we share the good news and God’s grace and light.”
The entire document of the Congregation for the Clergy can be found online by searching Ratio Fundamentalis Sacerdotalis 2016. The USSCB’s promulgated document can be found at www.usccb.org/committees/clergy-consecrated-life-vocations/priestly-formation.
Fr. David Neuschwander, right, visited with Superior seminarian Carl Oman and his grandparents, Carl and Sylvia Kozak, during the annual dinner at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in early October. (Submitted photo)
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