Models of Priestly Formation

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Maynooth International Seminar

Speaking notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin,  Archbishop of Dublin


Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth, 18th November 2017

I am always struck by the dialogue at the beginning of the Rite of the Ordination of a deacon or a priest, when the Bishop asks about the worthiness of the candidate. The response of the liturgical text refers in the first place not about the opinion of a formation team, but uses the phrase: “after inquiry among Christ’s people”.

What does “inquiry among Christ’s people” involve? Does such inquiry really ever happen or is it simply a pious formula or at most a box to tick.

When I look at the new Ratio on seminary formation (Numbers 204 and 205) the process of final evaluation is very much the traditional one. Inquiry among Christ’s faithful seems to be reduced to a minimum, except for a reference to the possible contribution of women that it notes “may be useful”. Inquiry among Christ’s faithful seems to be at most an optional extra.

The recommendations are:
a) The request of the candidate written in his own hand;
b) A detailed report from the Rector… including an assessment concerning the outcome of the preceding period, along with all the information considered useful for a better understanding of the situation and for the assessment by the community of formators;
c) A report by the Parish Priest of the parish of origin of the candidate or of the parish where he has domicile;
d) A report to be sought from those to whom the candidate was sent for his pastoral service; it may also be useful to have the contribution of women who know the candidate, thus including female assessment and insight.

Why should there be inquiry among Christ’s people? What sort of process am I thinking of? It is not a sort of ballot or questionnaire or a public opinion survey. It is about a theological reality. It is fundamentally about the sense of faith of God’s people. The worthiness of the candidate is to be measured by its relationship to the sense of faith of God’s people.

Indeed there is a sense in which the worthiness of the future ministry of the priest will be measured not by his own self-opinion, but by how he recognises and nourishes the faith that is present in God’s people. The priest is called to nourish the faith of God’s people, but the faith of God’s people also nourishes the priest. Pope Francis stresses that a true missionary never ceases to be a disciple.

There is a sense then that the entire seminary process should lead the future priest into a deeper appreciation of the common priesthood and the sense of faith that is present among Christ’s people. The question then is how can that ability to listen to the witness of Christ’s faithful find its authentic place within the seminary community and in the broader preparation of priests.

One of the most widespread comments on the child sexual abuse scandals in Ireland was that this would not have happened had more lay men and women had been involved in the management of cases. One of the saddest dimensions of that scandal and suffering was the fact that very often it was parents with little specialised education who had a sharper understanding of what was happening than the experts. They came forward not with vendetta but with a passionate appeal not to let happen to anyone else’s child what had happened to theirs.

​The priest belongs to Christ’s people and his vocation springs out of the faith of Christ’s people. The Second Vatican Council stresses that the common priesthood and the ordained priesthood differ from one another in essence and not only in degree. But it adds: “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ”. The Ratio affirms: “The unity and dignity of the baptismal vocation precede any differentiation in ministry. The ministerial priesthood, therefore, is understood, both in its own specific nature and in its biblical and theological foundations, as a service to the glory of God and to the brothers and sisters in their baptismal priesthood”.

​The Ratio goes on: “This means that, in communion with the order of Bishops, priests are inseparably part of the ecclesial community and, at the same time, by the will of Christ and in continuance of the work of the Apostles, have been constituted to be pastors and leaders”.

​The priest is called to leadership in the Church and as the Ratio declares: “the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church”

The priest is a leader but priesthood is not a caste. The priest may never look down on or belittle or feel superior to or separate from God’s people. To do so would be to pretend oneself to be God himself. Again from the Ratio: “As a member of the holy People of God, the priest is called to cultivate his missionary zeal, exercising his pastoral responsibility with humility as an authoritative leader, teacher of the Word and minister of the sacraments, practising his spiritual fatherhood fruitfully”. Then it draws an important conclusion: “Consequently, future priests should be educated so that they do not become prey to ‘clericalism’, nor yield to the temptation of modelling their lives on the search for popular consensus. This would inevitably lead them to fall short in exercising their ministry as leaders of the community, leading them to think about the Church as a merely human institution”.

Pope Francis never tires of condemning clericalism. We have to ask: Can seminaries become seedbeds of clericalism? It is a real temptation. Seminaries can become seedbeds of clericalism, of bitterness, of small mindedness and faction building. This is not to condemn seminaries, but to remember that there is an inbuilt tendency for any community – religious or secular – to create its own comfort zone and take refuge in a culture of the likeminded. When a culture of the likeminded emerges in a seminary, it is not nice to be other-minded.

Seminaries must be places where the candidate for ministry can take a step back from business of daily life and begin to discern in prayer and study the deeper Christian values and in such discernment discovers himself in a deeper way. I used the term daily life, rather than the classical term “the world”, because there is nothing more dangerous than a seminarian who claims to be leaving the world in a spiritual sense, but who is in fact losing sight of the real world and retreating into a world of his own. Narcissism in a seminarian can be covered up through all sorts of spiritual language.

The Ratio stresses an “appropriate involvement of the priestly ministry in the culture of today, with all the complex problems that it brings in its wake”. It says that this requires openness in priests and that they should remain up to date”.

Do seminarians demonstrate a real openness in the face of contemporary culture? Many of them do and do it well. There are challenges worldwide, however, of seminarians who fear modern culture and find theological explanations which justify them taking refuge in narrow traditionalism and a search for security through living in a safe self-created world.

For many years, I was involved in a specialised ministry of representing the Holy See in the world of international governmental organisations. Pope John Paul, before I would attend a major conference where the position of the Holy See was under attack, would always give me the same advice. “Support vigorously everything that is positive in the agenda of the event, but denounce, even clamorously, the things which are damaging to the human project”. But then he would add: “you must do both”. It is easy in a pluralistic society to go along with what is popular and it is easy to throw in a hand- grenade and run. The priest of the future will have to find within himself and his spirituality the ability to be present in contemporary culture in that way. This requires great human maturity and the ability to listen to the wisdom that is present in the wider community of Christ’s faithful. The ability and willingness to listen to and respect the competence of lay men and women must find its beginning in the seminary.

We need renewal in the Church today. We need a new dynamic of evangelization. Evangelization is about transmitting faith in Jesus Christ. To transmit faith in Jesus we must have a strong relationship with Jesus. We must identify our lives with him and his self-giving.

Again to quote the Ratio: “Priestly formation is a journey of transformation that renews the heart and mind of the person, so that he can “discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (cf. Rom 12:2). Indeed, the gradual inner growth along the journey of formation should principally be aimed at making the future priest a ‘man of discernment’, able to read the reality of human life in the light of the Spirit.

This will ensure that the vocation to the priesthood does not become imprisoned in an abstract ideal, nor run the risk of reducing itself to a merely practical and organizational activism, removed from the conscience of the person”.

There is another manifestation of the temptation to take flight from the realities of life and that is for the seminarian and future priest to take refuge in individualism. In some cases, the priest understands himself more a freestanding general practitioner in matters of religion, rather than someone who is part of a Presbyterate united in mission with his bishop, but also with lay faithful. The seminarian must learn to work collaboratively with all those who are the missionary disciples of Jesus.

I have programmes that bring together at various times during the year the seminarians, trainee deacons, young priests and lay pastoral leaders, each of which have of course their own programmes. Getting them to think and work together has not been easy. Priests have been trained to work alone. The presence of talented lay men and women working alongside with them can be challenging. They ask what is the difference and why make all the sacrifices that the priest is called to make? The priest is called to leadership, but that does not mean that he is always the boss. Future priests, already in the seminary, must learn the ability to work with the varied charism of lay men and women.

Clericalism and individualism become more damaging when the faculty within the seminary have different views and sow division and build factions. External supervision and evaluation of the human qualities and maturity of seminary staff is vital. Only external evaluation will address the repeated situation in which when problems arise it is said: “but everyone knew”.

Different forms of ministry must be integrated and our understanding of discipleship must be an integrated one, where theology and prayer, witness and care of the poor belong together and can influence the world around us and make society more loving.

Our faith must influence the society around us. But that influence on society will be sterile without faith. I have quoted often in these days a recent article of Archbishop Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he says: “we should not be surprised if we become hazy about our doctrine… when we are less clear about our priorities as a community, or if we become less passionate about service, forgiveness and peace when we have stopped thinking clearly about God”. Working for community and justice and deepening our faith in God belong together. Where one is missing, an integrated faith is missing.

​Faith involves a different way of living within any culture. What is involved is not a negative reaction or simple rejection of a changing world. What is involved is forming a believing community that sees beyond superficial confines and the fashions of the day.

The Christian life is not easy. The Christian life is not about blindly following a pre-established rulebook or imposing rules on others. In the past the Church and the Irish Church in particular was a highly moralizing Church. Jesus did not write an arid rulebook as an inspiration for his followers. Jesus did not think that belief in him could be attained through imposition. Faith in Jesus is no ideology. It is about a faith which enables each individual to attain gospel wisdom, a freedom to renounce prosperity and security for ourselves in order to live for others as Jesus did and then finding joy and fulfilment in living the Gospel.

Ministry in the Church in the years to come will have much less programmed and routine. It will be about men and women who have the ability to speak the language of faith authentically in a world where that language may be alien and to speak in a way that attracts. I must add that this applies in a special way to Bishops in the manner in which they lead a faith community and in the way that they engage with wider society.

Speaking the language of faith in a world where that language is alien is a challenge. A language that has no sense of faith will inadequately analyse the realities of faith. So often in today’s Western culture it is hard to identify the points of contact or insertion for the Christian message in a secularised society. This is particularly hard in Ireland where “secular speak” contains many residual elements of religious thought, but in which the meaning of words has changed and what was once considered demanding challenge becomes a vehicle of compromise.

In a culture of hostility to Christian values the Christian has to learn the special art of Jesus who could speak the truth clearly in the face of opposition and intolerance, but who never resorted in reply to belligerence or intolerance.

The priest in the Ireland of tomorrow must cultivate a faith that is capable of living in a different culture. I was struck at the fact that there are more members of the current cabinet of the Irish government under forty-five than there are priests of that age in the diocese of Dublin. The same applies to leadership cadres in many other sector of society. The challenge is not just about numbers but also about a generational separation. It is about a separation in which leadership in the formation of many aspects of our culture belongs to one generation and leadership and the mainstream membership of the Church belongs to another. How do you bridge that gap?

That may mean that being a Christian involves being open to hostility and even to martyrdom as happens in other parts of today’s world. But the fate of the Christian in Ireland is more likely to be that of marginalisation rather than martyrdom. Marginalisation should not lead however to flight from reality into a comfort zone and to the felt safety of the like-minded. The message of Jesus Christ is relevant in today’s society even in those societies where people are less and less attracted to the demanding teaching of Christ.

One of the problems is that the more Irish society loses its direct rootedness in Christianity, the more the space in which public debate takes place is one where it is increasingly alien to understanding and recognizing religious language.

The answer is not in giving in but in reinforcing the place of faith in our own lives and in living a faith which has a real sense of reaching out and having an impact in society. It is not enough to analyse how the place of God has been reduced in Irish society. We need to stress how we can restore the place of God. Even in the face of hostility and misunderstanding, we ought also to remember the wise words oy Pope John XII at the opening of the Vatican Council: words of Pope John XXIII: “Nowadays the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity”.

​How do we prepare seminarians to enter into this culture? The Ratio notes: “Young people should receive the education required by their own country for entrance to university. Moreover, they should seek to obtain state-recognised academic qualifications.” That reference to the seminarian being present in State universities strangely is found in a paragraph on the possibility of him choosing another state of life, if he felt that he was not called to the priesthood.

​The priest whose formation is over protective will never survive in the complicated pluralist world in which we live. The future priest should not be upset about finding himself in an academic environment competing side by side with his contemporaries. There is a danger in today’s world that the priest can loose direction and that despite being busy doing “priestly things” he actually becomes something else. The priest is not a social worker, or the leader of a social movement or a social commentator or a social reformer. The priest is the one who knows Jesus Christ and who attracts people not because of things that he does but because his faith in Jesus gives his life an integrity which allows him to be a true Father to those encounters.

How many of us have turned in difficult moments to a good priest? How many of us have gotten an answer to complex personal problems, not because the priest had special technical skills in counselling, but because we saw in him Gospel wisdom inspired by integrity in life.

Pope Francis stresses the challenge for the Church to go out and bring the message of Jesus to the world around us, especially to those who live on the peripheries of our societies and those on the frontiers of human experience. The priest who goes out must be able to bring Jesus with him. The priest cannot go out empty. There is also a sense in which it is in going out that the priest discovers who he really is. It is in that encounter of conversation with Christ’s faithful that we realise the depth or the emptiness of our priestly commitment and of our knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. Refusing that encounter can be a sign that we prefer protected comfort-zones of our own, that we are afraid and timid to go out and we try to keep the message of Jesus for ourselves only then to find that we have lost what we are really called to transmit.

No group realises that more accurately than Christ’s lay faithful. Seminary formation ignores that spiritual insight or thinks it knows better at its peril.