Skeptics might say: Another year of priestly formation, what good could that possibly do? The question arises continually among priests. And it’s not clear what the best options are.
Many of us feel something must be done. We’ve witnessed our peers depart ministry early in their active service to the Church. Undoubtedly the powers of hell especially despise priests. Spiritual principalities and powers are at work, as St. Paul tells us (cf. Eph 6:12). Others will succumb to personal temptations or simply natural weakness. The demands of priestly ministry are great; increasingly the Gospel stands less and less in conformity with our ambient culture. And that takes a toll.
At a dinner last year I asked a well-known American philosopher what she thought was the greatest weakness in seminary formation. She told me without hesitation, “I see little evidence that these men live rich interior lives.” I hardly knew what to say. Partly because I feared she was correct.
One obvious manifestation is the quality of preaching. Rhetoric and delivery are skills that can be acquired. But preaching begins in contemplation. Every preacher must himself be a contemplative. And no one else can contemplate for him.
A new plan
So what do we do?
After spending a week with vocations directors and priestly formators during the annual meeting of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors (NCDVD), I was greatly encouraged. The bishops of our country have taken action, instituting a new first year of formation. The new year, called the propaedeutic year, is a year aimed principally at instilling the life of Christian discipleship. During the propaedeutic year, men cultivate the human skills they need to live in community and lay the foundations of the spiritual life that will nourish them for years to come.
As a religious, this year sounds very familiar. It’s in fact essentially what we religious have done for centuries in the novitiate. The duties of novices are to pray, to learn to live together, and to pray some more. And even though there are many differences between the way a religious priest and a diocesan priest live their priesthood, the core need for a robust interior life remains the same.
Priestly life is, at its heart, about configuration to Christ. Jesus invites his disciples to speak to him as friends (cf. Jn 15:15). Pope Benedict XVI once wrote in a letter to seminarians: “Anyone who wishes to become a priest must be first and foremost a ‘man of God,’ to use the expression of Saint Paul (1 Tim 6:11). For us God is not some abstract hypothesis; he is not some stranger who left the scene after the ‘big bang.’ God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” God is not a stranger. He is our friend. So how is one taught to be a friend of God? And how is that friendship nourished so that it will always grow?
Becoming friends with God
The vocation directors and seminary formators I spoke with at NCDVD emphasized that many young men today need a “cultural detox.” The young men discerning a call to the priesthood today need help living Christian virtue in ways that weren’t necessary in the past. Many of even the finest candidates have struggled to break the habit of viewing internet pornography. Others come from broken families. Still others are zealous converts (thank God!) but need a bit more experience of living in Christian community.
And better still are the priests overseeing these men. I wish you could meet them! They are on fire with their love for Jesus Christ, the High Priest. They themselves strive to be shepherds after his own heart. At NCDVD, I saw this firsthand. The vocations directors and formators I met are serious, professional men. Their fraternity was joyful. And, thank heavens, their prayer was devout, even sublime.
In short, these men are friends of God. And since they’ve been given this special year, I have no doubt that they’ll be able to help young men become friends of God, too.