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In the Catholic context, preparation for priestly ministry is guided by the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF). While some Protestant denominations also have documents that give structure to ministry preparation, none are so thoroughly conceived, so minutely detailed, or so comprehensive as the PPF. Moreover, theological educators of any church can benefit from reading it, especially the way it describes four elements of formation — spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and human — and provides specifics on how preparation should take place in each area.

Spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation are not hard to grasp, but what is human formation? How does it take place? To find out more, In Trust asked several experts, including theological educators and the mental health professionals who sometimes treat clergy who need help in this area.

How are candidates prepared for the Catholic priesthood? Through formation. And while Christian formation often begins at a young age — in the home, the school, and the parish — priestly formation occurs in seminaries.

There are more than 50 Catholic seminaries that train future priests in the United States and Canada. Thus priestly formation takes place in a diversity of contexts, from urban universities to remote monasteries. But all places of formation are guided by a 143-page document, the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Canada, a similarly named 56-page document, the Program for Priestly Formation, provides the overarching structure.

Both documents describe four elements of formation: spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and human. Spiritual formation refers to the priesthood candidate’s personal spiritual life, including prayer, the Sacraments, and spiritual direction. Intellectual formation refers to the academic component of theological education — the PPF is specific about which courses of study are appropriate at each level of academic formation. Pastoral formation refers to the work of ministry, including preaching, evangelization, cultural sensitivity, parish administration, and public ministry.

But what of human formation? What does that mean? The PPF describes human formation as the preparation for priesthood candidates to be “apt instruments of Christ’s grace.” Its components include moral character and conscience, prudence and discernment, genuineness in relationships, effective communication, affective maturity, physical self-control, freedom from prejudice, and a lack of vanity. For candidates for the Catholic priesthood, a central component of human formation is education about—and the living out of—celibacy.

Formation is complex, and once ordained, priests are expected not only to know what the church expects of them but why, says Father Melvin C. Blanchette, a Sulpician priest and licensed psychologist who serves as formation adviser and spiritual director at Theological College in Washington, D.C.

“We have the most educated group of Catholics ever, and they don’t just sit back in the pew,” says Blanchette. “They ask questions, and they want to know why. They have every reason to ask the question.”

The foundation for all formation

Given the complexity of ministry, it seems particularly important for seminaries to get human formation right and to weave it into the seminary experience, laying the framework for a lifetime of growth in ministry.

"Human formation is the foundation for all formation"

— Deacon Edward McCormack (left, with Father Melvin Blanchette)

Courtesy Catholic University of America

Deacon Edward McCormack, director of human formation at Theological College, says that formation must not be thought of as separate strands. “A man’s spiritual life, pastoral skills, intellectual life, personal development, and pastoral development — all should be integrated,” he says. “Human formation is the foundation for all formation.”

While formation can take from five to 13 years, depending on the candidate’s previous study, six years is typical for diocesan priests. It includes an initial “propaedeutic” (or preparatory) year of reflection that was already required by many seminaries, but that was mandated by a 2016 document from the Vatican called The Gift of the Priestly Vocation (often called by its Latin name, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis).

That change was absolutely necessary, says Father David Songy, a Capuchin priest who serves as president of the Saint Luke Institute. With primary locations in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Louisville, Kentucky, and affiliated programs in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Manchester in the United Kingdom, the Saint Luke Institute serves troubled priests and members of religious orders with evaluation, residential treatment, continuing care, and outpatient therapy.

Songy says that seminaries sometimes find that priesthood candidates — especially younger men — enter seminary without the maturity, social skills, or capacity to process and speak about their own emotions and those of others. If so, they are missing a critical component of ministry.

“If you’re not emotionally mature, or able to relate to others well, or don’t know who you are, being engaged in a spiritual reflection or even academic reflection is not going to be as helpful to you,” says Songy, a licensed psychologist. “You can have someone who’s very bright, but if they don’t know how to relate to people, it just doesn’t work. It really is foundational.”

The PPF describes a threefold process of human formation that includes self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift.

“Self-knowledge” requires a candidate to get to know his own thinking, how his emotions work, and what his tendencies are. It may involve personality inventories such as the Myers-Briggs test. It also requires serious reflection about the candidate’s own history so that he may understand his present.

"'Seft-gift' is the recognition that God loves each person even in his weakness. It's an even deeper acceptance of the self." 

Father David Songy

Credit: Krista Hall  

“Self-acceptance” is the candidate’s ability to truly look at himself without denying this reality or pushing it away. Songy says that self-acceptance is vital but difficult, and he offers a counterexample of seminarians who strive for chastity by denying that they have sexual feelings at all. He says that priests who are unwilling to accept their sexual feelings will run into problems. “To look at it is much healthier than denial and saying ‘that can’t be me,’” he says.

The third element, “self-gift,” is the recognition that God is present within the candidate, which permits him to embrace his feelings. It’s the recognition that God loves each person even in his weakness. “It’s an even deeper acceptance of the self,” says Songy, “in the sense of having faith that God is working in whatever situation.”

Priestly habits of living

“All aspects of human formation are affected by personality, family of origin, and life experience,” says Father Quinn Conners, who is prior and director of formation for the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.

Conners is a clinical psychologist who previously worked at the Saint Luke Institute. He says that human formation is harder for candidates with less life experience, and that younger candidates need special attention during the formation process. Sometimes those ordained without sufficient self-knowledge and self-awareness turn to inappropriate relationships or self-destructive habits, or they fall into depression. With their human needs suppressed instead of being addressed, “They cross boundaries, and they think they can meet their needs with a parishioner,” he says. Or they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, or they grow anxious and depressed.

One of the challenges of human formation is that seminary faculty and staff are not always trained to do it. For example, some seminary faculty have advanced degrees in church history or New Testament, but none of their academic preparation actually trained them in formation. Leading a person to cultivate self-understanding, both in seminary and throughout life, is imperative, but it’s difficult work.

"All aspects of human formation are affected by personality, family of origin, and life experience."

                                                             Father Quinn Conners

Credit: Ray Clennon, O. Carm. | Order of Carmelites| PCM Province   

“The more that can be done with habits of living, living humanly, the more that can be instilled in people if they don’t have it innately,” says Conners.

When it comes to priestly “habits of living,” many lay people automatically think of celibacy. And given how difficult it can be to talk about sexuality, celibacy is often shrouded in mystery for those not living it.

Kathy Galleher has worked at Saint Luke Institute and in a number of formation programs for men and women in religious life, as well as with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and in a private psychology practice. She is also the program director for Healthy Sexuality and Intimacy in Consecrated Life, a four-year program offered in conjunction with the Washington Area Formators’ Network.

Galleher says that healthy boundaries for emotional intimacy are essential for ministry. “Our energy for love, our energy for sexuality is an intrinsic good in us. It’s like a fire,” she says. “If you just let it burn where it wants to burn, it’s destructive.” Galleher says that it’s essential to use that energy for good while building a hearth for it, with borders and structures that contain the heat and flame.

But Galleher knows that priests, like their parishioners, are imperfect and are works in progress. “All of us have our wounds that we carry with us,” she says. Galleher believes that understanding the role of sexuality and celibacy is a key component of human formation and is fundamental to self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift.

“Part of our philosophy is that those people who do helping work, whether psychologists or ministers, have a special requirement to become aware of our woundedness and bring healing to it,” says Gallaher. “If we were going to be accountants or car mechanics, we could carry a lot of woundedness and it wouldn’t interfere with our work. But in ministry, as a field, we really have to make sure that what we bring is healthy because of the nature of the work that we do.”

Ultimately the process of human formation, and the assumptions it rests upon, are hopeful. “Human formation programs in the seminary should begin with the assumption that the candidates have the potential to move from self-preoccupation to an openness to transcendent values and a concern for the welfare of others,” says the Program of Priestly Formation. The goal: That the priest “be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the human race.”

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