Much has been written on the formation of seminarians for ordained life in the Catholic church, but very little has been written for those who oversee this process — the formation advisers. To fill this gap, Deacon Edward McCormack has written two books: A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminarians and A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminary Faculty (Catholic University Press, 2020). Together, the two volumes — the first books ever on formation advising — are practical guides for those engaged in formation, especially those who are new to the process.
In Trust recently spoke with Deacon McCormack.
Q How does formation advising fit into preparation for ministry?
A Formation for ministry, whether Catholic or Protestant, is a comprehensive program. Some components are established: seminarians take classes, get a degree, learn about liturgical life and prayer life, and train for ministry, but because every seminarian experiences these things differently, we have to treat each person differently. Formation advising is how you accompany a seminarian who is going through the four facets of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. It’s this accompanying part that’s been missing.
Q How did the concept of formation advising come about?
A Theological College introduced it in 1971. A seminarian’s “spiritual director” is not allowed to repeat to the rest of the faculty, or to anyone for that matter, anything a seminarian tells him — not about his prayer life, vocation, or celibacy — so that a trusting relationship can develop between them. The problem is that when it comes time for the faculty to review a seminarian’s progress, the spiritual director can’t give them any information about the student. He cannot say a word.
That’s why Theological College created formation advising. The adviser’s interaction with a seminarian need not be kept confidential; it can be shared with the seminary dean or the student’s bishop. This makes a dramatic difference. The formation adviser can put things in context, see patterns, see where a seminarian is growing and where he needs to grow, and be a conduit for feedback from committee to student. For a seminarian, the formation adviser can help him learn about himself and understand the formation program and its goals.
Q Will your new books be of interest only to Catholics?
A Everyone doing seminary formation can benefit from the books. The basic guidelines and structures — on skill development, dimensions of formation, discipleship, reflection — are the same for Catholics and Protestants. I’ve drawn on neuroscience, cognitive science, counseling, and executive coaching, which of course apply to everyone. Sub- jects vary, though. For example, while Catholics generally focus on celibacy, those of other denominations may focus on family life.
Actually, the concepts of “formation” and “deformation” are borrowed from a Protestant theologian — James K.A. Smith. Essentially, we are simultaneously formed by the Gospel and faith and deformed by family and culture. But we look at a person in the light of the Gospel and try to help him be healed, to adopt the fruits of the Spirit — peace, patience, love, compassion, justice. We try to cooperate with Christ, who is trying to heal and transform this person. Ultimately, that’s the end. The Lord is the formator.
ILLUSTRATION BY RODERICK MILLS