Formation of priests: A combination of strength and mercy
By Alessandro De Carolis – Vatican City
A seminary is a “laboratory” where not only the intellect is formed, but especially the heart, every fiber of the person that is human prior to being to Christian, of men called to become pastors of souls. The Congregation for the Clergy, whose competence is the process of priestly formation, is particularly attentive to the areas of activity that encompass and govern all aspects of the life of a minister of God in its various details. Its annual “mission budget” is around 2 million Euro (as of 2021). Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Dicastery, explains the work of his collaborators in terms of the path indicated by Pope Francis, that of a Church served and animated by an intelligence and dedication that allow the figure of the Good Samaritan to be present everywhere in the world.
Vatican News: The letter written on 4 August 2019 for the 160th anniversary of the death of the Curé of Ars represents a small pastoral and spiritual “summa” of Pope Francis’s magisterium on the priesthood. What is the “identikit” of the priest that can be culled from it?
Cardinal Beniamino Stella: Pope Francis is always very attentive to priests and their ministry. He has spoken about this on various occasions, in fact, highlighting several aspects of priestly life. The Letter for the 160th anniversary of the death of Saint John Marie Vianney is a particular gift from the Holy Father, who addressed priests beginning primarily from their own life experience. Reading the Pope’s text, it seems that he “is looking at” his “brother priests”, who, without “making any noise” leave everything to dedicate themselves in service to the communities. They work “in the trenches”, exposed to the greatest variety of situations. They “bear the burden of the day” in their “effort to care for and accompany God’s people”.
Pope Francis, therefore, offers an “existential” identikit of the priest. In fact, he does not speak of the ideal priest that does not exist. Instead, he addresses the multitude of priests who “often without fanfare and at personal cost” dedicate themselves in “service to God and to their people” to the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of the Sacraments and to the witness of charity. They write “the finest pages of the priestly life”. Despite their sins and even, at times, the crimes some members of the clergy have committed, on which the Holy Father is not silent, he shows that there are “countless priests who faithfully and generously … make of their lives a work of mercy”.
It is precisely mercy, the Holy Father says, after the gift of one’s own life, that is another “exquisite quality” of the priest, that configures him to Christ the Good Shepherd. It is a joyful disposition that draws its strength from prayer and the sacraments and takes shape through the communion they share with their Bishop and brother priests and becomes concrete in their enthusiasm for evangelization where, through perseverance and “endurance”, it becomes proximity and closeness to “the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters”.
An additional characteristic indicated by the Holy Father is the “priestly spirit”, that the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis states is a necessary part of the human maturity required by candidates for holy orders. Pope Francis explains that the priestly ministry is not exempt “from suffering, pain and even misunderstanding”, which are the means of being configured to Christ when they are assumed and integrated into the journey of faith and prayer by which the priest, avoiding acedia – which the Pope calls “sweet sorrow” – remains “before the Lord” who heals their wounded hearts and washes their feet soiled by “worldliness”.
Lastly, the identikit offered in the Letter describes (without citing it) the experience of the holiness of the Curé of Ars explicitly as “two constitutive bonds” of priestly identity: the personal bond that is intimate and deep with Jesus, and the bond with the People of God. The attitude that the Holy Father proposes in conclusion, after the example of the Mother of God, is that of praise. We could say, summing up the traits of the sacerdotal life presented in the letter, that Pope Francis asks priests today to be priests of the Magnificat.
VN: For the Pontiff, “the renewal of faith and the future of vocations are possible only if we have well-formed priests”. How much of the Congregation’s work is focused on the area of vocation ministry and ongoing formation of priests?
Cardinal Stella: The Congregation for Clergy has dedicated time and energy to the publication of the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, published on 8 December in 2016. Therefore, at the end of 2021 the new Ratio will have been in force for five years. It is precisely the same “gift of the priestly vocation, placed by God in the hearts of some men, that obliges the Church to propose to them a serious journey of formation”. Meeting with the Congregation on the occasion of its Plenary in 2014, Pope Francis defined formation as “guarding and fostering vocations that they may bear ripe fruit. They are ‘diamonds in the rough’ ready to be carefully polished with respect for the conscience of the candidates and with patience, so that they may shine among the People of God”. In the thought of the Ratio, there is only one priestly formation. It begins in the Seminary (Initial Formation) and continues during the entire life of the priest (Ongoing Formation).
Therefore, the Congregation accompanies the Episcopal Conferences, and sometimes even individual dioceses, in promoting the initial and ongoing formation of the clergy. A good occasion for a dialogue about this with the Bishops of the various countries of the world happens during the periodic ad limina visits. It is a moment in which, in addition to dealing with topics relative to the Dicastery’s competence, ample space is given to the topic of seminaries and the process of ongoing formation of the clergy. The Congregation encourages that projects of formation be implemented and accompanies the projects that have been started, offering direction regarding both the method and content.
Lastly, the Congregation pays particular attention to priestly vocations, encouraging the institution and promotion of specific Centers in individual dioceses, or at the regional or national level, as well as prayer initiatives and, lastly, supporting the Bishops, who are the first ones who have the responsibility for vocations to the priesthood. In fact, a shared conviction is that the presence of priests – formed humanly, spiritually, intellectually and pastorally, according to the well-known four dimensions presented in Pastores dabo vobis – in communities, contributes significantly in enkindling a spiritual climate suitable for the blossoming of new vocations.
VN: How is the Dicastery’s activity structured and what are the administrative costs associated with it that allow you to meet the goals of the “mission” entrusted to you?
Cardinal Stella: As the word “Congregation” suggests, the Dicastery is composed of a plurality of persons who collaborate for the service of the clergy. Some Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops are called to be a part of it as Members. They are designated by the Holy Father, both from within the Roman Curia and from various parts of the world, thus guaranteeing an international spirit. The Cardinal Prefect presides over the Congregation, aided by two Archbishop Secretaries (one who has the task of the Seminaries) and by an Under-Secretary. Within the Dicastery, there are 27 priests and 4 lay people who work. In addition, when necessary, some Consulters (theologians, canonists, psychologists, jurists), both clergy and lay, collaborate with the Dicastery.
The activity of the Congregation for Clergy is divided into four Offices. The Clergy Office, besides all the numerous “disciplinary” work and cases that support the particular Churches, it examines complaints and responds to the requests coming from Bishops and clerics. One significant area is that of “Hierarchical Appeals” – against the suppression of a parish, for example – which is an expression of the freedom of the faithful to “dialogue” with their leaders when they feel burdened by a decision and it is not possible to arrive at an otherwise peaceful solution after attempts have been made. Through the “Special Faculty” granted to the Dicastery, the Congregation can dismiss priests and deacons for very serious reasons from the clerical state. Due to the work and experience of the Clergy Office, the recent Instruction The pastoral conversion of the parish community in service of the evangelizing mission of the Church was published (20 July 2020).
The Seminary Office deals with vocations and supports diocesan Bishops and Episcopal Conferences in the area of priestly formation, both initial and ongoing, in particular in Seminaries. It encourages the awareness and application of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis and accompanies local episcopates in the drafting of their own Ratio Nationalis, which then must be approved by the Congregation for Clergy. The Colleges and Priestly Residences in Rome also fall under its competence. The Administrative Office, considering that the ownership of all ecclesiastical assets is “under the Supreme Authority of the Roman Pontiff” in every case, the Congregation is one of the tools the Holy Father uses to supervise the correct administration of the Church’s patrimony. The Dicastery is also involved in granting the necessary ad validitatem License in some cases when assets are alienated. The Dispensation Office deals with those clerics who have abandoned the exercise of the ministry and want to be reconciled with God, with the ecclesial community and even with their own personal “story”. The granting of the dispensation – reserved to the Holy Father – is not a right, but a grace, granted case by case, as a sign of mercy, when the situation of the abandonment of the ministry and the loss of identity on the part of a cleric seems to have become irreversible.
Regarding the administrative costs, these encompass the salaries of the personnel and operating expenses, and are covered by the income derived from the Institutional Activities (granting of Rescripts in reference to the administration of ecclesiastical goods, dispensations granted from priestly and diaconal obligations and the application of the Special Faculties). Lastly, the Formation Courses organized by the Dicastery are partially financed by a symbolic contribution from the participants, and the rest is covered through the generosity of other entities, including in large part, the Pontifical Foundation “Aid to the Church in Need”.
VN: The question of priestly celibacy returns regularly to the center of the debate in the Church. Pope Francis has often spoken of its value as a “gift” and – taking a stance closely connected with Saint Paul VI’s position – has always excluded a modification regarding the current ecclesiastical discipline. In what way does the Congregation promote the Magisterium of the Pope and encourage a reflection among priests regarding the value and choice for celibacy?
Cardinal Stella: The topic of the celibate life of the priest regularly receives attention for the fact that it is a “sign of contradiction” in respect to the world’s mentality. The same is true with a marriage that is faithful, indissoluble and open to life. In addition, the inconsistences, and sometimes even the crimes of some priests, could make us think that the problem lies precisely in the fact that priests are celibate. However, the Pontiffs of the last century, even during difficult times, have repeated that and provided motivation, the value of celibacy as a total offering to God that, as a consequence, grants one the freedom to carry out ministry.
The Congregation for Clergy contributes to the reaffirmation of this value, above all, through a constant study process, as we call it internally: the officials – theologians, canonists, psychologists, formators – are dedicated to a continual examination of this topic, with the contribution of the Members and Consultors, so that the choice for celibacy might be understood not only in its authenticity but also in its relevance. The fruit of this process is presented in the Courses offered by the Dicastery and shared with the Episcopal Conferences, with Seminary and University Formators. A fundamental aspect is that of the formation for priestly celibacy. In fact, this cannot be limited to the period of Seminary formation (initial formation), but must continue for the priest’s entire life (ongoing formation), so that priests might assume and constantly renew their awareness of being “rooted in Christ the Spouse, and totally consecrated to the service of the People of God”, precisely understood as “celibacy as a special gift of God”, according to the teaching of the Ratio, paragraph 110.
However, we are not talking about observing a purely external discipline, but of grasping and assimilating always in a new way what Saint John Paul II had already encouraged in Pastores dabo vobis, in paragraph 29 about “the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy”. This is about the living of a mystery, so to speak, that perhaps “not everyone can accept this saying” (see Mt 19:11-12). But precisely for this reason it demands profound human and spiritual maturity, for which the Congregation dedicates itself in promoting through various formative and supportive channels to the local Churches. There is a beautiful image Pope Francis used in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, in paragraph 101: “Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest”. This is why the celibate priest not only represents, but lives. It can be said that he is the living representation of “this dialogue between the Spouse and his bride”.
VN: The topic regarding the abuse of minors by some priests remains an open wound in the heart of the Church. What is the specific contribution that your Dicastery can offer toward the prevention and uprooting of this painful phenomenon?
Cardinal Stella: The prevention of this crime committed by clerics is rooted in an adequate priestly formation. It should be specified that formation does not mean so much the simple communication of concepts, in the paradigm of information or updating, but rather – both in the Seminary and after ordination – of an integral formation, one that encompasses every aspect of the person, including the human dimensions of affectivity, sexuality and desire. First the seminarian, then the priest, is called to grow harmoniously as a man equipped with psychological equilibrium, affective maturity and the ability to enter into relationships.
The Congregation for Clergy proposes this type of personality formation in Seminaries and in courses of ongoing formation for the Clergy. In fact, the Ratio, requires “greatest attention” in this area, excluding from holy orders those who “have been involved in any way with any crime or problematic behavior in this area”, and provides that “in the programs of initial and ongoing formation” there be “specific lessons, seminars or courses on the protection of minors”, including also, “areas dealing with possible exploitation and violence, such as, for example, the trafficking of minors” or “child labor” (Ratio, 202). The image of the priest proposed by the Ratio Fundamentalis, in this regard, is that of a Father and of a Pastor who takes care of the faithful, a defender of the poorest and weakest.
VN: In 2013, the competence of the Seminaries was entrusted to the Congregation. In what ways and through which structures does it carry out this task?
Cardinal Stella: The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, with the motu proprio Ministrorum Institutio dated 16 January 2013, desired that the Congregation for Clergy take care of everything regarding the formation, life and ministry of priests and deacons, from the perspective that it was all united. In fact, since 1992, the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis had made it possible to surpass the concept of formation understood almost exclusively from the intellectual perspective, geared toward passing exams and obtaining qualifications. The novelty introduced by that document, instead, consisted in presenting integral formation as the main goal, as comprised harmoniously in four dimensions: intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human. Then in second place, a specific and ongoing formation, divided in two phases. The first in a Seminary as initial formation that then continues in the second phase throughout the entire life of the priest, that is, ongoing formation.
In this perspective, the transfer of competence happened in 2013, and was followed then in 2016 with the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis. Consequently, the Congregation’s four Offices, that are distinct due to the scope of the activity, work together on behalf of the clergy. In a particular way, the inquiries that emerge from the concrete life of priests contribute toward preparing formation programs that respond directly to their reality and the experiences they face today. Practically speaking, the Dicastery accompanies the Episcopal Conferences in the production of their own Ratio Nationalis, that is, their own guidelines for priestly formation that, based on the guidelines of the Universal Church contained in the Ratio Fundamentalis, mirror more adequately the history, the culture and the challenges of each individual country. In addition, the Congregation supervises the foundation, suppression and unification of inter-diocesan Seminaries as well as the approval of their statutes and the appointment of their rectors proposed by the local episcopate.
One area of particular importance in this sense is that of the ordinary Apostolic Visits to the Seminaries, needed to maintain constant dialogue and exchange between the particular Churches and the Universal Church. To ensure this spirit, the Seminary Office fosters dialogue through the appropriate Episcopal Commissions, as well as with the National Associations of Seminaries. Along with this close contact with the local Churches, the Dicastery organizes regular courses of formation for Seminary formators, generally on the linguistic level, a Course of Canonical Administrative Praxis for priests studying in Rome who are called to work in the area of Canon Law in their native dioceses, as well as a Course of Formative Praxis for those who will be dedicated to educational activity especially in the Seminaries. The underlying idea is to “conceive” and create Seminaries to prepare priests after Christ’s heart, suited to the needs of the contemporary world.
VN: The permanent diaconate is also an area the Congregation covers. What is the reality of this ministry in the Church today? How can their role be recognized in its specificity to avoid the risk that they are suspended somewhere between the priest and the lay faithful?
Cardinal Stella: Pope Francis has openly stated: “We must be careful not to see deacons as half-priests, half-laymen”. And he identified their principal characteristic: they are “guardians of service in the Church”. For those called transitional deacons, ordination to the diaconate is a step toward the ministerial priesthood in which they assume for life the attitude of Christ the Servant, imitating the Lord Jesus in celibacy as well. The Second Vatican Council, then, following the Church’s Tradition, restored the possibility of the permanent diaconate, that is, of men who may even be married, who are ordained not to the priesthood, but specifically to provide service in the Church. They, in fact, exercise their ministry in liturgical celebrations and preaching, in works of charity, through caring for the poor and collaborating competently in the administration of the Church’s assets.
Presenting a ministerial vision of the Church, and in fidelity to the conciliar teaching of the Pontiffs, the recent Instruction on the renewal of the parish community (nn. 79-82) highlighted the role of permanent deacons as prophetic service. In addition, their service must go beyond the boundaries of the ecclesial community. They are, in fact, sent to the “peripheries” and are entrusted with a missionary charism, specifically for the “initial proclamation” of the Gospel in frontier places and in the spheres of people’s ordinary lives. This is true of permanent deacons who carry out service in hospitals, in prisons, in welcoming migrants, in the field of education and in the centers run by the Church’s charitable institutions. Today, in the name of the entire Church, they continue the ministry of the Good Samaritan.
To live this specific vocation, a certain formation is necessary that not only includes an intellectual dimension, but one that includes human and spiritual maturation in view of evangelization. Therefore, the Dicastery accompanies the Episcopal Conferences in the publication of their own Ratio for the formation of permanent deacons to awaken the full potential proper to their vocation. In addition, the Congregation is in dialogue with the local episcopates so that the order of permanent deacons might be instituted throughout the world since some local Churches have not yet restored it. It is, in fact, the responsibility of the Episcopal Conferences to see to the promotion of the permanent diaconate in their individual countries.
Furthermore, a particular aspect of the permanent diaconate is constituted by the fact that even married men can be admitted to this ministry. This fact clearly distinguishes them from priests who are always celibate in the Latin Church. In addition, permanent deacons who have families and exercise a profession are privileged witnesses of the universal call to holiness in ordinary life. There are also celibate permanent deacons, even if they are few in number, who bear witness to the value of virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven. They assume the obligation of celibacy at the moment of ordination so as to dedicate themselves with greater freedom to the demands of their ministry.
The Congregation for Clergy is dedicated to promoting the permanent deaconate in all its richness and relevance: these men, in fact, are not “half priests with a stole”. They are Christians who, in communion with the Bishops and the diocesan clergy, are committed to manifest the face of Christ who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life. Himself a permanent deacon whose service was motivated by fraternity, Saint Francis of Assisi provides an example and teaches us to draw near to others calling them “Fratelli tutti”.
Note to the reader: Since the publication of this article, Cardinal Prefect Beniamino Stella was succeeded by His Excellency, the Most Rev. Lazzaro You Heung as Prefect. With the publication of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the Congregation for the Clergy became the Dicastery for the Clergy.