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As we begin the season of Advent and a new liturgical year, the faculty, staff, and students of Christ the King Seminary would like to offer you a blessed season of hope and joyful waiting on the coming of the Lord! We also believe this new beginning of a season of expectation is the perfect opportunity to give you a brief description of seminary life today as compared to around fifty years ago, as well as offer you a glimpse into changes that will be forthcoming. Our purpose is to provide a clear portrayal of seminary life, while giving you some useful information to share with others. We want to reassure you that our formation process of preparing seminarians for the priesthood, as well as future deacons and other men and women for various ministries in the Church, provides them with the resources they need for a comprehensive development in their discipleship.
The formation process at the seminary involves several years of prayerful reflection and growth in discipleship to Jesus Christ in a community setting, so that candidates may become comfortable with and committed to their priestly identity in Him. The primary agent in the seminarian's formation is God - the Holy Trinity. Life in the seminary demands the integration of the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral dimensions of the candidate over years of community life, including feedback from the faithful in parish settings. In the years of discernment, the seminarian cooperates with God's call as he tries to take on the mind and heart of Christ. The journey, then, is a growth in freedom in response to God's call and is meant to clarify one's vocation as consistent with God's will for that person.
In this brief essay, we shall compare both the application process and the life of seminary formation from the period before Vatican II to today. Afterwards, we would like to outline for you some forthcoming changes in seminary life that will add greater clarity to the various stages, discernment, and growth of seminarians during their formation years.
The Application Process
Today's application process for a seminarian candidate usually takes almost a year as he journeys with his vocation director. The applicant shares his family history, educational and occupational backgrounds, sacramental life, and reflections on his vocational journey. Each applicant undergoes a comprehensive psychological assessment at an accredited counseling center and provides letters of recommendation from people outside his family. Finally, the applicant interviews with his local bishop and the respective seminary he would attend before being accepted. Fifty years ago, the application process was not as extensive and did not include the detailed assessments, background histories, and interviews. Instead, it was more a matter of being recommended by one's pastor and accepted by the diocese and seminary based on briefer family information forms.
Today's Seminary Compared to Fifty Years Ago
Prior to Vatican II the seminary formation program generally consisted of adhering to the particular seminary schedule and navigating the academic demands. Little attention was given to the seminarian's pastoral development and integral, balanced, personal formation. The formation teams consisted almost exclusively of priests, many of whom were primarily professors and not necessarily equipped to accompany the seminarians in their emotional and psychological development.
In the two decades following Vatican II, seminary formation underwent major changes, outlined as follows:
The formation team meets weekly to review the life of formation in the seminary and the progress of the seminarians. Weekly, second- and third-year seminarians spend a day at a pastoral field education assignment outside the seminary. The formation advisor, the formation team, faculty assessments, and seminarian peer assessments give regular feedback to the seminarian so that he can come to an honest awareness of his strengths and weaknesses as he works with his spiritual director. When inappropriate behaviors are observed in a seminarian, he is challenged to confront them, assess his vocation, and respond accordingly.
Seminarians have access to professional counseling services if needed. Every seminarian also attends an approved clinical pastoral education (CPE) program, usually in a hospital setting, to assist in his growth of self-awareness and ministerial presence. During a year of pastoral immersion in a parish, the seminary formation team, parish pastor, and a parish evaluation team of lay men and women accompany the seminarian's pastoral growth and offer feedback. All this remains a standard part of the formation process and discernment at Christ the King Seminary, as it does at most other seminaries. In summary, great strides have been made in the formation of seminarians for the priesthood during the past fifty years.
On December 8, 2016, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a new set of seminary formation guidelines, "The Gift of the Priestly Vocation" (the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis), essentially a rewrite of the 1970 Ratio listed above. The USCCB, hopefully together with a broad-based team of consultors, will use it as a framework for updating the PPF. Seminaries around the country will then make internal changes and shifts of emphasis in response to the new guidelines.
Though we cannot be completely certain of all the changes coming, there will be a shift in how the various phases of seminary formation are viewed. In addition to keeping an emphasis on the four dimensions of integral development (human, spiritual, intellectual, pastoral), there will be a new emphasis on developing the seminarian's intentional discipleship as a companion and follower of Jesus Christ. As mentioned earlier, the basis and purpose of the formation journey is to take on a healthy priestly identity for the service of the people of God, what the new Ratio calls the "configuration" to Christ. There will continue to be personal and communal accompaniment as the seminarian grows in his interior life and communion with others. The newRatio distinguishes the following four stages:
The information offered here provides only a small glimpse into what the bishops may decide to amend in the present PPF. In the ongoing attempts to make priestly formation as comprehensively balanced and effective as possible, the process will always require the sincerity and integrity of seminarians and formators alike, and the prayerful support and accompaniment of the entire people of God.
We hope this information on seminary life today lifts the veil on some of the mystery surrounding formation to the priesthood and gives you more confidence about the process. Christ the King Seminary remains an invaluable resource for animating the spread of the Gospel and strengthening our communities of faith in Western New York. We continue working to adapt to the changing demands of seminary formation, supporting all our students so that they may serve Christ in today's church with faith-filled integrity and generosity. In this season of Advent, we await the coming of Christ with renewed hope and eager anticipation. God has promised to remain with us to the end of time. May what we have shared here reassure your trust in God's faithful promise to continue nurturing the Church with his Word and sacraments by preparing dedicated priests, deacons, and lay ministers to serve us in the future.