Priests—Where do they come from?

Priests have lately been at the center of many news stories – involving events of the kind that we wish would never have occurred. But perhaps we might come to some sense of balance by recognizing that only a small percentage of priests abused – and by appreciating a little of the process by which the great majority of priests arrive at ordination.

Over the years, there have been a number of formation programs for American priests. The current Program for Priestly Formation (PPF, 5thedition) regulates the training of all priests, diocesan and religious, in the United States. It was introduced in 2006, just a few years after the first wave of revelations about priestly sexual abuse. Another PPF, presumably intended to correct gaps in the previous version, is currently in the works.

The existing Program is well-written and invokes a great deal of what we have learned about the Catholic priesthood over the millennia, both historically and theologically. The theological backbone is Saint John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis. (1992) The phrase comes from Jeremiah (3:15): “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.”

Two of John Paul II’s lesser documents contribute to the program as well: Tertio millennio adveniente (his apostolic letter for the new millennium) and Ecclesia in America his 1999 apostolic exhortation issued two years after the Synod on the Church in America.

Even before admission to the seminary, the Program requires that the candidate, “must be in prayerful dialogue with God and with the Church in the discernment of his vocation.” The decision includes input from people who know him and the results of interviews and psychological evaluations.

To be sure, there is still no conclusive test to identify a potential abuser of children or vulnerable adults. Also, seminary training cannot be totally organized around preventing abuse. Many other things, obviously, are integral to proper formation.  Candidates, however, come from a secular culture that includes a massive amount of abuse in families and other institutions. So especially in the past few decades, this has become an early and central concern. As we have learned to our sorrow, this sort of screening was not adequately carried out in the past.

Once the selection staff signs off on the candidate, he becomes part of seminary life. In John Paul II’s words, that life is “a continuation in the Church of the apostolic community gathered about Jesus, listening to his word, proceeding towards the Easter experience, awaiting the gift of the Spirit for the mission.”

The seminary program is geared to help seminarians be conformed to Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church and to join in his mission to the world. Failure in emphasizing that central reality to pursue holiness can lead not only to abuse but numerous other serious problems.


John Paul II continues: “Moved by grace, however, [seminarians] make themselves available to God’s work of transformation. And that making ready a place for the Lord to dwell in us and transform us is what we call formation.” To achieve this complex transformation, the program tackles the development of the seminarian in the four areas of life – the human, the spiritual, the intellectual and the pastoral. Each area is carefully spelled out with threshold values that the seminarian has to meet, year by year.

One criterion, for example, comes from the field of human development. The candidate should be: “A person of solid moral character with a finely developed moral conscience, a man open to and capable of conversion.”

Such a candidate would function well in the community and be a good example to all because lay Catholics are also expected to act the same ways in the universal call to holiness.

Regarding sexuality, the rich Catholic understanding is that: “The various dimensions of being of a human person – the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual – converge in affective maturity, which includes human sexuality.”

One feature of human sexuality is that: “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the attitude for forming bonds of communion with others.” In fact, ironic as it may be in our current preoccupation with priestly sexual abuse, laity can learn a proper perspective on sexuality from the behavior of the priest.

In the area of spiritual development, the norms for prayer include: the seminarian’s participation in the Eucharist; in the Divine Office; the Sacrament of Penance; private prayer; as well as having a deep devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Mother.

On the intellectual front, formation makes “a fundamental demand of man’s intelligence by which he ‘participates in the light of God’s mind’ and seeks to acquire a wisdom which in turn opens to and is directed towards knowing and adhering to God.” This includes the expectation that the candidate will develop a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ and the mysteries of the faith.

The priesthood involves sharing in the Offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Each office involves learning about and loving Scripture, listening to the Magisterium, and deeply entering the tradition.

Few appreciate the fact that the Church needs priests with training in multiple areas requiring various personal talents. The Program includes much about planning and administration – two areas often ridiculed as having become too prominent in the Church. But what would a parish or diocese do without priests who can actually make them run – and run well?

Through all these particulars, a spiritual light shines because “the seminary is first and foremost a learning community of the disciples of Jesus. At the same time, the seminary is a community of charity and friendship. Finally, the seminary is a worshipping and praying community that finds its source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist.”

Despite the many problems of which we are only too aware these days, the seminary is part of the local Church and deserves the people’s love and prayer and support.


*Image: Karol Wojtyla (center) with brother seminarians, c. 1944.