sound priestly formation and clear priestly identity

From many points of view, clear priestly identity and sound priestly formation are necessary correlates. (PPF, 10)

Amen, amen, and amen.

celibate today, dating tomorrow

A couple of incidents from my first year of seminary are good illustrations of this statement. I think of my very first meeting with my Teaching Parish supervisor. We went out to lunch to get acquainted. The man who was my supervisor, an associate priest in a suburban parish, made this comment as we drove back to the parish after lunch. “If the Church decided to drop the requirement of priestly celibacy, I would be dating tomorrow.” Not exactly the sort of comment that edifies a new seminarian.

Now, to be fair to the seminary, this guy (who had only been ordained for two years) was not one of the designated Teaching Parish supervisors. I had been assigned to the pastor, but the pastor decided he was too busy for this and delegated the responsibility to the associate. The seminary knew about it, and initially did nothing about it. However, as additional stories came back via some of the “pastoral incidents” (ministerial reflections that seminarians are required to produce about their Teaching Parish experiences), the director of the Teaching Parish program apologized and, after my leave-of-absence from the seminary, offered to assign me to a new Teaching Parish, which was a great improvement.

The point of the story is that this newly-ordained man did not seem well equipped to handle the commitment to celibacy. And, not surprisingly, he left the priesthood a couple of years ago. Without an integral commitment to celibacy, the priestly life is bound to be a pretty unhappy one.

clear about the discipline, but not the motivations

The seminary program that I attended was quite clear about the fact that no change to the Church’s requirement of priestly celibacy should be expected anytime soon. But apparently a number of guys entertained that illusion. And, as I remember it, although we were told not to expect any change in this regard, there was very little in the way of presentations that highlighted the beauty and prophetic witness of celibacy. I clearly remember a rector’s conference about priestly vocations in which we spent more than a half hour examining the statistics about the decreasing number of vocations in the U.S. and about how, with the number of priests reaching retirement age, even with a recent upswing in the number of newly ordained men, the Church would still be facing a growing deficit. After painting this grim picture, the rector gave a brief presentation about priestly celibacy, in which he basically just read the canonical requirement that men in the Latin rite are expected to embrace the discipline of priestly celibacy. Not a word about motivations, not a word of encouragement… just a statement of the facts. And then the conference ended. The only really positive, compelling presentation about priestly celibacy that I remember from my days in seminary — and it was an excellent one — was delivered by Archbishop Harry Flynn himself. His talk was not just a pious, spiritual conference, either… he also talked realistically about the challenges and the various real and legitimate human needs that need to be met to live celibacy well. Part of what made the presentation compelling was the integrity of it — Archbishop Flynn clearly loves his priestly vocation and has a great esteem for priestly celibacy. I wish there had been more presentations — and more witnesses — like this. I’ll discuss this more when I get around to discussing the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly formation.

a temporary call to celibacy?

Another memorable incident from my first year of seminary was a session with my seminary-assigned spiritual director about priestly identity. We were having a discussion about celibacy and vocational discernment. In the course of the conversation, this priest told me that he believed that some men in the priesthood had a temporary vocation (to celibacy). I raised an objection, and his response was something to this effect: “Well, then, how do you explain all of my friends and classmates who got ordained and then later left the priesthood to get married?” I was not prepared to respond to this, and frankly, I was pretty upset. The forum of spiritual direction was not the place, I thought, for the directee to have to make a defense of Church discipline, or to come to the defense of men who had decided to leave the priesthood. Without bringing up the particulars of this incident, I went to the director of the spiritual formation program at the time, asking for a new spiritual director. I simply said that things “weren’t working out” and that I would like to try another director. My request was denied. During a visit with the Archbishop, I mentioned my situation and he advised me that, in addition to seeing the seminary-appointed director, I had his permission to go across the street to see a priest at the college seminary who had been my director before entering SPS. I was grateful to Archbishop Flynn for this allowance. I might have done it on my own, but to have his blessing meant a great deal to me. I didn’t want to treat the formation program in a cavalier way, but sometimes things were so crazy that as a seminarian, I felt required to make a choice between compliance with the seminary’s wishes and acquiring the kind of formation the Church was asking for.

Some might think that I’m simply airing my personal grievances, but that is not my point. My point is that the PPF is making a great observation that sound priestly formation is an important aid to clear priestly identity. Of course, it’s very possible for a man to have a clear priestly identity without sound formation… the number of good, healthy priests coming out of the Saint Paul Seminary over the past ten years are an eloquent testimony to this. But I’m not sure if I would credit the seminary for this phenomenon. Trial by fire is not the only way to grow in a sense of one’s vocation.

4 thoughts on “sound priestly formation and clear priestly identity

  1. What ever happened to the idea of celibacy as a gift?I’ve yet to hear this word used to describe celibacy in this current discussion.To suggest that celibacy is something anyone can do if they just work hard at it contradicts the notion that it’s a gift given to some but not to all.For those who feel called to celibacy, I say go for it. It is certainly a path to holiness. But it’s not the only path. Also, we need to remember that one can be chaste without being celibate. Chasity, after all, means purity of heart. All of our relationships – including those that are expressed sexually – should be chaste.Peace,Michael

  2. Tocqueville,You are so right. I am sure that the priestly formation in many seminaries could use improvement. But when I read things like what you have said, I think “Enter LAY formation!” — and this is only one of the reasons. If we had well-formed layfolk, they’d be in a better place no matter where they made/took a vow, seminary, altar, etc. Many, many lay people need to be taught the “how and, much more, why” not only about celibacy but about prayer, faithfulness to the Magisterium, service in the Church / use of their charims, etc. Any rate, thanks for your insight.

  3. I find your reflexion very interesting on that matter, Clayton. I read sometimes here and there that celibacy for priests is impossible and inhuman. Considering many persons who are not particularly inhuman achieve that, I don’t think it is true. But you have to know and understand the deep meaning of this celibacy if you want to manage this situation, instead of just considering it as a kind of middle-age cruel and unusual punishment without any meaning than a pointless tradition. Being chaste, even in today’s oversexed western world, is far from being impossible nor painful, and can be extremely rewarding including for laymen, but you have to be taught how and, much more, why.

  4. Michael,Of course, you’re right… celibacy is a gift, as is a vocation to priesthood.The Second Vatican Council often paired together the concepts of “gift” and “task” — holiness is a gift of the Church, and also a task.And the distinction between chastity and celibacy is a good one. We’re all called to chastity, according to our state in life.For the priest, in the Latin rite, chastity is expressed within the context of a celibate life.

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