Priests and lay women work together every day. The church is finally starting to train them together, too.
Victoria Mastrangelo knew the priest who had started coming to say Mass at the all-girls Catholic school in Houston where she teaches theology. He was a friend of her husband from their time at Holy Trinity Seminary at the University of Dallas. So one day during the 2018-19 school year, when Ms. Mastrangelo greeted the priest upon his arrival before Mass, he had a request. After Mass, he wanted her thoughts on his homily.
“He wasn’t sure how it was going to come off, and he admitted that he’d come up with the idea kind of late, so he was hoping to get some feedback on how it went,” Ms. Mastrangelo recalled. “I know that it was a genuine ask and that he was actually interested in my perspective. It was also encouraging that we were able to have a quick but honest conversation about it and that he seemed to take my feedback well.”
This encounter was not a foreign one for Ms. Mastrangelo. The 32-year-old mother of three girls has numerous friendships with priests that date from before the men’s ordinations. She pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Dallas—where Holy Trinity Seminary educates college seminarians from over a dozen U.S. dioceses—and her master’s degree in theological studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where her classes took place entirely at nearby St. Mary’s Seminary. (The program at St. Thomas is no longer offered jointly.)
“It’s good to have these relationships,” Ms. Mastrangelo told America. The realization that she was studying alongside future members of the local presbyterate, she said, only made her investment in friendship more intentional.
“They need those friendships too,” she said. “Relationality is really huge, and I’ve just seen the fruits of it...how it plays into their ministry.”
Ms. Mastrangelo’s experience received a high-profile endorsement last April, when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, called for the involvement of more women in the process of priestly formation. The cardinal called for “radical change” in how priests and seminarians interact with women.
“There is awkwardness because there is fear—more on the part of the man toward the woman than the woman toward the man,” he said. He said the increased presence of women “would help a candidate interact with women in a natural way.”
Integrated formation models—which most often take the form of men preparing for the priesthood sharing classrooms and even degree programs with men and women pursuing vocations in lay ministry—are one way to foster such encounters. Part of the larger trend of greater lay involvement and leadership in the church following the Second Vatican Council, such programming is not new in the United States. In fact, a visitation of seminaries in the United States conducted under Vatican supervision in the early 2000s cited U.S. seminaries for too much commingling, saying that problems arise “when the seminary aims at offering a theological education to all—seminarians and laity—for, unless proper safeguards are put in place, the seminary can lose much of its finality, which is to offer a specifically priestly formation to men chosen by the Church to embark on the path to Holy Orders.”
The cardinal called for “radical change” in how priests and seminarians interact with women.
The guiding U.S. document, the “Program of Priestly Formation, Fifth Edition,” promulgated in 2006, also stresses the specific character and goal of forming priests, as opposed to lay ministers. But proponents of integrated formation programs see these models as in keeping with the document’s call for priestly formation to prepare men to serve a pastoral role in the wider church. (The U.S. bishops voted to approve a sixth edition of the program in 2019, though the document has not yet been promulgated.)
Institutions that embrace integrated models of formation represent a major postconciliar development in the wider church. The human formation provided in their programs, the leaders of these institutions assert, results not only in healthier, more well-rounded priests but also helps advance the vision of Vatican II. They also lead to greater empowerment of women and laypeople more generally and can even help root out sicknesses in the culture of the church that ultimately manifest themselves in abuse.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., sees a “better benefit to having a more robust theological education if you have everyone mixed.” The 52-year-old bishop told America it is “so much” healthier to have men studying around other people, men and women alike.
Before being named a bishop in 2018, then-Father McKnight served on the faculty and administration of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio (2003-8) and as executive director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2010-15), where he collaborated with church leaders from around the country on questions of priestly formation.
Bishop McKnight notes a key distinction: Integrated formation is much more common at the college seminary level than at the graduate level. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, of the 452 U.S. seminarians enrolled in some kind of pre-theology program in the 2018-19 academic year, 114 were at either collaborative college seminaries or formation houses on college campuses.
At 18 years of age, “you’re still trying to figure out life. You’re trying to figure out who God’s calling you to be,” said Brian Ching, C.S.C., the director of the Old College Undergraduate Seminary and rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame.
Father Ching notes that college is a normal time for young people to integrate healthy behaviors into all aspects of life: sleep, diet, relationships and other life lessons. He adds that the experience of an actual college campus breaks the illusion of some kind of Catholic utopia. The goal, he notes, is not to inoculate men from the world, but to condition them.
“It’s easier to be merciful,” said Father Ching, “when you’re the kid who made the mistake.”
Father Ching is also a graduate of the master of divinity program at Moreau Seminary at Notre Dame, where he studied alongside laypeople.
The goal is not to inoculate men from the world, but to condition them.
“There’s a richness that comes from having our guys study in a university,” said John Herman, C.S.C., the superior and rector of Moreau Seminary. “They’re hearing what men and women, lay men and women, who will be serving in the church as a whole—what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling.”
Some 150 miles south of Notre Dame, the Rev. Joe Moriarty, rector of Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary at Marian University in Indianapolis, Ind., embraces the milieu a college campus provides, especially activities sponsored by campus ministry, which include mission trips that provide students the opportunity to encounter those at the peripheries.
“Those opportunities abound,” Father Moriarty said. “I let them do as much as they want, because they’re choosing to do it.”
Father Ching notes that 40 years ago, the prevailing mentality in seminary formation would have been to “protect the formation,” that is, to keep a seminarian away from women so that “he doesn’t know what he’s missing” or feel temptation. “That’s not the way to protect the vocation,” Father Ching said; rather, the process should involve “allowing [a] seminarian to know himself, to understand himself” and know that what celibacy demands is achievable.
One former seminarian who discovered his vocation on a college campus is Victoria Mastrangelo’s husband, Joseph. Now the owner of a coffee roasting business that helps farmers become more financially sustainable, Mr. Mastrangelo initially discerned a possible vocation to the priesthood at Holy Spirit Seminary at the University of Dallas. There he realized that his extroverted nature, which thrived in a campus setting, would never adjust to the relative isolation of administering a parish or even multiple parishes.
“My leaving diocesan seminary definitely shocked a lot of people,” he recalled. “I mean, it shocked me.”
He eventually moved back to Houston and entered parish ministry, where he met his future wife.
Conversely, Nick Rivelli, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, discovered his vocation to the priesthood as a student on the campus of Marian University. Father Moriarty was transitioning from chaplain to seminary rector during Mr. Rivelli’s first year. “Being at daily Mass with him kind of planted the seeds of the call,” Mr. Rivelli recalled. He started to discern his vocation as a sophomore and switched over to seminary studies as a junior.
“They really just seemed like normal guys,” Mr. Rivelli recalled of the seminarians he had encountered prior to pursuing his call. “I was able to thrive and advance in my formation by being connected at the university,” he said, and since that time has “maintained those relationships that were important to me.”
According to CARA, in the United States only five theologates—that is, seminary schools of theology—enrolled at least one seminarian and one lay candidate in a pontifical degree program in the 2019-20 academic year. When the list was widened to include all institutions providing priestly and lay ministry formation, the number grew closer to 20.
Stacey Noem and her husband were the first married couple to complete the master of divinity program at Moreau together. A few more have done so since. Ms. Noem oversees the human and spiritual formation for lay students in the program, a position she has held for eight years.
“There are universal human truths…. We have a bedrock to stand on,” Ms. Noem said of her work in formation and the principles she draws from even as the Catholic Church figures out how roles and titles are supposed to work as more lay people move into ministry. “That’s real colleagueship that’s happening…. There’s no second-class citizenship here.”
One person Ms. Noem has reached out to in order to understand lay formation is Jacqueline Regan, associate dean for student affairs at the School of Theology and Ministry of Boston College
“I think that people naturally, when they think of Catholic ministers, think of priests,” Ms. Regan said of her work, even though the school is about 70 percent lay in its enrollment. “While we don’t want to diminish the role of the priest, we recognize that that’s not the only role that matters.”
The School of Theology and Ministry serves Jesuits, Capuchins, Basilians, Redemptorists and other religious orders. Its students are also 25 percent to 30 percent international, an attribute of other integrated programs, including those at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.
“Our model...is the fruit of a 50-year commitment by the Jesuits,” she said, growing out of Vatican II, to bring ordained, religious and lay ministers together as collaborators in ministry.
While we don’t want to diminish the role of the priest, we recognize that that’s not the only role that matters.
At the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif., Christopher Hadley, S.J., director of the master of divinity program, said lay students are “able to reflect in a safe spot with other lay students and with Jesuits and with lay professors on their experiences” on field placements and other issues as they discern their ministry vocations. Ultimately, they find that differences in the church exist “for relationship, not power.”
Ms. Noem at Notre Dame points to the development of the church’s language when describing the mission of laypeople, from Vatican II’s use of collaborator and later coworker to the present co-responsibility.
“Lumen Gentium” included several paragraphs on laypeople, and Pope John Paul II’s 1992 exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” talks about professional lay collaborators with ordained ministers for the first time. And the U.S.C.C.B.’s 2005 “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord” uses the noun minister to refer to laypeople for the first time.
“It takes much more maturity and skill to share power,” Ms. Noem said, noting that her students “get to practice what it looks like to share power…. They get to be in class together. They get to learn and grow in shift together. They build trust.”
“Vatican II was a culturally transformative council…. Seminary cultures haven’t integrated [it] completely,” Bishop McKnight acknowledged. “We just need to keep moving forward, but very carefully,” he added, noting that teaching co-responsibility at the parish level will require catechesis.
Kathleen Mitchell, F.S.P.A., has witnessed these growing pains firsthand through her work in formation at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary. In recent years, the seminary has instituted the Tolton Teaching Parish Program, in which seminarians are assigned to parishes in the area and even receive feedback from parishioners on how they are doing.
“They couldn’t believe they were being asked to do this,” Sister Mitchell recalled. “It was such an honor for these people to be able to support in some way these seminarians.”
Sometimes institutions are slow to foster encounters between seminarians and other students not because of internal resistance but because of logistics.“It’s not as simple as it sounds,” said Father Ching on his experiences at Notre Dame, noting that stand-alone seminaries face the prospect of having to start a whole new school in order to bring lay people on campus.
This is magnified in a space like the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh, Pa., which welcomes laypeople and Christians of other denominations. “We’re very small in number,” said Father Robert Pipta, the rector of the seminary. “We’re only going to have so much of an audience.” But this does not mean the seminary overlooks the value of having women in the formation process. “Women are considered a very valuable component of formation—both in consecrated life and laywomen,” said Father Pipta.
The Impact of Women
People who witness the role of women in priestly formation believe strongly in the benefits. “Women bring a whole other sense. I don’t think it’s healthy to be in a male-only world,” said Sister Mitchell at Mundelein. “God willing, these men are going to spend their lives serving women and working with women.” She cites the efforts of the rector, the Rev. John Kartje, to hire more women.
At the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Julie Hanlon Rubio, a professor of Christian ethics, sees her role not only as a woman in authority but someone who has a positive impact because of the feminist theologians she uses in her teaching. She explains how these theologians have questioned the church’s stress on the sin of pride.
“I want priests in the confessional to know that for some women, sin may lie more in a failure of self-care and self-realization than in undue focus on the self,” Ms. Rubio said. On questions of family life, she added, “like many married theologians, I approach family with a much broader set of questions, including how families can live out the values of Catholic social thought in their daily lives. My students have told me that this approach was very helpful for their future ministry.”
Patricia Parachini, S.N.J.M., who has spent 40 years in seminary formation work, noted that “[s]eminarians who are gay, in my experience, were very open about it with the women…but were not open with their male spiritual directors.” One reason for this, she said, is that “the women who are spiritual directors are trained to be spiritual directors,” as opposed to male directors, for whom ordination is often presumed to be sufficient training.
I don’t think it’s healthy to be in a male-only world.
Nick Rivelli, who has completed his undergraduate work at Bruté and is continuing his studies at St. Meinrad School of Theology in southern Indiana, calls one of the campus ministry staff at Marian University, Krista Chinchilla, “one of the most formational and empowering mentors for me these past two years.” He credits her with awakening him to social justice issues to a degree he would not have appreciated otherwise. “That flame has been stoked and nourished through that mentor relationship,” he said.
“It was just fun to work with Nick and hear and have challenging conversations with him about issues of justice, about vocation, about church, about faith, about leadership,” said Ms. Chinchilla. “All of that is empowering, being able to have a voice and be able to dialogue and be valued.”
She sees her influence on Mr. Rivelli as an unpacking of the unique nature of laypeople as articulated in “Lumen Gentium.” She notes that this has implications for priests too. “They’re the ones who will be shepherding people like me, in communication with people like me,” she said, adding that Jesus was “deeply entrenched in the people,” including women.
“We’re giving them the ability to talk to different people and have different kinds of relationships,” said Ms. Mastrangelo in Houston, Tex.
Into the Light
Proponents of integrated formation models not only see them as helpful for bringing future priests into encounter with the wider church and the world beyond it; they also see their value in helping move the church out of the shadow of the abuse crisis. Father Ching at Notre Dame has seen a renewed push for it in the wake of the horrific revelations of 2018.
Ms. Noem at Notre Dame said that “a community that has a personal and professional stake in one another” has license to speak into one another’s lives; nobody gets to be quiet. She added, “This is a bridge of trust that stays intact,” that church authorities do not have to over-program to affect transformation. “Train people together…. It will fix things from the inside.”
“There’s no shortage of vocations,” Ms. Regan said of her energized lay students at Boston College. “Some of the structures just aren’t quite there yet.” However, she added, after an explosion of growth in the 1990s, lay ministry fell back after the crisis in 2002 because many parishes could not afford to employ them. “The growth of lay ministry was kind of collateral damage,” she said. “The focus became on the ordained.”
That is not to say focusing on ordination is without value. Msgr. Michael Heintz, seminary academic dean at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., sees the practical side of focusing on seminarians by themselves.
“Their needs and priorities are going to look a little different,” said Monsignor Heintz, citing examples of preparing them to give homilies and to live celibate chastity. “I wouldn’t advocate that we need to radically transform seminary formation in that regard.”
Mount St. Mary’s is an integrated university environment, with the seminary offering a master’s program open to lay students. Monsignor Heintz previously worked as director of the M.Div. program at Notre Dame, so he recognizes that priests need to be men who are comfortable with the gifts of laypeople. “They need to realize that the life that they don’t lead is good and beautiful,” he said.
Clericalism “has been in the walls of seminaries,” Bishop McKnight said. “Like racism, you’re not aware of it…. We don’t always recognize it.”
Father Hadley in Berkeley notes that a defining moment for him occurred when laywomen in his program asked to take his theology and spirituality of priesthood course, which had been reserved only to seminarians. “If we’re going to be working alongside priests professionally, we need this knowledge,” they argued.
“It was tense and embarrassing,” Father Hadley said of the pain of seeing his own clericalism. “I had to fight against that within myself.” However, he notes, it was a great success. “It really enriched the conversation…. Everybody got a sense of how ordained ministry fits within the baptismal priesthood.”
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