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Colleen DulleJune 24, 2024
Father Chuck Dornquast, vocations director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., celebrates Mass at the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors' 60th annual convention at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y., Aug. 29, 2023. Some 250 participants from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Germany, Italy and Australia attended the Aug. 28-Sept. 1 gathering. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Near the end of the month-long meeting of the Synod on Synodality in Rome last October, Pope Francis surprised the assembly by speaking out against something about which he had grown increasingly concerned throughout the synod’s discussions: clericalism. The pope had spent most of his time at the assembly simply listening, perhaps because he was aware of his outsized influence in the room. On Oct. 25, he took to the microphone to deliver a discourse on the church as “the holy, faithful people of God,” who learn a simple faith from their “mothers and grandmothers.” He reminded the bishops and priests present that they “come from this people” and denounced those who “disfigure the face of the church with machismo and dictatorial attitudes.”

“It is enough,” he added, taking aim at a group he sees as exemplifying this attitude, “to go into the ecclesiastical tailor shops in Rome to see the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats, or albs and lace robes.”

Pope Francis is not alone in his concern about young priests. The synod’s final document expresses concern about “formalism and ideology that lead to authoritarian attitudes” in ordained ministers. Newspaper stories about young “trad” priests coming into U.S. parishes and doing away with Vatican II-era hymns in favor of Latin prayers, Gregorian chant and thuribles full of incense are not uncommon. And as the church works to transition to more synodal models, in which a priest shares responsibility with the laity, synod meetings—including the recent meeting of around 200 parish priests outside Rome—have repeatedly called for changes in how priests are formed in seminaries.

Any discussion of how seminaries might change, though, must begin with understanding what seminaries are like now: a part of the church that affects every Catholic but that few of us ever see. For a special “Deep Dive” episode of America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast that was released in April, our team interviewed seminary rectors, students, professors, psychologists and other experts across North America to get a full understanding of seminary formation today and the major changes it has undergone in recent decades.

Who Is in Seminary Today?

The typical diocesan seminarian today begins seminary while in his early 20s, after finishing college and, in many cases, having acquired some work experience. While the decades immediately after the Second Vatican Council saw an increase in seminarians in their 30s, 40s and 50s, older seminary students are less common today. At the same time, according to Thomas Gaunt, S.J., executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which assembled the data cited here, most men now enter with degrees in a wide range of fields.

“We have degrees in business, in finance, in English literature, a whole variety of areas that I think, ultimately, is enriching to the church,” Father Gaunt said.

The Rev. Ricard Veras, the director of pastoral formation at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, N.Y., said that while 20 years ago most men came to seminary because of their experience in their parishes, these days most men are inspired by their experience with campus ministry or lay movements. “They want to bring to the parish [context] whatever it is that gave them so much life, [inspired by] whatever sector of the church brought about a conversion or a reversion or something that makes their faith more profound,” Father Veras said.

The men come from racial and ethnic backgrounds that generally reflect the Catholic Church in the United States, including in that more and more of them were born outside the United States. It typically takes about a decade for the seminary population to reflect a numerical increase in a particular group of immigrants to the United States, Father Gaunt explained.

While students are more diverse in some ways, there are signs that they are becoming less diverse in others. A 2023 study of Catholic priests in the United States by The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America found that younger priests increasingly self-identify as politically and theologically “conservative.”

The Rev. Joshua Rodrigue, rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, said he sees more “traditional-minded” seminarians now than when he began working in seminaries 17 years ago. His former classmate, the Rev. Paul Hoesing, who is now the rector of Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St. Louis, Mo., agrees. Father Hoesing said some of that shift comes from a desire for “clear guidance from the church’s teaching.”

“I think if there’s a lot of ambiguity, if there’s a lot of gray, the men tend to shy away a bit. So part of the work of our formation is to help the men learn how to live with ambiguity and gray in a way that’s healthy,” Father Hoesing said.

Asked to paint a psychological picture of today’s seminarian, Maribel Rodriguez Laguna, a Dallas-based counseling psychologist who works as a therapist to seminarians, said: “If you get a pulse read on the young adult community in your local diocese, if you pick out two or three men from there, that’s the profile. They’re just like every other young adult.”

Ms. Laguna said the key psychological issues she helps seminarians work through are dysfunctional family relationships; technology addictions, including struggles with pornography; conflict management and navigating difficult conversations and relationships with authority, especially in an environment like the seminary, where students are constantly being evaluated not only on their academic performance but on their personal growth.

She said she has seen, in particular, the consequences of “snowplow parenting,” a trend of aiming to remove obstacles and discomfort from children’s paths to ensure their success. “This creates a lot of problems. We have young men who sometimes don’t even know practical skills, like how to balance a budget, how to save [money], how to do laundry, how to make their bed,” Ms. Laguna said.

She added that the relational issues she sees in young adults seem to be the result of “overexposure to devices” like iPhones.

Big Changes to Seminary

The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have taken some steps to address these problems, but implementing many of those changes has taken until this past academic year. In December 2016, the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy issued a new version of its “Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis,” the document of standards for seminary formation around the world, which had last been updated in 1985. Although the 2016 revision was primarily covered in the press forbarring gay men from entering seminary, it also laid out a radically different approach to priestly formation: one focused on a seminarian’s “human formation.”

Human formation, in the seminary context, is a broad term that includes getting caught up on practical skills like those Ms. Laguna mentioned, along with attending counseling or therapy to work through any issues that could negatively affect a priest’s ministry. Ms. Laguna has found that, like most young adults, seminarians are very open to attending counseling and therapy. Father Hoesing connected that willingness to the sexual abuse crisis, which has shaped the church through seminarians’ entire lives.

“When they apply to seminary, they lay it all out there. They’re not hiding. They’re not trying to dodge things. They’re very upfront about their family history, their psychosexual history, their dating history, because they saw the scandals of the church and they [learned], you’re only as sick as your secrets,” Father Hoesing said. “And so I think they are very self-revelatory because they want to be healthy and they want to be part of a healthy response.”

The key change brought about by the new “Ratio Fundamentalis” was the institution of a “propaedeutic stage,” a sort of discernment period of one to two years in which men entering seminary first live in a community separate from the rest of the seminary, do minimal or no coursework, and focus on their human formation and relationship with God. (They can also use this time to make up for any gaps in their general education.)

The Vatican’s 2016 guidance had to be adapted by each bishops’ conference, and each adaptation then had to be approved by the Vatican. This meant the U.S.C.C.B. had to revise its “Program of Priestly Formation,” which had last been updated in 2006. That adaptation was officially published in 2022, with instructions that it take effect in the 2023-24 academic year.

In the United States, the propaedeutic stage lasts, almost without exception, a year. At the two seminaries whose propaedeutic programs were profiled in America’s podcast “Inside the Vatican”—Kenrick-Glennon in St. Louis and Notre Dame in New Orleans—all men in the propaedeutic stage attend counseling and have therapy available to them. Their access to social media is limited and they spend much of their time doing manual labor on the seminary grounds, reading or studying and building relationships with one another.

That “digital detox” is particularly urgent because of how polarizing some of the online content related to Catholicism can be. “Addressing the ‘parallel formation’ (sometimes referred to as ‘shadow formation’) that can happen online is a constant struggle,” Father Rodrigue, the New Orleans seminary rector, wrote in an email interview. He said that while blogs used to be the “go-to” for seminarians, influencers on YouTube including the sedevacantist Taylor Marshall and the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson are now more popular.

Other videos recommended by YouTube tend to have “similar-minded viewpoints and can limit the discussion and fuller understanding of an issue or topic or provide for erroneous content. Many tend to be more conservative outlets,” Father Rodrigue wrote. He said that Notre Dame Seminary conscientiously tries to teach seminarians to see multiple viewpoints on ecclesiastical issues.

The two seminaries take different approaches to the involvement of men in their propadeutic year in the wider community outside the seminary: At Notre Dame, according to Nick Smith, a participant in the program, “The seminary is kind of a time away, to get filled up so that you can go out.” In St. Louis, Father Hoesing said, “We do have them going out to the neighborhood, meeting our neighbors, learning how to engage people conversationally. We’re developing a social acumen with these men that we haven’t seen in previous groups because they’re so available humanly and personally because of that [digital] detox.” (At Kenrick-Glennon, first-year students have access to their phones for only four hours on Saturdays and do not have computers.)

Mr. Smith, 30, a member of Notre Dame’s first propaedeutic class, has mixed feelings about the program’s isolation from the community. “I think it is tough not to be engaged with the day-to-day faithful,” Mr. Smith said, “I think I would prefer to be with the people that I’m going to serve one day.” At the same time, he added, “the seminary has a sort of spiritual quiet to it that has definitely influenced my closeness to the Lord.”

As for the other aspects of human formation, Mr. Smith said he has benefited from spiritual direction and that he and the 13 other men in his class have come to look forward to their weekly group counseling sessions. “It is an opportunity to share difficult moments through the course of the week, especially specific struggles for new seminarians, such as, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I can make this commitment for my whole life.’ ‘Gosh, I miss my old life. I kind of want to go back’…. I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve said something or somebody else said something, and the rest of the class went, ‘Yes, me too.’”

The other change to come out of the 2022 Program for Priestly Formation was a restructuring of the stages of seminary formation from their previous academic labels (“philosophy” and “theology”) to the more encompassing names “discipleship,” “configuration” and “vocational synthesis.” (Philosophy became discipleship; theology, configuration; and the stage after diaconal ordination, vocational synthesis.)

Each new stage includes certain human formation benchmarks the men are required to meet; seminarians are evaluated both through one-to-one self-evaluation conversations and consultations with a man’s professors, counselors and, sometimes, members of the parish he is working in on weekends.

“In the beginning stage, you’re going to look for a man who’s growing in self-awareness and coming out of self-preoccupation,” Father Hoesing said. “So his relationality increases and his friendships deepen. That’s the propaedeutic stage.”

In the discipleship stage, “his self-awareness moves into some areas of weakness and things that weren’t the way he would have wanted them to be, humanly. And so he grows in self-acceptance, and self-acceptance is saying: ‘Yeah, I have that. That’s part of my story.’”

Father Hoesing places much value on a man’s ability to tell his own story. If a seminarian cannot tell his story without gaps or “paucity,” he said, this is a sign the man may not be ready to move to the next stage.

“In the configuration stage, the man really moves into self-possession. He knows who he is, and he’s happy about who he is…. He accepts his strengths and weaknesses in peace and serenity and joy. And then he can give himself really generously, and that’s where he is headed in a priestly life.”

The ultimate goal is to prepare the men to be able to build strong and healthy relationships with their parishioners, Father Hoesing said. Building those relationships, getting comfortable with one’s own story and learning to listen to others can be antidotes to the problems of polarization and clericalism.

“We want our men to enter into the presbyterate easily assignable. That is, you could work in a high school, you could work in a wealthy parish, an inner-city parish, a rural parish. A bishop could send you anywhere and you could thrive. Why? Because there are people there,” Father Hoesing said.

What the Synod Wants to Change

While many of the changes outlined in the revised documents on priestly formation are starting to be implemented in seminaries, it will take years for the men in Nick Smith’s class to be ordained and more before many begin working as pastors. Even beyond these steps toward forming well-rounded priests who are perhaps less “rigid,” as Pope Francis has often critiqued young priests, and more comfortable with the “gray areas” in which most Catholics live, though, the synod is challenging seminaries to go even further.

The final document from the October 2023 synod gathering in Rome called for “extensive discussion and consideration” of again revising formation programs, this time with an eye toward forming priests in synodality. It specifically called for seminaries to “remain connected to the daily life of the community” rather than creating “an artificial environment separate from the ordinary life of the faithful.”

Part of how that could be done, they proposed, would be by including “a range of members of the People of God,” particularly women, in formation programs. “Women’s access to formation programs and theological study needs to be considerably expanded. We suggest that women should also be integrated into seminary teaching and training programs to foster better formation for ordained ministry,” the synod wrote.

The degree to which women are currently involved in seminary formation varies widely by seminary. At Notre Dame in New Orleans, there are currently no female professors, although there have been some in the past. In other seminaries, especially those run by religious orders, female students study alongside men who are training for the priesthood. The assistant dean for academic affairs at St. Augustine Seminary in Toronto, Josephine Lombardi, has taught numerous classes at the seminary and now works as assistant dean alongside women who are full-time faculty members.

“If [students] come from an environment where they’ve only been taught by men, maybe they were at another [seminary] where all the faculty were men, I find sometimes they may have greater difficulty being open to our role as women,” Dr. Lombardi said. “But I think if right from the get-go, they see a woman who’s already in a position of leadership, a woman who has influence, who’s respected by her colleagues, consulted by her colleagues, that sets the tone for a seminary.”

The synod also urged the establishment of joint formation programs in each diocese for laypeople, consecrated people and ordained ministers to study together.

Finally, the synod assembly called for a global consultation of people “responsible for the initial and ongoing formation of priests” to happen before its next meeting, in October 2024. The consultation, it wrote, would address how the current synodal process is being received among priests and seminarians and propose changes “that will promote the exercise of authority in a style appropriate to a synodal church.”

None of the sources America consulted in North American seminaries or in the Vatican knew whether such a process was underway, but it seems unlikely, given the dearth of news on a possible consultation, that one will happen before the next assembly. The Vatican did, however, announce the creation of 10 study groups focused on questions that emerged in the synod, with one focused on a possible revision of the “Ratio Fundamentalis.” That revision could involve a consultation similar to what was called for, but its work will not be completed until summer 2025. Notably, the synod meeting of around 200 parish priests that was held outside Rome in late April and early May this year called repeatedly for seminarians to be formed in synodal leadership.

The “Inside the Vatican” team asked the professors and rectors what they would say if they were consulted about ways to form a synodal church. Echoing what synod meetings have consistently said, the professors and rectors said that synodality needs to be more clearly defined and better understood. They also overwhelmingly spoke about the importance of exposure for the men: exposure to women, to laypeople and to people from backgrounds different from their own.

The Rev. Deogratias Esika, a Ugandan priest who attended Notre Dame in New Orleans, now teaches there and was previously vice-rector there. He explained, “Many of our seminarians come from upper-middle-class families, and so they don’t have any experience of poverty or vulnerabilities, what Pope Francis is talking about, all the different people on the margins. I know in our program, we expose them to that, but [we should] be more intentional about making sure that every seminarian has had these experiences.”

“As part of the formation, they should be required to have diverse experiences of the lives of people that they’re going to serve…of the life of divorced and remarried parishioners, of same-sex couples, of immigrants, of poor people,” he said. He suggested that, as a parallel to Pope Francis’ requirement that all Vatican diplomats first serve in mission territories, seminarians should do something similar.

“I would even add (maybe this might be too extreme) seminarians in the U.S. could do three months in a mission country, to be in a parish where they don’t have a church, they’re having Mass under a tree,” he said, adding this could help push back against some seminarians’ more formal liturgical tastes.

Ultimately, though, a synodal vision for the priesthood will not be actualized through negatives, defining itself as against clericalism or against rigidity. What is needed is a positive and vibrant definition of what a synodal priest is.

As synod spiritual director Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., said at the October meeting, “I think many diocesan priests have found this [emphasis against clericalism] alarming because it does seem to undermine a fundamental element of their identity. So I think what we have to do, or the church has to do, is also find a way of sharing a positive view of the diocesan priesthood, of how belonging to the diocesan priesthood is something beautiful and wonderful and fraternal.”

To that end, after much discussion of synodality, I asked Father Hoesing, the St. Louis seminary rector, for his definition of a synodal priest. He said, “A synodal priest would be a discerning presence. Wherever he’s sent, he welcomes input from everyone. He’s eager to hear from everyone. And he discerns with the Holy Spirit, with the heart of the church, on his next steps, his actions. He’s doing it with the people, not against, or making stands on his own…. I’d say he’s a listener and he’s a discerner par excellence.”

Delaney Coyne contributed reporting to this article.

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