Pope Francis is concerned about the formation candidates for the priesthood are receiving and is well aware that all is not well behind the walls of seminaries in some countries, and also in Rome, sources say.
The Argentine pope knows there is a tendency in some seminaries to return to a pre-Vatican II style of formation and way of thinking, sources confirm. He’s cognizant of the fact that in seminaries in a number of countries, and in some national colleges in Rome, young men openly, and with a sense of pride, identify themselves as “John Paul II seminarians” or “Benedict XVI seminarians.”
Some ambassadors to the Holy See have drawn my attention to this too and asked: “What kind of priests will these men be when they go to work in parishes or take other posts of responsibility in the church?”
Seminaries are the formation centers for future priests and bishops, and what happens there is crucial for the future of the church, so in this week’s Vatican Dispatch I will take a first glance at what Pope Francis has done and is doing in this area.
In the last year of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, Mauro Piacenza, 69, then the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who was a disciple of the late Cardinal Siri of Genoa and of a decidedly “conservative” mind-set, like his mentor, won his battle to bring the seminaries of the world under the control of his congregation. The move took place in January 2013. Before that date, seminaries had been under the Congregation for Catholic Education.
It was a short-lived victory, however. On Sept. 21, 2013, six months after the election of Pope Francis, the new pope, in a highly significant reforming move, transferred Piacenza from that important post to the office of Major Penitentiary and replaced him with Archbishop (now cardinal) Beniamino Stella, a Holy See diplomat who was then head of the Vatican’s academy for diplomats.
At the same time Pope Francis brought in from Mexico Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, the 56-year-old bishop of Papantla, a pastor very much in the pope’s own mold, and appointed him to the newly created post of secretary for seminaries in the Congregation for the Clergy. It was the clearest indication yet that Pope Francis wanted to give high priority to the formation of seminarians and of course, with Stella, to the clergy and their permanent formation.
On Oct. 3, addressing the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Clergy, Pope Francis zoned in on three topics: vocation, formation and evangelization. He described a vocation as “a treasure hidden in a field,” which has to be “discovered.” God calls some people to follow him and serve him in the ordained ministry, “but we must do our part, which is the response of the man, of the church to the gift of God.” Bishops must discern carefully when accepting candidates for the priesthood; failure to do this can have disastrous consequences for the people of God, as can be seen in some dioceses today, he said.
“It’s necessary to study well the course of a vocation! Examine well if it’s from the Lord, if that man is healthy, if he is balanced, if that man is capable of giving life, of evangelizing, if that man is capable of forming a family and of renouncing this to follow Jesus,” he insisted.
It is necessary to safeguard and help the vocation grow so that it may bear mature fruit, he insisted.
Vocations are “rough diamonds” that “have to be worked on with care, with respect for the conscience of persons and with patience, so that they may shine in the midst of the people of God,” the pope said.
“Formation is therefore not a unilateral act through which someone transmits theological or spiritual notions,” he said. “Jesus did not say to those he called: ‘Come and I will explain’; ‘Follow me; I will instruct you.’ No! The formation offered by Christ to his disciples came instead through a ‘Come and follow me’; ‘Do as I do.’
“That is the method that the church wishes to adopt today for its ministers,” Pope Francis stated. “The formation we speak of is an experience of discipleship, which brings one close to Christ and allows one to conform oneself ever more to him.” It concerns the seminarian’s intellectual, human and spiritual development. Moreover, “every vocation is for mission...for evangelization.”
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio always gave great attention to the formation and accompaniment of seminarians. As pope he is doing likewise.