November 9, 2018

‘The integrity of their lives’: Demanding program of human formation shapes future priests amid Church crisis

Seminarian Charlie Wessel, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, kneels in prayer on Aug. 11, 2015, in St. Mary Church in New Albany during a pilgrimage taken during the annual archdiocesan seminarian convocation. Human formation programs at seminaries in the archdiocese help prepare men for the challenges of priestly life and ministry today. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

Seminarian Charlie Wessel, a member of St. Simon the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, kneels in prayer on Aug. 11, 2015, in St. Mary Church in New Albany during a pilgrimage taken during the annual archdiocesan seminarian convocation. Human formation programs at seminaries in the archdiocese help prepare men for the challenges of priestly life and ministry today. (File photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Father Benjamin Syberg was ordained in 2014. In the time since then, the 30-year-old priest has served as an associate pastor of a large urban parish, a chaplain for a nearby university and administrator of two small rural parishes.

He’s now the administrator of St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg, a mid-size parish for the archdiocese with more than 700 households that also has a school.

Priests a generation ago might still be at their first assignment as an associate pastor or high school teacher four years after ordination.

That’s not the case today.

That makes all the more crucial the formation that goes on in seminaries where future priests for the archdiocese are currently formed for ordained ministry: Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis and Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

The current clergy sexual abuse crisis that will be the main topic of discussion at the Nov. 12-14 general assembly in Baltimore of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the Church has shined more light on the way men are formed for the priesthood.

This is especially the case with the seminaries’ human formation programs, which seek to help seminarians grow in the self-understanding, emotional maturity and interrelationship skills that will help them be effective in priestly ministry. Human formation also involves preparing a seminarian to live a fulfilling life of celibate chastity.

With the experiences he has had in just four years of priestly ministry, Father Syberg looks back on the human formation he received at Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad and sees how important it was.

“There’s no way that you’d be able to handle the ministry load” without the formation he received, Father Syberg said, noting that, without it “you’re either going to psych yourself out because you’re overwhelmed or you’ll get resentful and won’t bring the joy and life into the many things that we need to do.”

Human formation

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Once a man is accepted as a seminarian and is subsequently accepted as a student at Bishop Bruté or Saint Meinrad, he enrolls there and begins to participate in its formation program.

Priestly formation in the United States is guided by norms established by the bishops of this country, which are based on universal principles set by the Vatican. The “Program for Priestly Formation” (PPF) for seminaries in the U.S. is approved by the Vatican and is updated regularly.

The last time this occurred was in 2005, and the bishops are in the process of updating it again.

There are four spheres of priestly formation identified by the PPF: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.

Although the PPF strives to have all four spheres be interrelated and build off one another, the current clergy sexual abuse crisis has focused more attention on human formation.

Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad’s human formation programs seek to accomplish these goals through formal elements such as formation presentations, one-on-one meetings with formation deans, an annual self-evaluation and psychological counseling. It also takes place informally in the community life shared by seminarians and the formation staff.

Human formation at Bishop Bruté is geared specifically for its college-age student population, says Benedictine Father Justin DuVall, the vice rector of the seminary that currently has 42 seminarians from nine dioceses.

“Like any college student, our seminarians here at Bishop Bruté are dealing with questions of an emerging self-identity,” he said. “They are trying to figure out who they are.

“And so, at an appropriate stage of human development, they are dealing with those dynamics, which, of course, would be different from a man who has finished college and is beginning his theology studies. Not that he, or any of us, is a finished product. But he is at a different place than a college student.”

Father Justin noted that seminarians at Bruté meet one-on-one every two weeks with one of the seminary’s three full‑time priest formation deans, and with their spiritual director at least once every three weeks. All first-year seminarians at Bruté also participate in an interpersonal relationship group of other seminarians led by a licensed clinical social worker. Individual counseling with a psychologist is also available to Bruté seminarians.

Seminarians enroll at Saint Meinrad from a variety of previous life experiences. Some have just graduated from a college seminary. Others may have graduated from college but were not seminarians and have not had any previous priestly formation. Still others may come to Saint Meinrad from working in a job.

The formation staff at the southern Indiana seminary, according to its vice rector Benedictine Father Tobias Colgan, try “to meet the seminarian where he is when he arrives at the seminary, and then help him to become the fullest version of himself—humanly speaking—by the time he finishes his time at the seminary.”

Saint Meinrad currently has 11 priests on staff who live at the seminary with its 116 seminarians from 30 dioceses and nine religious communities.

“This allows for a large amount of common, ordinary, everyday human interaction,” Father Tobias said. “Therefore, a lot of the human formation that takes place in the seminary happens informally, and in the most ordinary places: in the residence halls, in the classrooms, in the dining room, in the recreation areas, at intramural and inter‑seminary sporting events.”

Sexuality in human formation

Saint Meinrad has a series of 30 presentations on human formation that are spread out during the six years of classes at the seminary (four years of theology and two for philosophy for men enrolling who had not previously been seminarians).

“This program was developed in the years following the 2002 sexual abuse crisis,” Father Tobias said, “recognizing the need for a robust and very intentional approach to human formation.”

When Bishop Bruté was founded in 2004, lessons learned in the 2002 clergy sexual abuse crisis were integrated into the way its formation program was developed, said its founding rector, Father Robert Robeson.

“There was a real awareness among the formation staff to the pitfalls that the Church had experienced prior to that time,” said Father Robeson, now pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove. “We were pretty sensitized to any kind of behavior that was indicative of someone who is going to have trouble in terms of their psycho-sexual formation.”

Expectations that seminarians at Saint Meinrad and Bishop Bruté will live a chaste and celibate life are spelled out in each seminary’s student handbook and addressed in presentations by the formation staff and others brought in to speak on the topic.

Father Justin said that these elements help the seminarians at Bruté come to understand their own sexuality in light of their discernment of a vocation of ordained ministry in the Church.

“In a real way, as a priest, and even as a seminarian, they would be the face of the Church to many people,” Father Justin said. “So the integrity of their lives is an important witness to that.”

Father Syberg is grateful for the formation for celibate chastity he received at Saint Meinrad, which involved both formal presentations and workshops, and informal conversations and mutual support among the seminarians and formation staff.

“Saint Meinrad knew that guys worried about celibacy,” he said. “They knew that we worried if we could be celibate, if would we be happy as celibates. I think, more than anything, they wanted their students to be able to articulate those fears and not to pretend that they could do it and handle it. That’s not going to be a healthy approach to celibacy.

“Ask those questions. Be honest with your friends about it, knowing that the other guys around you have those same fears about celibacy. That helps guys realize, ‘OK. I’m going through something that is natural and understandable.’ It leads to a place where celibacy just fits like a glove.”

Community life in human formation

The formal elements of human formation at Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad are designed in part in response to clergy sexual abuse in the Church that occurred in 2002, and to address challenges seminarians face in today’s culture, especially regarding sexuality.

This formation that takes place at seminaries is then built upon through seminarians’ experiences of ministry in parishes, schools and health care facilities.

Formation staff members at both seminaries also noted that the human formation at Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad occurs informally in community life through friendships, shared meals and recreation, adding that this is a significant contribution to the preparation of seminarians for ordained life and ministry.

Looking back on his experience of formation at both seminaries, Father Syberg agrees.

“What I received from my friends, that kind of smoothing out of the rocks, as it were, in living together was life‑changing,” he said. “I matured so much by being with those other men, by growing in a community. That’s not really a cutting-edge idea, but it is still so crucial.”

Father Justin noted the importance of the priests on staff there living in the same building with the seminarians.

“We know these men because we live with them,” he said. “We pray with them. We eat with them. When they’re just sitting around watching a movie, I think any one of us would feel comfortable walking in there and sitting down with them. And I think they’d be comfortable with us doing that.

“It’s a matter of being with them that models for them what that interaction can be, and how it can help them be more well-rounded human beings. That’s really the aim of human formation, to get them to be well-rounded human beings.”

At the same time, Father Justin noted that the distinction between the seminarians and the formation staff, known as “formators,” is maintained.

“We’re friendly to them, but we’re not their friends,” he said. “We’re formators. There are proper boundaries as well. They’re established and well respected. And I think the end result is a happy growth in formation.”

The only thing that Father Syberg would change about the formation he received at Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad is the attitude he had toward it at the time.

“I wish I had realized all the more that I needed to trust my formators more,” he said. “I wish that I had understood that better. The more a seminarian can realize that all his formators want is what’s best for him, the more he can trust them and the better formed he’s going to be.”

But he knows that the formation he received has prepared him to continue to be formed into the priest that God has called him to be.

“When you become a priest, you’re not a finished product,” Father Syberg said. “You’re just beginning. Formation for the priesthood is lifelong.” †

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