September 16, 2022

Seminaries begin implementing new Program of Priestly Formation

Transitional Deacon Jack Wright, right, an archdiocesan seminarian, blesses the room of new seminarian Quinton Thomas of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., on Aug. 19 at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

Transitional Deacon Jack Wright, right, an archdiocesan seminarian, blesses the room of new seminarian Quinton Thomas of the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., on Aug. 19 at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad. (Photo courtesy of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)

By Sean Gallagher

The basic mission of seminaries across the U.S. is to form men to be effective parish priests. These seminaries, including Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis and Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, follow documents of the Second Vatican Council in carrying out this mission.

But societies and cultures around the world have changed greatly in the 60 years since the council began in 1962.

In response to these changes, the Church regularly updates its norms for priestly formation so that those who are ordained are best positioned to share the Gospel in parish communities.

Starting this fall, seminaries across the U.S., including Bishop Bruté and Saint Meinrad Seminary, are beginning to implement a new edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF). It was developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) with guidance from the Vatican.

For several years, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson has served on the bishops’ committee that oversees the development of the new PPF.

It has taken several years to bring it to completion because of the many levels of review it has undergone. Other bishops’ committees have reviewed it and offered suggested edits, as has the entire body of the USCCB. Then, drafts of the document were sent for review to the Vatican.

“It’s clear that the Holy See is concerned about priestly formation around the world, as it should be,” said Archbishop Thompson. “We have to make sure that we’re doing good, solid formation of holy priests for the sake of the Church, for the well-being of all involved, for good preaching, the proper celebration of the sacraments, for pastoral care, for proper administration, for every aspect of the Church.”

Father Eric Augenstein, archdiocesan director of seminarians, spoke with The Criterion about these changes, emphasizing that the new PPF overall focuses on the principles of “gradualism and integration.”

“Gradualism is the concept that seminary formation happens gradually over a period of time,” he said. “And you go deeper over time. It’s not something that can happen quickly.

“Integration has to do with the integration of the four dimensions of priestly formation—human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual formation.”

In the past, where a seminarian was at in his priestly formation was simply described by the year he was in and where he was at, such as “first year college” or “third theology.”

Terminology introduced by the new PPF emphasizes the goal of each stage of priestly formation. There are four stages of formation in the new PPF: propaedeutic, discipleship, configuration and vocational synthesis. The four dimensions of priestly formation in the new PPF are those included in previous editions: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.

“The goal of priestly formation is to form men who are in the likeness of Jesus Christ for service in the Church and the world,” Father Augenstein said.

“It flows from a personal relationship with Jesus. Priestly formation is really founded in discipleship, becoming first a disciple of Jesus Christ. Then, once you are a true disciple, you can be configured to Christ the priest.”

The propaedeutic stage is for one year and applies to either men entering into their first year of college seminary, or the first year of priestly formation for those who have earned a bachelor’s degree but did not attend a college seminary.

During that year, the focus is on the human and spiritual dimensions of formation. Those in college seminaries may take a limited number of general education courses. But the only classes related to the Catholic faith they can take are basic level Scripture or catechism courses.

The development of the propaedeutic stage, said Father Augenstein, is, in part, a response to deficiencies in catechesis some new seminarians may have experienced as children or teenagers.

“It’s trying to make sure that all of our seminarians have a basic understanding of what the Church teaches and believes, recognizing that, when they come into seminary, they’re inconsistent in their background in the faith,” said Father Augenstein of the propaedeutic stage.

Saint Meinrad launched its version of it in August. It includes four archdiocesan seminarians.

“The propaedeutic year offers someone to be really grounded in his faith and personal spiritual life before moving into the other dimensions of formation,” said Benedictine Father Denis Robinson, rector of Saint Meinrad.

The men in the propaedeutic program at Saint Meinrad largely live in a community apart from the rest of the seminarians with its own chapel and dining hall.

“They’re not doing the same things day after day that the other men are doing,” said Father Denis. “While they will have some ministry experience, that’s not the focus of their formation. It’s not a pastoral or even an intellectual focus. It’s a spiritual and human focus.”

While Bishop Bruté will not begin its propaedeutic stage until next year, Father Andrew Syberg, the seminary’s vice rector, says human and spiritual formation offered for many years at the archdiocesan college seminary has anticipated the changes of the new PPF.

“We hammer human formation over and over and over until we’re blue in the face, until the seminarians say, ‘Yes. We get it. Human formation,’ ” said Father Syberg. “The propaedeutic year really focuses in like a laser on human and spiritual formation.”

Father Augenstein looks forward to the possible positive impact of the introduction of the propaedeutic stage on the encouragement of priestly vocations. He noted that it may “help ease the minds of hearts of those who are discerning the priesthood but are still unsure.

“It provides a setting and a structure to do that active discernment, supported by the Church in a community of other men who are discerning the priesthood,” said Father Augenstein. “It recognizes that this is intended to be a year of discernment.”

While Saint Meinrad has begun its implementation of the propaedeutic stage, it is waiting until next year to put the vocational synthesis stage in place.

In the new PPF, seminarians in this stage are ordained transitional deacons and spend six months ministering in parishes before they are ordained priests.

“As a deacon gradually prepares for priestly ministry, in the six months he’ll be at a parish, he’ll be doing baptisms, weddings, funeral rites, visiting the sick and preaching as a gradual transition into priestly ministry,” said Father Augenstein.

This is a significant change from the past when a newly ordained priest enters for the first time into full-scaled parish ministry just weeks after he is ordained.

“When you end seminary and three weeks later you’re a priest in a parish, it’s a big shock to the system,” said Father Augenstein. “Everything is new very quickly. The vocational synthesis stage is designed to ease that transition.”

Archbishop Thompson knows well the duty of a diocesan bishop in approving men to be seminarians and to be ordained, having done research in graduate school in canon law on this topic.

He thinks the new PPF will help him and other bishops carry out this task more effectively.

“It provides more clarity on how to measure the readiness of a person for the next stage and ultimately for ordained ministry,” he said.

Archbishop Thompson is a graduate of Saint Meinrad and previously served on its formation staff. As archbishop, he closely oversees the priestly formation offered at Bishop Bruté, which is operated by the archdiocese.

He said that both seminaries are positioned well to implement the new PPF because of their history of forming future priests well to be men of prayer rooted in a fruitful spiritual life.

“I think both seminaries do that in a wonderful way,” said Archbishop Thompson, “and I think that’s why those other dimensions fall into place. It’s because of that rootedness that they both give us.”
 

(For more information on a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, visit www.HearGodsCall.com. For more information on Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary, visit bishopsimonbrute.org. For more information on Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, visit www.saintmeinrad.edu.)

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