What is Seminary Formation?

Seminary formation is a process of continuous personal growth and development of a man aimed toward the goal of priestly ordination.  It is a program of preparation and formation of the whole man in the context of the four areas of Human, Pastoral, Intellectual, and Spiritual growth. 

Called, Formed and Sent

One of the primary scripture passage related to seminary formation is from the Gospel of Mark, in which it says: "And he went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons" (Mk. 3:13-15).  Pope John Paul II noted that: “It is not difficult to find in the words "To be with him" a reference to Jesus' "accompanying" the apostles for the sake of their vocation. After calling them and before he sends them out, indeed in order to be able to send them out to preach, Jesus asks them to set aside a "period of time" for formation. The aim of this time is to develop a relationship of deep communion and friendship with himself. In this time, they receive the benefit of a catechesis that is deeper than the teaching he gives to the people (cf. Mt. 13:11); also, he wishes them to be witnesses of his silent prayer to the Father (cf. Jn. 17:1-26; Lk. 22:39-45)

Christ who Forms

The Church's work of formation takes its lead from and is a continuation of Christ's own work.  Each aspect of formation is intended to assist the man first in his personal relationship with Christ, and in his understanding of self, and development into the man God intends him to be.  Formation overall is intended to form the man into a true “servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God.”

Galilee the First Seminary

The first program of discernment for the priestly vocation lasted all of 10 seconds: Jesus walked up to the Peter and Andrew and simply said: “Come follow me.”  In the same vein, the first program for priestly formation, or seminary, was all of three years: Jesus walked with his apostles, taught them, and ordained them at the Last Supper.  Today, seminary formation takes a little longer than three years, but holds the same basic objective: to form future priests to become “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1)

Formation in Grace of the Whole Man

Formation is not equivalent to a secular sense of education, school, or job training. It is an activity of cooperation with the grace of God where by God Himself works in the man to form him into Christian man and sharer in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  It is the Holy Spirit who transforms believers into the very image of Jesus Christ, who himself is the image of God. The grace of the new covenant embraces all who have joined themselves to Jesus Christ in faith and baptism as well as those who present themselves for possible priestly ordination and make themselves available for God’s work of transformation. Formation takes place when we make ourselves a ready place for the Lord to dwell in us and transform us into the person He intends us to be.

Formed in the Church

All priestly formation takes place within the context of the Church as the Body of Christ, as Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), and in relation to the mission of the Church in the World. The formation in seminary is therefore integrated within the wider ecclesial understanding of the Church.  The seminarian must, therefore, entrust himself to the Church in his formation, at the same time knowing that he is the person primarily responsible for his formation.

Four Pillars of Formation

The seminary forms future priests by attending to their human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation, which are outlined in Pastores Dabo Vobis as the four pillars of priestly.  These pillars, each having it’s own importance, are looked at as a whole, where by the seminarian continues to grow in all aspects of his person.  Just as we see the fingers of a child’s hand grow in proportion to each other as he matures into manhood, so too we see the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral aspects of a seminarian grow into the maturity of a man ready to be ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Man standing

Human Formation

The purpose of Human Formation is to assist the seminarian in his task of becoming a man who reflects in himself, as far as possible, the human perfection which shines forth in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. The human formation of the priest shows its special importance in relation to those who receive the mission for which he is ordained: In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the future priest mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity. 

Through the seminary program a seminarian grows in his humanity in such a way that he is well-oriented to the truth, respectful of every person, compassionate, just, and balanced in judgment and behavior. Human formation also focuses on the development of  a healthy psychological and emotional life, establishment of mature friendships, right disposition toward authority, the formation of a settled disposition for celibacy and the qualities necessary for leadership and positive social interaction within a community.  A man engaged in human formation follows the example of Jesus who "knew what was in humanity" (Jn. 2:25; cf. 8:3-11), and becomes a priest who know the depths of the human heart, perceives difficulties and problems, makes meeting and dialogue easy, creates trust and cooperation, and expresses serene and objective judgments.  Human formation is done through the everyday interactions of seminary life with brother seminarians, and faculty and formators, and through individual meetings with formation advisors, and through group conferences and seminars.

Human formation intends to prepare men to be good instruments of God’s grace, even through their human qualities.  These are some of the attributes of a man who has entered well into human formation in the seminary:

  • A man who is free to be who he is in God’s design,
  • A man of solid moral character who demonstrates the human virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, humility, constancy, sincerity, patience, good manners, truthfulness, and keeping his word, and who also manifests growth in the practice of these virtues
  • A man of prudence who demonstrates a capacity for critical observation
  • A man of communion who is self-possessed and appropriately confident in himself
  • A good communicator
  • A man of affective maturity whose emotions are is in balance
  • A man of chaste celibacy
  • A man who relates well with others
  • A good steward of material possessions
  • A man who can take on the role of a public person
Washing of the feet

Spiritual Formation

The basic principle of spiritual formation is “to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit” (PPF107). The spirituality of a priestly way of life is characterized by prayer, celibate chastity, mature obedience, simplicity of life and social justice in imitation of Jesus Christ. “For every priest his spiritual formation is the core which unifies and gives life to his being priest and his acting as a priest” (PDV, no. 45). 

Spiritual Formation in the seminary includes having a Spiritual Director, a priest, with whom each seminarian meets on a regular basis.  It also includes a Life of Prayer manifest through daily Liturgy of the Hours, devotional prayer, regular confession, devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary, regular retreats and days of personal reflection and meditation.  The purpose of spiritual formation is to develop within the future priest a deep and abiding friendship with God, for the benefit of that man and in service to his future ministry.


Intellectual Formation

The main principle of seminary intellectual formation is that the seminarian is formed to seek an ever-deeper knowledge of the divine mysteries for the benefit of the salvation of those he will serve. As a disciple of Christ, a seminarian is one who learns not only about Christ, but about all things that will assist him in bringing Christ to others.

The first task of intellectual formation is to acquire a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness and completion of God’s revelation and the one Teacher. This saving knowledge is acquired not only once, but it is continuously appropriated and deepened. Seminary intellectual formation assumes and prolongs the catechesis and that is part of every Christian’s life. This knowledge is not simply for personal possession but is destined to be shared in the community of faith, and to serve the future priest in his ability to pass on the faith in an intelligible and intellectually attractive manner. Intellectual formation is directed toward the mission of the priest to go out and to proclaim the Gospel to all people.

Intellectual formation includes the study of Philosophy, as a preparation and foundation for Theological studies.  Typically, each seminarian, before ordination, will earn a Bachelors degree in Philosophy, and a Masters of Divinity, or Master of Arts in Theology Degree prior to Ordination.  These courses of study include a strong focus on Metaphysics Philosophy, Systematic, Moral, Scriptural, and Practical Theology, as well as other courses specific to Priestly Ministry.


Pastoral Formation

In pastoral formation, which is the culmination of the entire formation process, we see that not only should the whole formation have as its object to make the men true shepherds of souls after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest, and shepherd, but also that the formation as a whole aims at preparing them to enter into communion with those whom they serve. 

By the grace of Holy Orders, a priest is able to stand and act in the community in the name and person of Jesus Christ.  This sacramental character is exercised well the priest effectively communicates the mysteries of faith through his human personality as a bridge, through his personal witness of faith rooted in his spiritual life, and through his knowledge of faith. These elements of formation converge in pastoral formation, which takes place in a variety of pastoral settings throughout the entire formation program.  Each year, depending upon the year of formation, and in an incremental way, the seminarian becomes more and more involved in doing pastoral activity outside of the seminary community.  This includes pastoral activity in charitable institutions such as visiting those in prison, hospitals and homeless shelters, but is primarily ordered toward pastoral activity in the parish setting, which is the primary activity of the Archdiocesan priest.  As the seminarian draws closer to ordination, he spends progressively more time serving at, and residing at a parish.  In his final year, and as an ordained Transitional Deacon, a seminarian, will enter intentionally into a particular parish, exercising his diaconal responsibilities.  An integral aspect of seminary pastoral formation is the integration of the learnings from human, spiritual, and intellectual formation into the practical aspects of pastoral activity.