1/11/2018 9:00:00 AM PERSPECTIVE My responsibility in
forming future priests
BY REV. ANTHONY BARRATT
Once a month in The Evangelist, we hear from one of our seminarians. Their reflections in the "Seminarian's Diary" column that runs the last week of each month can inspire and encourage us as we read about their journey of formation and discernment.
But, what about the formators, those involved in the formation and assessment of our future priests? Who is involved and how do they help our seminarians?
This is a personal account of being a formator.
Everyone takes part in promoting and guiding vocations. As the Program for Priestly Formation (PPF) notes: "The whole Church receives the gift of vocations from God and is responsible for promoting and discerning vocations."
We often call this creating a "climate for vocations" -- of being, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it, "sensitive and attentive" to such a calling in another person.
It is my hope that we all see a call to serve the Church as a priest as something natural and normal, not strange or unusual. Some, though, are entrusted with a special and highly-responsible task of journeying with and also assessing candidates for the priesthood.
I remember being both delighted and deeply daunted when my archbishop back in England asked me to be the vice-rector of a seminary! In a similar vein, as a formator, I am mindful that everyone is called to be a disciple of the Lord: "He has chosen you since the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4).
Everyone is called to make a difference and to be the person that God has created them to be. This exciting and challenging journey begins in baptism. Some people are called to the specific vocation of being an ordained priest. Both vocations must be treasured, encouraged and guided.
Some are then given the awesome responsibility of helping candidates for the priesthood. How does this take place? The process is based on the model of the Gospel where Jesus calls His disciples: "Come and see." The disciples then spend some time traveling with the Lord, all the while growing and being formed.
This is why we call it "formation" for the priesthood and not just "training." To quote the PPF: "It is not equivalent to a secular sense of schooling or, even less, job training....Formation is first and foremost cooperation with the grace of God."
As a formator, my main task is to assist the candidate in this adventure and, often, to assess how his cooperation and growth is taking place.
This process is not vague or theoretical. The formator is looking for virtues and qualities in the candidate that unearth and manifest his vocation. Many Church documents and the Code of Canon (Church) Law are very specific about these.
What sort of virtues or qualities do we look for?
Holiness: dependence on God, yet seeking the holy;
providence: a sense by the candidate of God's purpose/intention for him;
faith: a real and lived faith that is enthusiastic and has a sense of the possible;
gratitude: an attitude of thanksgiving and gratitude, and a perception of gift and underlying goodness;
repentance: awareness of the candidate's own agency in his actions (a sense of responsibility) and the need to change or seek forgiveness;
communion: "embedded" or reaching out, working together, integration of life, awareness of others and how his words and actions impact them; and
vocation: a willingness to be a participant in the plan of providence and creation ("bigger than me") and a sense of calling, making a difference, purpose and involvement (zeal, vigor, dedication, humor and playfulness).
That is a great deal for formators to examine, so these qualities are gathered into four key "pillars" of formation: human, pastoral, spiritual and intellectual.
There has been a growing realization (and it has been my experience) that the human formation of a future priest is not just a pillar, but a foundation for the rest of formation. Those of us involved in the formation of candidates are especially concerned that the candidate is engaged in a lifelong project of human formation.
It is often said that grace perfects nature: God works in and through our humanness. Human formation, then, is about growing in the virtues and strengths, and also tackling weaknesses. As a formator, I have a central role in assisting the candidate in this project.
Formation does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in order to serve the mission and evangelization efforts of the Church. Formators have a vital job to help candidates appreciate and live the priest's calling to continue the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in a special and essentially new way, and to realize that this takes place within a culture.
For me, and I believe for many others, a pressing concern is that our priests will help people to be true disciples and also disciple-makers; and that priests will be mission-oriented, rather than simply "maintenance men" or, sadly, managers of decline.
In other words, priests will be risk-takers rather than just caretakers -- or, worse, undertakers!
Let us pray for vocations, for those in formation for the priesthood or religious life and those who are discerning a vocation. Let us also pray for those who, on behalf of the Church, act as formators. It is a wonderful yet awesome responsibility and I, like many involved in formation, have spent a great deal of time in prayer asking for inspiration and guidance, especially when assessing a candidate.
In the end, it is not about me or even the candidate, but rather about God's mysterious love and grace working in us.
(Father Barratt, who is pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Hudson/Germantown, served as vice-rector of St. John's Seminary in Guildford, England, from 1995-2004. He was on the Albany diocesan Vocations Board from 2005-16. He currently assists with formation at the St. Isaac Jogues House of Discernment and, since 2007, has also served as a liturgical formator for the diocesan permanent diaconate program.)