Seeing the priest in the pulpit or at the altar on a Sunday, it is only natural and understandable for people to have in their minds, from time to time, the question, “How did he get here?” The question may be considered not only in the sense of what is his own unique vocation story, but in the sense of what was the process by which the Church discerned his suitability for ministry, and what did his preparation for ministry entail.

The history of priestly formation in the Catholic Church is long and varied, but a decisive moment in that history came with the Council of Trent (1545-63), especially in its Twenty-Third Session, when the council fathers laid down the framework for the establishment of seminaries as permanent institutions for the training of clerics. While it took some time for the seminary model to take hold, the result remains the essential place of priestly formation to the present day.

Responding to Needs

While the seminary has its historical origins in the Tridentine reforms and the time of the Counter-Reformation, the process of priestly formation has not remained stagnate. What that formation looks like inevitably has been shaped by factors beyond the walls of the seminary, as the priest (at least the diocesan priest) fundamentally is prepared for ministry in the world, and that preparation can be satisfactory only if it best prepares him to face the unique pastoral challenges of his distinct place and time. Therefore, priestly formation always has had to keep abreast of developing pastoral circumstances and has had to adjust to best respond.

That said, the basics of faithful Christian discipleship and holy priesthood remain unvaried. The need for the priest to be prayerful, humble and wise; to be a man of integrity, fidelity and compassion; to be courageous, pure and detached from worldly acclaim; to be selfless and free of all ambition, save doing the will of God — these qualities are as necessary now for the Church’s ministers as they were at the time of her birth. And they will continue to be necessary until the final coming of Christ’s kingdom.

Therefore, the formation of priests always involves, simultaneously, attention to the permanent and the present. This means for those entrusted with priestly formation answering the question of how best to prepare men for priesthood, so that they will possess all the qualities which perennially have defined priesthood well-lived, along with the capacity to minister effectively to people in a specific historical and cultural context, therefore leading them to an encounter with Christ and the sharing in His divine life forever.

Given this enduring need of the Church to be attentive and responsive to ever-evolving pastoral challenges, especially in considering how priests might be best prepared to meet those challenges, it should come as no surprise that priestly formation has received extensive attention by the Church over the last half-century, in the period defined by the Second Vatican Council and its ongoing reception. From the council’s own decree on the training of priests (Optatam Totius) through the pontificate of Pope Francis, there have been constant discussions, studies and reforms, all dedicated to improving the training of priests so that they might better confront the evangelical challenges posed by the modern world and effectively lead the Church in what has been termed the “New Evangelization.”

Within the period stretching from Vatican II to the present, a watershed moment came with the 1990 Synod of Bishops dedicated to the formation of priests in the present day. The fruits of this synodal gathering were manifest in Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), a landmark text which has shaped priestly formation since. Various national episcopal conferences were given the responsibility of devising programs for the effective implementation of Pastores Dabo Vobis’ teaching within their specific national contexts. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops produced the Program for Priestly Formation (PPF) in response, a document which has provided the framework for priestly formation in the United States since its drafting and which is currently in its fifth edition.

Recalling the teaching of Pastores Dabo Vobis, the PPF utilizes the image of “pillars of formation” to organize conceptually the principal focal points of priestly formation. It draws attention to four major pillars. They are (1) human formation, (2) spiritual formation, (3) intellectual formation and (4) pastoral formation. It is on the basis of growth and personal depth in these areas that a candidate is evaluated for his suitability for ministry in the Catholic Church today.

There is a certain danger in dividing these areas of formation, as it could give the impression that they are somehow separable. Of course, this is not true and is not how the PPF conceives of the relationship between the pillars. Rather, they are all interconnected and necessarily impact one another. If one is to grow into a holy and effective minister, there must be continual growth humanly, spiritually, intellectually and pastorally. They are all integrated and form one whole, just as the man being formed for priesthood remains always one person.

Human Formation

In a certain sense, the entire priestly formation process first has to attend to human formation, since everything builds on this. Applicable here is the wisdom of the Scholastic adage: “Grace builds upon nature.” It is not that grace cannot or does not have its effect regardless of a person’s qualities. Nevertheless, the presence of good personal habits and a well-formed character dispose the person to be more receptive to the growth in holiness offered by God’s graced call.

In the words of the PPF, the qualities that are to be sought and fostered within human formation are “freedom, openness, honesty and flexibility, joy and inner peace, generosity and justice, personal maturity and interpersonal skills, commonsense, aptitude for ministry, and ‘growth in moral sensibility and character’” (PPF, 5th ed., No. 85). Moreover, as those committing to a life of celibacy, affective and sexual maturity also is deemed essential.

Spiritual Formation

The importance of spiritual formation for the seminarian and future priest cannot be overstated. As those with the unique vocation to lead the assembled Church in prayer, they must be first men of prayer themselves. As men who dispense the sacraments, they frequently must receive them. And as those called on to provide spiritual counsel to those entrusted to their care, first they must have a deeply personal relationship with the Lord.

The development of the future priest’s intimate relationship with the Lord is at the heart of seminary formation, since the existence of that relationship is crucial for the priest’s holiness and effectiveness in his ministry. To that end, much of a seminary’s resources are dedicated to the cultivation of that type of intimate prayer among seminarians. In addition to the regular celebration of Mass, and the communal praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, seminaries will also offer retreats, spiritual conferences and various workshops. There is often the communal recitation of the Rosary and the encouragement of other devotions. The Holy Hour highly is encouraged. Moreover, there is frequent Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is made regularly available. Significantly, every seminarian is assigned a spiritual director with whom they meet regularly.

Intellectual Formation

Much of a seminarian’s day-to-day activity falls under the pillar of intellectual formation. In addition to maintaining and growing in the life of prayer, and alongside any other personal, pastoral or seminary responsibilities, the seminarian is a full-time student. This is in large part why the process of priestly formation is so lengthy (typically for a diocesan priest, time in seminary formation will last six to eight years). The priest is a teacher of the Faith, and in order to pass on the Faith and instruct others in it first he must know it himself.

Certainly he does not master the entirety of the tradition. Such mastery of the Catholic theological tradition is not achieved even by the greatest of theological minds — for example, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, etc. — not only because of its scope, but more significantly because of the subject of theology — the Triune God. God is mystery, and while the human mind may know things about God (otherwise the study of theology would be pointless) — especially those things which we know of Him by the gift of reason and through His revelation — no human mind ultimately can have a comprehensive knowledge of Him.

Since indeed we can know about God — and His saving and redeeming action in the person of Christ continued on in the work of His Church guided by His Holy Spirit — it is essential for the Church’s ministers to have an adequate knowledge of the Faith. This may be needed now more than ever, given the widespread confusion that exists among both Catholics and non-Catholics with regard to what the Church actually teaches. To this end, a priest’s intellectual formation in seminary involves studies with a focus in both sacred theology and philosophy (theology for obvious reasons, philosophy perhaps less so, at least at first glance).

The study of philosophy by seminarians has many purposes. First, by engaging with philosophical argument, the seminarian learns the skills of good reasoning and, just as importantly, the ability to detect shoddy arguments and bad reasoning. Basically put, philosophical education is supposed to inculcate good intellectual habits.

Second, there is an inherent connection between philosophy and theology. Positively, philosophy and its terminology have proven advantageous in articulating various theological doctrines — for example, person and substance in Trinitarian theology, transubstantiation in sacramental theology, etc. Negatively, so many theological errors have their origins in basic philosophical errors, and so it often is an important theological task to sort out the underlying philosophical mistakes which have produced these negative consequences.

Third, philosophy has a culturally formative power. Many of the particular errors which plague modern culture, and which result in numerous obstacles to the reception of the Gospel in our world today, have their origins in bad philosophy. In order to respond adequately to these challenges, it is important to engage with, take seriously and understand the intellectual roots of a culture which has grown inhospitable to evangelization. This is why a seminarian will study in philosophy not only Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas and the like, but also Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. Studying such figures is not a luxury, but a necessity. No serious confrontation with modern culture, for the purposes of evangelizing it, can take place without this manner of engagement, done with great seriousness, and not by evasion or the dismantling of straw-man arguments.

In a different but not unrelated context, Blessed John Henry Newman observed in “The Idea of a University” that “it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.” Believers find themselves today in troubled waters born of confusion and error. They look to priests to guide them through these waters. They look to priests to show them how to swim. If the priest is to be successful here, first he must know how to do this himself.

Pastoral Formation

Which leads us to the last pillar of formation, the one which functions basically as the capstone, and the one toward which all the other areas of formation are directed — the pastoral. Seminaries exist to provide priests who will be effective pastors to those whom they will encounter in whatever ministerial context they find themselves in. That is why, throughout priestly formation, seminaries are given numerous pastoral opportunities. Examples include visiting the sick and imprisoned, service to the poor (which can take a variety of forms), religious education and catechesis, service in parishes (both during the summertime and the academic year) and, for upper-level seminarians, administering sacraments (baptisms, marriages or funerals outside of Mass may be celebrated by seminarians already ordained to the diaconate).

All this formation — human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral — is crucial so that the hope of the people who look upon their priest at the altar Sunday after Sunday may be well-founded: that they have been blessed with a shepherd after God’s own heart (see Jer 3:15).

Father Andrew Clyne is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.