Back in 1996, when I left the seminary for my first leave of absence, I picked up the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) (fourth edition), as it had been mentioned a few times in the seminary, and I wanted to know what was expected of me and of the seminary in this process. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. In a sense, I was relieved, because the document shared many of the interests and concerns that were my own as a seminarian. So I’m not going crazy, I thought to myself. The Church actually does want all of these elements in a program of priestly formation. They’re not just my pet interests… in fact, they represent the desires of the Church herself. On the other hand, I was very discouraged. I counted more than seventy areas in which the formation program was not following the norms. This gap between what the PPF asked and what the seminary provided was very telling. I didn’t see a desire on the part of the seminary faculty to embrace this whole vision of formation… either that, or they were simply ignorant/unfamiliar with the document, or perhaps slow in adapting to what this document was asking for. In any case, it was clear that the formation program was weak when evaluated against this standard.
I wrote the archbishop in the summer of 1996. By that time I had met him on numerous occasions and felt pretty well acquainted. In my letter, I explained that I was preparing a more extensive letter in which I would explain my concerns and would reference the PPF. But then I became busy that summer, with work and then with my plans to return to the seminary. My first semester back in formation was spent with my former classmates, in a four-month program of study in the Holy Land. Long story short: I never completed my letter. I did get a note from the archbishop while overseas, saying that he received my earlier letter and that he would be happy to receive my letter and prayerfully consider what I had to say.
When I decided to leave the seminary the following year, I abandoned the project. I was experiencing severe depression, and realized that the most important thing for me was to focus on my own growth and self-knowledge. All I knew at the time was that I needed to find a good spiritual director and a good counselor to begin sorting out what had happened, how I could pick up the pieces of my life and begin moving forward. Bitterness, regret, and anger were not going to help me move forward. It was not a time for looking back. With some serious effort, and the help of some confessors, priest mentors and friends, I began to recover from what I would describe as one of the darker hours of my life.
I don’t regret my time in seminary. I learned a lot during that time, theologically, pastorally, spiritually and humanly. The one lesson I learned more than any other is that the more self-knowledge you have, the better equipped you will be to weather the storms of life, which will be sure to come if you decide to follow a vocation with any kind of dedication. Life is messy, people are imperfect, and the Church is sometimes a political battlefield. Something deeper has to take up residence in the heart — a personal commitment to a conversion that is generous with others and unsparing with oneself… a resolve to follow Christ regardless of the consequences… and an abandonment to Him that doesn’t falter when faced with the failures of oneself or of others. So I have no regrets about my own experiences in the seminary, but simply the hope that for the next generation of seminarians, things will be better… for the good of the seminarians and for the good of the whole Church.
I just read through the entire Instrumentum Laboris, trying to highlight only those items that seemed most in need of attention. I ended up highlighting questions under each of the eleven areas. I could be blogging about all of this for a long time to come. I’ll try to be succinct to avoid boring my readers.
For now, I’ll simply rate my seminary program (between 1994-1997) by evaluating it against the areas covered in the Instrumentum. I’ve created a five-star scale of the seminary program:
* = very poor
** = poor
*** = okay
**** = good
***** = excellent
The current apostolic visitation of seminaries is examining eleven aspects of formation:
- The Concept of the Priesthood **
- The Governance of the Seminary *
- Admission Policies **
- The Seminarians ***
- Human Formation *
- Spiritual Formation **
- Intellectual Formation ***
- Pastoral Formation ***
- Promotion to Holy Orders ***
- Service of the Seminary to the Newly Ordained *
- Other Concerns
In future posts, I’ll be examining each area in detail.