Monday, October 29, 2012

When parallel lines create triangles...


A number of people have asked me to comment on the Holy Father's announcement towards the end of the Synod on Evangelisation concerning some adjustments to responsibilities within the various Vatican dicasteries. In particular, responsibility for seminaries is to be moved from the Congregation for Education to the Congregation for Clergy. It is an interesting move and not an altogether straightforward one. For example, in addition to having charge of seminaries, the Congregation for Education for more than seventy years has also been home to the "Pontificia Opera per le Vocazioni Sacerdotali", known by its acronym POVS: an organisation dedicated to the promotion of priestly vocations. Presumably this organisation and its dedicated staff may also find themselves moving to the other side of the Via Conciliazione.

Should we read anything into the move, other than a desire to make space at the Congregation for Education for the impetus given by the Synod to the New Evangelisation. I am sure conspiracies will abound but I don't think we should read to much into the reorganisation. That is not to say, however, that I don't regard it as a significant move. I think it is a very important one with potentially far reaching consequences. It could open up the question of priestly formation in many new and important ways.

Already under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II the Congregation for Education published a series of important instructions concerning various aspects of formation in seminaries. Although not exclusively so, they were mostly concerned with academic subjects. Sadly in some places many of them have yet to be implemented but there is no point re-writing them. The Congregation has given us these documents and so, in some sense, has done its job.

Although there are four aspects of seminary formation (spiritual, human, academic and pastoral), it is often the case that a disproportionate emphasis is placed on the academic side. It is not just seminary lecturers who do this: seminarians themselves can often give the impression that they are moving from one round of examinations to another. I have known theology graduates (not UK students) ordained after a couple of years studying for an STL in Rome simply because they had "completed their studies". Every Vocations Director gets regular emails from African and Indian students proudly announcing the completion of their theological formation and requesting to be ordained into their dioceses. The great strength of intellectual formation is also its great weakness: the fact that it is quantifiable means that it can easily fall prey to a 'tick box' mentality. Intellectual formation should be more than passing exams. And it is only one element of formation.

To understand how the four aspects of formation fit together think of a triangle. The base of the triangle, which supports the other two sides, represents human formation. Those who think human formation is unimportant forget that grace perfects nature. Grace will have a far greater effect on a virtuous person than on a 'vicious' (= given over to vice) one. A solid human formation is the bedrock for everything else.

The other two sides of the triangle represent intellectual and pastoral formation. They lean towards each other and hold each other up. The intellectual informs the pastoral and the pastoral feeds the desire to know and understand more deeply. Without one the other would fall flat on its face. It would be unsupported and aimless.

The spiritual dimension of formation is represented by the space inside the triangle: it touches everything and is touched by everything. Questions to do with human maturity, studies and pastoral experiences feed into the individual's life of prayer and that prayer has its consequences for each of the other areas of formation.

To my mind this is the only model that makes sense of the four areas of formation. It is important to have a clear understanding of it in order to ensure the four areas are not like flags or streamers flapping in the wind. Personally I think we still have some way to go to ensure this coherence becomes a shared vision on the part of formators in seminaries across the world.

This leads me back to the move to the Congregation for Clergy. One of the things about that Congregation is that it has published a number of documents on priestly life and ministry. These documents betray an understanding of human formation that goes beyond the pop-psychology approach that some people mean when they use the expression. Human formation begins above all with a schooling in virtue rather than a sharing of feelings. 

I think the move means we can expect a new clarification and impetus to be given to the other aspects of formation. I also think a lot of bishops, rectors and seminary staff will welcome that sense of direction.

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