Formation, as the Church understands 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. In the United States of Catholic Conference Bishops’ document The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, a reflection on Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 leads to a description of formation. “The apostle Paul marvels at the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms believers into the very image of Jesus Christ, who himself is the image of God. This grace of the new covenant embraces all who have joined themselves to Jesus Christ in faith and baptism. Indeed, it is sheer grace, all God’s doing. Moved by that grace, however, we make ourselves available to God’s work of transformation. And that making ready a place for the Lord to dwell in us and transform us we call formation.” —The Program of Priestly Formation (5th Edition; #68)
Every seminarian has ultimately five people besides himself who are responsible for his formation. They are his bishop and his vocations director, the rector of the seminary he is attending and his formation advisor and spiritual director. The spiritual director has one job: to help make the man holy. Conversations between the spiritual director and directee are considered internal forum, meaning that the priest does not get to speak at all about them. He is completely confidential and does not share anything with the formation advisor, rector, vocations director or bishop. The formation advisor is the opposite of this, his job is to ensure that the seminarian is becoming a well formed priest in every way. There are four main areas that the seminarian must be formed to become a priest: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. They are commonly referred to as the Four Pillars.
Four Pillars or Four Areas of Formation
The seminary and its programs foster the formation of future priests by attending specifically to their human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation, the four pillars of priestly formation developed in St. John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (I will Give You Shepherds). These pillars of formation and their finality give specificity to formation in seminaries as well as a sense of the integrated wholeness of the different dimensions of formation. —The Program of Priestly Formation (5th Edition; #70)
Human Formation essentially deals with the personal habits, behaviors and tendencies within a person. Diet, exercise, sleeping habits, hygiene, social skills, fraternity, manners, work ethic, humor, time management — these are all good examples.
Spiritual Formation is the primary concern of the Spiritual Director and is thus left private and confidential, these would include his holiness of life, habits of prayer, content for prayer, vices he struggles with, virtues he needs to grow in, his practice of the sacraments and ability to do holy hours, spiritual reading that he is doing etc… While the majority of this is internal forum and thus is private; there are still many aspects that can be evaluated in a more public way. These would include his attendance at Mass and public prayer, his more obvious and natural virtues, external habits of prayer, frequency of holy hours, tardiness to house liturgies, attentiveness at morning and evening prayer.
Intellectual Formation is more than just the graduate classes that the men are taking. It also includes many workshops and practicums that prepare a seminarian to carry out the duties of priest effectively. It also can include becoming a more well-rounded thinker with an understanding of art and culture. Seminarians take 18 credits worth of Philosophy, Latin, Biblical Greek, and Spanish, as well as getting graduate degrees in Theology.
Pastoral Formation is all the training of the seminarian to be a shepherd of God’s people. It includes developing teaching, preaching and administration skills. As part of their formation, every seminarian has apostolates, or opportunities to volunteer and serve the people. They go to parishes to visit the sick, take communion to shut-ins, and teach RCIA or religious education classes. They go to teach catechism or religion in schools, to hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes etc.. all as part of their seminary formation. They are trained in pastoral counseling, meeting management, homiletics, marriage preparation and marriage counseling among many other diverse dimensions of what a priest might encounter in his work as a parish priest.
Two Paths of Formation
There are two basic paths for formation as a priest. You can enter with a college degree or without a college degree. If you do not have a college degree, it takes eight years to be formed as a priest, four years of College Seminary and then four more years of Major Seminary. If you already have your college degrees then it takes six years to be formed as a priest, two years of prerequisite classes and formation, called Pre-Theology, and then four years of major theology.
Learn more about the paths for priestly formation.
College Seminaries we use:
St. John Paul II Seminary at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC
Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH
Major Seminaries we use:
Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, PA
Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy
Universidad de San Dámaso in Madrid, Spain