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Vatican approves norms to reshape U.S. priestly formation

Pope Francis meets with seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in Rome, 2021. Credit: Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy has approved new norms for the formation of seminarians, which were drafted by the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2019, and have been under discussion between Rome and the USCCB since that time.

The sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, which governs seminary education for priests, will require seminaries and dioceses to reshape their formation programs, in order to accommodate new stages of formation at both the start and conclusion of seminary studies.

The text has been the subject of close negotiations between Rome and the USCCB over several issues, including Rome’s requirement for a non-academic period of formation called the “propaedeutic stage.”

The program’s text, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, requires an initial formation stage focused on prayer,  which must ordinarily last one year, and which precedes philosophical studies. Some college credits can be taken during the preliminary stage, offsetting concerns about whether students will qualify for loan deferments or meet visa requirements.

The U.S. bishops were notified of the PPF’s Vatican approval by a Wednesday email from Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, who serves as chairman of the USCCB Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations.

Checchio told the bishops that formal approval had been granted by the congregation’s prefect, Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung Sik on March 22 and communicated to conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez earlier this month.

The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, may still be subject to “minor edits,” Checchio said, but the substance of the norms have now been finalized.

Every national or regional bishops’ conference is required to develop its own document on the formation and education of seminarians, based on a periodically updated Vatican document called the Ratio fundamentalis.

National documents must outline the academic requirements, pastoral and spiritual development, and personal formation which is to be implemented in seminaries, and have to be approved at the Congregation for Clergy.

In the United States, the Program for Priestly Formation is issued by the USCCB and updated regularly.

The newly approved sixth edition says it is the product of “reflecting on the lived experience of seminaries and the Church in the United States in these opening decades of the twenty-first century.”

The text says it is intended to reflect the principles of the most recent Ratio fundamentalis, which was issued in 2016: “The fundamental idea is that Seminaries should form missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master, shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them.”

But after the USCCB approved a version of the sixth PPF in 2019, Roman approval stalled, amid reported disagreements over some of the Ratio’s requirements.

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The final document, approved by Rome and circulated Wednesday, delineated four stages of seminary formation: propaedeutic, discipleship, configuration, and vocational synthesis.

The “propaedeutic stage is to focus on fostering communion between a seminarian, his bishop, and his particular church, to allow for a period of intense vocational discernment, and to spend time learning to pray, especially through scriptural reading and the practice of lectio divina,” the document provides.

“The minimum one-year duration of the propaedeutic stage is twelve calendar months,” and is not ordinarily to exceed two years, according to the new PPF — in line with the Congregation for Clergy’s Ratio fundamentalis.

“The propaedeutic stage should not be confined to times in which a university or college is in session,” the document explains: “There might be fewer vacation periods during the propaedeutic stage. For example, while a break may be envisioned for the Christmas holidays, the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter might take place within the propaedeutic community.”

“Further, since this period lasts a full year, a set period at the beginning and again at the end of the propaedeutic stage, without any courses for academic credit, would assist in ensuring that the goals of this stage are met.”

While the propaedeutic stage is to be set apart from academic studies, the PPF does provide that “a seminarian can earn college credit for some of his general studies during the propaedeutic stage. Such coursework should not exceed nine credit hours per semester, so that the stage’s goals and objectives will be accomplished.”

Such classes, which would allow for seminarians to maintain student visas and the deferment of student loan payments while they remain in studies, must be “proper to the propaedeutic stage’s intellectual formation,” and might include biblical literacy, catechesis, or prayer and spirituality. But the text explains they cannot include classes from the philosophical cycle, which must not begin until the propaedeutic stage is complete.

Sources close to the approval process, both in the U.S. and in Rome, have previously told The Pillar that a key sticking point was that the U.S. bishops’ document did not initially require that that an initial propaedeutic period formation take place separately from other kinds of priestly formation, in a dedicated year set apart from other academic formation.

The bishops’ draft instead provided for “benchmarks” to be met over the initial years of formation, but not necessarily during a dedicated period of time at the beginning of seminary life.

Some U.S. bishops had expressed concern that an initial year of non-academic study would create administrative difficulties for students related to study visas, and the deferment of student loans.

When the bishops met in November 2021, they voted during a closed-door session to adopt proposed changes to their draft document, as suggested by Rome and recommended by the drafting committee’s leadership.

In line with Pope Francis’ priority for the structures and institutions of the Church to better reflect the missionary character and the priority of evangelization, the new PPF states that “the Church wants to engage in the new evangelization in these areas: evangelization through ordinary pastoral ministry, evangelization through ministry to the baptized who lack a relationship with the Church, and evangelization to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ or who have rejected him.”

The “discipleship” and “configuration” stage include academic seminary studies, while at the same time aiming to develop and encourage the spirituality of priesthood.

The final stage, “vocational synthesis,” is designed to be a period in which newly ordained transitional deacons lives full-time in a parish or other pastoral setting, as a “gradual realization of the cleric’s responsibility for the care of souls.”

“The purpose of the vocational synthesis stage is to allow a deacon to enter into the life of a cleric, incorporating the entirety of the formation he has received from the moment of Baptism until his reception of Holy Orders. Rather than ‘on-the-job training,’ this stage is the living of a vocation as an ordained minister, because the diaconate is a new ontological and existential reality,” the text explains.

“The goal is not so much acquiring new pastoral skills—though these certainly will be gained—but more adjusting well to the life of ministry before advancing to priestly ordination. It is about the deacon’s readiness to assume the duties of full-time priestly ministry.”

The vocational synthesis stage should last at least six months and take place in the deacon’s own diocese, the text explains.

“During this stage, the primary formator of the newly ordained cleric is the pastor of the parish where the deacon is assigned, or the bishop or major superior may delegate another priest of the diocese, institute, or society to fulfill this task,” according to the new PPF.

The text adds that seminarians should complete their academic studies before they are ordained deacons, rather than during their diaconal year, as is the case for most U.S. seminarians today. That adjustment will require that seminary faculty adjust some elements of their formation schedule.

Candidates for ordination. Alamy Stock Photo.

Canon law requires that a deacon be ordained for at least six months before he is ordained a priest, but many U.S. dioceses wait an entire year, ordaining both deacons and priests in the spring. That the vocational synthesis stage is to take place after academic formation is concluded suggests that dioceses might either extend the stage to a year, or adjust their customary sequencing, to see diaconal ordination six months ahead of priesthood.

The previous version of the PPF, the fifth edition, was issued in 2006. Since then, in the wake of scandals such as that of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Church has placed a renewed focus on human formation and character within seminaries. The new edition reflects these issues, and the reforming efforts which have followed, noting that “within the Church, clericalism and abuse of power have had a corrosive effect.”

“The scandalous and criminal behavior of some clergy who have abused minors and engaged in sexual misconduct with adults, including seminarians, has caused great suffering for the victims and damaged the Church’s witness in society has resulted in a loss of credibility for the Church and an overall lack of respect for religion,” the text says.

“Both the nation and the Church are summoned to renewal and to a greater integrity of life.”

It is is not yet clear whether the new Program of Priestly Formation is expected to take effect immediately, or if there will be a period of preparation time before its policies become normative.

Implementing the text will require that many seminaries take on new staff members, find priests available for formation roles, adjust campus properties to accommodate the needs of the propaeduetic stage, and that dioceses develop plans for implementing the vocational synthesis stage.

Meeting the text’s requirements will take at least a year, some seminary formators told The Pillar.

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