ONGOING PRIESTLY FORMATION
BY CARDINAL CAHAL B. DALY
Priestly formation begins in the seminary; it does not end there. Properly understood, is a life-long process. It is a process involving every aspect of our priestly lives and ministry. We are priests from the day of our ordination; but we grow into priesthood progressively, just as we grow into personal holiness. We grow into priesthood through our cooperation with divine grace, which culminates for us in the sacramental grace of our ordination. The Synod of Bishops on priestly formation in 1990 stressed that the foundation of all priestly formation is “contained in the dynamism of the Sacrament of Holy Orders”. We create space for God’s grace to expand into all aspects of our personality through our prayer, our celebration of the Eucharist, our prayerful reading of holy scripture, our fidelity to daily praying of the Prayer of the Church or the Liturgy of the Hours. We create this space also by our pastoral care of our people, our relations with our bishop and our fellow priests and with our lay collaborators and friends and with our own family. We enlarge that space also by our reading of theology and what used to be called our ‘spiritual reading’.
Life-long learning is now seen as essential for adequate performance in almost any or occupation. Although priesthood is a calling which is unique and which cannot be simply classed with other careers or professions, nevertheless ongoing formation is equally essential for effective exercise of priestly ministry.
Of all the qualities required in priestly ministry, and therefore also in formation for ministry, the most essential is personal holiness. All programmes and resources for priestly formation should be such as to conduce to personal holiness. This includes reading and refresher courses in theology and in sacred scripture. Theology is itself a fruit of the prayerful study of God’s self-revelation, and of the prayerful reflection on holy scripture practised by the Church across the ages: this latter is what we call tradition. Karl Rahner said that what the Church today needs above all is “theology on its knees”. Theology is the servant of faith. Theology is a search for the mind of the Church which is one with the mind of Christ.
This was the kind of theology which, through Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar and others inspired the Second Vatican Council and led to one of the great periods of renewal in the Church’s history. That renewal is still in progress. That kind of theology is still active and fruitful in the Church . No other kind of theology is truly life-giving. Personal reading in theology is imperative. Sharing of such reading with one’s colleagues is helpful. Many refresher courses in theology and sacred scripture are available at diocesan and national or international level. Informal meetings of clergy, whether at vicariate or deanery level or under the auspices of one or other spiritual movement or fraternity of clergy, are very helpful.
We neglect ongoing formation to our own spiritual loss and to the spiritual loss our people. If we are not growing into greater personal assimilation of our priestly identity, then we may be growing out of priesthood in everything but name. The post-synodal document, Pastores dabo Vobis, speaks of “a sort of internal fatigue” which can set in in the life of a priest in mid-life. The document sees ongoing formation as particularly relevant to this condition. Nowadays, when priests are fewer and older, the possibility of fatigue and stress and ‘burn-out’ increases; and, consequently, the need for ongoing formation is greater than ever. On the other hand, older priests can themselves be the best “formators” of younger priests, by their own example, their own love of priesthood, and their own enthusiasm for the priestly ministry. ‘Peer-group ministry’ has its greatest opportunity among priests themselves, whether through the sacrament of reconciliation ministered to one another, or through spiritual direction or in more informal settings. This is one great field for the exercise of what has been called the “contagion of holiness” among priests themselves.
Pastores dabo Vobis concludes by placing all priestly formation under the patronage of Mary, “the human being who has responded better than any other to God’s call”. She is the one who continues to “keep vigilant watch over the growth of vocations and priestly life in the Church”.