Opening Address of Archbishop Eamon Martin for International Conference on Priestly Formation

‘Models of Priestly Formation: Assessing the Past, Reflecting on the Present and Imagining the Future’


One of Ireland’s earliest mentions of priestly formation can be found in the tenth century Rule of the Céli Dé.  The document tells us that when the candidate has been taught how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and “the correct method of administering Baptism and Communion”, the formator is entitled to a cow from the candidate’s family!  In subsequent years, the formator is to be paid a calf, a pig, and four sacks of grain “together with a reasonable supply of clothing and food.”  When the candidate passes his final exams his formator is entitled to “a supper, of food and beer” before the bishop, “for a party of five that night.” (Note 1)


Friends, I am confident that this International Symposium on Models of Priestly Formation will have more than enough to be getting on with if it concentrates on developments over the past fifty years!  Since the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Training Optatam Totius, we’ve had the 1970 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis; updates on this text in 1985, particularly in light of the 1983 Code of Canon Law; reflections on priestly formation at the 1990 Synod of Bishops followed by Pope Saint John Paul II’s important Post-Synodal Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (25 March 1992) – and not a mention of a cow or a calf in any of them!


Now, over thirty years later, we have a new edition of the “Ratio”, promulgated on 8 December 2016, entitled, “The Gift of Priestly Vocation”. The new Ratio envisions a paradigm shift in priestly formation which calls for a considerable rethink of the structures and relationships in priestly formation. While the conciliar and post-conciliar documents on priestly formation have provided an excellent framework for bishops and seminaries, the recent Ratio Fundamentalis together with Pope Francis’ various discourses about priestly lifestyle offers a new vision, requiring new structures – new wine requiring fresh wineskins.


At this International Symposium we are all being invited to step out of our comfort zones in order to re-imagine past and existing models of formation in light of the new Ratio: What is the ‘new wine’? What are the ‘new wineskins’?


I hope that one of the fruits of this Symposium will be to inform the preparation of a new Ratio Nationalis for Ireland. Episcopal Conferences are currently being tasked with redesigning and updating their programmes of priestly formation. This means not only implementing the new Ratio in a way that takes account of local traditions, customs and needs, but also courageously moving the whole formation experience beyond past and present methods so that priests will be suitably prepared to engage with, and evangelise, the secularised contemporary culture.


The preparation and implementation of the Ratio Nationalis for Ireland will require the thoughtful and collegial cooperation of the bishops, in dialogue with the lay faithful (male and female) and with those experienced in formation. We will need a unified and coherent approach with regard to the various elements of formation: the prior accompaniment and discernment with candidates; the admissions process; the introduction of the propaedeutic year; the formation structures and programme for candidates preparing for the priesthood.


Recently when a parishioner asked me “Archbishop, where did you train to be a priest?”, he quite innocently reminded me that past models of formation often emphasised the “training” of seminarians through discipline and instruction in the necessary behaviours, habits and attitudes. The pedagogical method used in “training priests” tended to isolate candidates from the world in order to equip them with sufficient spiritual, intellectual and moral strength before they were sent back into the world to engage in the Church’s mission. The seminary structure and programme was inclined to emphasise order, structure and discipline. The task of seminary educators was to ensure that candidates were thoroughly grounded in theological truths and priestly spirituality with clear expectations in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical celebration, pastoral ministry and priestly spirituality.


Equipped with this “training” we emerged after ordination into a very complex and conflicted world, where we found an increasing disconnect between what our Church stood for, and the prevailing culture around us.


I have often wondered, however, could any kind of priestly “training” (and I use that word “training” deliberately) have fully prepared me for what lay ahead: – the seismic shift that would occur in the early 1990s in Ireland’s relationship with Church and with priests; the horrendous and shocking child sex abuse scandals; the challenges swept in by a wave of secularisation; the digital revolution, and arrival of the internet and social media; the tendency in society towards rampant consumerism, individualism and relativism; the struggle to live a celibate life in a hyper-sexualised culture; the challenge of maintaining good physical and mental health and well-being in an increasingly rushed, stressful and pressurised environment; the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life bringing increased demands and a certain loss of morale for those in ministry; enhanced expectations regarding governance and accountability for the temporal goods of the Church?


Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, many of us newly ordained priests in late 1980s Ireland talked together about all that was happening – sometimes our faces downcast; our hope had been… In the years following the Council, a lot had been written about a “crisis of identity” amongst priests. In our early years of priesthood, with so much change in what was once a familiar role and surroundings for priests, one might more accurately have spoken of a “crisis of compass” or “loss of bearings”.


“Future Proofing” Formation

That is why I think any consideration of priestly formation must see formation as a lifelong process. Who knows what challenges lie ahead for today’s seminarians?  How might we best prepare them for the changes that will transform the world in twenty or thirty years’ time but which cannot even be dreamt of today? To put it in business terms: how can we “future-proof” formation?


Thankfully, the new Ratio can help us in this regard. It emphasises a model of priesthood as continuing discipleship, meaning that, even after ordination, formation cannot be “interrupted.” “The priest not only ‘learns to know Christ’ but, under the action of the Holy Spirit, he finds himself within a process of gradual and continuous configuration to Christ, in his being and his acting, which constantly challenges him to inner growth” (Ratio 80).


In this sense, the priest can never consider himself to be definitively formed. A priest is certainly not the man who arrives into a parish, perfectly packaged, with all the answers. There will often be people who are more qualified than he in facing particular problems, and the new challenges that emerge may well be beyond his seminary formation. This is why his relationship with Christ is paramount. Pope Benedict XVI once said that “the faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God.” (Note 2)


Formation in Discipleship

It has to be fundamental then, to every model of seminary, that we are all – seminarians, rectors and formators, theologians – on the life-long journey of discipleship, called to follow Jesus Christ. Consequently, the distinctions between the steps (propaedeutic, initial, permanent), between the roles (of bishop, rector, formator, spiritual director), and between the dimensions (human, spiritual, pastoral and academic) and between the stages (discipleship, configuration, pastoral), are all somewhat secondary and instrumental to the overall integral formation of each of us as pilgrims along the Sequela Christi – under the action of the Holy Spirit and sustained by the grace of God.


This reflects what Pope Francis stated in an address to the Congregation for the Clergy in October 2014: “Formation… is not a unilateral act by which someone transmits theological or spiritual notions. Jesus did not say to those who he called: ‘come, let me explain’, ‘follow me, I will teach you’: no! The formation offered by Christ to his disciples came rather as ‘come, and follow me’, ‘do as I do’, and this is the method today too, the Church wants to adopt for her minister”. Pope Francis continues: “The formation of which we speak is a discipular experience which draws one to Christ and conforms him ever more to Him. Precisely, for this reason, it cannot be a limited task, because priests never stop being disciples of Jesus, who follow Him … Initial and on-going formation are distinct because each requires different methods and timing, but they are two halves of the same reality, the life of a disciple cleric, in love with his Lord and steadfastly following him.”


Formation in discipleship helps to prepare pastors who can meet the challenges presented by Pope Francis for the priests of today: to be priests to “accompany” God’s scattered people and heal their wounds, “as in a field hospital”; priests who will be shepherds who know “the smell of the sheep” and are able to serve with the mind and heart of the Good Shepherd; priests who are missionaries, witnessing to “the joy of the Gospel”. [Incidentally, while the expression “missionary-disciples” only appears twice in the Ratio, the word “missionary” seems to appear everywhere in it: “missionary spirit”, “missionary zeal”, “missionary impulse”, “missionary joy”, “missionary fervour”; the Ratio states that formation must be “clearly missionary in spirit”, and formation structures, programmes and processes should cultivate this spirit in seminarians].


Formation is therefore not about mastering techniques or functional roles, but about following the path of discipleship: internalising, in co-operation with divine grace, the core virtues and ideals of discipleship. Put simply, one cannot be a credible witness, shepherd, healer or proclaimer of the Good News to contemporary culture unless one is rooted in a profound relationship with Jesus with the zeal and attitudes of a disciple that will last a life-time.


Humility and Vocational Discernment

A word of caution, however: even though one could speak of moving from “training of seminarians” to “formation in discipleship”, this does not mean that formation for the priesthood loses its specificity. The Church has clearly stated expectations of her priests in terms of the discipline of the clergy and the understanding of the priesthood. It is my contention that nothing in the new Ratio is inimical to the established teaching on the ordained ministry. However the new Ratio does appear to emphasise that the seminarian, and priest, through pastoral accompaniment, engagement and discernment, must seek to interiorise these doctrinal understandings so that they do not exist merely as a “veneer” over his personality.


As the Ratio puts it: Priestly formation involves ‘working humbly and ceaselessly on oneself so that the priest opens himself honestly to the truths of life and the real demands of ministry … This work cannot be undertaken satisfactorily relying on his own human resources. On the contrary, it relies principally on ‘welcoming the gift of divine grace’ (Ratio 43).


A good formation programme has therefore to foster in the seminarian, and in the priest, the virtue of humility and a willingness to search both for the right answers and be open to receiving the help he needs to be a faithful disciple of Christ in a changing world. This is why the spirit of humble discernment is so important. Discernment will sometimes be painful as it requires honesty, integrity, perception, sincerity and an openness to engage with every element and all areas of formation.


Vocational discernment also requires a relationship of trust with formators, an honest assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses and an honest and appropriate disclosure of these to formators; a willingness to receive and accept direction, guidance, correction; above all the capacity to live discipleship and priesthood consistently and systematically. This is a life-long work project.


No “lone rangers”

One of the “tools for the journey” which formation must nurture is the ability to work with others. The candidate must be able to work in communion with their bishop, other priests and the members of the People of God. (Note 3) The candidate must always remember that he has come from the Christian community and upon ordination returns to this community (Ratio Intro. 3). The days when we could consider the priest as a “lone ranger” or a “rugged individual” are long past.


Saint John Chrysostom was clear in his Six Books on the Priesthood that: “The most basic task of a Church leader is to discern the spiritual gifts of all those under his authority, and to encourage those gifts to be used to the full benefit of all. Only a person who can discern the gifts of others and can humbly rejoice at the flourishing of these gifts is fit to lead the Church”.


New Wineskins?

To summarise then, the “new wine” or renewed vision of seminary formation aimed at by the Ratio is one of ongoing ‘transformation’, or ‘conversion’ where seminary promotes an ‘internalisation’ of the values and ideals of discipleship. But what of the “new wineskins”? This, friends and delegates to our Symposium, is your task – to tease out the characteristics and practical models of formation needed to respond to the new Ratio.


Clearly the essential issue is not one of simply reforming the physical structure or location of the seminary – indeed such a preoccupation can actually divert from the real challenge of the Ratio. Whatever the physical shape or building, what is most important is to provide the structures and processes of formation that will foster true conversion and commitment on the part of candidates for the priesthood, as distinct from mere compliance and conformity. The new Ratio acknowledges four generally accepted models:


  1. Residential seminaries where all aspects of formation are addressed.
  2. Houses of formation with a nearby pontifical or catholic university providing the academic courses.
  3. Parish-based models of formation, where seminarians live in a parish supervised by a local parish priest /mentor and taking their academic formation in a nearby university or pontifical university.
  4. ‘Part-time’ models where seminarians in the first cycle are engaged in fulltime studies at various universities but come together regularly with a rector and other formators for spiritual exercises and group sessions to continue discerning their vocation before entering theology.


Other models which might offer useful perspectives include the Paris Model, centred around the Bishop and his Cathedral, and the Redemptoris Mater Model for candidates coming through the Neocatechumenal Way.


It is clear that, whatever the model or models chosen, our aim should be to ensure:


  1. A quality propaedeutic experience, rooted in the cultural, ecclesial and social reality of Ireland, preceded by a period of accompaniment and discernment with an experienced priest who would be a mentor and spiritual director.
  2. That those admitted to a seminary formation programme should have a capacity for community life, and be open to lifelong prayerful formation as disciples of Christ; all the time developing interior maturity and a clear coherence of life with their convictions.
  3. That the formation community is distinctive and small enough to sustain a strong sense of community while not being turned in on itself – this means having frequent and meaningful pastoral placements throughout the years of formation experience.
  4. That the formation team not only accompanies seminarians, but is itself open to being formed in the process.
  5. That there is a strong relationship between formator, seminarian and bishop, with frequent conversations and contact between all three.
  6. That there is a greater involvement of, and collaboration with laity – women and men – in the Formation programme.
  7. That there is a strong emphasis on prayer, communication skills, catechetical skills, leadership and facilitation skills.
  8. The seminary formation team has a broader role is a key motivator in vocations promotion and in ongoing formation throughout Ireland.


Friends, I commend these thoughts to you as you begin this Symposium, grateful that you have taken the time and made the effort to be part of this conversation in which we assess the past, reflect on the present and imagine the future. I cannot promise a calf, a pig or four sacks of grain, but I trust that you will leave this Symposium emboldened and informed to continue your vitally important task of helping to form men to serve Christ and His Church. May God grant success to the work of our hands.