Saint John Paul II outlined in his Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, four essential areas of a seminarian’s preparation for the priestly vocation. These four pillars of seminary life are human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. The seminary seeks to assist men in precisely these four areas, because all four are of vital importance in forming a man to be a balanced, holy, learned, and effective priest of Jesus Christ.
In addition to their classes at CUA, which include classes in philosophy, theology, and ancient languages, seminarians at Saint John Paul II Seminary live by a rule of life that assists them as they grow in virtue and the interior life. It includes daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, regular conferences, days of recollection, apostolic work, and devotions, as well as ample time for study and recreation. The family atmosphere of the seminary is a school of charity and a way to grow in the human virtues that are an indispensable preparation for priestly work.
The pillars of priestly formation, in summary, may be represented as follows:
The human personality of the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ (PDV 43). The priest is thus to be a man of virtue, demonstrating affective maturity, and reflecting as far as possible the human perfection of Jesus. His life will be marked by genuine human freedom, strong moral character, prudence and discernment, empathy, the ability to listen and to communicate, and the capacity to assume the life of a public person (Program of Priestly Formation, 76). In a concentrated way, human formation will include the spiritual and psychological preparation for a life of healthy and joyful celibate chastity.
The spiritual formation of a priest begins with the foundational call to a life of discipleship and conversion of heart, so that he may live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit (cf. PDV 45). Such a life of communion with God is more than a personal or individual relationship with the Lord; it is always mediated through the Church, which is His Body. The spirituality cultivated in the seminary is therefore specifically priestly: it is a spirituality of communion rooted in the mystery of the Triune God and lived out in practical ways in the mystery of ecclesial communion. Hallmarks of a seminarian’s mature spiritual life will include a profound devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the liturgical life of the Church, a commitment to regular Confession, spiritual direction, a love for the Holy Scriptures, personal meditation and devotions, a special love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, asceticism and penance, as well as simplicity of life and obedience.
As rational beings, the intellectual life is part of what it means to be human. Each disciple, then, must be a learner, beginning with a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the fullness and completion of God’s revelation and the one Teacher. Seminary intellectual formation further deepens the catechesis that is a part of every Christian’s formation, since it is destined to be shared in the community of faith, in the Church; it thus has an apostolic and missionary purpose and finality (PPF 137). The seminarian’s intellectual formation will therefore include a more systematic understanding of the mysteries of faith oriented towards priestly ministry, especially preaching. Underlying this theological formation are rigorous academic and intellectual habits that are developed prior to major seminary, as well as a broad education in the liberal arts, culture, communication skills, and especially philosophy that are presumed for the higher sciences.
Pastoral formation is, so to speak, the culmination of the previous three pillars of formation, since the end of the seminary process is to form a man who is capable of standing and acting in the community in the name and person of Jesus Christ as Shepherd of the Church. The priest is to appropriate the “mind of Christ” and communicate the mysteries of faith through his human personality as a bridge, through his personal witness of discipleship rooted in his spiritual life, and through his capacity to articulate the faith which he has come to know and love (cf. PPF 237). In a manner appropriate to those not yet in major seminary, candidates for the priesthood at Saint John Paul II will receive pastoral formation aimed at effective public ministry, a personal synthesis of their formation for pastoral application, and an initiation into various pastoral experiences, especially among the poor and the elderly.
Ecclesial Context of Formation
Uniting these four pillars of formation is the purpose and context of the seminary itself, which is to form, in the words of the Program of Priestly Formation, “not just of a well-rounded person, a prayerful person, or an experienced pastoral practitioner but rather one who understands his spiritual development within the context of his call to service in the Church, his human development within the greater context of his call to advance the mission of the Church, his intellectual development as the appropriation of the Church’s teaching and tradition, and his pastoral formation as participation in the active ministry of the Church” (PPF 71).