By THE VERY REV. KURT BELSOLE, OSB
Almost every seminarian in his years of preparation for the priesthood hears at least once during a conference or a retreat: “Nobody will ever call you dad, but thousands of people will call you Father.”
That’s true for priests.
I myself am a father, just not in the ordinary sense of the word. I have no sons or daughters of my own, no children I helped to bring into this world, no little ones I raised to adulthood. But, I am a father nonetheless. My fatherhood is a gift given to me by the Lord and by the Church on the day of my ordination to the priesthood.
Over the years, I have lived out that fatherhood in many ways. Today, I live it out in relation to the young men who come to St. Vincent Seminary. They are deeply faithful young men — courageous even. In a culture grown increasingly hostile to the Church, to the priesthood and even to the One who the priest represents, Christ himself, they want — or at least, they want to want — to leave everything to follow him.
Like any natural father, I take my fatherly responsibilities as rector of St. Vincent Seminary seriously. The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Training of Priests, notes that the “desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on the ministry of its priests.”
“The desired renewal of the whole Church” — it is no small task with which priests and those responsible for training future priests are charged. That is why the apostolic visitation of American seminaries, now almost complete, has sought to ensure that today’s seminarians are humanly, spiritually and psychologically healthy, and that they are being formed according to the mind of the Church.
What guides my thinking as I father these young men and what animates the entire program of priestly formation at St. Vincent are the words of the prophet Jeremiah with which Pope John Paul II began his 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests), “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.”
Shepherds after God’s heart is what the Lord promises his people, and they are what St. Vincent Seminary aims to send forth into the world. We do that in two ways.
The first way is the more practical part of priestly formation. We provide our men with a solid theological education taught by a faculty faithful to the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. We celebrate the liturgy of the Church in all its splendor, implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the other liturgical documents of the Holy See and the U.S. bishops.
We prepare our seminarians for the challenges that they will face as parish priests — the challenges of preaching, of celibacy, of pastoral stewardship, and the challenges of administering modern-day parishes.
Those are all critical components of priestly formation, and they account for much of what the apostolic visitation teams have looked for in their recent visitations of American seminaries.
But they are not the only things the visitation teams have looked for. Rather, the apostolic visitation is also investigating if seminaries are teaching seminarians to think with the Church and to live at the heart of the Church. And that is the second way we prepare our seminarians for the priesthood.
Whenever I interview an applicant to our seminary, I conclude the interview by going over a single sheet of paper containing what I call “Guidelines for Thinking With the Church Today.”
The 12 points name characteristics that we look for in our applicants and that we foster in our seminarians. If the applicant is not comfortable with them, the priestly formation program at St. Vincent Seminary is probably not for him. But, if he likes what he reads, that piece of paper becomes a sort of contract between us, an agreement that together we will strive to think, feel and act with the Church, what has classically been known as sentire cum ecclesia (to think with the Church).
And what are those 12 points?
— Have a great devotion to the Eucharist, go to daily Mass and engage in regular adoration of the Eucharist.
— Have a deep love for Christ in his passion, in his glory and in his sacramental mysteries.
— Devote a significant amount of time each day to reading sacred Scripture.
— Have a profound devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. Go also to meet Christ’s other friends, the other saints, as well.
— Have a great love and respect for the pope and the bishops. Pray for them and adhere to the teachings of the magisterium.
— Repent again and again. Receive the sacrament of reconciliation frequently.
— Have a love for the cross — or at least resolve to accept the daily crosses that come your way.
— Engage in some freely chosen self-denial.
— Give yourself to community life with all its joys and sacrifices.
— Have a serious commitment to praying the Liturgy of the Hours.
— Do some concrete work for the physically and materially poor.
— Get involved in some type of pro-life activity.
These are simple principles that help one to “put on the mind of Christ” and help seminarians to become “shepherds, fathers after the Heart of Christ” — to become joyful, healthy and holy priests, to become priests who love God, love the Church and love God’s people.
That is why teaching our seminarians to think with the Church is at the heart of St. Vincent Seminary’s formation program, and that is what the visitation teams want to see. That is also the vision outlined by our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his writings on the priesthood.
This summer, as seminarians across the country are ordained to the priesthood, I now and then think of the thousands of people who will call them Father in the coming years. I pray that those young men will exercise a fatherhood shaped by the mind and heart of the Church, a fatherhood that helps bring about the “renewal of the whole Church.” And, increasingly, I am confident they will.
Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole is rector
of St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.