Forming a future priest to be alter Christus (another Christ) is an essential duty. When their seminarians come to Rome to study at institutes connected to the Vatican, dioceses from all over the world choose to have them live and be formed at the Pontifical Maria Mater Ecclesiae International College. Established and directed by the Legion of Christ, Maria Mater Ecclesiae was granted pontifical status by Pope John Paul II. On a brief visit to the United States in August, Legionary Father Oscar Turrión spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen about his work at Maria Mater Ecclesiae and the far-reaching effects this formation program is having on future diocesan priests all over the world.
Where do the seminarians come from?
We have altogether 238 seminarians for this year. At Mater Ecclesiae we have seminarians from 27 different countries and 90 different dioceses.
Three months ago a priest from a diocese in China became the 500th of all the priests ordained who graduated from Maria Mater Ecclesiae.
How did the program start?
Mater Ecclesiae began 17 years ago, in 1991. It was a request of John Paul II. He asked Father Marcial Maciel [founder of the Legionaries of Christ] if the Legion could do something for the formation of priests because he believed how good it would be for the Legion to have a seminary for bishops from all over the world so their seminarians could become rectors and formators in their own [diocesan] seminaries. Father Maciel saw this as the solution to that request he saw in the eyes and heart of the Vicar of Christ.
What do you mean by “formator”?
A formator is one who imparts priestly formation, which is much more than schooling or job training. Formation means cooperating with God’s grace in a man who has been called to priesthood.
John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis laid out the four pillars of priestly formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation.
A formator focuses on the human and pastoral formation — though he also includes aspects of the other two areas, such as being involved in the seminarians’ spiritual life. For example, human formation includes building virtues like sincerity, nobility, maturity, politeness, kindness.
Why do many bishops choose Mater Ecclesiae for some of their seminarians?
From the very beginning they trust us and they believe in our formation. In the mind of the bishop those seminarians that go to Rome later on are going to be formators as rectors, spiritual directors and the like, forming seminarians themselves.
In one diocese in Brazil, all the seminary formators, rectors and deans are former seminarians at Mater Ecclesiae. Because the bishops place them at key points in their dioceses, that means the bishops are looking forward to that kind of formation. The apple of the eye of a bishop has to be the seminary.
How did your background prepare you to form these priests?
I was a founding student at the Legion’s minor seminary in New Hampshire in 1983 (Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor). Then I did my novitiate in Cheshire, Conn., and afterwards, studied humanities in Salamanca, Spain, then philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome. Back in the United States in 1989, I spent four years at the minor seminary in New Hampshire as a formator. Before being assigned to Mater Ecclesiae, I was at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.
How in general is Mater Ecclesiae benefiting diocesan seminarians and the Church through this formation?
Now we see the world is bent on the wrong path. Values have been lost; political situations and decisions made that should never have been made against values and morals and ethical principles.
But also we have to look inside us and see what the Church is missing and needs. As the Church we should never be scared of facing the truth, of facing Christ. We need to ask, “Lord, are you happy with the way I am?”
The Church has to offer good pastors not because they’re going to talk to people about sports, better business and politics. What people look for in a pastor is the word of Christ — that word spoken more than 2,000 years ago — and how they can make those words reality and live those words in today’s world.
What people look for in a pastor is Christ and the Gospel and love for Christ in his hands, eyes, words and acts. A man that is weak and is fragile, but nevertheless always stands up for the word of Christ.
By means of formation at the Pontifical Maria Mater Ecclesiae International College, we want to offer that to the Church and the bishops because we believe the Church needs that. It offers a solution to the problems that the world finds or presents nowadays.
With these seminarians from 27 countries, how do you keep them focused on the same solution as future pastors?
The seminarians come from China, Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, all over Latin America, some places in Europe. You find those future priests from all over the world, but all connected to the heart that is pumping fresh blood to the Church everywhere and which is connected to the Vicar of Christ, the magisterium and the apostles.
A priest is really a pastor when he is connected to St. Peter. If we move away from that reality, we easily lose connection with God. We have a title, we were ordained, but we become an executive of the sacred and not a great pastor.
But we are not hired hands. We are shepherds. And as shepherds, we have to have that 100% in our hearts, our willpower. We have to put away our laziness, our problems. We don’t sleep when we know someone has a problem. We live for the glory of God, consuming our lives totally for the benefit of souls and the glory of God.
With the many ideas rooted and found in the Gospel as the foundation, the inner program then becomes a natural thing for a priest. He needs to be another Christ, like having the DNA of Christ. It has to be natural to give glory to God and pray and do everything you can to save souls. It means you are brought up like that.
Formation of the seminarians is a key point in the future of the Church.
Is this the same formation Legionaries receive?
It is like formation of the Legion, but adapted to diocesan seminarians.
What are the areas of formation for these diocesan seminarians?
Nowadays modern society is demanding the priest not just be a prayerful man but a man who is in the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral world. We have to be the voice of truth.
In order to be the voice of truth, we have to be intellectually strong and alive with ideas because nowadays knowledge goes against the truth. So the triumph is with those arguments that are strong enough to defend the truth. That is why our commitment with knowledge and intellectual life is very strong: because we have to be the voice of truth in our society, which doesn’t want to hear the truth.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.