Ten years ago this spring, Pope John Paul II offered to the Church a document addressing “one of the most demanding and important tasks for the future of the evangelization of humanity.”
The document was the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis — On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day.
A decade later, as the priesthood in America faces unprecedented and troubling challenges, it is worth asking: What impact has the Pope's document had on priestly formation in America? And what guidance might it have for the future?
“Pastores Dabo Vobis is the most important document issued on the Roman Catholic priesthood since Vatican Council II,” says Sulpician Father Ronald Witherup, provincial of the U.S. Province of Sulpicians, an international society of diocesan priests dedicated to the preparation of men for the priesthood.
Some of the content of the document, says Father Witherup, is nothing less than “revolutionary.” He points specifically to the Pope's emphasis on the importance of human formation as foundational to priestly formation. That particular point also speaks to the current difficulties of the priesthood in America.
Future priests, the document teaches, “need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior. … Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others.”
On the other hand, Father Witherup notes, while revolutionary in some ways, Pastores Dabo Vobis is also a thoroughly traditional teaching on the Church's theology of the priesthood. The priest is one who stands in persona Christi capitis (“in the person of Christ, the head”) in relation to the Church which is his spouse. “The priest of tomorrow, no less than the priest of today, must resemble Christ,” the Holy Father wrote.
Indeed, a priest's identity comes through as one of the most important themes of the document. The Pope clearly perceives a “crisis of priestly identity” and means to address it.
What is a Priest?
Pastores Dabo Vobis was a positive step toward resolving this problem, says Sulpician Father Harold Bleichner, who has served as rector of Theological College at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for the past ten years.
“The document brings together the ontological nature of the priest-hood — what connects the priest to Christ — and the functional nature of priesthood — what the priest actually does,” says Father Bleichner. “Our whole program of formation [at Theological College] is to prepare a man for the day when he'll receive this ontological nature and pledge to live this style of life.”
At the time of the document's publication, the American bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation was undergoing a revision. Father Bleichner, who served as a general editor of that work, says that the papal document had a profound impact on the bishops’ work on the program and, as a result, all subsequent priestly formation in the United States.
One strong theme of the Pope's exhortation is the impact of the prevailing culture on the development of vocations to priesthood. Too many young people, wrote the Holy Father, are “prisoners of the fleeting moment,” centering their lives on material gratification and success. This makes the prospect of a priestly vocation “far from the actual everyday interests which young men have in life.”
On the other hand, it is no secret that the Pope recognizes in young people a thirst for great ideals — freedom, justice, openness, peace — and this is the case in Pastores Dabo Vobis as well. Indeed, he has done much to foster that thirst in young people.
Msgr. Peter Finn, recently appointed rector of the Archdiocese of New York's St. Joseph Seminary, sees in this one of the most remarkable developments since the publication of Pastores Dabo Vobis a decade ago.
“Ten years ago,” he says, “the cultural environment put people on a treadmill toward success founded on money and such things. All of a sudden, there was an awakening on the part of men and women. I call it the ‘Trump Syndrome.’ After you've got ten buildings, all you have left to get is ten more. People began to ask, ‘What's it all about? What's it all worth?’”
The Commitment Clause
The result, says Msgr. Finn, is more inquiries from young men considering application to seminary and more candidates for the priesthood. “When you eat too much and drink too much, you sometimes regurgi-tate. Perhaps we're regurgitating as a society,” he adds.
Father Witherup sees the same growing altruism, especially “on the part of the younger generation.” But, he notes, “I am not sure whether they are any more willing to make the kind of commitment that priesthood demands.”
Father Witherup and Msgr. Finn have no doubts that the scandals facing the Church in the United States today will affect the formation of priests in the future. Attention will increasingly be paid to the human formation, the development of “affective maturity,” of which the Pope wrote.
Prayer, too, will play a crucial role. Indeed, the Pope devotes an entire chapter of Pastores Dabo Vobis to the spiritual life of priests.
“That,” says Father Witherup, “is one of the factors lacking in the lives of priests who get themselves into one sort of trouble or another — lack of a solid, regular prayer life.”
Msgr. Finn, while he views the present scandals as “horrible and inexcusable,” remains hopeful. ”I hope it will have the effect something like pruning your rosebushes. A paring down so that a beautiful flowering will result.”
Msgr. Finn, who calls Pastores Dabo Vobis “the magna carta for the education of men preparing to be priests,” is one of many who will look to the document for guidance, encouragement and sound teaching for a long time to come.
Barry Michaels writes from Blairsville, Pennsylvania.