Cardinal Stella on New Vatican Seminary Document: Avoid 'Rigidity'

Coinciding with publication of new and updated guidelines on priestly formation, Cardinal Beniamino Stella says that seminaries should focus on pastoral discernment and form priests to be "without rigidity, hypocrisy."

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.
Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. (photo: Edward Pentin/

The Congregation for Clergy is about to issue a new document on basic norms for priestly formation which aim to move away from “rigidity” in the interests of fostering greater pastoral discernment and accompaniment, according to the Congregation’s cardinal prefect.

In an interview in tomorrow’s L’Osservatore Romano timed to coincide with its release, Cardinal Beniamino Stella explains that the document is a revision of the “Basic Plan for Priestly Formation” issued in 1970 which was later updated in 1985. Those documents were both issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Entitled The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, the guidelines, otherwise known as Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, will be promulgated tomorrow, December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Cardinal Stella, a Vatican diplomat and one of the Pope’s most trusted aides, says the decision to issue the new document is in view of “the effect of the rapid evolution the world is subjected to today” as well as changing “historical, socio-cultural and ecclesial contexts in which the priest is called to embody the mission of Christ and of the Church.”

He stresses the document should reflect those realities “without causing significant changes relating to other aspects: the image or vision of the priest, the spiritual needs of God's people, the challenges of the new evangelization, the languages of communication, and more.”

“We felt that the formation of priests needed to be revived, renewed and put back at the center,” he says, adding: “We have been encouraged and enlightened by the Magisterium of Pope Francis.”

He goes on to say that “novelties in the Church are never separate from the tradition”, rather they “integrate and deepen” but it’s important to “listen to the Holy Spirit.”

Turning to vocational discernment, he says the new norms try to overcome some “automatic devices” and instead offer a “process of integral formation that helps the person to mature in every respect.”

The cardinal says three words encapsulate the overall vision of the document — humanity, spirituality and discernment:


  • Humanity: the need for the seminarian to be accompanied by a process of growth that will make him “humanly balanced, serene and stable.” Only then, he says, will priests have the traits of “being amiable, genuine, loyal, inwardly free, emotionally stable, able to be interested in peaceful interrelationships and to live the Gospel without rigidity, hypocrisy or [looking for] easy ways out.”  He adds that the Ratio insists on the importance of human guidance “which helps the development of the person’s maturity and ensures in the candidate a good psycho-emotional balance.”


  • Spirituality: Cardinal Stella says cultivating the spiritual life with discipline can “overcome a sacral or bureaucratic vision of ministry” and instead form priests to be enthusiastic for the Gospel, capable of “thinking with the Church” and being “compassionate and merciful.”


  • Discernment: drawing heavily on the words and thinking of Pope Francis, Cardinal Stella says “those who follow the way of the Gospel and immerse themselves into life of the Spirit overcome the ideological approach of rigorists, discovering that the processes and situations of life can not be classified by inflexible schemes or abstract rules, but they need to listen, dialogue and interpret the movements of the heart.” He adds the importance of accompaniment in this process, and said that discernment is needed “even more” to “accompany and read in depth especially the more complex life situations, for which often the people entrusted to us are scarred, weighed down and wounded”. He then brings up Pope Francis recent comments to Jesuits in Poland, in which the Pope said he noticed a “lack of discernment in the formation of priests” and that “in life not everything is black and white, white and black. No! In life shades of gray predominate. We must then teach how to discern within this gray.” Cardinal Stella, continuing to quote Francis, says that today some seminarians have returned to establishing “a rigidity that is not close to a discernment of situations." The main challenge that the Ratio intends to concentrate on, he says, “has again been suggested by Pope Francis: to form priests to be ‘forward-looking in discernment’.”


The new guidelines are intended to be implemented across the board, including by bishops’ conferences, religious orders and personal prelatures, although each country is expected to produce its own national guidelines based on the Ratio’s text.