How to Form Holy Priests

Seminarians greet the Pope April 19 at New York's St. Joseph Seminary.
Seminarians greet the Pope April 19 at New York's St. Joseph Seminary. (photo: CNS)

The Vatican weighed in today on the subject of using psychological methods in seminaries.

Many Vatican-watchers have concluded erroneously that today’s new Vatican document is intended primarily to address the question of how to avoid ordaining men who might become sexual abusers.

That’s obviously a crucial matter in itself, but the Vatican knows the bigger issue for the Church is whether the application of psychological techniques helps or hinders in achieving the central objective of every Catholic seminary — forming holy and faithful priests.

Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke today in Rome with Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Seminaries and Institutes of Study), about the new document.

Why is this document being released now, and what is its most important point?

Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski: There are different points of view. There are certain exaggerations on either side. Some centers, some seminaries, have attached too much importance to the role of psychology and psychiatry, almost substituting the fundamental role carried out by formators and spiritual directors.

In other centers, the opposite has happened. So through this document, in these situations, we’ve wanted to introduce a certain balance and say that of course, in a practical sense, formators in seminaries are principally spiritual directors. We are responsible for forming the human heart in virtue, above all taking into account divine grace and the sacraments. This is fundamental.

But in some cases, the role of psychology and psychiatry could be useful, much more so today in that there are excesses which influence the human heart. For example, today we have a relativistic approach to the truth, also moral relativism, sexual immorality, instability in human relationships — in the family and other social relationships.

These things are affecting the human heart and creating some wounds, and this is where psychology and psychiatry could be of some help.

Have cases of pedophilia and the sexual abuse crisis in the Church been motivations for this document?

No. When we prepared this document, we weren’t thinking about pedophilia — that wasn’t considered.

Obviously, that is a problem of seminary education which must give proper education on celibacy, also the discipline of celibacy, and the consideration of celibacy in a positive sense — not as a restriction, but as a gift from the Lord.

Of course, that cannot all be resolved in the seminary. Man remains free in life, he can become holy or become a great sinner. We cannot want control over the life of a priest, so not everything can be resolved in the seminary.

In this document, we have wanted to help train people to be able to address the fruitful mission of a priest.

Watch for a more in-depth discussion of the document’s conclusions and their significance in an upcoming issue of the Register.

— Tom McFeely