Institute for Priestly Formation Helps Catholic Seminarians Go Deeper in Prayer

A hallmark of the 25-year-old program at Creighton University has been the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

(photo: via

As men in formation for the diocesan priesthood continue their seminary studies this fall, their lives can be surprisingly busy. Between academics and pastoral assignments, formation meetings and apostolic service, there’s an essential aspect of priestly life that, if not intentionally prioritized, can all too easily fall by the wayside: the spiritual life.

Which is why, for the past 25 years, dioceses across the U.S. and beyond have made it a priority to send their seminarians to the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) for the summer. Based on the campus of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, IPF’s nine-week seminarian program helps men in formation for the diocesan priesthood deepen their relationship with God and provides practical tools for maintaining a vibrant life of prayer in the midst of busy ministry.

“The method we use is teaching seminarians how to stay with the presence of God,” said Father Richard Gabuzda, IPF’s executive director and one of its founders. “Guys have an experience of knowing that they are sons of the Father, and they take that with them into priesthood.”

The approach is one that draws heavily from the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century saint who sought to help those in his spiritual charge become “contemplatives, even in action.”

And it has proved popular. After starting with only six seminarians in 1995, IPF’s summer program now regularly draws classes of around 175. Over its 25 years, Father Gabuzda estimates that IPF has served seminarians from 165 Latin Rite dioceses, with 69 represented this past summer alone.

Father John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary and a faculty member at IPF’s summer program, joked that, for nine weeks, IPF becomes “the largest seminary in the country.”

And when the seminarians return to their actual seminaries in the fall?

“They tend to be more focused, spiritual direction is utilized much more effectively, and there’s a maturation and a growth in prayer,” Father Kartje told the Register, adding that “it’s not automatic that someone just knows how to pray.”

Many believe that, as the oldest and largest program of its kind in the country, IPF has a proven track record of teaching seminarians to do just that.

“It’s like ‘Go away from everything, go away from home, and focus on your spiritual life for a summer,’” said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “This foundation can be missed unless we challenge guys to go into the silence and face difficulties and grow through them. Otherwise, they won’t develop that deep interior life.”


Ignatian Origins

A hallmark of the summer program is an eight-day retreat, a version of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Making the retreat in the second week of the program, seminarians spend much of the remaining weeks unpacking what they experienced during their eight days of silence, which includes contemplative prayer with Scripture, daily meetings with a spiritual director, and pre-retreat instruction on the Ignatian rules for discernment by renowned spiritual author Oblates of the Virgin Mary Father Timothy Gallagher.

But as much as the Ignatian retreat is at the heart of the present-day IPF experience, it’s also a key part of the institute’s origins, which were celebrated this summer as IPF commemorated its 25th anniversary.

It was 1992 when Father Gabuzda went on his own 30-day retreat at Creighton. He was joining Kathy Kanavy, a lay minister in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who was studying for the summer at Creighton’s Christian spirituality program. Kanavy had set up the retreat under the direction of Jesuit Father John Horn, who had also served in Scranton.

At the time, Father Gabuzda was involved in seminary formation back home in Pennsylvania and was also a spiritual director for priests in his diocese. In these capacities, he regularly encountered priests who were struggling in their ministry because their spiritual life had gone dry or, worse, had never really been established. His experience of God’s closeness on the retreat seemed to be in such stark contrast to what he was encountering among the priests and seminarians he worked with back home.

“I knew from my own 30-day retreat that there could be more for diocesan priests in terms of the spiritual life,” he recalled.

If the seeds of IPF were planted during the retreat, they began unfolding months later, over, of all things, an Italian meal. Father Gabuzda, Kanavy, Father Horn and others were gathered back on the East Coast for Christmas. At the end of the meal, someone asked the question: “If you could write your own ticket and do something good for the Church, what would that be?”

That question helped those present discern that they were being called to bring about a new work in the life of the Church: a deepening of the spiritual life of seminarians in formation to serve as diocesan priests.

Ideas began to germinate. In 1993, the trio went to see Jesuit Father George Aschenbrenner, a spiritual director who had extensive experience working with diocesan seminarians. When they shared their plan for a spiritual program for seminarians, Father Aschenbrenner went to his files and pulled out the notes for an address he had given to seminary spiritual directors 10 years earlier. He had called for a program just like the one being proposed.

Father Aschenbrenner helped refine the vision and opened some doors at Creighton, and in the summer of 1995, the newly formed Institute for Priestly Formation held its first summer seminary program for six seminarians.


Practical Spirituality

The program has grown and changed since then, but it remains true to its initial mission. The eight-day retreat, which for some seminarians may be their first extended silent retreat, can be a powerful catalyst.

“To enter into the silence and hear the whisper of God say to me every day, ‘My son, I love you,’ was very powerful,” said Seamus Kettner, a seminarian for the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, who participated in IPF this past summer. “It placed on my heart desires to go again and again [to prayer].”

The rest of the summer program is devoted to helping seminarians turn that desire for prayer into a habit. They take courses on topics such as priestly identity and authentic masculinity, some taught by leading theologians and spiritual directors from seminaries across the country. The focus is less on gaining theological knowledge than it is on incorporating the methods and insights taught into one’s own spiritual life.

Students are given assignments, but they typically involve reflecting on an experience of putting one of the prayer methods taught in class into practice in the chapel.

“Sometimes I say we’re more of a laboratory than a library,” said Father Gabuzda, commenting on the practical focus of IPF. “When guys go back to the seminary after the summer, they have a plan in place to pray.”

IPF’s approach is certainly drawn from the Ignatian tradition, but Father Gabuzda is quick to point out that the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola is a gift for the whole Church and not just for the Society of Jesus, which the saint founded. After all, some of the first people St. Ignatius offered the Spiritual Exercises to were diocesan priests.

IPF doesn’t discount the importance of other spiritual traditions in the Church, whether Benedictine or Carmelite, for instance, but its proponents believe that Ignatian spirituality is particularly well suited for diocesan priests.

“The unique thing about St. Ignatius’ spirituality is that it was designed for active people,” said Bishop Cozzens, who has previously served on IPF’s faculty and is currently on its corporate board. “His emphasis on the use of imagination can be a very helpful tool when you’re facing distractions.”

Overall, the focus is on helping seminarians integrate their life of prayer with everything else they’ll do in seminary and beyond: their studies, their service and their participation in the liturgy.

“You find you can live your priestly ministry always in the presence of God, always seeking to live out what God wants and God desires in given circumstances,” Bishop Cozzens told the Register. “So my life isn’t split up between my time to do work and my time to pray, but the two come together.”


Necessary Component

The kind of focused, intentional spiritual formation provided by IPF isn’t merely an added bonus to the rest of seminary formation. It’s a necessary feature, consistently called for by Church documents meant to guide the formation of candidates for the priesthood, like Pope St. John Paul’s 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests) and the 2016 Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation) issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy.

Changes in society and challenges in the priesthood over the past half-century — such as isolation, increasing workloads and the rise of secularism — have revealed just how essential a deep and steady life of prayer is for diocesan priests.

“If the encounter with God is the heart of any vocation to the priesthood, then it has to be promoted, and if it’s absent, then there’s bound to be some problems that come from that,” Father Gabuzda told the Reigster. “If you can’t find God in the middle of [your ministry], and can’t receive him, that’s a killer.”

Father Chris Seith, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., who went through IPF in 2010, said the seminarian program not only provides tools for living a contemplative life, but also a baseline to help recognize when things are off.

“It can be really easy to forget that my priesthood is just an expression of that overflowing abundance of life with God,” said Father Seith, who served as a spiritual director at this past summer’s seminarian program. “At IPF, they gave us what it feels like to be running at the right pace and in the right way, so that when you stop living that way, you know what it feels like, and you can tell yourself, ‘Okay, something is off here.’”

But the 1,000-plus priests who’ve gone through IPF as seminarians aren’t the only ones to benefit from their training. Members of parishes where IPF-trained priests serve, like those featured in IPF’s 25th anniversary video, speak of the impact of a priest who speaks about God as if he knows him and models a profound dependence on prayer for the success of his ministry.

Additionally, many IPF-trained priests turn around and teach the practical tools they learn, such as the discernment of spirits and the examen prayer, to those they serve in parishes and other ministries. Bishop Cozzens, for instance, is especially fond of teaching the so-called “Pirates Prayer,” or “ARRR” (Acknowledge, Relate, Receive, Respond), which helps one acknowledge challenging situations, relate them to God, receive his love and light in the midst of the challenge, and respond appropriately.

“I teach that everywhere! Because it’s so practical,” he said. “It’s basically just: How do I surrender a difficult thing in my life? Which if we’re going to live in God’s presence, we have to learn to do.”

Finally, IPF’s emphasis on relational prayer doesn’t only impact seminarians who come to their program; it has also made an impact at seminaries across the country.

Many rectors and faculty members of U.S. seminarians are affiliated with IPF in some way, while many spiritual directors have received training through IPF’s three-year program for diocesan priests. As a result, seminarians across the country are being formed, at least partially, in the IPF way, whether they attend the summer program or not.

“Spiritual formation isn’t just something we need to do on the side,” says Bishop Cozzens. “It’s the integrating principle of all formation. IPF has affected the whole system in that way.”


Future of IPF

The 25th anniversary celebration this past July was an appropriate time to stop and appreciate all that IPF has been able to accomplish in its history. But it was also a moment to assess where the institute is at and where the Lord might be calling IPF to go in the future.

For starters, Father Gabuzda stresses the need for IPF to grow its capacity for what it currently provides.

More spiritual directors could always be used to assist at the summer seminarian eight-day retreat, for example. Additionally, funding assistance is always appreciated for an organization that needs to annually raise a third of its $3-million operating budget.

Looking forward, Father Gabuzda said IPF hopes it can serve diocesan priests in additional ways, especially in the area of ongoing formation after ordination.

“We really know that priests need to be accompanied throughout their life,” said Father Gabuzda, who is one of seven members of the IPF Priests of St. Joseph, a vowed association of priests founded in 2015 and dedicated to IPF’s mission. “They need ongoing spiritual direction and a place that they can come back for refreshment, because it is a very challenging life.”

He also expressed a desire to “do more for bishops” in the U.S., “offering them assistance for their own personal growth.”

One factor that will help shape IPF’s role going forward: the anticipated publication of a new version of the “Program of Priestly Formation” (PPF), a document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that applies the guidelines for seminary formation found in the Ratio Fundamentalis to the American context. The PPF will set the direction of seminary formation for decades to come and could possibly lay out standards for seminarians to engage in additional years of formation outside of academic environments — possibly a propaedeutic year before entering major seminary, or even a spiritual year sometime before ordination — both of which IPF could help facilitate.

Whatever the future holds, Bishop Cozzens is confident that the same docility to the Holy Spirit that has borne so much fruit over IPF’s first 25 years will allow it to be fruitful in the future.

“The Holy Spirit never leaves the Church unaided, and it’s hard to think of a greater gift to the Church in the past 25 years in terms of priestly formation than IPF,” the bishop said. “We’re certainly looking forward to how it can be a part of this incredible movement in the Church that will hopefully strengthen seminary formation over the next 100 years.”

Jonathan Liedl is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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