Seminaries Incorporate More Counseling Into Formation Years

Future priests are using psychological sciences to assist them in living vocations in a hostile culture.


DENVER — When Pope Francis addressed the Congregation for Clergy last October, he said that, with the current priest shortage, bishops face the temptation of accepting “without discernment the young men who present themselves” for the seminary.

“This is bad for the Church!” the Pope warned, exhorting bishops to examine carefully if potential seminarians are “healthy” and “balanced.”

The Holy Father’s words echo concerns already felt by many bishops, who are availing more and more of the psychological sciences to assist them in evaluating and forming seminarians.

Christina Lynch is the director of psychological services at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.

She explained to the Register that, over the last decade, as she has worked as the principal counselor with the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF), she has seen a “great shift in the availability of counseling provided by seminaries around the country.”

“Ten years ago, there was a considerable stigma for anyone who sought counseling of their own volition or was advised to seek a counselor by their formation team,” Lynch said. But, by this year, she noted, “in many cases, seminarians seeking counseling seemed to be a part of the routine, given accessibility in their own seminaries.”

According to Lynch, the availability of psychologists to assist seminarians varies around the country: “A few seminaries have full-time positions for psychologists or counselors, who encourage human growth through counseling opportunities, while other seminaries employ part-time psychological help to assist with mostly those men who are mandated by formation to seek counseling.”


Growing Availability, Growing Need

According to Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seminary formators are seeing a growing need for assistance from professionals in psychology.

“Considering the cultural milieu of our applicants for the seminary today, especially with the breakdown of the family, it is not surprising that a number of them are deferred until they have resolved certain human-formation difficulties before admission to the seminary,” he said. “Not all seminarians, however, need extensive therapy. It is quite normal for a seminarian at some point in his formation to benefit from the psychological sciences through counseling and other low-level interventions.”

Father McKnight explained that psychology is used in two ways for seminary formation: “One is to screen and evaluate applicants to the seminary; the second is to assist the human formation of seminarians as they engage the total-formation program of the seminary.”

He said that the future priest’s “human formation” is one of the four pillars of priestly formation, along with his “spiritual, intellectual and pastoral” formation; all are viewed integrally, “not as separate entities.”

“In order to evaluate an applicant for admission to the seminary, to determine whether or not he would be capable of seminary formation, we must consider the ‘human matter’ that the applicant presents, among other things,” Father McKnight said. “And for this, the psychological sciences are called upon to assist bishops and rectors with the task of screening out inappropriate applicants and assessing their strengths and challenges, their ability to engage fruitfully in priestly formation [in] all its dimensions.”


Not Everyone, but Not Just the ‘Perfect’

While recognizing the potential for “human matter” unfit for the priesthood, Father McKnight also affirmed that potential seminarians can’t be expected to be perfect.

He led a panel discussion Oct. 24 on “The Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions: A Need for Guidance,” held during the Catholic Psychotherapy Association’s annual conference.

Standards can’t be set too high, he warned. “It’s not about finding the perfect guy. It’s about who’s called. If God is calling a man, we have an obligation to heed that call and to nourish that man,” he said.

Part of that nourishment can certainly be the availability of a full-time psychologist, as Lynch noted from her experience working at the seminary in Denver.

Counseling is approached there “with the goal that man be a ‘free person,’ and anything that blocks his freedom humanly can be addressed through growth counseling,” she explained. “With this goal in mind, St. John Vianney Theological Seminary’s counseling policies are proactive rather than reactive. 

“They encourage the man to take responsibility for his own human growth in affective maturity, by allowing him to approach counseling confidentially, without considering it a formation issue. This approach, which has been standard over the past seven years, has provided an environment that has encouraged between 90% to 95% of the seminary community to seek out counseling voluntarily at some point in their six to seven years of formation.”


Fighting the Culture

Lynch sees the growing use of psychology in seminaries as a natural result of “acknowledging the Lord is calling men into seminary formation to live a free and joyful life of celibacy from the same cultural environment that promotes anti-life and over-sexualized values.”

For example, she speaks of the universal desire for intimacy, which the culture often equates with sexual pleasure.

“History has proven that men and women can live without sex, but they cannot live joyfully without true intimacy. True intimacy can only come from the Lord, and such a relationship helps us build healthy intimate relationships with others,” she said.

In that regard, Lynch said that if a person isn’t able to form intimate, non-sexualized relationships, then counseling might help identify what is inhibiting intimacy. “If there are unhealthy behaviors or distorted thinking processes contributing to the inability to form lasting relationships, counseling based on a Christian or Catholic anthropology can be beneficial,” the psychologist said.

“In my experience, seminarians have a great desire to please the Lord,” Lynch added. “In that desire, they want to change their lives. Current norms of living in an over-sexualized culture have created in many men a cognitive dissonance between behaviors promoted by the culture and their innate understanding of right and wrong. They long to rightly order their own inordinate desires learned living in the current culture.”

Kathleen Naab writes from Houston,

where she covers news of the Church as

a coordinator for Zenit News Service.