Seminary: Where Priests Prepare to Serve Families

Catholic seminaries have improved overall in educating priests, but more is needed to assist them in facing complex pastoral questions.

Pope Francis meets with seminarians from the Pontifical Roman universities in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on May 12.
Pope Francis meets with seminarians from the Pontifical Roman universities in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on May 12. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

WASHINGTON — New priests in the modern era are confronting an ever-widening array of challenges to marriage and family life, and their seminary education and formation is critical to preparing them to be good shepherds to their flocks.

But how are seminaries preparing priests to minister to such modern challenges?

The preparatory document for the synods on the family noted that many Catholics do not know the Church’s positive teachings on openness to life, conjugal love, parenthood and human nature; it suggested that priestly formation has contributed to the lack of knowledge.

“[T]he responses suggest including the subject in the seminary formation of future priests, given that priests are sometimes unprepared to deal with these issues and sometimes provide inexact and misleading information,” the document stated.

But professor Janet Smith, the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said she is “very optimistic about the future” of the priesthood and indicated that the state of the Church’s incoming classes of pastors has markedly improved since she began her Humanae Vitae lectures in 1987.

“I am quite certain that the vast majority of seminaries are now teaching the seminarians to explain the incompatibility of contraception with marital [acts],” she said, adding that many seminarians are “very eager to learn Church teaching and how to convey it.”

Smith said that, for decades, she has been making “a connection between the failure to teach the truth about contraception and a host of marital and associated social problems.”

“I think the evidence overwhelmingly shows a strong connection between use of contraception, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, divorce, artificial reproductive technologies, the call for same-sex unions, poverty and all that poverty involves,” she said. “Contraception is not some small, isolated issue.”

In her lecture “Contraception, Why Not?” Smith pointed out that priests formed before Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) — which explained why the Church opposes birth control — were not trained to explain the Church’s teaching, but only to assert it. Priests trained in seminaries after 1968, she said, were trained to tell people to follow their consciences on contraception, which has led to many misinformed Catholics in the pew.

Now, future priests are committed to fixing that issue.

“The seminarians I teach have no problem seeing these connections,” Smith said. “They are brave and devout men dedicated to teaching the fullness of truth.”


A Tale of Two Priests

Father Peter Mottola, a priest ordained for the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., in 2013, said his studies at The Catholic University of America covered Humanae Vitae, St. John Paul II’s theology of the body and its different approaches and natural family planning as part of his pastoral preparation.

“The material was helpful for me to preach about what the Church teaches in a way that’s clear, but also to explain not only what the Church teaches but also why that is the way we lead the virtuous and happy life to which God calls,” he said.

Father Mottola said most of the pastoral situations he encounters have to do with people who are seeking to reconcile their lives with the Church.

“I’ve found most of the pastoral encounters I’ve had about married and family life are when people are approaching the Church to have their marriage convalidated [seeking to have a non-Catholic marriage officially recognized by the Church] or go through the annulment process or have already made the decision to take the next step” in getting their lives right with God by rectifying irregular circumstances, he said. In these situations, the priest said the individuals made the first moves toward reconciliation with the Church. They didn’t need to be persuaded by him; rather, they needed encouragement and direction for continuing forward.

Father Mottola said that one area of improvement in his pastoral education at CUA’s Theological College would have been “confessional praxis: how to help people in difficult or unusual situations reconcile their lives to the ideal proposed by the Church.”

“Our class on confession was mainly a historical/theological look at the sacrament, with only one evening workshop on actually practicing confessions,” he said.

But for Father “Green,” a recently ordained priest who asked that neither he nor his seminary be named, his own seminary experience was a mixed bag.

While his pastoral theology class was “decent” and covered many practical issues related to dealing with marriage, Father Green said there was “no influence whatsoever of John Paul II’s moral theology.”

Instead, he and several friends had to resort to “our own self-driven program” in order to learn the teachings of Humanae Vitae, Veritatis Splendor [John Paul’s ‘Splendor of Truth’ encyclical focused on the Church’s moral teaching], theology of the body and natural family planning (NFP).

“We weren’t getting it from the seminary, and we knew it,” he said.

Moreover, Father Green said the “biggest disconnect between seminary and real life as a priest” was the confessional experience. He said he lacked guidance in how to help sinners address their struggles with different stages of sin: such as those dealing with “near occasion of sin,” those wrestling with “habitual sin” and those relapsing into sinful behavior. The training instead was reduced to letting the penitent unburden himself and then providing absolution.

“My seminary didn’t prepare me to be a confessor,” he said.


Turning Men Into Pastors

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation, the general guide for seminary education in the U.S., a seminarian’s preparation for the priesthood depends on four pillars of formation outlined by St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day) — human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. But while “all four pillars are interwoven and go forward concurrently” in the seminarian’s training, the bishops’ program cites St. John Paul II’s teaching to explain that “pastoral formation is the culmination of the entire formation process.”

Smith noted that priests have to be educated and prepared for the “very difficult problem” that most young people living in the culture “have lost the Christian view of marriage.”

“When couples come for marriage prep, they [may] have had multiple sexual partners, perhaps an abortion or more, perhaps an STI [sexually transmitted infection]; they usually have been living together for some time, they have been contracepting, and one or the other has grown up in a divorced household,” she said. “Attendance at church has been intermittent at best. For them, the wedding is just a ceremony and not a true commitment to all that a Christian marriage is meant to be.”

For the next generation of priests, equipping them with the knowledge they need, from theology to modern science, is key to preparing them for pastoral ministry.

Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, said the seminarians learn Humanae Vitae, NFP, theology of the body and modern science as part of their education. But in addition to helping them understand these teachings in their totality, “the pastoral application is critically important,” he said, treating each and every person with the “dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God.”


Imitating Jesus

Bishop Senior said the key is to develop men in a “pastorally sensitive way” and help them to connect the teachings of the Church to people in a way that resonates with their situations, adding that Pope Francis is an “inspiring” example of how to pastor.

“It’s not enough to just be right; you have to be effective,” the bishop said.

“In all pastoral situations, we have to imitate Jesus first and foremost,” he said. “We need to meet people where we are, and I listen before I talk. I think it’s so important for us in pastoral ministry to hear people’s experience and come to understand their situation, where we discover so much about them and then look for the entry point … a common area where the Church’s teaching, the revelation of God, speaks to their situation.”

Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y., said pastoral care of marriage and families requires a great deal of human formation, especially since seminarians are coming from a broken cultural landscape of sexuality and family life.

“Pastoral formation presupposes human formation,” he said. He added that it requires “knowledge of the human heart,” including one’s own.

“The deeper a man’s self-knowledge of his own battles, difficulties, struggles, temptations and understanding of himself as a human person [is], that is the first level of preparation,” he said.

“If his own house is in order, he’ll be much better placed to get someone else’s house in order.”

Father Berg said seminaries also provide seminarians with “hands-on opportunities for ministry” over summers or a pastoral year — with opportunities for feedback and review — but the experience is limited, in that deacons and priests encounter more of the family and marriage issues once they have entered full-time ministry.

“It still can offer me a real taste of what it’s like,” he said of internships.

He said a pastorally prepared priest should have a meaningful set of friendships, regular engagement with the culture and with Catholics in the pew, be anxious to bring people to the sacrament of confession and support them with the sacraments, and have ongoing formation.


Pressing Pastoral Concerns

Still, the training of seminarians is an art seeking perfection, and areas exist for improvement.

Father Berg said one such area would be teaching seminarians how to “work with qualified laypersons.”

“Oftentimes, there needs to be a much better engagement with Catholic laymen and women who have the charisms, expertise and leadership positions in ministry in which they are engaging,” he said. “Where our men oftentimes are limping is that they don’t really understand the role that is being played by laymen and women.”

Smith said that “priests need to work on providing good marriage preparation” with theology-of-the-body concepts long before young people stand before the altar.

“Life Teen and various theology-of-the-body programs for young people are very effective,” she said.

“Priests should promote marriage-enrichment programs in the parish, such as Marriage Encounter, and the various date-night, parish-based programs that exist.”

Both Father Mottola and Father Green independently told the Register that a renewal of the “manuals tradition” based on the renewed moral theology of St. John Paul II would be helpful to their pastoral ministry.

Father Green said it could help unify the Church’s pastoral approach.

“There is not available today a unified, practical pastoral discipline that systematically addresses the ins and the outs of daily pastoral practice,” he said.

Smith agreed that having manuals with case studies is helpful for training priests. She taught a class on homosexuality over the summer, where priests had to write responses to various case studies.

“Their wealth of experience made the conversations very profitable,” she said, noting that the most difficult issue is not contraception, but “how to teach the wrongness of homosexual acts and how to deal pastorally with those who experience same-sex attractions and those who have friends and family members with same-sex attraction.”

Bishop Senior said seminaries need to “become more evangelical and creative pastorally in responding to the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics,” while continuing to articulate the Church’s teaching in an effective, positive way.

He indicated that, in the final analysis, the seminary needs to form priests into the image of the Good Shepherd they serve.

“I just hope that a person, no matter what they believe — whether they accept the Church’s teaching or not — when they would meet a priest, that they would have the sense they are meeting God and encountering Jesus Christ.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.