success stories

An Aggiornamento for Seminary Formation

Eugene Hemrick

Although substantial efforts have been made to strengthen the seminary system, it needs an aggiornamento! Without it, the third millennium could experience a limited number of priests who fall short on the mettle needed to cope with the new anxieties of our times. More important, the People of God could be deprived of Catholicism's richness.

To learn why this is said, four questions need to be explored: 1. What gives priests happiness? 2. In what does their present mettle consist? 3. What tensions threaten to undo this? 4. From where will the aggiornamento come and on what should it focus?


When priests ordained five to nine years were asked, "Taking things all together, how would you say they are these days?", 90 percent tell us that they are "very to pretty happy" with them. In the study, Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests, which interviewed priests around the country who are considered effective, we learn that they reflect healthy spiritual-intellectual vitality . They are critical thinkers who model modem day virtues, love the Eucharist and use biblical images to define their ministry . They cherish the inspiration they receive from the faith of those they serve, and marvel at the awesomeness of unexpected religious experiences.

Listen to one priest who speaks of the inspiration that comes in ministering to those in sorrow:

A woman in the parish just had a baby and was diagnosed with breast cancer. I walked into the hospital room and she was holding this newborn, and she looked me in the eye and said, 'God will be faithful to me.' And what she really meant was that no matter what is going to happen now to me or to this child, that God is going to be faithful to me. God is going to take care of this whole thing. And she didn't say it in any kind of way as a threat or out of great theological wisdom except the wisdom of her experience that God was going to be faithful to her. He would keep his promises to her.

In the same study we learn of how another priest applies the Paschal Mystery to his ministry.

For me the most life-giving reality is the Paschal Mystery. The community I belong to stresses it very strongly. ..that we pass over from whom we are and what we are and empty out into other people's lives and other people's cultures. I ministered for 25 years in the African American Catholic Church and the experience of faith life of the people is the mystery of faith. Why they remain within the Church is strictly a mystery of faith. It's as mysterious as the Paschal Mystery to me. And that has fed me and constantly gives life to me.

Examples like this teach us that the heart of a priest's ministry and happiness is found in reverential moments of awe. Priests feel privileged to be part of God' s mysterious bigness.


Six weeks before his death, Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard wrote, What a priest unites in himself is what tears him apart. At every moment of his life he must answer two callings and entirely satisfy each of them without ever sacrificing the other . . . Transcendent yet incarnate . . . here is that same fundamental dualism which constitutes the mystery of the Church and the paradox of Christian humanism.

A number of other findings in Grace Under Pressure help to demonstrate the spiritual-intellectual mettle that is needed to live an incarnate ministry when the awesomeness in a priest's ministry is absent. Some priests reflect docility, an attribute of prudence which maintains open mindedness while going to school on a difficult situation. Listen to one priest's story.

The administration changed in our diocese and I didn't get along with them and they didn't get along with me. It was a mutual dissatisfaction and disagreement and I was removed from my parish, which I loved dearly, and told that there was no other parish ministry for me. This changed how I looked at my priesthood, the church and other priests, and affected my life in terms of who I am and where I am.

Those years were extremely difficult, but if nothing else, they taught me the value of honesty and truth. For everything else that I can find bad during that period of administration, the one good thing I keep going back to is that it freed me to be able to walk into the bishop and say, 'This is what I think of what you did,” --- which prior to that time I would never have done. And since that time I am a little bit freer in saying. This is where I am and who I am. I am willing to listen to you. I am willing to change, if that needs to be. But this is the truth of who I am, where I am, and where I am going.

In another finding, we learn of a priest practicing true to being memory, a second quality of prudence which goes beyond recalling facts and seeks to get at the truth of the matter.

I have to uncover my history and then recover it to be able to heal it, those parts of me, so that I can move forward to discover who I am in that relationship to myself. And then once I am in the position to love myself then I can move on to love my neighbor and love the Lord.

From another priest we learn how he practices clearsightedness, a third attribute of prudence which looks reality squarely in the eye.

We have to learn to live with the gap. There is always going to be a difference between who I am and what I'm called to be. There have been priests that I've known who have left, who in many ways have far greater qualities than I have. But when it came down to it, I don't think they were able to live with the gap. I think that in some way that was what led them on the road out. I've read all the books about priesthood, and if you read all of them about what a priest is called to be, it's basically impossible. So you have got to learn to live with the gaps.

These same priests often connect their ministry with biblical images. Dick uses the image of the Israelites taking the risk to leave Egypt. When change isn't working out so well, we have to resist the temptation to go back to Egypt, or back to where we were.

Peter tells us, As life becomes more fast-paced, change becomes a constant. To cope with this he uses the image of "setting out.” Set out, I will be with you was God's exhortation to Abraham and Moses. It seems to be an exhortation that continues today.

Andrew uses his name sake as a model for ministry . Andrew doesn't turn up too often. When he does, it is to introduce somebody else. That is it. I try to recognize this, I am not called to do everything, I'm just called to introduce and then leave it up to God. In Grace Under Pressure we also find many priests mirroring the modem day virtues of earnestness, gravity and asceticism required of post modem leadership. They are intent on getting at the essence of the realities around them and they display courage and firm conviction. They also work at self conquest and humility to free themselves to be better servants of the people entrusted to their spiritual care.


If priests are happy, how do we explain a number of them still leaving? One answer is that the priesthood operates in a bipolar world. Wherever there is happiness, an opposite tension is always present. On one side, the sacredness of the priesthood is its energizer. Conversely, much of its integrity and meaning are being challenged by new tensions. Six post modem tensions especially challenge it that were far less present in past decades:

-- Plummeting numbers

-- Celibacy under fire

-- The appearance of new voids

-- Institutional anxieties

-- Sexual abuse and AIDS

-- Growing gender and multi-cultural sensitivities

Plummeting Numbers

Studies point us to a 20 percent decline in priests from 1966 through 1984, and they tell us there will be continued losses leading to a total decline of 40 percent of the 1966 number of diocesan priests by the year 2005. Almost 46 percent of active diocesan clergy will be 55 or older by 2005, and only 12 percent 34 or younger. The average age of religious order priests is much higher and rising more rapidly.

The leading cause for the decline is a decline in the number of seminarians, we are not replacing the priests we are losing to retirement, death and leaving. During the last ten years the number of major seminarians has dropped by more than 800 students. (Interestingly, we now have more than 13,000 permanent deacons who could catch up with the number of diocesan priests in the early part of the third millennium, if they continue to grow and the priesthood continues to shrink. But like the priesthood, the permanent diaconate has older men which is casting most of ordained ministry into the ministry of the elders.)

Plummeting numbers are creating sizable pressures that were heretofore minimal. A growing number of parishes face losing the daily celebration of the Eucharist, some pastors fear megaparishes, and others are apprehensive about time constraints which could turn the church inward-looking and unable to respond to marginal Catholics and new immigrants.

Celibacy under fire

Celibacy is being especially challenged. Books and reports that dwell on homosexuality in the priesthood indirectly question celibacy. Celibacy is also being challenged by studies which find that if it were not required, many more young men would consider becoming priests.

Inactive priests have added to the celibacy debate by publicly writing about having a significant other. Their descriptions echo an I- Thou relationship in which an exclusive “thou" is seen as a helpmate, promoter, educator, healer and salvation to “I.”

In the past, celibacy for clergy and chastity for married couples had a noble ring. They signified the Greek concept, arete --- ultimate sacrifice out of love for the Kingdom. Today's society has lost its sense of arete to a large extent and often is not sympathetic to its noble nature.

The noted theologian W. Kasper would tell us that one reason celibacy is under fire is because married life has broken down. Celibacy depends on the solidarity of married life. Those practicing celibacy need continuous confirmation by the community they serve, especially the example of married couples and the sacrifice they put into their commitment.

The appearance of new voids

Two or three priests' parishes are now being replaced by one priest parishes thus creating a void heretofore that did not exist in rectories.

Priests becoming Episcopal priests have created another new void. From 1981 to 1990, 345 Catholic priests switched to the Episcopal Church, compared to 90 Episcopal priests who switched to the Catholic Church.

Former Catholic priests speak of finding a comforting familiarity in the liturgical style of the Episcopal Church, and accuse the Vatican of operating with an unfair double standard in ordaining married Episcopal priests.

Another growing void is retiring priests who now openly pine for retirement to "a more peaceful location," thus depriving young priests of mentors and fraternity. These same young priests experience a void every time they lose a close priest friend with whom they have formed a mutual support system. When these bonds are ruptured, emotional links vital to the work of the priesthood are also ruptured.

And too, now that priests in some dioceses study in different seminaries, once they leave school they are distanced from classmates whose close proximity traditionally filled various voids.

Although it is a small blip on the radar screen of research, priests reflect a rather low confidence in the decision- making and leadership of their bishops, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the diocesan presbyterial council and the diocesan pastoral council. A fair number tell us they would like to distance themselves from the bigger church picture and be left alone to minister in their parishes. In many ways they reflect the same enclave mentality that Robert Bellah found creeping into American society .This void between priests and the bigger church scene deprives them of coming together, sharing ideas and collaborating on a larger scale. It also sets up the tension which comes from second guessing the motives of a bishop or national organization when face to face presence is missing.

Institutional anxieties

When we delve into institutional problems, a number of other tensions surface which are clearly identified in the bishops' document on morale.

Official directives which focus on duties only priests can do tend to increase the workload and make for less effective ministry. The lack of a unified; coherent vision of what priests are all about is an additional burden to them.

Declining numbers take a toll at several levels. Priests find themselves doing double duty, and personnel boards find themselves giving full and total pastoral responsibilities to men who could serve well and happily only in carefully limited capacities.

A clouded personal future has many priests questioning the Church's care for its own. For many, fewer priests dim any hope for gentler years ahead and graceful retirement. Also, discouragement comes from the acute awareness of priests that possible avenues of relief are not to be considered or discussed.

The need for intimacy, the distance sometimes created by the role of priest and the integrity demanded between priests' feelings and public life put great demands on him, leaving him with a sense of loneliness.

Polarization within dioceses and parishes is paralyzing leadership, making it difficult for a bishop or priest to obtain the consensus he needs to lead his people. Such polarization within communities, whose purpose for existing is deep unity of faith, can produce much frustration for priestly leaders.

The need for affirmation often goes unmet. Nomination to coveted parishes has disappeared as have challenge, incentive or reward.

Sexual Abuse and AIDS

A recent episode with a priest friend exemplifies the latest tension to afflict the priesthood. In conversation with him I noticed he was extremely angry at almost everything that was coming out of the diocese. As we talked, it became evident that it was not the diocese per se he was angry with, but that he was frustrated over four priests who had been arrested for sexual abuse. The newspapers had printed detailed stories and had pictured them in civvies looking like derelicts. His anger was over their betrayal of the priesthood, the gloating of the newspapers and the fact that once a priest is found guilty he is immediately released from the priesthood. Although he knew that these priests caused severe scandal, hurt the diocese financially and were a liability, he felt the code that most keeps priests together was broken --- no matter his human failures, a priest is always a priest, and his fellow priests and bishop are expected to do everything to come to his aid when he gets in trouble.

The toll sexual abuse is taking on the priesthood has yet to be established. One can guess it is creating tensions heretofore that did not exist and does significant damage as does the death of a priest to AIDS.

Fr. Robert Vitillo, director for the worldwide confederation of national Catholic social service said at a St. Louis meeting of church officials, "The HIV/AIDS pandemic has reached the ranks of clergy and religious, just as it has every other segment of the world's population. Long ago I lost count of the number of bishops and religious superiors who have summoned me to consultations which are whispered and shrouded in embarrassment concerning someone under their direction who might have the virus that causes AIDS."

Multi Cultural and Gender Sensitivities

The need to respond effectively to persons of various cultures, and to the new awareness of women' s rights has increased the tensions that come with having to be sensitive. Woe to the priest who lumps all Spanish speaking persons into the melting pot term Hispanic, or who has not grappled with the meaning of entitlement or Affirmative Action! Woe to him who uses "him" rather than "he or she " who leaves women out of the parish' s decision making process, and does not study Pope John Paul n's meaning of new feminism!

Today's priests must also be ready to answer women who might ask, "If men and women participated in all the church' s ministries, don't you think this would be a fuller sacrament of the one priesthood of Christ in the whole People of God and of the apostolic witness of the message of Jesus to both men and women?"

Erasmus of Rotterdam tells us, discordia sed nihil concordius, disharmony could not be more harmonious. Put simply, the roosters are crowing, dogs are barking, and the horses are restless. All are in one accord, there is something in the barnyard which is causing a tension they don't like! The tensions identified here are the culprits in the backyard of the priesthood capable of sending it in many different undesirable directions.

There is an old saying that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. The mugging these tensions are capable of can turn moderate conservatives into arch conservatives, the liberal minded into flaming liberals, and put some priests on the fence while sending others over it depending upon the spiritual-intellectual mettle they are made of. The need to produce men capable of coping with these tensions is telling the seminary system that an aggiomamento is in order --- it cannot remain status quo, but must begin planning on how to better produce a spiritual- intellectual priesthood needed for the times.


When I first discussed the idea of an aggiornamento, my friends said I was pazzo, the Italian word for crazy .They pointed me to my own studies which find the seminary system is stymied and can't change much because seminary professors face five different pairs of students heretofore that didn't exist: 1. highly intelligent versus marginally intelligent students; 2. students with a good religious education background and those with practically none; 3. students from a strong family background, and those less fortunate, 4. students born into the American culture and those not, 5. young students, middle age and older students.

In an article by Victor Klimoskie we also are reminded of the political problems that stymie the seminary system. There are bishops in desperate need of priests who are pushing seminaries to do their best even though the students they send aren't the best, and there are seminary professors who are so entrenched in their particular discipline that they would not welcome any type of aggiornamento. All this raises the question, how can anyone talk of change at this point in seminary history?

A look at the history of Vatican II gives us one answer. Thanks to men and women who kept talking about and planned for change decades before Vatican II, we had an aggiornamento. They were visionaries who continued to ask why and further asked, why not.

In no one place is there found men and women more intellectually astute and concerned about the seminary than in our seminaries who are capable of creating discussions like those which initiated Vatican II. As the aggiornamento relied on visionaries who laid the foundation for the Council, and who were even berated for their efforts, so too, must those visionaries serving in seminaries follow suit. Unlike many who presently see darkness everywhere in the Church and curse it, their creative thinking holds that one lit candle of hope for the future. What should be the focal point of their visioning?

Recently I saw the movie, Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, which helps to answer this. It recounts how Maya Lin submitted her model for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington never thinking it would be chosen. It was, but she paid the price by being rejected by the very Vietnam veterans she wanted to serve. They were outraged and claimed it didn't reflect war or America's suffering. Maya defended her design, which she maintained was not meant to make a political statement, but rather was meant for the people. She wanted to create a sanctuary where people could be with their loved ones in spirit, it was not meant to glorify war or to satisfy the institution' s needs.

Just as the people are the focus of the Vietnam Memorial, so too, must the needs of the people be the focus of a seminary aggiornamento. Without this focal point, soul searching questions will never be surfaced.


Some years ago Douglas Woodruff raised the question of a need for a new spiritual and intellectual astuteness in priests when he wrote, The priesthood of tomorrow, like the episcopate of tomorrow, is likely to find itself sharing many of the experiences long painfully familiar to Protestant parsons and bishops, that they are listened to selectively, approved and commended by those who like what they say, and politely disregarded by those in the pews who withhold their assent on that point.

Tomorrow has come and is demanding a much more astute priest who can work with the Catholic community .This leads us to a number of critical questions.

What modern day virtues, above all others, must be stressed in spiritual formation to produce the spiritual mettle needed to deal with the incarnate-grass roots side of the priesthood?

How can seminarians raised on five second T. V. spots and impressionistic images be educated to get beyond superficial thinking so that their homilies and teaching reflect a maturity which coincides with that of the Catholic community they serve?

What new pedagogical methods are needed to form a mind that is less familiar with left sided syllogistic thinking and is more used to right sided affective thinking?

What new androgogies must be developed to educate older men who no longer can be taught pedagogically so that they can make substantial contributions to the future growth of the Church?

In addition to improving cognitive skills, what new curricula must be developed to prepare priests to serve those struggling with growing social justice issues and the ethics involved in ecology, biology and the marketplace? What changes in their education are needed to prepare them for the new feminism they will encounter? How can their world view be enlarged so that they are not caught up in suffocating pariochialism. What additional attitudes must be built into formation to teach them that these issues are the incarnate side of their ministry that goes hand in hand with its transcendent side?

What new tact in seminary training must be taken to respond to Vatican documents like Directives on the Formation of Seminarians Concerning Problems Related to Marriage and the Family? What more must go into a seminarian's formation to enable him to credibly teach the best of Catholic tradition in this very ticklish area?

In just a few years we have seen the age of computers, INTERNET, and faxes born which is enabling priests to better network parishioners. What other ages are on the horizon, and what must seminary formation do to prepare seminarians for them?

To serve the growing immigrant culture and African Americans, what type of a cultural atmosphere and sensitivities must the seminary system create to attract and retain men from these cultures?

The role of rector and seminary professor has changed dramatically over the last decades due to financial pressures and shortages in qualified personnel. This has caused rapid turnovers in personnel at a time when stability is essential. What must the role of these people look like in the future to insure quality and stability?

What is needed to create a full-time corps of vocational directors who will remain in this position more than the average three years they presently give it?

How can the Church at large better participate in encouraging vocations to the religious life? What type of message do they need to hear to move them into action?

To make much of the above possible, seminaries must squarely face the question of consolidation or switching to the European university model for seminary formation. As recruiting seminary faculties become more difficult and old facilities become more expensive to maintain, is autonomy being maintained at the expense of the Catholic community?

These are but a few questions that need to be addressed now, not tomorrow, if an aggiornamento is to happen. They call for new energies in times which are draining the best energies we have. As visionaries before us used their creative powers to energize the Church, so too, must these powers be resurrected to form priests with the spiritual-intellectual mettle needed for the future.