My former bishop always began an Ordination Mass explaining that with each ordination of a priest the Church herself was being renewed. Priests who are assigned to seminary formation witness in a most unique way the nurturing of a priestly vocation, which becomes a source of renewal for us. Participating in the formation of a priestly vocation is an edifying experience for all involved, for the entire Church. 

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The New Evangelization begins with new evangelizers, who are the pastors of the Church. Shutterstock photo

On each day of ordination, the Church witnesses the laying on of hands in which the bishop confers something that the bishop himself received. We witness an act of faith testified to in sacred Scripture, something that Christ intended, and an essential character of the Church being confirmed — apostolicity. With every ordination, the Church indeed is renewed, and the sacramental life of the Church is once again assured. 

This is why we can refer to seminaries as “apostolic communities.” For here, seminarians gather around the Lord — as did the apostles — to listen and learn. Men are accepted into a priestly formation program to encounter Christ in an ecclesial setting that has apostolic character, to engage in philosophical and theological investigation, to experience the intensity of a spiritual life through a regimen of prayer and reflection and to consider the pastoral needs of the Church through the lens of priestly discernment. 

As Christ called forth apostles to whom He revealed and explained the kingdom of God, so too does He continue to gather men around himself in a specific community where intimate encounters involving every aspect of the men’s lives will be formed and ordered in such a way that, if called to priesthood, they will be configured to Christ for ordained ministry, handle the sacred mysteries and exercise sacred power in the name of the Church: teaching, sanctifying and governing God’s people. 

Jesus Christ called forth certain men; he knew of their sins and potential, and he prepared them for sacred ministry. Today, the Church, too, must know both the culture that seminarians come from and how to prepare them to be priests in the culture where they are to be sent. The entire Church has a stake in how priests should be formed and trained and how they will be given over to God’s people as shepherds. 

Indeed, the Church is renewed at the ordination of every priest because what the Church receives is a holy man of God, obedient to the Church, and zealous in wanting to save souls. This entire process, so to speak, is essentially related to what we now call the “new evangelization.” 

New Evangelization at Work

As early as the 1950s, the concept “new evangelization” was used in varying, sporadic ways to understand how the Church can relate to the ever-changing moments of post-World War II societies. Documents of the Second Vatican Council, Synods of Bishops that followed the Council and the Magisterium of Pope Paul VI laid the groundwork for how Blessed Pope John Paul II would coin the term “new evangelization” and how Pope Benedict XVI has thus far made the new evangelization a key aspect of his own pontificate. 

Blessed Pope John Paul II used the concept “new evangelization” in the conclusion of Pastores Dabo Vobis, his 1992 document that followed the 1990 Synod of Bishops that considered how to form seminarians under present-day circumstances. There he writes: “God promises the Church not just any sort of shepherds, but shepherds after his own heart. . .the new evangelization needs new evangelizers, and these are the priests who are serious about living their priesthood as a specific path toward holiness” (No. 82). 

The way in which a priest pursues his own conversion, the ways in which seminarians take seriously their formation, the ways in which the seminarian takes off the old man and puts on Christ (cf. Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24) are all ways in which the new evangelization is alive and well in the seminary. 

For is this not what the new evangelization is — for each believer in Christ to become a saint — here and now? Without going into in-depth theology, the concept means that all believers become the persons God created them to be and that we Christians enter culture alive in our faith. Our culture is then shaped and formed by the way in which we live out our vocations and, consequently, culture itself becomes a sign of the kingdom of God in the present time. 

This is what is happening in the seminary — or at least it should. The new evangelization, Blessed John Paul II wrote, begins with new evangelizers who are the pastors of the Church leading the flock in a clear, decisive manner to Jesus Christ. This is what every seminarian strives to be as a future pastor. 

Radical Call to Holiness: Authentic Humanism

The new evangelization involves a radical call to holiness — for the individual believer and for the Church. If faith is going to penetrate and form culture, if the Church is going to be a credible voice in shaping culture among so many voices contrary to the Gospel, then the seminarian must embrace radical conversion. 

If a seminarian is serious about his formation, he will become a holy priest competent to embrace the joys and struggles of pastoral ministry. But I tell my seminarians if they are serious about their formation and then learn that they are not called to the priesthood, they will be fantastic Catholic men because they embraced conversion, took off the old self and put on Christ. It’s a win-win situation for the seminarian and for the Church. 

The radical call to holiness expected of seminarians (and of priests) is a life-long process that does not end at ordination. St. Peter learned the lesson well after the Resurrection when the question was posed again and again — do you love me? (cf. Jn 21:15-17). Every day Jesus asks His priests this question through the pastoral situations the priest must confront. 

In a way, priestly formation is simply promoting in every seminarian what it means to be fully human. Christ became man to teach us how to fully live as humans. The new evangelization promotes all that is good in culture and human nature so that men might be free and pursue their God-given vocations. Each priest, as alter Christus, radiates in his priestly life and ministry the new life of the Resurrection, the new creation, the kingdom of God and the mystery of love. Indeed, the charisms of celibacy and obedience enrich the humanity of that man who, as a seminarian, prepares himself as a “man of virtue” to be ordained in the person of Jesus Christ. 

This is why several important elements need to be considered by seminarians if they are going to be the new evangelizers of the Church. 

1. Priestly Identity. The diocesan seminarian must form a “priestly” identity, understanding that as a servant of Christ he ultimately becomes the servant of all. The exercise of potestas sacra is exercising the real power of Christ — not virtually, but really. In the triple munera of the priest’s exercise of ministry, the People of God experience the real and intimate relationship of Christ, the saving power of God. 

A crisis in identity occurs when the seminarian secularizes priestly identity to fashion, pop culture, or a fad. 

An authentic humanism presumes the authentic disposition of the individual. The breakdown of culture and, eventually, of a correct pursuit of humanism is often the result of a misplaced emphasis on “self-identity.” People can lose themselves in excessive behaviors that promote physical appearance. Often “identity” is reduced to mere appearance. The seminarian is learning of the Christocentric emphasis of priestly identity. The priest acts in nomine ecclesiae, which ultimately is acting in persona et in nomine Christi. His identity is nothing more than the identity of Christ. Indeed, he, by ordination, is the sacramental icon of Jesus Christ. The new evangelization is the Church’s mission to bring people an authentic, complete experience of Jesus Christ. This cannot happen without the priesthood. Yet, priests need to discern how to fashion their priestly identity without diminishing their own God-given gifts and without distracting people away from Christ to their own personhood. 

2. Unity of Life. The universal call to holiness is the ultimate vocation for all disciples of Christ. Because the diocesan seminarian is being formed for sacramental configuration to Christ, he embraces diocesan priestly spirituality, redirecting his energies to become a living sign and instrument of salvation. What is required for the new evangelizer is a unity between the internal principle of priestly identity and the external multifaceted expectations of people. Without a secure identity, the priest might be seen only as a therapist, sociologist, politician or manager. 

The seminarian must discern between the relationships involving the person of Christ, the person of the priest and his own person. The ontological unity of personhood at priestly ordination can be efficacious for the individual only when cooperating with the requirements of spiritual life. The principle of solidarity in defending an authentic humanism is fruitless when the priest is insecure about his own self. How can he walk with others when he does not understand himself? The new evangelization positions the Church to be able to respond to man’s questions and sufferings, which priests must be able to confront. 

3. Ecclesial Communio. If the priest is going to completely serve the needs of the Church, he must be loyal to her and understand why and how Christ configured her. The seminarian must really embrace the theological significance of communio, putting aside ideological expectations. The priest embodies in himself the mystery of communio, as he builds up the People of God in the sacramental ministry he provides. 

The internal principle at work here is objectivity, which must be cultivated in the heart of the seminarian. Obedience to the bishop, fraternity with the presbyterate, and genuine love for people are not mere external expectations but an outpouring of faith flowing from the spirituality of the priest. Diocesan priestly spirituality internalizes one’s love for the Church so that he indeed becomes a “man of the Church.” 

The evangelical thrust of communio is the proclamation of the kingdom of God. The Church as a sacrament of the Kingdom illumines in the faith of her members that authentic humanism all are destined to experience. It is essential that the priest not thwart the light of the Kingdom because of his deficient view of the Church or his ideological persuasions. People will look elsewhere for the signs of the Kingdom. 

4. Amoris Officium. The internal principles of priestly identity and unity of life are externalized in the seminarian and priest in such a way that their divine calling to be shepherds after the heart of our Lord permeates their personality, actions and attitudes. In Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Holy Father speaks about the cultivation of “affective maturity,” since the People of God expect their priest to be able to respond to the signs of the times. The web of relationships maintained by the diocesan priest is a sacramental sign of a pastor who nurtures his sheep. 

The diocesan seminarian opens himself to the formation of a diocesan spirituality, a spirituality of being among the people, for among them the diocesan priest pursues his own salvation. Without reducing priesthood to a popularity contest, the seminarian should evaluate his own humanity, determining how best he envisions the real involvement of self in pastoral ministerial situations. The love of a shepherd for his sheep moves beyond the institutional support of the Church to the individual commitment of the priest who walks alongside his people. 

The authentic humanism espoused by the new evangelization presumes the individual participation of each person in the lives of others. Priesthood must never be seen as a career rather an “office of love” — an unselfish service rendered for the salvation of all. 

5. Sacredos et Hostia. The Congregation for the Clergy’s document “The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium” (1999) offers us a thorough review of priestly qualities intrinsic for the new evangelization. One section speaks about the minister as priest and victim. Old Testament theology structures the reception of divine revelation in the context of the priest, prophet, king model. The priest is one who offers sacrifice on behalf of others. Christian theology emphasizes Christ as the High Priest who sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of all. Therefore, as Christ is simultaneously “Priest and Victim,” the man ordained in the person of Christ ontologically and sacramentally is configured as priest and victim for the People of God. 

Diocesan spirituality forms in the seminarian the sense of service and sacrifice. Priestly celibacy and priestly obedience are signs of the priest’s sacrifice freely given for the salvation of others. 

The power given to the priest at ordination, namely, in the munera, are powers used for the service of others. The transformation and conversion of people to the Truth, to Christ, and to the subsequent construction of a “civilization of love” or a “culture of life” is the experience of love in its most essential form. The Sacrament and Word of God’s love is entrusted to the Church, safeguarded in a unique way by the priest who serves the Church with a single-minded purpose. This service, while incorporating the individuality of that priest, manifests itself in such a way that the priest lays down his life for his sheep. Here, then, the priest is truly “priest” and “victim” for his people. 

In my 10 years as a rector, I am profoundly humbled day in and day out from working with our seminarians. These men are so eager about their own salvation, about wanting to be strong shepherds, about wanting to be servants in the vineyard. 

The conversion and transformation of heart and mind is what it means to be a seminarian. The apostles were ordinary men being prepared for an extraordinary ministry. The conversion that took place in their lives during the three years in which they lived with Christ, heard His words, and witnessed the unfolding of God’s kingdom in their midst prepared them to receive the sacred power of ministry in the upper room on that first Easter day. The commission given to them by Christ was a commission that, today, we call the new evangelization.

Amidst the brokenness we see around us in our culture and the reports of scandal in the Church, we can all be reassured that, with our seminarians of today, the future of the Church is in great hands. TP

Father Wehner is a priest from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in the area of ecclesiology, specializing in the new evangelization. He served as rector of St. Paul Seminary, and in 2009, the Congregation for Catholic Education appointed Father Wehner rector/president of the Pontifical College Josephinum.