The importance of seminary formation in the life of the Church is something that often is unrecognized by those filling the pews. In recent decades, Church leadership has made it a priority to ensure that policies have been put in place to ensure that future priests receive a quality education in order to best serve the people of God.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has a Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations (CCLV), currently chaired by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey. The committee is staffed by the CCLV secretariat at the USCCB headquarters in Washington, D.C., and their work has a great influence on seminary formation throughout the country. The committee provides leadership regarding priestly life and ministry, and it responds to the needs and concerns of priests. Throughout its history, the committee has developed documents and other courses of action by which bishops have supported and challenged the life and ministry of priests. The organization currently is developing the sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation.
Father Ralph O’Donnell, the executive director of the CCLV secretariat, and Father Luke Ballman, associate director, told Our Sunday Visitor how the Church in the United States is preparing men for priestly ministry. In addition to conversations with several other vocations directors, continuing education directors, seminarians and others across the country, the following is a truncated list of just a few important things to know about how the Church is fostering vocations and forming clergy and religious.
1. Today’s vocations grow from lives of service
According to a 2017 ordination class survey, nearly 6 in 10 ordinands (57 percent) report some type of full-time work experience before entering the seminary, most often in education. One in 20 ordinands report prior service in the U.S. Armed Forces. About 1 in 8 ordinands (12 percent) report that either parent had a military career in the U.S. Armed Forces. Three in 4 (75 percent) indicate they served as altar servers, and about half (52 percent) report service as a lector. Their work experience and involvement in their local parish communities would suggest a heart of service before entering the seminary.
According to a 2016 profession class survey, about 8 in 10 (82 percent) had ministry experience before entering their religious institute, most commonly as a lector (46 percent) or as an altar server (41 percent). About 2 in 5 served in music ministry (39 percent), as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion (37 percent) or in faith formation, catechetical ministry or RCIA (36 percent).
One in 4 ministered in a social-services setting.
2. Vocations work isn’t just about priests
The bishops’ committee, assisted by the CCLV secretariat, also provides ongoing work in the restoration of the diaconate and the development of diaconal ministry. It also assists and coordinates the development of diaconal formation programs on the diocesan and national levels.
| Laurie Malashanko is consecrated to the Church’s order of virgins by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron in Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on June 24, 2017. CNS photo/Joel Breidenbach
The secretariat provides services and liaison support to national organizations and directors of diocesan diaconate offices. CCLV is currently developing the second edition of the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.
The CCLV committee also seeks to foster and encourage the various forms of consecrated life in the Church today. In Vita Consecrata, the 1996 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Pope St. John Paul II wrote of the different forms of consecrated life as “the many branches which sinks its roots into the Gospel and brings forth abundant fruit in every season of the Church’s life.”
These diverse forms include: monastic life, the orders of virgins, hermits, and institutes completely devoted to contemplation, apostolic religious life, secular institutes, societies of apostolic life and new or renewed forms of the consecrated life (see Vita Consecrata, Nos. 6-12).
The CCLV website dedicated to consecrated life highlights the World Day for Consecrated Life, which the Church celebrates each year on Feb. 2.
3. It’s not just about religious vocations, either
It is important to remember that a vocation is a call from God to a particular state of life, through which we work for the salvation of souls and the coming of the Kingdom of God. For some, this means a vocation to the priesthood; for others, it is a vocation to consecrated religious life; still others are called to the vocation of marriage; and some to devoted single life.
Vocations directors across the country are working to help men and women discern their vocations, whatever those might be.
This scope is evident in the theme for next October’s Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” The Vatican has asked each episcopal conference to assist in the consultation phase in preparation for the 2018 synod. Each diocese is answering the questions posed by Rome, as are national organizations involved in ministry to young people and vocations work. These diocesan and national responses will be summarized in an executive summary that Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, as the president of the USCCB, will send to the synod office.
Young people also can assist in the consultation process directly through the website established by the Vatican to receive their input (youth.synod2018.va).
4. Leadership comes from the top
As he’s made clear in his many statements about living out the priestly vocation, Pope Francis cares deeply about the quality of pastoral care Catholics receive from the priests who serve them. And this all begins with formation.
That is why the United States, as most countries have, has a particular set of guidelines for priestly formation, based on the Vatican’s general guidelines.
On Dec. 8, 2016, the Congregation for Clergy released the new Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, in English titled, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation.” As the documents states, “Each Conference of Bishops is required to prepare its own Ratio Nationalis.” The Program of Priestly Formation is the Ratio Nationalis for the United States. The fifth edition of the document has been normative for priestly formation since it was published by the USCCB in 2006.
A working group was formed in 2016 and began work on the sixth edition. National organizations related to priestly formation and vocations have been discussing at their national gatherings various ways to discuss and incorporate the teaching of Pope Francis on family, ecology and evangelization.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.