In Christian antiquity, that is, until approximately the seventh century, the formation of priests was born from personal contact with the local bishop and from the exercise of the ministries connected with the minor orders. The bishops, and then the pastors of the main churches, gathered the young candidates in their homes and instructed them.
This praxis is attested by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Eusebius of Vercelli (283-371) and Caesarius of Arles (502-542) and enforced by the Synod of Valsons in France (529) and by the Fourth Council of Toledo in Spain (633): “clerics should live a common life and educate in a common place.” In many cases, the bishops were chosen from the monasteries where they had received their ecclesiastical formation and education.
By the Middle Ages and the Carolingian Reform, some clerics still received a limited education through their local clergymen. The cathedral and abbatial schools, on the other hand, whereby an array of the clergy received its education, increased in number. An excellent program, that of Rabanus Maurus (776-856), De institutione clericorum, (a vade-mecum for clergy) required acquaintance with Scripture in its various senses and the exercise of preaching. A brief program, that of the Synod of Aachen in Germany (802), required the bare minimum acquaintance of the Our Father, the Creed, the Athanasian Symbol, of some liturgical books, and of the homilies of the major Fathers of the Church.
Ascetic formation was lacking. Rather than to supply a more accurate formation for candidates of the parish clergy, the Reformers of the 11th century sought instead the development of forms of religious life among the clergy, like the Canons Regular of Prémontré (the Norbertines or White Canons) who carried out a remarkable ministerial work for the people.
But the properly secular clergy was poorly educated. On one hand, the universities, which since the year 1200 had become more numerous, had a too high requirement for the average level of the candidates, and, on the other hand, did not offer the proper atmosphere conducive to priestly formation. Only sporadically were the dispositions of the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 put into practice. These required the institution of a free school near the cathedral churches for the candidates to the presbyterate.
There were also several private institutions, like the Brothers of the Common Life and the Roman Students of the Capranica College, founded in 1400 by the brother Cardinals Angelo and Domenico Capranica. The general situation, however, remained the same: a poorly educated secular clergy compared with the regular clergy. First humanism and then the Lutheran revolt revealed the insufficient formation of a good number of the clergy and showed the necessity of a greater harmony between the spiritual and intellectual life to avoid the danger of a simple and perfunctory priesthood.
The Council of Trent
The Fathers of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) dealt with the matter, partly prompted by the stimulus of Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500-1558) who in the Synod of London of 1556 mandated the opening of boarding schools near the cathedral churches, in order to replace the old suppressed monasteries. Between the months of February and July of 1563, the decree on the seminaries was drafted: “Every cathedral church, metropolitan and patriarchal church is obliged to provide for, to educate in religion and to train in ecclesiastical studies a set number of young men in a college chosen for the purpose by the bishop near to these churches or in another convenient place’’ (Decree on Reform: canon 18).
The decree emphasized the necessity to train for the presbyterate not adults, but young men, to join with religious and academic formation, and briefly outlined a basic program of religious education (daily celebration of the Eucharist, monthly reception of the sacrament of penance, reception of Holy Communion according to the direction of the spiritual father) and a program of studies (humanistic and theological with due emphasis on Biblical and pastoral topics, preaching and the administration of the sacraments).
The seminary of the Council of Trent was exclusively reserved for the formation of candidates to the holy priesthood. The enforcement of this decree was rather slow. In many dioceses the seminaries were erected only at the end of 1600 if not quite into 1700. In the preparation for the priesthood a very important role was played by the Fathers of the Mission or Vincentian Congregation, founded by Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) and the Society of St. Sulpice, founded by Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657); these congregations were societies of secular priests living together without vows, and remained till the 1900 one of the pillars of ecclesiastical education of clergy, not only in France but also in many parts of the globe. The Sulpician and Vincentian ways of education have been sure models of devout and solid clergy. After the French Revolution, many local Churches had to practically start to reopen their own seminaries, by then closed for a long time, and to quickly appoint their best educating personnel.
In Italy one finds two parallel systems: the clerics educated in seminaries and rigidly separated from every contact with the outside world (for example, there were no home vacations or they were limited to a minimum) and the external clerics, who lived with their family, and who, more or less regularly, attended the classes of the local seminary and lent their services to a nearby parish. Even with the repeated attempts of many bishops to correct the situation, the external clerical status survived till the end of last century.
In a brief outline, it could be said that the two systems corresponded to two kinds of priests: the “Mass priest” who limited himself to celebrate the Holy Eucharist without any other pastoral function, hired as “tutor” by the well-to-do families or in other rather secular functions; and the “Confession priest” who entirely dedicated himself to the care of souls. In both cases the basic training remained lacking from both the religious and the intellectual viewpoints. The directives of the European seminaries prescribed the reception of the Sacrament of Confession and Holy Communion every other week; the programs of studies were rather outdated; the candidates’ selection too much indulgent.
The Italian Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797-1855), in the second chapter of his work The Five Wounds of the Church, severely criticizes the insufficient education of the clergy in the seminaries, where the candidates were educated by “petty men” from “petty books” and where “knowledge and sanctity” were separated: “The purpose is not simply to form good human beings, but Christians and priests enlightened and sanctified in Christ.” During the pontificate of Pope Pius IX one notices a clear improvement in the selection and formation of seminarians, at the instigation of the pope, who had underlined this point since his first programmatic encyclical letter Qui Pluribus of Nov. 9, 1846. However, the results did not sufficiently compensate for the precedent delay and were slowed by several factors: the number of dioceses feeling the squeeze, the seniority system of promoting the instructors for the philosophical and theological courses; the Roman Question which indirectly caused intellectual narrow-mindedness in the seminaries. It could be said that this narrow-mindedness was the price paid for an authentic spiritual improvement.
With Pope Pius IX there were three phenomena worthy of notice: the establishment of regional seminaries where dioceses were small and financially in need; the definitive end of the external clerical status, and a new disciplinary and intellectual hardening within the indiscriminate anti-modernistic repression. The professors were closely watched, the more open-minded books gradually eliminated, the reading of any periodical/journal, even good ones, strictly forbidden. One can thus understand the atmosphere of rigid surveillance of seminarians, confined in their rooms all night long, while the light was automatically turned off 10 or 15 minutes after their retirement.
Eastern Catholic Churches
As far as the Christian Churches of the East were concerned, the Holy See has established over the years in the city of Rome various colleges for the intellectual and spiritual education of candidates to the holy priesthood and the religious life. In chronological order there are: the Pontifical Greek College in 1577, the Pontifical Maronite College in 1584, the Pontifical Urban “de Propaganda Fide” College in 1627, the Pontifical Armenian College in the year 1883, the Pontifical Ukrainian College in 1897, the Pontifical Ethiopian College in 1919, the Pontifical Russian College in 1929, the Pontifical Romanian College in 1937 and the Damascene Institute for the Indian Christians.
The apostolic exhortation Menti Nostrae of Pope Pius XII (1950) constitutes a true reform of the educational program of the seminaries. The Pope expressed strong disapproval of strict surveillance, recommending to intelligently apprise seminarians of current events and not form them in “an atmosphere cut off from the world.” He also emphasized the necessity that supernatural virtues rest on a solid natural base (loyalty, sincerity, friend-ship,…). Without any exaggeration, it can be said that this exhortation has shown more openness than the encyclical letter Sacerdotii Nostri of Pope John XXIII (1959).
The last stage in the history of seminaries was constituted by the Vatican II Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatam Totius, which refers many times to the criteria introduced by Pope Pius XII, remembering the necessity of an education in harmony with today’s youth psychology, suggesting periodic contacts with one’s family and the necessity to join closely spiritual and doctrinal formation.
The post-conciliar years, within the general atmosphere of ecclesial renewal, have multiplied documents relative to the formation of seminarians. Among them should be mentioned the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam , On the Discipline for Ministries, by Pope Paul VI (1972); the Guidelines for the Formation to Priestly Celibacy, by the Congregation for Catholic Education (1974); the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day, by Pope John Paul II (1992); and the Program of Priestly Formation with its various editions (the current one dates back to Aug. 4, 2006). Thus the suggested program of Rosmini has been fulfilled: “Knowledge and sanctity were bound together inextricably, one growing from the other.” TP
Father Gallaro, a priest of the Eparchy of Newton (Melkite-Greek Catholic), writes from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh.