CA seminarians
The 2011 priestly ordination class from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where seminarians take part in four years of theology and a 10-month parish internship program. Photo courtesy of St. John's Seminary

It takes from five to seven years of graduate study for a man to become a priest, but the real foundation is not laid in the four years of undergraduate work. It is found in the heart of the man himself. 

Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed those aspects of ongoing formation for priests in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”) issued March 25, 1992. In it, the pontiff described what is known as “the four pillars” of a man’s journey in the priesthood. 

“It is truly a landmark visionary document on the formation of priests in this day and age,” said Msgr. Craig Cox, rector/president of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “He talks about the formation of the whole person in four dimensions — the human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual. The human formation is the basis of all priestly formation.” 

That said, there are practical requirements, as well. 

Providing groundwork

Formation begins with a four-year undergraduate degree. If a candidate enters a college seminary, for instance, Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, in the Diocese of Cleveland, he will take classes such as philosophy and religion that will provide groundwork for continuing on. At Borromeo, that’s at St. Mary’s Seminary on the same campus. 

“We have 30 students in our college program who are discerning vocations, 23 for the Diocese of Cleveland and seven Capuchin students,” said Father Thomas Dragga, president/rector of Borromeo Seminary. “By the time they get to their senior year, probably 75 percent to 80 percent will go on to the study of theology. About 90 to 95 percent of those men stay.” 

Father Dragga, a 1979 graduate of Borromeo, has been rector for 16 years. 

“We had a big bump in enrollment beginning around 2001 to 2002,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “I attribute that to three things. We had 9/11, then the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. That created a surge in young people looking for ways to serve the world and to do something for humanity and the Church.” 

He also has seen an increase in candidates from parishes with “vibrant and lively” youth ministries. Eight at Borromeo are from St. Mary Parish in Hudson, Ohio.  

Regardless of where they come from, Father Dragga said, “I just find these men to be courageous in their willingness to look at the possibility of a vocation of the priesthood.”

Course work

There are 83 seminarians at St. John’s. Men who enter already have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if there were enough required courses, the formation can be as little as five years. Men without previous philosophy and religion credits end up studying up to seven years. 

“We have four solid academic years of theology, and in the middle there’s a 10-month parish internship that receives credit as part of the master of divinity program,” Msgr. Cox told OSV. “The other two years are pre-theology that focus primarily on philosophy and Catholic heritage. But there’s flexibility. Some men left the seminary and came back, and some come from religious orders.” 

Religious formation

Formation is different for becoming a Trappist monk with the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky. 

“We don’t require higher studies as such, as long as they have completed high school,” Brother Aaron Schulte, director of vocations, told OSV. 

Candidates are at least 22 years old and have to be a practicing Catholic or convert for at least two years, and to be living and deepening their faith. Formation begins with a six-month postulancy, then novitiate and the white habit.  

For the next two and a half years, they learn about monastic life and history, and the monastic traditions of the Rule of St. Benedict.  

Next comes the juniorate period and simple vows that are renewed annually for up to three years. The solemnly professed monks vote on a man’s petition to take solemn vows to become a full member of the community. 

The abbey currently has 40 brothers and priests, and 70 percent are brothers. A monk has to enter a seminary if he wants to become a priest. 

“When a man comes to the monastery, we have to make sure that he is psychologically and emotionally fit to handle the silence and solitude,” Brother Schulte told OSV. “We have a large amount of detachment, and one of our vows is stability. That all can be very difficult for a lot of men in our type of culture.” 

Discovering God’s will

Not all men complete formation to become monks or priests in communities or dioceses. 

“That’s not a failure and it’s not a bad thing at all,” Msgr. Cox said. “It means that the seminary is working. It’s where we discover where God wants us to be. The seminary helps a man to discover his role in God’s plan.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.