After seminary, a priest’s education should continue

It is widely known that, in the seminary, students engage in rigorous discernment, education and formation. In recent years, it has become more widely acknowledged that it is also vitally important to provide for the ongoing formation and continuing education of those who already have been ordained and are serving the Church as priests. Many organizations have been founded, and every year more dioceses institute programs toward this end.

One organization that promotes and helps foster ongoing formation for clergy and the laity is the National Organization for the Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy (NOCERCC). The president of the board of directors is Father Thomas Dragga, who has been in the role for four years. Formerly rector of the seminary in the Diocese of Cleveland, and having worked in education at the seminary for more than 20 years, Father Dragga has long been a proponent of ongoing formation.

“As priests, as religious, we are called to be lifelong learners,” Father Dragga said. “That’s really the goal of NOCERCC: to work with the directors of continuing education in dioceses and religious communities, as well as the continuing education committees in some dioceses, to help that diocese or religious community formulate programs for lifelong learning.”

Stages of priesthood

One cannot simply stop learning just because they have completed seminary and become ordained. “Our theology is a living, breathing organism, so we need to stay up on the reading and on the body of knowledge so that we can better help people,” Father Dragga said.

The organization is not just for the clergy. “It is really for those in leadership positions in the Church,” Father Dragga said. According to the organization’s mission statement, it “collaborates with others to foster a culture of formation within the Church for bishops, priests, deacons and all the Church’s ministers. In this way NOCERCC promotes ongoing formation and assists and encourages faithful, healthy, holy and effective ministry in the Church.”

The group encourages dioceses and religious communities to focus on continuing education and support during five distinct stages of priestly life: the first years of priesthood, once a man leaves the seminary and enters ministry; the priest in transition, going from the first assignment to the second; the priest as pastor, in his first assignment as pastor of a parish; the priest in midlife; the priest growing in wisdom and grace, nearing retirement. Throughout these stages, there are four primary pillars of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. All of these pillars, which were clearly laid out by Pope St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), need to be strengthened and supported throughout the priest’s life.

Priests attend a continuing education convention in San Antonio in February. Courtesy photo

Avenues for formation

The importance of ongoing formation has been recognized by more dioceses over the years, and many are employing new methods and models to adequately support their priests throughout their life of ministry, and to continue to educate and provide formation.

For example, in California, according to Father Dragga, the dioceses each have their own programming, but they also regularly come together to share ideas and collaborate. Several other states are moving in that direction, as well.

Some seminaries are instituting programs for ongoing formation, including the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Saint Meinrad in southern Indiana, St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and St. Mary’s Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland.

“They encourage ongoing formation,” Father Dragga said, “so that it’s not just for the guys in the seminary, but even post-seminary education for priests, deacons and pastoral ministers.”

Father Joseph M. Mele is episcopal vicar and director of post-ordination formation for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Referring to the bishops’ document The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, Father Mele uses the list of 10 significant reasons for the ongoing formation of priests as a sort of mission statement for his work (see sidebar).

10 Contexts for Ongoing Formation
According to The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests, published by the USCCB, there are 10 contexts in which priests need to continue their education. For reflections on these contexts, read the full document at

“All 10 of these contexts are important, but the one that speaks to me the most is the need for priests to retrieve the core of priestly identity in light of priests sharing many ministries with our laity today,” Father Mele said. “If this expansion of shared ministry is to develop authentically, priests will need to contribute to it with their leadership, encouragement and expertise.”

Priority in Pittsburgh

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Father Mele said, priests are stressed the importance of “strength-based team leadership, where each pastor becomes better aware of his unique calling, strengths and giftedness, his personal blind spots and his capacity to genuinely rely on the strengths of his lay co-workers in the vineyard in order to foster a leadership community.”

The diocesan approach to ongoing formation aims to help each priest focus on his gifts that aid in his mission, as well as those shortcomings that can act as roadblocks, getting in the way “of them being true to their leadership and true to the full expression of their priesthood, their giftedness and calling,” Father Mele said. “This particular emphasis has enabled many of our future priests to focus on leading the way to making missionary disciples for Christ in parishes and institutions where every member discovers his or her great purpose in the Body of Christ. The effects are amazing already.”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh is a great example of the initiatives that many dioceses are now taking. Bishop David A. Zubik has created the Secretariat for Leadership Development and Evangelization, which is charged with forming pastoral leaders for the future and designing ways to provide resources to these leaders. This is done “so they can flourish and become the best they can be, particularly in light of the Joy of the Gospel,” Father Mele said.

In Pittsburgh, great emphasis is placed on collaboration as a model of ongoing formation.

“These breakthrough programs aim at transforming priests, deacons and lay ecclesial ministers, helping them to build teams that eventually impact their parishes in new and dynamic ways,” Father Mele said.

In this collaborative model, members work in groups of three to help each other individually at a pace that is helpful to each member.

“Community and fraternity is at the heart of who we are as priests,” Father Mele said.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.