A Lifelong Formation

Nearly 20 years ago I was privileged to join a small team of writers and consultors working for the U.S. bishops’ committee on the diaconate as they created what is now known as the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. Eventually promulgated in 2005 after receiving the formal recognition of the Holy See, this text benefited greatly from the work already done by the USCCB and the Holy See vis-à-vis priestly formation. In 1995, the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Clergy promulgated two documents — one on priestly formation and another on priestly ministry and life; in 1998, they issued parallel documents on the formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons. At the USCCB, the bishops successfully created the Program for Priestly Formation implementing the 1995 documents, and there we were, doing a similar implementation document for deacons.

The bishops quickly decided on two points. First, “formation” was to be understood as a singular reality that lasts from the moment we apply for admittance into the formation process itself through the rest of our lives. Second, there was not to be a propaedeutic formation, followed by a different kind of preordination formation and then, following ordination, a third kind of post-ordination formation. The bishops insisted that there is one formation program and that this program consisted of various phases. Furthermore, each phase of the formation program was to be designed around the four dimensions essential to formation: the human, the spiritual, the intellectual and the pastoral.

It is good for each one of us to reflect on these points in our own personal and ministerial ongoing formation and development. Are there gaps? For example, most dioceses offer annual retreats and convocations, but at best those address part of our spiritual and intellectual formation, but are those really sufficient? Furthermore, what about our human and pastoral development? Pope St. John Paul II taught that the human dimension was the most fundamental and that it is upon this foundation that the other three rest.

So, the human dimension: How is our own wellness across the board: physical, emotional, spiritual? Are we caring for our health, our psychological integration, our communication skills, our interpersonal skills?

Spiritual formation: How am I growing in following the Lord? Even if I were not a priest or a deacon, what would the state of my relationship with God be? Hopefully we’re already making that required annual retreat, but how might we nurture our relationship with God even more? Do we have a spiritual director? How often do we meet with that director?

Intellectual dimension: What’s the last book you read on ministry or Scripture, or theology or canon law? Every profession expects its practitioners to continue their intellectual development. There are many opportunities these days to do that.

Pastoral dimension: How well do we integrate the human, spiritual and intellectual dimensions in developing our pastoral skills? Have we had someone (or several people) evaluate our homilies, for example? Are there areas of ministry I don’t feel comfortable with but that I now will stretch myself to do?

In conclusion, do we fully embrace formation as a lifelong partner in our lives as deacons and priests? Perhaps this is something to be discussed with our spiritual director. In this lifelong formation, how well-integrated is it, incorporating all four dimensions? If we can do this, not only will we continue in our growth as balanced disciples, we will be able to serve the People of God more effectively and lovingly.

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.