Training Catholic priests for a changing world

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Few know that the seminary, as we know it, is a Jesuit invention. This is why in many places the seminaries are still run by Jesuits.

Even fewer know that when seminaries began in the 16th century, they were hailed as a welcome innovation.

Until the Council of Trent (1563), priests received their training according to the model of apprenticeship. A young man, eager to be a priest, learned the mechanics of saying mass, pastoral counseling, with a little Latin added, from an older priest in the neighborhood.

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The candidate stayed with the older man receiving his instruction. It wasn’t much, but we weren’t expecting much. The priests at that time were celibate only in name – they generally lived in cohabitation with a local woman, an arrangement generally acceptable to all.

But then two things happened during the Reformation that changed the situation. First, Lutheran and Calvinist preachers were seen as demonstrably better: they were more adept at preaching and writing; they had studied the Scriptures and the early Church Fathers more in depth, and eclipsed the Catholic clergy.

They also publicly promoted marriage as a vocation for the clergy instead of the shabby common law system practiced by Catholics.

They therefore created special schools to train candidates for ordination in a gradual and systematic manner, both intellectually and spiritually.

The Jesuits – men like Ignatius, Lainez, Canisius, and Bellarmine – soon realized that their clergy could not compete with their Protestant peers if they were not better trained.

They therefore created special schools to train candidates for ordination in a gradual and systematic manner, both intellectually and spiritually. The seminary (“nursery”) was born.

Already two Jesuit innovations – the catechism and the manual – used the new printing technology.

The catechism, popularized by Canisius and Bellarmine, presented “frequently asked questions” with simple and understandable answers. It was so successful that it quickly became a Catholic staple and has been used since wherever the faith was preached.

The manual was the intellectual equivalent of the catechism, with specially prepared chapters on a subject classified to give an understanding of a new subject, printed and bound for easy reference.

It changed the whole way of learning, giving birth to the Jesuit school.

A third innovation, which also spread like wildfire in the hands of resourceful preachers, was the practice of the Spiritual Exercises with its emphasis on frequent confession and fellowship and daily examination. It has become an integral part of the training of young men as future priests.

In the post-Tridentine Church, these new schools of formation spread rapidly in all the dioceses, not only in Europe but also in the mission countries. François Xavier started one in Goa, Saint Paul’s College, almost as soon as he landed there in 1542.

For 400 years, therefore, the seminary system has provided the Church with a body of educated and dedicated men who have led its churches, parishes, schools, and social institutions, and provided a model for which all boys Catholics could aspire.

If it was such a successful model, then why seek to change it? Because the world has changed. What succeeds at one time or in one culture can become an obstacle at another time and in another place.

The Reformation told the Church that its leaders should be well educated. This is why the seminary training had an intellectual orientation, in particular philosophy and theology.

The priests of yesterday were formed in a religious and patriarchal mold. In addition, they also had a strong sense of entitlement.

In today’s secularized world, however, the problems are more related to the social sciences, management and technology. Our social situation is also more pluralistic and democratic than in the past.

No wonder many priests find themselves out of their depth in their dealings with the general public. Their training was too abstract and one-sided.

In recent years, we have been appalled by sexual predators among the clergy and their pedophile rampages in particular.

But there are still more serious problems. The seminary has always been a unisex institution, men forming men, men accompanying men for years.

In response to the Protestant insistence on married clergy, Catholic tradition has emphasized lifelong celibacy. Unfortunately, soon enough, this practice became hostile to women and ignorant of the needs of human sexuality.

In recent years, we have been appalled by sexual predators among the clergy and their pedophile rampages in particular.

The emphasis on intellectual skills alone, and this too in an atmosphere of segregation, has greatly contributed to the emotional deprivation of many priests.

Many are poor in relationships, aggressive in behavior, and ambitious in their aspirations – an attitude we now know as clericalism. Pope Francis denounced clericalism as a cancer among the clergy. To destroy it, the current seminary must disappear.

We can be guided by the way Jesus trained his disciples, as described in the gospels. He formed his disciples among the people, not by keeping them apart.

One or two things grab our attention. When he called someone on a mission, Jesus demanded that the disciple renounce all attachment to family and property.

How crucial is this in a culture that clings to family and caste at every step, and is so reluctant to give up the benefits of office, status, and benefits?

Then, as a mentor, Jesus interacts with his disciples and clarifies their difficulties, while encouraging them to participate in his teaching and healing ministry. Mentor’s teaching is experiential, shared and reflective.

Any big change ends up dismantling the society from which it came.

This raises an important point. The Church of the last two millennia is known for its misogyny, hatred and mistrust of women. And yet we know that psychosocial maturity can only be achieved through intersex harmony. Because it is true that for many, women can be excellent mentors.

Whether this might involve having a married priesthood in the future, and female priests too, the abandonment of compulsory celibacy is probably part of the picture.

Unfortunately, the fierce opposition to these changes from both the clergy and the hierarchy shows how little openness there is to another type of priesthood.

Every big change ultimately dismantles the society from which it came.

Here are a few contemporary examples: intercast and interracial marriages, unthinkable a few years ago, are on the increase; female fertility rates are falling precipitously in almost all countries; mass migration has destroyed the homogeneity of many societies.

But the unknown is always threatening, and we see it in today’s world.

How will we react then if the community leaders, pastors, prophets, are married or women, Dalits or tribes? We who have always been used to a single foreign man?

How will we react to community discernment and interfaith cooperation? We who have always obeyed without thinking about our superiors, are we these bishops or a distant pope in Rome?

Thus, the collapse of seminaries and the rise of small and diverse communities, the “nursery” of our future priests, will change the Church as we know it, for it is a different Church in a different world.

But it begins with another type of responsible priest in our parishes.

* Mumbai-based Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and fiction writer. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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