Forming the priests of the future to be missionary disciples

Forming the priests of the future to be missionary disciples Photo: CNS
Some recently-ordained priests see Holy Orders as a kind of elite caste, but the Pope is determined to change this, writes Fr Declan Marmion SM


The dramatic fall-off in vocations in recent decades has led many, including Church authorities themselves, to ask if the current model of priestly formation is fit for purpose. How best to reform existing seminaries is a ‘stay awake at night’ issue on the minds of every bishop in the northern hemisphere.

Many seminaries were built in a different era and for much bigger numbers, so it is not surprising that the suitability of large, old, institutional buildings – including our own national seminary in Maynooth – is now being called into question. This is just one of many points that Irish bishops have been reflecting on as they prepare a new set of national guidelines for seminary formation in Ireland.


At the beginning of 2017, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy addressed this crucial issue. Their response was The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, a publication which has become the foundational charter providing norms and guidelines to enable a process of seminary reform worldwide.

Central to the document is the belief that the four dimensions of priestly formation – human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral – are of a piece. The emphasis is on the integration of all four dimensions: linked together in a journey of discipleship.

Priestly formation is divided into stages. The first –  introductory or propaedeutic stage – has been developed because it can no longer be assumed that seminarians come from a practising Catholic background or even know much about the faith.

This time of discernment, usually lasting a year, enables the candidate to develop his spiritual life and become more familiar with Christian doctrine prior to formal entry to the seminary.

The other stages – philosophical studies, theological studies and the pastoral year – have now been given a more rounded description.

The Gift of the Priestly Vocation ensures that the emphasis is not solely on the academic dimension but on developing “a well-structured and balanced personality” in tandem with a spiritual life that will help the seminarian grow as a “disciple of Jesus who is destined to be a pastor”.

Growth in human maturity and in the spiritual life go hand-in-hand. In short, the whole life of a priest is one of “continuous formation” so that united to the Good Shepherd, “he can make his life a gift of self to others.”


So as to engender considered debate on the issue of reforming seminaries worldwide, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth hosted an international conference on ‘Models of Priestly Formation: Assessing the Past, Reflecting on the Present and Imagining the Future.’*

Theologians, psychologists, and seminary formators from Ireland and overseas gathered in Maynooth to reflect upon some of the challenges facing seminary formation today.

Speakers at the Maynooth conference highlighted a troubling characteristic of some recently-ordained priests. They spoke of a tendency toward authoritarianism and a view of priesthood as a kind of elite caste. Of course not all seminarians or newly-ordained fit into this category.

Today’s seminary is more likely to be at the centre of a vibrant university campus, where seminarians study alongside lay students”

Pope Francis has a word for this: clericalism, and it is the opposite of how he envisions priesthood. It goes hand in hand with a doctrinal and liturgical rigidity, an antipathy towards Vatican II (1962-65), and a limited capacity to collaborate with others.

Francis’ vision, on the other hand, is that priesthood is a call to pastoral service of all God’s people. This means future priests need to be ‘rounded’ – ‘integrated’ is the key word used.

Firstly, they must be fluent in the Catholic theological tradition enabling them to proclaim the Gospel in a credible way for today.

Secondly, they will be socially engaged and have acquired extensive pastoral experiences working alongside lay men and women. Gone are the days when seminaries were exclusively male bastions cut off from the world.

Today’s seminary is more likely to be at the centre of a vibrant university campus, where seminarians study alongside lay students, and where supervised pastoral placements in parishes, hospitals, schools and prisons are a regular feature of their training.

Thirdly, they will have reached a stage of affective maturity – comfortable with their choice of celibacy, while relating easily with women and men. According to Pope Francis, the priest of today and tomorrow cannot be a “lone ranger”; he needs to have a capacity for relationships and be able to collaborate with those he serves. His personality will be a bridge – not an obstacle – leading people to God.

Fourthly, none of this comes about without a spiritual dimension: a communion with God nourished by personal and communal prayer. Finally, all these dimensions of formation – intellectual, pastoral, human and spiritual – will be integrated into the ongoing life of the seminarian and priest.

A seminarian needs to be convinced of the importance of ongoing formation rather than the myth that with ordination he is complete.


The participation of laity, especially women, in the formation discernment process was highlighted throughout the Maynooth conference.

When seminarians have the possibility to interact with women (single, married and religious) as adult to adult and relate with them on an equal basis in an open, friendly and mature way from the outset of their formation, it is more likely that, as priests, they will appreciate the role and leadership of women in ministry.

The new generation of seminarians in Europe and elsewhere tend to be older and are likely to have experienced the world of work prior to entering the seminary.

This is a generation who are internet-savvy, are ‘hyperconnected,’ and derive fellowship from social media. They have little sense of belonging to institutions yet the seminarians from this group tend to love the Catholic Church and seek a clear identity.

Most are ‘reverts’ or converts and their zeal needs time to mature. There can be a tendency towards an individualistic spirituality, seeing faith as primarily a gift for themselves rather than one to be shared with others. This can lead to narcissism and a sense of self-importance which can only be overcome via a journey of discernment.

When it comes to sexuality, speakers advocated transparency and a willingness to talk openly about issues – whether it be sexual orientation or the current clerical sexual abuse crisis. It is clear that the repression of sexuality or the denigration of the goodness of sexuality has led to behaviours that have damaged the lives of many and undermined the credibility of the Church.

The new generation of seminarians in Europe and elsewhere tend to be older and are likely to have experienced the world of work”

Pope Francis believes formation is a life-long process. The Church’s challenge is to form ‘disciple clerics’ who are missionary in spirit. The priests of today and tomorrow, he says, should ‘accompany’ God’s scattered people and help heal their wounds.

To achieve this, seminary formation will need to jettison a clericalist model of Church and promote in its place a model based on discipleship, service and mercy.

Fr Declan Marmion, SM is Dean of the Faculty of Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. Models of Priestly Formation, Assessing the Past, Reflecting on the Present, and Imagining the Future, eds. Declan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, and Michael Mullaney has been published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. The book will be launched by Prof. Bradford Hinze (Fordham University, New York) and Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly (Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly) on October 22 at Maynooth.