Simplistic labelling has no part in wholesome priestly training

The idea that a seminarian might not be ordained because he holds conservative or liberal views is a red herring, writes Msgr Hugh Connolly

It is not easy and rarely appropriate to discuss the serious and delicate business of seminary formation via the media, even the Catholic media. For that reason it is with some hesitation that I take this opportunity to share these thoughts in this forum. Nevertheless, on balance I believe I should respond to two recent articles which, despite what I consider to be somewhat sensationalist and tendentious headlines, have sought in one way or another to address this topic.

Where I am in complete agreement with David Quinn is in the assessment that the sophisticated and sensitive enterprise of priestly formation today should never be reduced to facile judgements around ‘conservatism’ and the like. Simplistic labelling cannot be of any help to a truly wholesome priestly training. Instead a thorough evaluation process assiduously undertaken and closely referencing the ‘four pillars’ of spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation as set forth in the seminal document from the Holy See Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) is always key.

Nevertheless, the idea that a seminarian might not on occasion be recommended for ministry solely because he holds conservative or indeed liberal views remains something of a red herring even today. It is quite dispiriting that it should still be accepted so readily and uncritically in some quarters.

This only serves to deflect from the more serious considerations and discussions that really do need to be to the fore for those discerning a priestly calling. 

Such considerations applying to all seminarians are well-established and set down in various Church documents and include: a candidate’s maturity and age, his depth of apostolic commitment and faith, his willingness to serve the people of God in a variety of pastoral roles, his capacity for celibacy, his capacity to work with others (and in particular lay men and women), his fidelity to Church teaching, as well as his capacity to proclaim the Gospel to others whose faith disposition may be differently expressed.

These capacities differ from person to person.

Only a personally-tailored formation itinerary respecting the different rhythms, pace and requirements of each candidate’s formation journey can hope to respond adequately to his needs. The idea of a ‘one size fits all’ approach is hopelessly inadequate and outmoded today. It is therefore entirely normal, indeed essential, that such an itinerary should be put together in full consultation with seminary staff, students and their bishops.


It is also unremarkable that such itineraries would on occasion differ from one individual to the next. This necessarily sensitive and profoundly personal process however is always best conducted in serenity and calm and away from the glare of publicity.

David Quinn is right to remind us that “Catholic theology cannot stray on the fundamentals from the teachings of the Magisterium”. Neither for that matter should a priest or seminarian so stray.

While this may seem to be blindingly obvious, it is nevertheless important for me to re-state it here in a clear and unambiguous way. In the same context, the comment by Cardinal Timothy Dolan referencing a tendency “fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium” was self-evidently made in the context of Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland and was not referencing Maynooth in particular. Similarly it is not fair to simply state that Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 ordered an “investigation of Maynooth”.

In the Holy Father’s own words, he announced  “an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations which would be essentially pastoral in nature and intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal”. This nationwide initiative to all the faithful in this country was made in the context of the Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland, March 19, 2010.

Mr Quinn’s discussion of the ‘rigidity’ question opens up an interesting area. Rigidity is frequently a natural response which is often bound up with a certain anxiety or fear. It is therefore clearly an area the trainee priest must address if he is to develop a charitable heart and his personality is to be a bridge rather than an obstacle in his pastoral relationships.

As such, it is my own experience that it can be the affliction of both so-called theological ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ alike. In the New Testament, Jesus challenges those Pharisees and teachers of the law “who tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders” [Mt23:4]. The rigid person it seems, may always be with us, so addressing this human reality in a sensitive and helpful manner will therefore necessarily be the perennial task of a judicious and wholesome priestly formation in all its human, spiritual, pastoral and theological dimensions.

The sacred liturgy and the celebration of the Blessed Eucharist are of course at the very heart of the life of any formation community. As such the question of posture should never detract from the unity of these great moments of community prayer. I should therefore for the record, make it unambiguously clear that it is the policy and practice of our seminary community in Maynooth to kneel throughout the entire Eucharistic Prayer.

I believe that there is something of a tendency, perhaps in our human condition, to all too easily seek to establish the polemic: ‘conservative versus liberal’, ‘academic v practical’, ‘contemplative v pastoral’ and such like. In the end though, categories such as conservatism, progressivism and all the other by now well-worn stereotypes provide a far too simplistic and shallow framework for any meaningful analysis of contemporary priestly formation.

They also risk rendering this vital enterprise a huge disservice by sidelining and diminishing the very professional, dedicated and thorough work of all those who selflessly engage in the essential ministry of formation for priesthood today.

Thank God, this year 14 of our seminarians have been ordained to the priesthood and a further nine to the diaconate. It has been a truly remarkable year for our formation community whose mission I am truly honoured and privileged to serve.


Msgr Hugh Connolly is President of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.