Time to look beyond Maynooth?

Time to look beyond Maynooth? View of St Joseph's Square, Maynooth.
Parish-based formation could have academic advantages, Greg Daly is told


Every cloud, as the saying goes, has a silver lining, and if there’s an unlikely advantage to Ireland’s currently tiny numbers of seminarians it’s that it’s giving hierarchy an opportunity to transform priestly formation in the country.

For Fr Eamonn Fitzgibbon of Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College, part of a working group convened by the Bishops’ Conference with a view to looking into how priestly formation might be reformed in Ireland, the training of priests needs considering in terms of the needs both of parishioners and seminarians.

“The profile of seminarians has changed a lot in the last number of years,” he tells The Irish Catholic. “Generally they’re older now, they have life experience, they’re men who’ve been to college,” he says. “It’s not a case anymore of 17- or 18-year-olds coming straight from school. The older model that was there back then probably suited that profile of seminarian, it was kind of a bridge, but I think the needs are different now.”


Maintaining that strong pastoral formation is essential, he says it’s clear that plucking candidates for priesthood out of the world and keeping them largely separate from it during formation isn’t wise.

“You can’t lift people out of the reality they’re living in in Ireland and then think that after seven years kind of in a very sanitised world they can go back into that reality and minister without being some way prepared for it,” he says.

One scenario that has been mooted, as reported in The Irish Catholic last week, is a parish-based model of formation that might almost be described as an apprenticeship model, with seminarians living in parishes under the direct day-to-day guidance of experienced priests, a model that Prof. Vincent Twomey SVD says appears to be modelled on the ‘École Cathédrale’ model pioneed by Paris’s Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger in the 1980s.


“There shouldn’t be any contradiction between studies and pastoral activity – they should mutually complement each other,” he says, adding that he would personally favour a parish-based formation model. “I think on the whole in principle I would say that model of the École Cathédrale should not in any way take away from the need for a solid academic training.”

One might wonder how much serious academic training priests working on the coalface of parish life need, and Prof. Twomey says that that probably depends on the abilities of individual priests.

“There is a minimum they have to have – if you’re a doctor you have to have proved you know certain things about medicine, otherwise you won’t be allowed to practice as a GP or go on for special studies. It’s the same for priests in the parish. There is a certain basic knowledge of the faith and morals and canon law and history you have to know and prove before you are allowed to operate independently as a pastor,” he says.

There’s definitely a lot to be said for this model, according to Jesuit Fr Mike Drennan, former spiritual director at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, who says: “I think it could work – pastorally you’d be more grounded in the practical.”

Contrasting pastorally immersive formation with more “isolating” models, he says the spiritual side of it could still continue, with suitable accompaniment and other supports.

“Seminary gives a structure with prayer in the morning, Mass, and all of these things, and they have spiritual directors there, which is absolutely vital, but it could still be dealt with,” he says. “It would mean you’d need a parish that is understanding of where the guy was at, and also supports around him. The challenge they would have is to find the type of parishes that would be accepting of it and supporting of it, but the thing could be adapted.”

This, he says, is the hardest part of formation. “The academic part of it is only one part and it can be the easy part,” he says. “Individual accompaniment and the pastoral side always remains the challenging bit. That depends on the individual and that depends on the parish structure, but I’m sure that can be adapted.”

If parish-based formation is to be introduced in Ireland, according to Boston College’s Prof. Oliver Rafferty SJ, it would almost inevitably have to be focused on Dublin.

“I think if this is going to work in Ireland it will have to be done in Dublin – I can’t see how it can work elsewhere,” he says. “It seems to me that the hierarchy ought to make arrangements with the department of Theology at Trinity College.  I know that will strike terror into the hearts of some, but there is a vibrant theological faculty at Trinity, augmented a number of years ago by the Loyola Institute, which specifically aimed to bring Catholic theology into the department at Trinity.”

Acknowledging that not everything could be taught at Trinity, and that the Irish Church would need to make arrangements for such things as Catholic canon law and sacramentology to be taught elsewhere, it’s clear that Prof. Rafferty sees no great future for the Maynooth in the Irish Church.

“Effectively Maynooth would be finished as a training centre for parish seminarians,” he says, pointing out that a similar nettle was grasped by the Scottish bishops with their seminaries some years ago.

“It’s clear that the bishops want to move away from the old idea of seminary formation,” he stresses, “and once they do that, if that is what they have decided, then obviously the consequence that flows from that is abandoning Maynooth as a seminary.”

The Church isn’t bound to forming priests in seminaries, he points out.

“Don’t forget that seminaries as such were simply invented by the Council of Trent,” he says, “I think seminaries were good in the 16th Century, but I’m not so sure they’re good in the 20th and the 21st Centuries. As an institution for forming priests, I think seminaries may have seen their day.”

A key part of the problem, he says, is that it’s difficult for seminaries to equip priests for their actual lives. Parish-based formation could address this, but he cautions against placing too much emphasis on pastoral work at a cost to academic formation.

“Seminarians need rigorous exposure to the academic aspects of theology,” he says. “Apart from anything else, in a society where the laity are increasingly educated, it would be a paradox to say the least if you had in general laity who were better educated than the clergy. Obviously you’d want to avoid that. In a situation where people are thinking for themselves you’d want a highly educated clergy, who could bring some answers to questions.”

Pointing out that Church of Ireland candidates for ministry attend classes in Trinity College, Prof. Rafferty says that the college could play a key role in preparing priests for the realities of ministry in a rapidly changing Ireland.

“Given the increasing advancement of secularism in Ireland, one advantage again of Trinity is that here you’d have clergy – of two different denominations, of course – addressing similar issues about the role of religion in Irish society, and therefore solidarity between Catholic and Protestant in the face of a society for which religion is felt to be increasingly irrelevant.”