A Message from the Bishop – Forming new priests in a difficult time for the Church

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When will it all end?

That was the question raised to me by a newspaper reporter, conveying a message from a friend he described as a faithful Catholic. The friend was making a reference to the sex abuse crisis in the Church.

Over the past 10 years, with the implementation of reforms including a provision that even one-time priest offenders are no longer eligible to serve in ministry, we have made great strides. Still any single case of sex abuse by a trusted faith leader is one too many.

In the long run, we need to form priests who are happy in their vocation, see celibacy as an important spiritual gift, have developed a strong prayer life and are blessed with healthy relationships. All these factors are integral to forming priests. We need to constantly examine our programs of priestly formation to see if they are living up to these high ideals. In the process, we may need to rethink some assumptions.

The late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris revamped clergy formation in his archdiocese. Aware that most priests live as pastors, he recognized this reality by requiring that candidates for the priesthood spend years in parishes, working among the people, while at the same time receiving support from a formation team and attending classes.

At this juncture, a crucial time in the Church in the United States, it may be time to revisit Cardinal Lustiger’s idea.

Here in the Diocese of Camden, our candidates for priesthood already receive a strong emphasis on pastoral training. After two years of studies, we require them to experience a year of parish life. We are then equipped to evaluate how they interact with their fellow priests, as well as laymen and women.

Ministry is about relationships, I tell our seminarians. If you are immature in your relationship skills, you shouldn’t be a priest. Our priests should model themselves on Jesus, who came to be among us, not to be cold and distant, aloof from others or, in the other extreme, so needy that they are unable to experience mature friendship.

Priestly formation is a process. It should, ideally, never end. All of us who are priests, no matter what age, should be growing in prayer and service.

We may be at the point, I believe, where seminaries, once a needed church reform, have outlived their usefulness in best nurturing this process. When I first began work as a parish priest in Philadelphia, I encountered all kinds of situations in which seminary education left me ill-prepared. “The seminary taught me to be a good seminarian, not a good priest,” I commented to a friend at the time. Through the years, I have become more convinced that candidates for diocesan priesthood should live among the people and those they will work with as pastors.

A good formation will emphasize that, as priests, we are called to live with integrity. Our lives cannot be a lie. We’re supposed to be men of prayer and celibate witness, spiritually open to loving all without clinging to anyone in particular.

It is, like married life, a challenge. If you don’t have tire tracks on your soul, I have discovered, you can’t grow and mature. That growth has to include a greater spiritual maturity, a growing closeness to God. At 74, I have grown, so that my relationship with God is different than what it was when I was 34.

What the sex abuse scandals have taught us is that we need to be more humble. We are flawed. We are victims of original sin. We can no longer pretend that some of us aren’t. We need to be more dependent upon God, not on ourselves.

That’s the lesson that priestly formation in our time must convey. Sin, for sure, will not go away. But we must do our best to nurture healthy priests devoted to prayer and service, and examine models that might be able to do that better. We owe nothing less for our Catholic people who are asking difficult questions and seeking answers.