A short time ago, I was contacted by a priest whose ministry relates to examination of candidates for admission to formation. He had been positively encouraged by the standard of the candidates he had encountered, their age range, experience and resolve.
Many diocesan priests are likely to count their day of ordination as their most important. In sacramental terms, this is clearly correct. This is evidently in line with the Church's understanding of the ontological change which is brought about through ordination to the priesthood. However, in human terms, the reception of this sacrament is intended to be the culmination of the first stage in the journey of preparation. Few will remember as vividly the first time they expressed the view that they were considering a process of discernment which extended to the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
In days gone by, when candidates were plentiful, expressions of interest were likely to be met with non-committal mutterings or nonchalance. Regardless of the initial reaction, those who persevered in the sequence of meetings with their parish priest, then vocations director, and even their family medical practitioner, were recognised as both being in need of formation. In certain parts of the Church, early expressions of interest prompted admission to junior seminary. For older students about to embark upon the journey to college as proud bearers of their leaving certificates, selection meant a philosophy year within a senior seminary. This is in marked contrast to the practices which appear to have application to candidates today. Instead of being encouraged to enter houses of formation, many are told they must experience life first, or, go off to university and complete their studies before considering admission to a formation programme.
This article is not intended to serve as a lament for the loss of junior seminaries. Nor is a manifesto for admission of all candidates regardless of subjective qualities such as emotional maturity. After all, many considered (and continue to hold the view) that the seminary formation model was too monastic in character and provided little by way of preparation for priestly ministry. But in the final analysis, this is not in fact the point. Any professional will confirm that academic formation alone cannot equip a candidate for the demands of professional life. But priesthood is not like any other profession. It requires personal attributes which have been developed, nurtured and practised.
In his Rule, St Benedict recognised the need for both nurturing and testing. But the model he offered was being played out in an environment which was receptive to the perspective of faith and religious vocation and in this respect, provided an environment in which the candidate could 'give God a chance'. Can the same be said of our own church communities? St Benedict's reasoning was clear: it was necessary for the monk to be at home in the desert if he was to be of service to the Lord in the market place. Are we in fact at risk of inverting these principles and the values they represent?
In his book 'Jesus is Lord - An Introduction to Christian Theology" Fr Donal Murray (now Bishop) observed:
"There is a need, particularly in a time of change, to try and recapture the simplicity and the force of the first apostolic preaching. This means returning to the "unchanging answer, the absolute and reliable and final word of God to man: Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and the same forever." This is the only possible perspective from which to understand our faith, our Christian lives..."
This being so, perhaps we need to look again at how we may nurture the vocations which the Lord has blessed us with; devising means which do not involve inviting them to participate in the ways of the world as a precondition to acceptance for formation itself. This is not a return to a form of dualism. It is quite simply, a recognition of the personal endurance and spiritual formation upon which the priesthood depends. Indeed, it may be thought that our modern practice of deferral is the exact opposite of what Christ himself would require. Any doubt in this regard is removed when we call to mind the story of the rich man [Matt. 19:21]. Jesus did not suggest that he enjoyed his wealth a little longer, or, tasted what the world had to offer. Rather, he invited him to liberate himself from those things which might impede his relationship with God. This rather begs the question, what sort of liberty do we offer candidates when we deflect them from their path? Perhaps if we viewed formation as preparation for life, rather than an outmoded form of segregation, we might have more candidates for ordination repeating the prayer of one priest, ordained in the late 1950s:
"May the Lord in His mercy, bless all of those who have helped to His Altar."