Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Council at 50: Training Seminarians for Post-Vatican II

Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.

(Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service)

Bishops voted for the changes urged by the Second Vatican Council, but it would be the clergy who would have to bear responsibility for their implementation in the parish communities. Thus, the Council’s “Decree on the Training of Priests,” Optatam Totius (Desired of the Whole), though one of the shorter documents of Vatican II, is arguably most significant.

Renewal of the seminary system proved vital, for the church needed priests prepared to guide greater participation of the laity in the Church’s mission. The decree laid down the basic principles for priestly formation which have guided the formation of priests since then. The watershed document of Pope John Paul II in 1992 on priestly formation, I will give you Shepherds, expanded on the decree and stressed the human formation necessary for priestly formation today. 

The decree called for bishops’ conferences to establish local seminary norms so priests could meet the pastoral requirements where they minister. The Pope and his assistants in Rome provided general regulations from which all local conferences of bishops established the local rules. In the United States, the Conference of Bishops promulgated the first Program of Priestly Formation in 1971. It has been revised four times since then and the Bishops’ Conference continues to review and revise the norms to insure top formation for priests.

The Council emphasized spiritual formation in seminary training so that seminarians would “learn to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit,” the decree said. This requires faithful meditation on the Word of God and regular participation in the Mass, confession, the Liturgy of the Hours and devotions to the Blessed Virgin. Seminarians are to be taught to seek Christ “in the bishop by whom they are sent and in the people to whom they are sent, especially the poor, little children, the weak, sinners and unbelievers.”

The Council emphasized the primacy of Scripture in intellectual formation. The relationship between the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church, a theme treated in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, finds expression here. “Students should receive a most careful training in holy Scripture, which should be the soul, as it were, of all theology,” the decree noted.

An emphasis on pastoral training reflected the Council’s overall concern for effective engagement with the world. Such training demands a willingness to listen to others and the capacity to open their hearts in a spirit of charity to the needs of other people. The decree noted that seminarians must learn the art of the exercising the apostolate not only in theory but in practice, with pastoral work as part of their studies. Given the rapid growth in the cultural diversity of the Church in the United States in recent decades, the current norms of the Program for Priestly Formation strongly encourage seminarians to develop language skills and intercultural competency to be more effective pastoral ministers.

Finally, what is implicit in the decree but made explicit in Pope John Paul II’s I Will Give You Shepherds, is the need for human formation. Blessed John Paul stated that future priests are to cultivate a series of human qualities, both for their own good, and also with a view to the priestly ministry. These qualities enable them to be balanced, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibility and to have the requisite affective maturity to live and cherish the gift of celibacy. The seminarian’s capacity to relate to others as a “man of communion” is essential for the priesthood in our day.


Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City is a consultant to the U.S. bishops’Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

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