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A Glimpse at Priestly Formation

By Fred Williams, Franciscan University

As a man in priestly formation, I am constantly asked about what formation is, or entails. It has been brought to my attention that there is quite a large number of lay faithful who do not have any knowledge of what priestly formation is like. In this article, I would like to offer a small glimpse into what this priestly formation looks like. In this article, I will briefly explain what is known as the internal and external forums, show how these work in the context of formation and dive briefly into the pillars or dimensions of priestly formation. 

Before I begin, note that the formation process is often different from diocese to diocese, religious order to religious order, and even person to person. This is because the formation given is based on the needs of the individual man. Because every person has a unique life, and their own personal crosses, it is important for the seminarian or man in formation to receive personalized formation. Granted, not everything is subject to change or to be individualized. The Catholic Church has certain requirements for whom she ordains. If you are interested in learning what these requirements are, ask your vocations director or a parish priest, as they could provide answers or resources for you to look into. 

The first thing to know about priestly formation is that, in a broad sense, it happens in the context of the internal forum and the external forum. As humans are a body and soul composite, a priest must be formed in both body and soul. The internal forum seeks to form the soul. Within the internal forum, spiritual direction takes place. A man in formation meets with a spiritual director on a regular basis and discusses his interior life and struggles. How is your prayer life? How is your relationship with God? Have you been able to fight that temptation to the sin you struggle with? Are you having second thoughts? Have you brought these to prayer? All of these are examples of what might be brought up or asked in these meetings. The role of the spiritual director is to help the man in formation establish a life in Christ, shaping his internal life so as to help him better imitate Christ and live a life of prayer. The meetings of the internal forum are done in confidence and sometimes in the seal of confession. 

The External forum has more to do with behavior, appearance, and other external factors. It focuses on personal growth and discipline. The formation in the external forum is facilitated by a formation director. This is normally a priest, assigned to this role by a seminary or diocese. The formation that takes place in the external forum can be broken down into four pillars or dimensions of formation. These pillars or dimensions are intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and human. Each one of these focuses on a specific discipline of the man who is to be formed into a priest. The one who is receiving formation, as well as the formation director, might put forth certain goals to aim for, in order to grow in a particular pillar or dimension. 

 The Intellectual pillar has to do with… you guessed it, the intellect. It is here that academic disciplines and challenges are addressed. In the first several years of seminary, a man typically completes a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, before he studies theology. The aim of this is to form his intellect so as to better understand the faith he is to teach and better communicate the truths of the Faith to others. The guidance of a formation director is crucial here, as philosophical studies are often rigorous, and can make or break someone’s academic career. 

The Pastoral pillar seeks to form a man as a pastor. It is here where the man is formed to help those in need, to shepherd the flock. The heart of a shepherd is formed by caring for his sheep.  It is through this pillar that he may begin ministerial work, mission trips, or service projects. This encompasses anything from homeless ministry, to altar serving, to youth ministry, etc. It is in this pillar that he can learn to see and better form his gifts and talents. Most importantly, this pillar forms a man to better love the people of God. 

The Spiritual pillar has to do with a man’s prayer life. Though one’s prayer life is discussed in the internal forum, it must also be formed in the external forum. In particular, the spiritual dimension seeks to form a man to have a better routine, love, and discipline of prayer. Spiritual direction and the internal forum are focused more on the fruits and depths of prayer, while the external forum is concerned more with the how, when, what, why and if of prayer. How do you pray? Do you use devotionals, lectio divina, or the rosary? Do you take time for silence while you pray? Are you setting aside time out of every day to pray? Or are you praying when convenient? Are you challenging yourself to pray more, and in different ways? Are you having difficulty staying awake and focused while praying? Again, these questions serve as an example of what spiritual formation may look like. If a man is to be a priest of Christ, he must take time to get to know him more. 

The last pillar is the Human pillar. This pillar seems to be the most encompassing pillar. It deals with human life skills. This can range from interpersonal skills and relationships, professional development, weight loss and personal health, mental health, etc. The human pillar focuses on growth as a human person in order to be better adept to deal with day to day life, not merely as a priest, but as a person. It is here that a large part of formation happens. 

This article serves, merely as a glimpse of priestly formation, and is not at all an extensive look. If you are curious and would like to learn more about the process of priestly formation, I would encourage you to speak to your parish priest. He can answer questions and guide you to helpful sources. 

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