In the Catholic understanding, the priest is someone who stands for Christ himself, who acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). The call to priesthood evokes the response “Here I am Lord – I come to do your will.” In formation a special time of conversion takes place, a conversion of mind and heart and spirit, so that the seminarian will grow to be more and more like Christ.
This growing to be like Christ involves not just our spiritual life or our academic studies – it involves the whole of our personality, the whole of our humanity. Pope St John Paul II wrote: “In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ” (Pastores dabo vobis (PDV), 43). This is the area of ‘human formation’ in the seminary. If our human development is neglected or disregarded, Pope St John Paul II continues, then “the work of priestly formation is deprived of its necessary foundation” (PDV, 43). The closer we grow to Christ, the more we discover who we really are; and the more honest we are about our human strengths and weaknesses, the more Christ can help and change us. At the Second Vatican Council the Church expressed this in the following way: ‘It is Christ the Lord who, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
So the process of human formation is an essential part of the overall journey to priesthood. It goes without saying that this is not a cloning process. Grace builds on nature, and the process ought to lead to inner freedom, to emotional maturity, to honesty with oneself and others, to a recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses, to a balanced life, to a capacity for relationships that are loving and generous and respectful. The future priest seeks to have that human and personal touch which we all love and find so attractive and reassuring.
Human formation is not an isolated moment in the timetable—it takes place through all the different experiences the students live through in their time in seminary. It is helped above all by personal reflection, by conversations with one’s formation adviser, and by one’s desire to grow and change in whatever areas seem important. No-one is perfect, but by the end of their time in seminary the students hope to have a good self-knowledge, to have the ability to relate to others in a mature and sensitive way, and to have the maturity to serve the mission of the Church with love and generosity. The student seeks to become someone who is formed in the image of Christ, a man for others, a man of communion.
The lifelong commitment to celibacy, if it is to be real and effective, has to grow out of a deep sense of vocation. The seminarian is so moved by the richness of God’s love in Christ, that he wants to give his whole life to pastoral charity and to the sanctification of all he is to serve. His sexuality does not disappear, but it is now fulfilled through a different kind of loving: not the love of a husband for his wife, but the chaste love of a priest for the people in his care, and the brotherly love of a man for his family and friends and fellow priests. The celibate priest hopes to integrate his emotional needs and desires, so that his life and ministry are greatly enriched, not diminished, by his commitment to celibacy.
Human formation is also about the capacity to take initiative and assume leadership in a confident and mature way. Overbearing behaviour and rigid attitudes can stifle and prevent good pastoral practice, as can timidity or a fear of what people think of us. The process of formation acknowledges the particular life experience of each student, and seeks to build upon his strengths while acknowledging his weaknesses, so that he can become a loving and wise shepherd to all.
Personal responsibility is the bedrock of the programme. We can only grow in our human and Christian maturity if we are taking responsibility for this journey, and being open to the challenges we meet, and the help that we are offered. The goal is that the future priest is humanly prepared, as far as is possible, for the work to which he is called. It has been said that ‘all that is human in Christ is a revelation of God and speaks to us of him.’ One of the ways that Christ reveals himself to us in each generation is through the humanity of our priests—a humanity that, God willing, is passionate, tender, kind, and generous.