Upon his ordination, a priest is able to act in persona christi capitis in the community: in the person of Christ the head. All four pillars of seminary formation are interwoven and prepare him to fulfill this role, yet the pastoral formation is in a sense the culmination of the others. He becomes a true shepherd of souls. He will teach, sanctify, and lead the people towards Christ.
Specifically, pastoral formation involves preparation to proclaim the Word, celebrate the Sacraments, evangelize, lead a community, exercise public ministry, take care of the needy, provide counsel, and guide the faithful in the Christian life. Formation in these areas involves development of skills, but goes beyond technical capabilities and involves all others are areas of formation. A seminarian’s whole person must come together and develop so that as a priest, he will be a bridge “to communicate Jesus Christ” (Program of Priestly Formation, #241).
What does it mean to be Pastoral?
“The entire training of the students should be oriented to the formation of true shepherds of souls after the model of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd.” Optatam Totius (no. 4)
“Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’
He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.'” John 21:15-17 (NAB)
“My pastoral formation is helping me to learn how to give of yourself like Christ.”
“We have the opportunity to be with God’s people in their happiest and darkest of times, and we must learn to care for them as Christ.”
Examples of Pastoral Formation Assignments
The information below provides a sample of what a seminarian’s pastoral formation assignments might look like. Each seminarian’s program will be different in certain aspects.
Each seminarian has a pastoral assignment during the school year determined by his seminary, and a pastoral summer assignment determined by the diocese.
Example Seminary Pastoral Assignments
- Learning the aspects of parish life by interviewing staff and parishioners and being present at parish events and liturgies.
- Teaching religious education to children or teens with a group of seminarians and laity.
- Working with a priest in prison ministry.
- Visiting a nursing home or hospital to spend time with the sick or elderly, their family, and assist the priest with the Anointing of the Sick.
- Spending time in a Diocesan office to learn about the workings of the diocese.
Example Summer Pastoral Assignments
Pastoral formation needs to emphasize the proclamation of God’s Word, which indeed is the first task of the priest. This proclamation ministry is aimed at the conversion of sinners and is rooted in the seminarian/preacher’s ability to listen deeply to the lived experiences and realities of the faithful. This listening is followed by the preacher’s ability to interpret those lived experiences in the light of Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Tradition. Understanding this intersection of God’s Word and human experiences, the seminarian/preacher initiates a lifelong mission and ministry of bringing God’s Word to the world through preaching and teaching. This requires that the seminarian couple the deepest convictions of faith with the development of his communication skills so that God’s Word may be effectively expressed.
The celebration of the sacraments is central to the priest’s ministry. Although the seminarian cannot celebrate the sacraments as a priest does, he can accompany priests who do and he can prepare those who participate in them. In this way, he begins to have a sense of what his sacramental ministry will entail. He will come to appreciate the sacraments as part of his future public ministry for the salvation of souls and understand more clearly how the Church’s sacraments, especially the Eucharist, nourish and sustain God’s people.
All priests are to have the heart of missionaries. The Church is truest to her identity when she is an evangelizing Church. This is because the very nature of the Church is missionary. Seminarians should be given an opportunity to become acquainted with the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies, the Missionary Congregations of Religious, the home missions, and the missionary tradition over the centuries. An exposure to the Church’s missionary work during the years of formation can be beneficial to the seminarian, his discernment, and his future ministry.
Seminarians need to learn how to make available in service to God’s people all the formation that has preceded (the human, the spiritual, and the intellectual). This means the acquisition of certain skills, for example, an ability to communicate the mysteries of faith in clear and readily comprehensible language using media appropriate to the social context. At the same time, pastoral formation means more than acquiring skills. It signifies a level of personal development, fitting for a priest who acts in the person of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church. Effective public ministry means, for example, the cultivation of a flexibility of spirit that enables the priest to relate to people across a number of different cultures and theological and ecclesial outlooks. Formation must help the seminarian put on both the mind and heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
It is important not to sacrifice human, spiritual, and intellectual formation for practical experience. Still, it is essential to cultivate pastoral formation and to enhance and integrate the other dimensions of formation so that the seminarian has opportunities to experience pastoral life firsthand. Seminaries have initiated students into pastoral experiences and reflection on them in a variety of ways: concurrent field placements, pastoral quarters or internships, clinical pastoral education, and diaconate internships. Whatever the setting, it is necessary that it facilitate learning. It is also necessary that there be a guide, mentor, or teacher who accompanies the student and helps him to learn from the experience. In addition, there should be a priest supervisor who helps the student enter into the specifically priestly dimension of the ministry. In these experiences, the student first enters the scene as an observer, then raises questions to understand what is happening, and finally relates it to his other formation. He ought then to practice or try to do what the situation requires. After that, he can profit from supervision that helps him to assess what happened and gives him feedback. A process of theological reflection follows that identifies the faith assumptions and convictions underlying both the situation and the ministerial response. Theological reflection thus provides an opportunity for personal synthesis, the clarification of motivations, and the development of directions for life and ministry. And the final step, of course, is in fact to return to the ministry or pastoral situation, but now with more knowledge and ability and a better inner sense of direction because of an enriched spiritual life and a more deeply grounded sense of priestly identity. It is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop, religious ordinary, and the rectors to ensure that the Catholic, sacramental dimension of pastoral care is integral to all such programs in which seminarians participate.
Pastoral formation must flow from and move towards an appreciation of the multifaceted reality of the Church. In the United States, this means a genuine appreciation of the diversity that marks the Catholic Church as well as the diversity that typifies this society generally. Seminarians need exposure to the many cultures and languages that belong to the Catholic Church in the United States. They should know how to welcome migrants and refugees pastorally, liturgically, and culturally. Simultaneously, they should assist newcomers to adapt themselves into the mainstream without each one losing their own identity.
They also need to know, appreciate, and learn how to work within the ecumenical and interfaith context that forms a backdrop for life in the United States and for the Catholic Church in this nation.
All pastoral formation must be profoundly ecclesial in nature. One of its principal aims is the familiarization of seminarians with the local Church that they will serve and especially the priests with whom they will be co-workers with the bishop. This dimension of pastoral formation not only means absorbing information about the local Church and presbyterate, but, more importantly, cultivating bonds of affective communion and learning how to be at home in the place where one will serve and with the priests with whom one will serve. Seminarians should see their future priestly assignments as something wider than their own preference and choice, but rather as a sharing in a far wider vision of the needs of the local Church.
If seminarians are to be formed after the model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who came “to bring glad tidings to the poor,” then they must have sustained contact with those who are privileged in God’s eyes—the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the suffering. In the course of these encounters, they learn to cultivate a preferential option for the poor. They also need to become aware of the social contexts and structures that can breed injustice as well as ways of promoting more just contexts and structures.
Pastoral formation means that seminarians learn how to take spiritual initiatives and direct a community into action or movement. That leadership also includes a dimension of practical administration. The pastoral formation program should provide opportunities for seminarians to acquire the basic administrative skills necessary for effective pastoral leadership, recognizing that programs of continuing education and ongoing formation will be necessary to equip newly ordained priests to assume future responsibilities as pastors. Additional leadership skills include an ability to manage the physical and financial resources of the parish, including educating parishioners about the gospel value of stewardship, and an ability to organize parochial life effectively to achieve the goals of the new evangelization.
In the current situation in the United States, parish life is blessed with many people who serve—permanent deacons, men and women religious, professional lay ministers, volunteers, and members of parish and diocesan consultative bodies. To direct others and to work well with them, priests need a number of personal qualities. A seminarian who aspires to serve as a priest needs to cultivate these qualities in the process of pastoral formation. They include a sense of responsibility for initiating and completing tasks, a spirit of collaboration with others, an ability to facilitate resolution of conflicts, a flexibility of spirit that is able to make adjustments for new and unexpected circumstances, an availability to those who serve and those who are served, and, finally, zeal—or the ardent desire to bring all people closer to the Lord.
Becoming a well-rounded, well-adjusted man of God.
Growing closer to Christ through study, prayer, and the Sacraments.
Studying the faith and developing the mind to more effectively share the Gospel.