Human Formation & the Crisis of Trust

In 1990, 238 synod fathers met in Rome for the 8th Ordinary General Synod on “The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day.” They presented Pope John Paul II with 41 propositions at the end of the meeting, and in March 1992, the pope issued Pastores dabo vobis (PDV), his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the topic. This document was the first time that the phrase “human formation” appeared in discussions about preparing men to be ordained as priests. It is a phrase that seems to encompass much that may have been either neglected or presupposed (or both) in ages past. Simply being a fully-developed, mature human being has never been so difficult, it would seem, as it is in the modern world, and it is not something that can be taught in a classroom. But human formation and relationality—of priests who then become bishops—is the only long-term solution to the crisis of trust that The Catholic Project documented in our recent report.

What is human formation?

Human formation is described in PDV as the ground of all formation for the priesthood (c.f. no. 43). Quoting the synod fathers, John Paul II writes, “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation.” The initial formation of what the pope called the “human personality,” does not happen as an adult, but rather develops throughout childhood. Personality emerges in infancy, and is molded and shaped by experience and circumstances.

The family is, of course, the primordial environment in which the human person comes to know himself through being loved. A child who knows the love of mother and father (his origin), siblings, extended family, family friends is given the gift of a baseline of security and confidence; a place of safety, acceptance, and affection that is always there to return to. No family does this perfectly—sin finds a way in—but in that fact, the family can serve as a training ground for repentance, forgiveness, and conversion. This is where a boy-who-will-be-a-priest learns to be himself.

Because the family is foundational to human formation, and there are many ways for families to fall short of the ideal, some measure of healing is always necessary for young men to discern well. PDV acknowledges this: “Sometimes the very family situations in which priestly vocations arise will display not a few weaknesses and at times even serious failings” (no. 44). Particularly notable in this context are the adult children of divorce, who may not have had the space to reflect on their experiences and heal from early childhood wounds. (Sidenote: Life-Giving Wounds is a Catholic apostolate for adult children of divorce that is run by two friends of mine!) Healing is necessary to try to ensure that a man is not choosing celibacy out of fear of (or hatred for) marriage or women.

A priest who will persevere in his celibate vocation is a man who recognizes the good he is giving up by renouncing marriage and does so for the sake of something greater. This something greater is not abstract, but a Person: Jesus Christ, who is very-much-alive and present in the priest’s life. JPII writes, “Since the charism of celibacy, even when it is genuine and has proved itself, leaves one’s affections and instinctive impulses intact, candidates to the priesthood need an affective maturity which is prudent, able to renounce anything that is a threat to it, vigilant over both body and spirit, and capable of esteem and respect in interpersonal relationships between men and women.” Relatedly, the pope notes in PDV the paramount importance of friendship and brotherhood in the life of a mature priest. Celibacy should not mean isolation or a lack of love or affection (expressed in a non-sexual way). Seminary formation should foster friendships that last a lifetime.

One seminary describes human formation this way:

The human personality of the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ (PDV 43). The priest is thus to be a man of solid moral character with a finely developed moral conscience, a man of prudence, discernment, and communion. He should be able to listen and communicate well. He should demonstrate respect for and vigilance over his body, relate well to others, including those of diverse backgrounds, and be a good steward of material possessions. He should be affectively mature and capable of assuming the role of a public person (see PPF 183). In a concentrated way, human formation will include the spiritual and psychological preparation for a life of healthy and joyful celibate chastity.

The seminarian is not only presented with an ideal to strive for here, but given tangible help along the way.

The ground of human formation in the family is necessary for a priest to become who he is: a spiritual father. He has to become a person who knows and sympathizes (to some extent) with how other people think, feel, and understand. A priest should not be baffled by women, for example—a man who grew up with sisters has a distinct advantage here—nor afraid of conflict or boundary-setting. He may be called to overcome elements of his personality in order not to hamper others’ experience of Jesus Christ through him:

Future priests should therefore cultivate a series of human qualities… to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior (no. 43).

This is a tall order for anyone, and it is not to be expected that the priest is perfect in all these areas; however, he is to strive for perfection and not be complacent about his faults. According to the document, a priest is not to be “arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console.” The priest is called to be all these things because he is called to draw people closer to Christ.

Relationality: the goal of human formation

PDV notes that the capacity to relate to others is of “special importance” for a man who hopes to be an ordained. Relating to others is not an optional skill for a meaningful human life, but an essential one, and it is not learned online, watching Netflix, texting, or playing video games. The classroom is life and its myriad experiences. As stated above, the family is the first context in which a man comes to relate to others, but the circle is quickly widened (or ought to be) in order to “socialize” the child, so that he learns to incorporate the different ways there are to be human and to do things that arise from different parental styles and family cultures. All of this contributes to the personality of the child who will someday follow God’s call.

Relationality includes skills that may not seem relevant until the priest is in a parish full-time: listening; small talk; humor; empathy; sympathy; patience; generosity. Being relational is a step towards being someone that another person can trust and confide in. “The priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments,” (no. 43) writes JPII. Again, a tall order.

The Way of the Family is the Way of the Church

There is an ideal expressed in Church documents that the faithful can turn to their pastors with their needs, especially those of the spirit, receiving counsel and direction that will keep them on the path of eternal life. Likewise, the ideal is that priests can turn to their bishops for fatherly or brotherly advice and support.

But since the former is often not the case (for lay people and their pastors), perhaps we should not be too surprised that it is also not the case for priests with their bishops. Many of the comments written in the priest survey seem to accept that bishops being distant is the norm, even while expressing a wish for a closer relationship. The situation is not ideal, but priests are just getting on with it. In some ways, this is fine. But it is at a cost, and not always in a way that is sustainable.

The only long-term solution to this situation is through ordaining men who are relationally intelligent. It’s important that seminary formators themselves have a healthy human formation, and so can reliability identify it in candidates for the priesthood. But at the end of the day, the only way to “get” relational priests is to “make” them. Lessons in relationality start in the family. Healthy Catholic families supply the Church with vocations of all types. The bishops of the future are at the dinner table today, learning manners, generosity, and patience. Never forget what Mother Teresa advised as the answer to problems in the world: Go home and love your family.


Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash