New ‘pre-seminary’ for priests develops stronger shepherds

Nov 2, 2023
Diocese of Orlando seminarians Joseph Dau, left, Jacob Donnay, Michael Batista, Phillip Mills and Vincent Vu at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. (PHOTOS BY DYLAN MCKAY& JONATHAN ARIAS | FC)

ORLANDO | Calling all young men who feel called by Christ. There’s a new plan to prepare you for priesthood and it starts with “pre-seminary” — one year, no degree-seeking, just you, God and other disciples working together to discern your vocation.

The thrust for change comes from the response of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, to follow through on Pope Francis’s mandate for reform. As a result, the committee developed Program of Priestly Formation, 6th edition (PPF). The document outlines revisions in the method of priestly formation.

Father Dominic Buckley teaches philosophy at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach and was part of the program’s implementation. He noted the pope’s decision to modify seminarian formation came after abuse scandals the Church has dealt with in the last 20 years.

“It seemed there was something in the system that needed to change,” he said. “A big part of that change emphasized less academics and more on the development of the human person in its totality.” On Sept. 18, 2023, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary began integrating the new program into seminarian life.

“As we have implemented the new Program of Priestly Formation, we have been invited to great creativity as a seminary community,” said Father Alfredo Hernandez, rector and president of the seminary. “It has been challenging and exciting. We already are seeing fruits.”

He said the central focus is summed up in this passage from PPF6, that pulls from the 2016 document of the Holy See Ratio Fundamentalis Institutiones Sacerdotalis. “The fundamental idea is that seminaries should form missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master, shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them.” (no. 3, citation from the Introduction to the Ratio Fundamentalis, no. 3)

The goal is to develop the whole man, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Father Buckley explains progress is no longer measured by semesters and academics, but more by a man’s maturity and readiness. “The whole idea is taking the pressure off of things and recognizing that seminary formation can’t be one size fits all,” he shared.

Bishop John Noonan added, “It’s giving the person an opportunity to grow in self-awareness to give back to the Lord. It’s getting people to be much more reflective. Looking at the world we live in today, mental health is very important, so we have to make sure our priests are mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy.”

The greatest change comes in the initial propaedeutic stage. If it sounds Greek to you, it is. Father Buckley, who is also the Associate Dean of Propaedeutic and Discipleship Formation, explains propaedeutic literally means “before school” or “pre-school.” This year is not about academics. There are no grades. Instead, young men must take those 12 months to discern and grow spiritually. It’s about prayer, trust and fraternity.

“It is a stage for discovering and developing the unique human and spiritual foundations of each man,” Father Buckley said, adding for some it may take more time than others. “That is known through discernment and prayer. It’s less of a corporate approach to producing priests and more of a discernment approach to discerning readiness.”

While there has always been a discernment period, mentors found some issues do not arise until courses become more difficult, or an experience triggers a deep wound. Therefore, the propaedeutic stage is also a time for healing, to help future priests become emotionally equipped to tend to their flock.

At this stage, the men are really focusing on themselves and not so much on how to be a priest, but rather what it means “to be a Christian and a man in their own walk. For them to be the one that God is calling,” Father Buckley said. To do this, the seminarians begin by detaching from all technology for 12 days in nature – no smartphones, no computers, no social media, no noise of the outside world. They camp in tents, hike, and backpack. This formative time is a “desert experience” that can be an “eye-opener,” Father Buckley said. The experience offers the beginning of a theological reflection on relationships with creation, with the Lord and with each other.

“We need them connected to their bodies, to the Church and the earth, then that’s how they’re going to know the Lord, each other, and themselves,” Father Buckley said.

Father Joshua Swallows, diocesan director of vocations, said “this as a beautiful opportunity” for men to pursue “their primary vocation — Holiness, Heaven.”

“God wants to make us Saints. We cannot look to the priesthood to fulfill us in and of itself in the same way a married person should not look to marriage to fulfill them in and of itself. It is Christ who fulfills our desires,” Father Swallows said. “Growing in intimacy with God is THE call and our secondary vocations — priesthood, religious life, marriage, consecrated single life, etcetera — are paths to pursue Christ more deeply every day. We cannot lose sight of that primary mission.”

Stage two focuses on discipleship (formerly known as pretheology). These next two years are for deeper discernment, systematic academic studies of philosophy, the Catechism, doctrine, liturgy and the Sacraments. When time’s up, the Church and the man should be convinced of his readiness to complete seminary formation and be ordained after the next stage is completed.

Stage three is configuration. The men become configured to Christ over three and a half years, are ordained as transitional deacons, and promise to give their lives completely to the Church. New to this stage is duration and placement, six months prior to Ordination to the Priesthood.

Father George Nursey, parochial administrator of St. Stephen Parish in Winter Springs, recently taught at and graduated from St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. He is particularly excited about the final vocational stage. He said, this final part of formation takes place, not in the seminary, but in the parish where the priest will be serving.

“I think that’s a very strong component,” Father Nursey said noting it is very different from his experience years ago. “I think it’s going to be a good thing because you don’t have to just drop into a parish and get adjusted. You have six months to a year of getting used to parish life, living in a rectory, being around people in an office all day, serving liturgically. I think it’s a better way of doing it.”

He says the new approach is necessary. “The guys who are coming into the seminary now are coming from different circumstances. A lot of them already have degrees. They don’t necessarily have a good spiritual formation and they need some basic catechesis, growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They come with really good hearts. They come for the right reasons. They really want to serve the Church. They want to be priests. They want to be holy. For this, they need to get a good grounding in the spiritual life,” he said.

Father Buckley agreed. “I couldn’t be more thrilled to be in seminary formation right now. The graces and the reality we’re living are so much better and stronger than my own experience in seminary. The sense of missionary discipleship is really happening. It’s still early. We’ve still got a way to go, but the Lord is really bringing it about. It’s a really exciting time to be in priestly formation because it’s something that’s going to impact the whole Church.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, November 2, 2023