Ongoing Formation

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Pope Francis on Collegios

Pope Francis gives us an overview of priestly ongoing formation, in an audience granted to the Collegios in Rome last May 12, 2014:

It’s true that here in Rome emphasis is placed — since this is why you were sent — on intellectual formation; however, the other three pillars must be cultivated, and all four interact among themselves, and I wouldn’t understand a priest who comes to get a degree in Rome and does not have a community life. This is not all right. Either he is not taking care of his spiritual life — daily Mass, daily prayer, lectio divina, personal prayer with the Lord — or his apostolic life: on the weekend doing something, for a change of air, but also the apostolic air, doing something there…. It’s true that study is an apostolic dimension; but it is important that the other three pillars are also looked after! Academic purism is not beneficial, it is not beneficial… The Lord has called you to be priests, to be presbyters: this is the fundamental rule.

In a second audience, last March 16, 2018, Pope Francis gives reasons behind the need for ongoing formation in any setting:

First of all, permanent formation is born from the experience of one’s weakness. They do not give you a certificate of perpetual holiness when they ordain you: they send you there, to work, and may God help you and may the crows not eat you. This point is clear: are you aware of your weakness? Ask yourself this question every day: “am I aware of my weakness? And what are the points in which I am weaker?” It is not being gloomy, but the truth: we are weak. Are you aware of your weak point? It is the first question that you should always ask yourselves, and if today you do not find your weak point, you will find it tomorrow; and if not tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. And if you do not find it, your weak point, if you do not notice it, go to someone who could help you to find it, in spiritual dialogue.

And then there’s another reason…: the danger of becoming an office worker of the sacred. No, you are a priest. You are not an office worker of the sacred… This is an ugly example, but this happens! With money and also with attitudes. Please, be careful not to become office workers of the sacred.

Then, there is contemporary culture. How do I enter into my cellular phone, into my virtual communications? You know well what I mean: what do I try to look at, out of curiosity?

Then, the attraction of power and riches: it is always so… The devil enters through the pocket, isn’t it? Do I love money? Do I love vanity?

The challenge of celibacy. On this, be prepared, since: “If only I had known this lady before being ordained!”.. But you are normal men, you have the desire to have a woman, to love. And when this possibility comes, how do you react?..

And then, comfort in your ministry: “but if it is easier, do not do it with so much effort…”

These things that I have listed down, now that you are doing your studies, are easy to overcome; but later on, in life, you will be more alone and these things will be present. Some are bad, others good; but they will be present. And for this reason permanent formation should always be such, always important. Not only to overcome temptations, but also to be updated, in the progress of pastoral work, of theology, of the Church’s life. But please, go always to the spiritual courses of the diocese, to updating courses, and also, if you think it is necessary, after some years and more, ask the bishop for one or two months of formation.

Ongoing Formation for All Priests

We undergo holistic ongoing formation here in Rome not because we happen to live in the Collegio. Rather, as priests, we need continuous formation wherever we might be – in the diocese back home, doing further studies, abroad on a mission, and so on.

With regards to priestly formation, our situation in the Collegio is similar to our situation in the diocese: while each one has his specific assignment (parish, school, hospital, office, teaching, studying, etc.), all are expected to undergo continuous formation.

As the new Ratio Fundamentalis emphasizes, the priest’s eight to twelve years in the seminary actually form the shortest period of his formation. Prior to entering the seminary, that is, in the family, the parish community (perhaps with some religious organization), school, and civil society as a whole, God was already preparing him for the priesthood. And after the seminary, the priest continues his formation in different ways, until the last day of his life.

Agents of and Opportunities for Holistic Formation: (1) Institutional, (2) Small group, and (3) Interpersonal Levels

To offer priestly ongoing formation in all its dimensions, the Collegio depends on both Administrators and student priests. All have been formators in various ways, and have held key positions in their dioceses back home.

Holistic ongoing formation takes place through formal and institutionalized activities, such as conferences, classes, meals, common prayers, meetings, etc. But aside from these, holistic formation is complemented to a great extent, and even necessarily, as a sine qua non, by informal and non-institutionalized activities, done in small groups of priests. These little gatherings of priests from the same region, course, university, interests, class level, age group, etc., could be in the form of group studies, mini-excursions, sports, visiting sick priests, spontaneous sharings, pilgrimages, praying together, pastoral work, and so on.

In a special way, Confession and spiritual direction among student priests themselves are highly encouraged. Fraternal correction, done and received with humility and in a spirit of friendship and charity, is an extremely valuable means of formation, both for the one doing and receiving correction. These practices (Confession, spiritual direction and fraternal correction) help us focus on very specific points in our struggle for holiness, much more than institutionalized and small group activities do. Among the positive contributions of these practices to the community is that of lessening the incidence of gossip, against which Pope Francis has spoken several times:

The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds” (like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip! (Address of Pope Francis to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2014).

The nature of gossip could be understood a bit more from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (section on Offenses against Truth):

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury ( Cf. CIC, can. 220.). He becomes guilty:

– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of 
detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them (Cf. Sir 21:28);
– of 
calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 22).

Through fraternal correction we can help each other in all aspects of our ongoing formation, including the most basic, for example, good manners and right conduct, prayer life, study habits, pastoral ministry, and so on.

To summarize, holistic formation at our Collegio takes place at the institutional, small group, and interpersonal levels. On the one hand, formal (institutional) activities are proposed by the Administrators and the priests’ assemblies. But on the other hand, spontaneous informal activities at the group and interpersonal levels would always come from the personal initiatives of the student priests themselves, without ever waiting for the Administrators or the student body to organize them.

Not a Seminary, not a Hotel

The seminary, a place for initial formation for the priesthood, can never be a model for the Collegio to imitate or aim at. Our scheduled prayer times, meals and other activities, and the presence of administrators, staff, and policies, are not in any way meant to imitate a seminary, or to make mature priests return to the seminary setting.

Rather, they are necessary to have an orderly life in common, needed in any organization, whether of a religious or civic nature. Schools, companies, governments, NGO’s, the military, and other groups have people in charge, schedule their common activities, and follow guidelines, if they wish to be effective in reaching their goals.

The Collegio, while not a seminary, is also not a hotel, where one can live his life alone or with an exclusive circle of friends, disregarding the greater community. As we interact with everyone, we learn from each other. Any friendship, to be authentic, should bring friends to open up to the wider community, rather than be enclosed among themselves.

We are blessed to have priests from all over the country and all over the world. Some might be more outgoing, and others less. One might be more comfortable with certain persons, and with others less. At any rate, we try to make the most out of each situation and personality type, and help each other grow in our priestly vocation as a community of priests – as we carry out our specific ministry of scientific reflection on our faith, and earn a degree.

Formation in the Virtues

Virtues are good habits, that is, permanent internal dispositions that allow a person to act spontaneously, promptly, with ease and with joy. Two levels are considered here: (1) the disposition, that is, a tendency, a “second nature”, towards doing something good, and (2) the good actions that result from such good dispositions.

Formation has to focus on the disposition, on the virtues. A virtuous person is like a good basketball player. He knows all the rules of basketball, but he is not paranoid with them. He does not continuously think of what the rules allow or prohibit; but neither does he go against any of the rules. He has already internalized the rules, and working within the rules, has created a habit (a good internal disposition), that allows him to play basketball well (performing the necessary movements spontaneously, promptly, with ease, and with joy).

On the other hand, formation in the past tended to focus on do’s and don’t’s, that is, on good and bad actions, on obeying or disobeying superiors, on following or going against the rules. This results in legalistic attitudes, of acting or not acting always in reference to rules or to what the authority imposes. With this mindset, as long as one considers himself as under the authority of the superior or of the rules, he follows such rules. But when he knows that the authority does not watch over him, or has no more effective jurisdiction over him, the rules  start to become optional. They have never been internalized. Imagine a basketball player who thinks of the rules of the game as optional as long as the referee does not see his fouls.

Formation in the virtues requires a constant struggle to understand and to will what is good and true, repetition of good acts, overcoming our laziness, guidance from others, and God’s grace. It oftentimes means beginning again, after a fall great or small. It also means focusing on little things, doing them well, and offering them to God.

Ironically, those formed in a legalistic framework could view those formed in the virtues as legalistic. This would be like thinking that the good basketball player, who follows all the rules of basketball, is paranoid with the rules. They cannot understand that the player’s fidelity to the rules is not because he is legalistic, but because he has internalized the rules, and has been thoroughly practicing the game. Thus, far from being paranoid with the rules, he almost no longer even thinks of the rules, and decides to play way beyond considering what the rules allow or prohibit. He has already developed a disposition or a habit integrated into his nature (that is, a “second nature”), and thus he plays (performs actions) the best way he could, with complete freedom, in a manner always totally compatible with the rules.