Pope St. John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, listed the four pillars of ongoing formation. Shutterstock

Building Upon the Foundation of Faith

Why ongoing formation is vital to today’s clergy

Comments Off on Building Upon the Foundation of Faith

When we speak of seminary priestly formation and post-ordination continuing education, we take for granted the four pillars. In a 2013 address to priests and seminarians gathered in Rome, Pope Francis reminded them, “Good, balanced formation combines all the dimensions of life, the human, the spiritual, the intellectual dimension with the pastoral.”

These same four aspects of priestly formation continue to be listed in the new edition of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (“The Gift of the Priestly Vocation”), published Dec. 8, 2016, by the Congregation for the Clergy. This most recent document confirms the importance of these four dimensions, placing particular emphasis on the need that they be integrated during the process of formation.

Pope St. John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), clearly listed the four basic building blocks of both post-ordination continuing education and seminary priestly formation. The exhortation, which is the fruit of the 1990 Synod of Bishops on Priestly Formation Today, is the touchstone for subsequent ongoing developments.

Following in the wake of the March 1992 exhortation came the revision of The Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) in the United States by the then-National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November of that same year. This fourth edition of the PPF benefited significantly — as did the 1990 synod — from the apostolic visitation of all of the priestly formation programs in the United States conducted during the 1980s. The summary reports on the findings of those visits were part of the documentation for the 1990 synod. It is the emphasis in Pastores Dabo Vobis on the pillars of formation that figures so largely in the fifth edition of the USCCB’s Program of Priestly Formation, released in August 2006.

Deacon Michael Plona, a seminarian in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., hugs Father Edward Sheridan following the ordination of transitional deacons Nov. 5, 2016, at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

The Priest’s Journey

A very important aspect of Pastores Dabo Vobis is Chapter 6, devoted to “the ongoing formation of priests.” It takes its inspiration from St. Paul’s Letter to Timothy: “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands” (2 Tm 1:6). This portion of Pastores Dabo Vobis was a source of great interest to me and considerable satisfaction since it was on this very topic that I spoke as one of the American participants in the 1990 synod. Obviously, we have come a long way from those days of 25 years ago when ongoing priestly formation — post-ordination education — was just coming into its own.

How do you find time for formation?
With the day-to-day busyness of the lives
of clergy, how do you make time to support
your ongoing human, spiritual, intellectual
and pastoral formation? Share your stories
and advice by emailing priestfeedback@osv.com,
liking The Priest on Facebook and following
@PriestMagazine on Twitter.

Ongoing formation is another way of speaking about personal growth, intellectual and spiritual development, and whatever helps priests to be continually converted to the way of the Lord. Priestly formation, of its nature, must be “increasingly perfected throughout the whole of the priest’s life” (Ratio Fundamentalis, 1985). It is not surprising that such formation is a lifelong progress — a way of life. Christ speaks of himself as the way, as well as the truth and the life (see Jn 14:6).

The priest’s spiritual journey begins with his first personal contact with Christ through the sacraments of initiation on through preparation for and ordination to the priesthood. It continues throughout his ministry, which when exercised “sincerely and tirelessly” will allow the priest to acquire “holiness in his own distinctive way” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 13). The pilgrimage culminates in the ultimate conversion to Christ in glory.

Christ calls us to a perfection that is not quickly reached (see Mt 5:48), to an intense living of all his gifts, especially love, “that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14). Ongoing priestly formation involves continued growth and development of the person as well as the constant conversion of mind and heart: “If we have the duty of helping others to be converted, we have to do the same continuously in our own lives” (Pope St. John Paul II, 1979 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests).

Continued formation is an expression for a priest of the universal call to holiness, a response to the primal and essential call of God. The call, even in the midst of weakness, to seek perfection, follows on the Lord’s word: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
Pope Francis on ongoing formation

Pope Francis in October 2014 addressed members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy regarding the need for ongoing formation. The following is an excerpt from that address:

“God never ceases to call some to follow and serve him in the ordained ministry. We, too, however, must do our part, through formation, which is the response of man, of the Church to God’s gift, that gift that God gives through vocations. It means guarding and fostering vocations, that they may bear ripe fruit. They are ‘diamonds in the rough’ ready to be carefully polished with respect for the conscience of the candidates and with patience, so that they may shine among the People of God. Formation is therefore not a unilateral act by which someone transmits theological or spiritual notions. Jesus did not say to those he called: ‘come, let me explain,’ ‘follow me, I will teach you’: no! The formation offered by Christ to his disciples came rather as a ‘come, and follow me,’ ‘do as I do,’ and this is the method that today, too, the Church wants to adopt for her ministers. The formation of which we speak is a discipular experience which draws one to Christ and conforms one ever more to him.

“Precisely for this reason, it cannot be a limited task, because priests never stop being disciples of Jesus, who follow him. Sometimes we proceed with celerity, at other times our step is hesitant, we stop and we may even fall, but always staying on the path. Therefore, formation understood as discipleship accompanies the ordained minister his entire life and regards his person as a whole, intellectually, humanly and spiritually. Initial and ongoing formation are distinct because each requires different methods and timing, but they are two halves of one reality, the life of a disciple cleric, in love with his Lord and steadfastly following him.”


Since much of priestly ministry depends on the intensity of the priest’s interior life, there is an ecclesial as well as personal urgency that attaches itself to the efforts of ongoing priestly formation and spiritual growth. It should not be left solely to a priest’s own resources any more than preordination formation is left to personal initiative. Ongoing priestly formation is a concern of both the priest and the whole Church.

The individual priest has the obvious primary responsibility to pursue his own growth and conversion to the Lord. At the same time, the diocesan bishop is to exercise the greatest care in the progressive formation of the presbyterate (see Christus Dominus, No. 16). He should be a model for the diocesan priest in the care he takes regarding his own ongoing formation. In addition, it is under his direction that the diocese provides resources and develops clear policies and expectations for the ongoing formation of priests. The magnitude of this task requires collaboration at the level of the episcopal conference in addition to individual episcopal efforts (see Optatam Totius, No. 21).

In these reflections on the continuing — that is, the ongoing — priestly formation and education, I shall use as the point of reference the four areas of priestly formation that are presented in Pastores Dabo Vobis and which form the framework for the 2006 Program of Priestly Formation, promulgated by our conference of bishops. It should also be noted that the Conference of Major Superiors of Men has also adopted the Program of Priestly Formation as applicable to all religious seminaries in the United States.

Deacons John Wachowicz, right, who’s studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Henry Torres, who’s preparing to be a priest for the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., process from the chapel following the ordination of transitional deacons Nov. 5 at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn ordained 16 deacons from his diocese, the Archdiocese of New York and Diocese of Rockville Centre at the Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Priestly Promises

Another point of reference for these reflections will be the promises of priestly ordination, particularly as they are presented for renewal in the rite of installation of a pastor.

In my 30 years as a bishop, I have attempted to liturgically install every pastor whenever it was possible. As we look at the ordination promises, we realize that they presume the successful accomplishment of the areas of priestly formation noted in Pastores Dabo Vobis: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.

Formation Resources
Cardinal Wuerl suggests turning to the following sources
for more information about nurturing the lives of priests:


• “Equipped for the Work of Ministry: A Reflection and
Planning Guide for Continuing Formation of Priests”
(Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, NCCB, 1996)
(Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, NCCB, 2001)
(Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations,
USCCB, 2013)

An overarching theme in all of priestly formation, pre- and post-ordination is, of course, ecclesial formation. Seminary formation in anticipation of ordination is not just for the personal growth and development of the candidate for ordination. Rather, the formation is directed precisely to the orientation of the future priests to his ministry in the Church as part of the Body of Christ, a call to work with the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care. This explains why the first promise the priest makes is to “live up to your responsibility to be the faithful co-worker of the order of bishops in shepherding the flock of the Lord.” The salvation of souls and the unity of the Church are the essential goals of priestly ministry, which all formation is intended to support.

As we go through the renewal of ordination promises, we find that each one of them is supported by one of the areas of priestly formation. For example, the second one regarding the celebration of the mysteries of Christ, the sacraments and most particularly the Eucharist, in accord with the tradition of the Church devoutly and faithfully, lines up with the understanding of pastoral formation. The promise of fidelity to the Gospel and the teaching of the Church is possible because of the intellectual formation or, as Pastores Dabo Vobis highlights, the understanding of the Faith.

The pledge of the priest to “bind yourself ever more closely to Christ the high priest who for us offered himself to the Father as a spotless victim,” clearly draws its inspiration from the spiritual formation of the future priest who looks to his communion with God in Christ. Human formation, which is described as the basis of all priestly formation, is reflected throughout the renewal of promises. However, when we come to the final personal promise of obedience to the bishop and his successors, we recognize how significant the understanding of personal maturity is, as the individual priest is called upon to subject his will and preferences to the larger picture of the pastoral needs of the local Church so that those needs might always be met.

As we continue our reflections, we will use the well-known order of the pillars of formation, found in Pastores Dabo Vobis, the USCCB’s Program of Priestly Formation and in the observations of Pope Francis: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.

Players from Cincinnati Elder High School pray with Father Benedict O’Cinneslaigh of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West at the Athenaeum of Ohio. CNS photo/John Stegeman

Human Formation

Goals of Human Formation
“The qualities to be fostered in a human
formation program are freedom, openness,
honesty and flexibility, joy and inner peace,
generosity and justice, personal maturity,
interpersonal skills, common sense, aptitude
for ministry, and growth ‘in moral sensibility
and character.’”

Program of Priestly Formation, USCCB, No. 85

The human personality of the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ (Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 43). The priest is thus to be a man of virtue, demonstrating affective maturity and reflecting as far as possible the human perfection of Jesus. St. Paul, perhaps out of his own youthful experience of sports, describes the struggle for a virtuous life in terms of sporting events, particularly the foot races that were so much a part of athletic competition in his time and that continue to form a significant part of Olympic competition in our day. At the core of virtuous living is practice. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect,” is applicable not only to one’s golf’s stroke, tennis swing or 100-meter dash but also to the acquisition of virtue and human maturity.

Pastores Dabo Vobis tells us, “Future priests should therefore cultivate a series of human qualities, not only out of proper and due growth and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry” (No. 43). His life will be marked by genuine human freedom, strong moral character, prudence and discernment, empathy, the ability to listen and to communicate, and the capacity to assume the life of a public person (Program of Priestly Formation, No. 76).

Archbishop José H. Gomez blesses a woman in February 2016 in Los Angeles. CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida-Vuevacom

Spiritual Formation

In the area of spiritual formation, we recognize the unique spirituality of the diocesan priest. Much of our ministry involves the celebration of the sacraments, daily and Sunday Masses, funerals, weddings, special occasions and anniversaries, as well as baptisms, anointing of the sick during home and hospital visits, and, of course, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In each of these graced moments, as the Church consistently teaches, Christ is present and acting. If he is present for the one receiving the sacraments, he is also present for the one administering the sacraments.

Spiritual Formation: ‘The Core’
“For every priest his spiritual formation is the
core which unifies and gives life to his being a
priest and his acting as a priest. In this context,
the synod fathers state that ‘without spiritual
formation pastoral formation would be left
without foundation.’”

Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 45

The spirituality of the priest is one of communion rooted in the mystery of the Triune God and lived out in practical ways in the experience of the sacramental presence of Christ.

Hallmarks of a priest’s mature spiritual life, always open to growth, will include a profound devotion to the holy Eucharist and the liturgical life of the Church, a commitment to regular confession, spiritual direction, a love for the holy Scriptures, balanced practices of penance and reparation, and a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In a particular way, the rhythm of life that is so much a part of priestly formation and includes the practice of making time for prayer and reflection continues to be the focus of our priestly, ongoing, spiritual growth.

Many of us find that some early morning time can be reserved for prayer and reflection, centered on the Liturgy of the Hours in a concentrated manner. A busy, active, pastoral life does not always permit breaking up the day to follow a more chronological celebration of the Breviary. What is important in our ongoing formation is a rhythm of life that includes prayer and some quiet time for reflection.

Intellectual Formation

If we look at the intellectual formation or the understanding of the Faith, we recognize the ongoing challenge to the priest continually to immerse himself in the fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) dimension of ecclesial life. Nourishing the intellect is part of what it means to be human.

While it is true that the Creed does not change and the essential teaching of the Church remains the same from generation to generation, it is also true that the circumstances of priestly ministry develops from decade to decade, almost year to year.

‘First Task of Intellectual Formation’
“The first task of intellectual formation is to
acquire a personal knowledge of the Lord
Jesus Christ, who is the fullness and completion
of God’s revelation and the one Teacher.
This saving knowledge is acquired not only
once, but it is continuously appropriated
and deepened, so that it becomes more and
more part of us.”

Program of Priestly Formation,
USCCB, No. 137

We recognize today, for example, that the priest who serves the Church in the current culture is a priest who must be prepared to be a herald of the Gospel and agent of the New Evangelization in a highly secular society. A priest should exercise his ministry in a way that the joy of the Gospel is evident. Our ministry should clearly reflect the joy of love — Amoris Laetitia.

The apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis provides both incentive and direction in this area.

One blessing all of us have today, as we try to keep abreast of the developments in Church pastoral practice and application of Church teaching, is the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. Going all the way back to Pope Paul VI and the first of these expressions are the papal teaching office, Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”), on through all of those exhortations by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, together with their encyclicals, we find a treasure trove of magisterial teaching, applying and implementing the Second Vatican Council and addressing the challenges of our day.

Expressing the love of Christ to the faithful is important for priests. OSV File Photo/Jim Olvera

Pastoral Formation

Pastoral formation is an ongoing experience, in a sense the culmination of the previous three pillars, because the priest is to be a man capable of standing and acting “in the community in the name and person of Jesus Christ as shepherd of the Church.” The priest is to appropriate the “mind of Christ” and communicate the mysteries of faith through his personal witness of discipleship, rooted in his spiritual life and through his capacity to articulate the Faith he has come to know and love (see Program of Priestly Formation, No. 237).

Concerns of Pastoral Formation
“That pastoral concern which ought to permeate
thoroughly the entire training of the students also
demands that they be diligently instructed in those
matters which are particularly linked to the sacred
ministry, especially in catechesis and preaching, in
liturgical worship and the administration of the
sacraments, in works of charity, in assisting the
erring and the unbelieving, and in the other pastoral

Optatam Totius, No. 19

One way to express our own pastoral ministry is to focus on the lived expression of mercy and love that can be found in four principle activities: listening, accompanying, discerning and evangelizing. Pope Francis understands this process of listening to be a key part of his own teaching and pastoral ministry. It is part of the “synodality” or “journeying together” he sees as essential to the Church at every level.

The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment. But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity. Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine — though they clearly must do that. Pastors must “take on the smell of the sheep” whom they serve so that “the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 24).

A key part of discernment is the formation of conscience. The Holy Father insists that the Church’s pastors must “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 37).

Drawing Closer to the Lord

We also recognize that in the journey we, ourselves, are also drawing closer to the Lord. In all of our action of evangelizing, teaching, catechizing, counseling, admonishing, instructing, we also remember both God’s liberating truth and saving mercy. None of us can claim yet to be perfect as is our heavenly Father. But we can grow closer to the Lord who will by his grace heal us so that we can have the life he wants for us.

One reason, I believe, so many priests have greeted this apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, and the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium with joy and satisfaction is that we are grateful for this guidance as we do what we have always tried to do: walk with our people as shepherds guiding the flock as we all try to come closer to Jesus — the Good Shepherd and our risen Lord.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now.

The four pillars of formation that so effectively structure the formation of seminarians are an invaluable framework in which to continue the ongoing formation of priests. The pope has shown us not only with his words and writings, but above all with his personal witness, the joy of living a priestly life totally committed to the mission of the Church and the building up of its people. It is an example that every priest can imitate as we live out the joy and blessing of our own priestly ministry and continue our personal growth into the man chosen by God to continue the redeeming mission of Christ.

CARDINAL DONALD W. WUERL is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at PriestFeedback@osv.com