This baroque painting of Holy Trinity by Karel Škréta (1610-74) is located in the church Svatého Tomáše in Prague, Czech Republic. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

A Lifelong Journey

How to make ongoing learning a priority, not an option

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The 15th-century artist Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is pretty familiar. This image of the Trinity can serve as the basis for our life as a presbyterate and our call to lifelong learning and formation for the sake of God’s people.

The icon is inspired by Genesis 18 when Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three strangers. Early Christian reading of this Scripture suggests the strangers represented the presence of the Triune God. We know that color in iconography is symbolic: blue represents divinity, the presence of the Father; purple depicts humanity, Jesus the Christ; green is the color of life, the Holy Spirit. The three divine beings are seated around the altar. But what is most intriguing in this icon is the open space just beneath the chalice.

Icons are windows into the heavenly realm. When we view an icon, we are invited into the mystery, to enter that open space around the table. Stay with the image for a moment as we reflect on our days in the seminary and our time of initial formation.

The Trinity

The Trinity is all over the map concerning our vocation journey. When one is baptized, they are baptized into the family of God. The earliest relationship we have with the divine is that image of God as Father. One of the earliest prayers we learn is “Our Father who art in heaven …”

It is from that relationship with God as father, as creator, that priestly discernment and exploration might begin. Once in the seminary, men are encouraged to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, both in the external forum through the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Eucharist, devotions, Eucharistic adoration and in the internal forum through spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

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What is NOCERCC?

The National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy provides the ongoing formation of priests and presbyterates by offering a variety of programs and resources for dioceses, religious communities, parishes, schools and other organizations. Their initiatives include fostering the unity of priests and bishops, ministering across the generations, creating dialogue across priestly generations and renewing Sunday preaching. For more information and to network with NOCERCC, visit nocercc.org.

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On the day of ordination, after a man lays on the cold marble floor of the cathedral, we call upon the power of the Holy Spirit.

From the Rite of Ordination, we hear the prayer: “Almighty Father, grant to these servants of yours the dignity of the priesthood. Renew within them the Spirit of holiness. As a co-worker with the order of bishops may they be faithful to the ministry that they receive from you, Lord God, and be to others a model of right conduct.

May they be worthy co-workers with our Order, so that by their preaching and through the grace of the Holy Spirit the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts and reach even to the ends of the earth.”

Of all the gifts that we share with the People of God, the most powerful, most significant and most sustainable is the presence of the Triune God alive and working in our lives. We often call it our “lived experience.” When we share our personal story — without making it all about ourselves, willing to be vulnerable, allowing our struggles to be laid out there — it makes it real for people. In sharing our own story, our lives, our moments of trial and struggle, we are the presence of Christ in the fullness of our priestly character.

The Open Space

Our formation as priests, our ordination to the priesthood, our priestly character can be seen in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. The open space can often be overlooked, but I dare contend that it is this space that needs the most intention. It is where we find our place at the table.

The role of ongoing formation for the individual priest, his relationship with the ordinary or religious superior, his relationship with the rest of his presbyterate and the entire diocesan family, takes on new meaning when we find ourselves most comfortably at the table, feeling good about ourselves and the ministry for which we are engaged.

Pope St. John Paul II offered some very profound and challenging counsel when he said: “Without ongoing formation, the priest falls into an inferiority complex. He comes to realize that he has nothing to offer.”

The truth is the Church and the world continue to change. That is no more evident than in these days of COVID-19 and our search for a vaccine. Our very life as a sacramental Church has had to make significant adjustments to meet the needs of our people.

St. John Paul was prophetic in his preaching: “When the priest is either not continuing his formation or not able to, he will fall into feeling inferior because he has nothing to say, he feels in his heart of hearts because he is afraid that he is ill-prepared.”

Reading the Right Things

We have all heard the old joke of the priest who is proud that he hasn’t read a book since he left the seminary. Not one of us can believe that, but the audacity of such a statement makes the point quite clear and, if nothing else, inspires us to double our efforts to continue reading, studying and opening ourselves to the greatness of literature within the discipline of theology and all the arts and sciences.

Being attentive to the liturgical life of our parishes challenges us to look beyond the sacristy, to understand the richness of the rites of the Church.

But our study must go even further — to medical ethics, care for the environment, staying up on the breadth and depth of the political arena to proclaim the fullness of the Gospel of Life. It’s not that one stops reading after ordination, but the challenge is reading the right things — reading that produces growth, challenges us, expands one’s theological horizon that will allow them to converse with those in the marketplace. To paraphrase words from the Broadway musical “Hamilton”: You want to be in the room where it happens.

Customized Formation

There can be no denying that seminary formation under the guides of the program of priestly formation and the seminal document Pastores Dabo Vobis, which highlighted the dimensions of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation, are key to preparation for priestly life. But it is the work of ongoing formation that seals the deal. No doubt, ongoing formation is much less structured than seminary formation. It allows for self-improvement, reflection and assessment. It must be customized to meet the needs at different levels. One size does not fit all, but that does not mean that all cannot fit.

The basic plan for ongoing formation calls for five points of focus:

  1. The newly ordained and his first five years of the priesthood
  2. A priest’s first pastorate
  3. The period transitions from one ministry setting to another
  4. The priest as he enters in the middle years of life
  5. The priest as he prepares for retirement and beyond

Each of these five areas of ongoing formation and continuing education could be an article unto itself. Suffice to say, for our purposes, these are the key points that a presbyterate needs to pay special attention to so that the priest might find himself in the open space at the table in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Add to this list, lifelong learning and ongoing formation, days of recollection, annual retreats, study days, professional development and opportunities for health and wellness awareness, and you can see that the list is endless.

Priority of Ongoing Formation

The real question is, how can we make ongoing formation a priority and not an option, opportunity or obligation? In conversations with bishops, they will readily acknowledge it as a priority on the diocesan level. Where we, as brother priests, need to place emphasis is not on the words formation or continuing education, but on ongoing! From the moment we laid prostrate with the litany of saints hovering above us, we have been called to create unity, fraternity and enrichment with and for one another. That is an ongoing process.

With fewer and fewer of us and more and more responsibility, something is bound to give. Too often, the thing that is given up is the very thing that will help us the most. We can, at times, feel obliged to participate, or the word comes down that “a specific event is mandatory.” However, at the very core of our ministry, we are to attend to our spiritual life and the spiritual life of the people we are called to serve. Remember when the book of the Gospels was placed in our hands on the day of our deacon ordination and the poetic words were spoken directly to us: “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” More than mandatory or obligatory, this ongoing work is our responsibility.

Walk With One Another

Is any of this a magic bullet? Hardly. Among that band of twelve that Jesus called were Peter, James and John. He called a zealot who wanted to overthrow the system and a tax collector who worked for the system. It will forever be a struggle to keep up on the reading, to challenge ourselves to gain new perspectives on theology, to understand with greater clarity the thinking and pastoral practice of a brother, a priest. But it must be done.

Having spent just shy of a quarter-century ministering in our seminary in Cleveland, the greatest highlight every year was ordination day when the bishop would ask the question: “Do you know if they are worthy? We rely upon the help of Almighty God and our Savior Jesus Christ and we ordain these our brothers to the order of priest.”

We are called worthy, but that does not mean that we can be left to our own devices, sink or swim. But rather, through the creative power of God our Father, the saving grace of Jesus and the enduring guidance of the Holy Spirit, we must walk with one another and provide for one another something to fill that open space that allows each of us to sit at the table with the Triune God.

My brothers, this ongoing work of our formation is a lifelong labor of love of filling the open space with what will satisfy, filling in the circle and enjoying our place at the table with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

FATHER THOMAS DRAGGA, D.Min., is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, the former president-rector of Borromeo Seminary, a parish pastor and adjunct professor of pastoral technology for St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology.

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Inspiration from Pope Francis

Pope Francis, in a 2018 homily on the occasion of the ordination of 16 priests in St. Peter’s Basilica said it best:

“Always have before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd, who did not come to be served, but to serve and to seek and save what was lost.”

“Exercise in gladness and sincere charity the priestly work of Christ.”

“Never tire of being merciful. Think of your sins, your miseries … that Jesus forgives. Be merciful.”

He also said to read and meditate tirelessly on the Word of God, “to teach what you have learned in faith, to live what you have taught.”

“May your teaching, joy and support to the faithful of Christ be the fragrance of your life, that with word and example you can build the House of God which is the Church.”

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