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A Self-Examination in Light of the Four Pillars of Formation

A series of reflections and questions to shape our spiritual, human and pastoral dimensions


One would hope that the solitudes and stresses of these past several months have brought us to a place of deeper reflection on our priesthood.


To that end, in what follows, I offer a series of reflections and questions for self-examination. The questions (hardly exhaustive) are inspired in light of the traditional four “pillars” of formation — better referred to as dimensions of formation — which largely shaped the formational experience of most of us in our years of seminary. I’ve chosen to zero in on certain aspects especially of the spiritual, human and pastoral dimensions which, in this particular moment of the Church’s life, more urgently require our attention.

A Work in Progress

First, I would invite my brother priests to embrace what is — right out of the gate — a hard teaching to swallow. Yet it’s at the heart of the document which today gives shape to seminary formation throughout the world: the 2016 edition of the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis.

The Ratio is a revolutionary document in many good ways. In harmony with Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Ratio invites us to understand our participation in Christ’s one priesthood as a life lived in ongoing moments of growth and realization within an encompassing arc of formation:— that is, from the initial formation in seminary to ongoing formation as a priest (cf. Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotali, No. 53).

Now, as we often say, God didn’t call any of us to remain seminarians our entire lives. True enough. But a stance that looks on “formation” through the rearview mirror, as something “I went through” in seminary, is clearly — in light of the Ratio — a problematic outlook.

So, yes, we’re all a work in progress, in need of the Spirit to continue to mold and shape us in every age of life, conforming us ever more deeply to the One High Priest.


Recommended Reading for On-going Formation


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah, “From the Depths of our Hearts” (Ignatius Press, $19.95).
Jean Corbon, “The Wellspring of Worship” (Ignatius Press, $19.95)
Carter Griffin, “Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest” (Emmaus Road Publishing, $24.95)
James Keating, “Remain in Me” (Paulist Press, $16.95)
Curt Thompson, “The Soul of Shame” (Two Words Publishing, $14.95)
Stephen Rossetti, “Letters to My Brothers” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95)


Our ongoing formation as priests is profoundly rooted — as St. John Paul so beautifully explored in the final chapter of Pastores Dabo Vobis — in our priestly character. In the sacrament of order, we ourselves are now subject to the obligation “to stir into flame the gift of God” that we received at the imposition of the ordinary’s hands (cf. 2 Tm 1:6).

“The ‘come, follow me’ of Jesus is proclaimed fully and definitively in the sacramental celebration of his Church. It is made manifest and communicated by the Church’s voice, which is heard in the words of the bishop who prays and imposes his hands. The priest then gives his response, in faith, to Jesus’ call. ‘I am coming, to follow you.’ From this moment, there begins that response, which, as a fundamental choice, must be expressed anew and reaffirmed through the years of his priesthood in countless other responses, all of them rooted in and enlivened by that ‘yes’ of holy orders” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 70).

Therefore, “it is overly simplistic and erroneous to view ongoing formation as a simple ‘updating’ in cultural and spiritual matters, relative to the initial formation of the Seminary” (Ratio, No. 56). Hence, some questions for us:

• When do I make room in my life for robust and honest self-examination?

• What is my reaction to the phrase, I am a work in progress? Do I recoil? Do I want to skip this question? How can I open my heart to the reality that my formation continues?

• How docile am I to the Holy Spirit daily? What practices do I employ to “stir to a flame” the grace I have received?


A new CARA survey of more than 1,000 recently ordained priests (ordination classes between 2011-19) reveals, on the one hand, that a large percentage of priests (66%) experienced a formation environment in seminary that fostered a sense of trust in which they could be open and honest with their formators. Yet, the same survey revealed that nearly a quarter (23%) of respondents agreed that they were able to go through seminary formation and conceal realities about themselves that should have been made known to their formators in the external forum.

To be open or not to my formators, and to what degree, is a question faced by anyone who has been in seminary, a question whose answer depends on a man’s willingness to embrace vulnerability.

The language of vulnerability will likely be more familiar to priests ordained in the last decade. To older generations, it might sound out of place as it has often carried a negative connotation: human defect, character flaw, weakness, susceptibility to exploitation and so on. But today, the importance of vulnerability as the prerequisite for transparency between seminarian and formator cannot be exaggerated.

Explore More
The website offers a downloadable PDF
of Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis,
the document that explores the priestly vocation,
placed by God in the hearts of some men, but also
obliges the Church to propose to them a serious
journey of formation.

But beyond seminary, why is a strong capacity for appropriate vulnerability so important for a priest? Well, why is it important for anyone? Brené Brown, a New York Times best-selling author and sociologist who has dedicated years to studying the concepts of courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” — all rolled up into one. Our instinct is to recoil from vulnerability. Brown has shown, on the contrary, how a vulnerability, rightly understood, can become a powerhouse for human growth. She has spent years teaching working professionals around the globe that vulnerability is not weakness, but is the surest measure of courage and authenticity.

Vulnerability, consequently, is a key ingredient of human wholeness, especially when we entrust our vulnerability to the Holy Spirit and allow grace to work on this dimension of our nature. Vulnerability is also the basis for strong friendships, at the core of which is emotional connection.

Emotional connection, for its part, is a must for human maturity. Our world is populated, sadly, by emotionally stunted individuals who, due to the multiplicity of dysfunctional and sometimes toxic relationships in their lives, have failed to attain emotional maturity and fulfillment.

OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

An ongoing hazard for priests is to fail to pay sufficient attention to our inner longings for emotional connection, thinking that our work and zeal can somehow supply for that need. And while it is certainly true that priests must ultimately fill our deepest longings for intimacy with divine intimacy, the need for human connection remains real and valid. And no degree of external activity (“ministry”) is going to diminish or nullify that need. Sustaining the needed level of emotional connection in a celibate way through an appropriate vulnerability in healthy friendships is in many ways an art form, not without risks, but essential for a healthy priesthood. We might ask ourselves:

• Do I humbly and realistically acknowledge my need for a healthy emotional connection with others?

• What do I need to feel supported? Do I have a support network of solid and healthy friendships in which my need for emotional connection is met?

• Do I have at least one priest or a lay friend with whom I can be vulnerable and completely transparent about my life?

• Do I have a spiritual director with whom I am unflinchingly vulnerable and to whom I am accountable? If not, why not? Have I rationalized my way out of having a spiritual director?

As important as appropriate emotional connection is, we also have to be aware of keeping our boundaries healthy and life-giving. Are there relationships in which my boundaries need to be strengthened or redefined to be healthy?

Divine Intimacy

Yet, beyond this connection to wellness and wholeness, a priest’s capacity for vulnerability has a much more profound spiritual significance. As a dear friend of mine puts it, “sacrificial offering is the heart of the priesthood.” Indeed. Sacrifice here means the offering of self, united to Christ, offered to him and through him, to the Church, a life dedicated in spiritual fatherhood to the flock. Vulnerability to others, and above all, vulnerability to God fuels that self-gift.

Fidelity to daily prayer time, lectio divina, the Breviary, a daily Holy Hour, the Rosary, fidelity to spiritual direction — throughout our lifetime — all constitute the preferred means by which the Holy Spirit can conduct us with greater surety along the path of union with the Trinity. Growth in understanding and embracing celibacy means coming to understand intimacy with God as my treasure, and spiritual fatherhood as the profoundly meaningful fulfillment of my natural vocation to fatherhood and the fruit of celibate intimacy with the Trinity.

In “From the Depths of our Hearts,” a work he co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI engages in an extended reflection on Psalm 16:5-6: “Lord, my allotted portion and my cup, / you have made my destiny secure. / Pleasant places were measured out for me; / fair to me indeed is my inheritance.”

Pope Benedict writes in “From the Depths of Our Hearts”: “The true foundation of the life of a priest, the salt of his existence, the earth or ‘land’ of his life, is God himself. Celibacy … can be understood and experienced definitively only on this foundation” (pp. 45-46).

The young Joseph Ratzinger, reflecting on these verses on the eve of receiving tonsure, came to understand the deepest meaning of the divine intimacy to which every priest is called: “I suddenly understood what the Lord expected of me at that moment: he wanted to have my life completely at his disposal, and, at the same time, he entrusted himself entirely to me” (ibid, Page 48).

Spiritual Fatherhood

Seeking and persevering on a daily basis this divine intimacy, striving to remain docile to the Spirit of Jesus as he draws me — sometimes through rivers of consolation, sometimes through arid deserts — into deeper union, communion and ever greater configuration to his heart: This is our call and our gift. Celibacy is the space that makes this possible. Its fruit is spiritual fatherhood.

Spiritual fatherhood is, in fact, the ultimate litmus test of a priest’s human and affective maturity, and of the extent to which the Spirit has worked — and the priest has suffered and embraced — the integration of the multiple dimensions of his personality. In “Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way” (Warner Books, $25), Pope St. John Paul II reflects on the spiritual fatherhood he discovered to be so inherent in his own life as a priest: “For St. Joseph, life with Jesus was a continuous discovery of his vocation as a father. He became a father in an extraordinary way, without begetting his son in the flesh. Isn’t this, perhaps, an example of the type of fatherhood that is proposed to us, priests and bishops, as a model? Everything I did in the course of my ministry I saw as an expression of this kind of fatherhood — baptizing, hearing confessions, celebrating the Eucharist. … For me, these things were always a way of living out that fatherhood” (p. 141).

To be sure, spiritual fatherhood has emerged today as our best answer to the ongoing debate over celibacy in the Latin rite. Our celibacy, ordered to a robust and fruitful living of spiritual fatherhood, is eminently for the Church, for our brothers and sisters, to nurture, direct and safeguard them, to be the instruments through which the Trinity ignites and sustains the life of grace in souls. In light of this, we might ask:

• At this point in my priesthood can I honestly say that I have a genuine and profound relationship with Jesus Christ, one nurtured daily by personal contact with him in prayer and the Eucharist?

• Do I regularly go to confession? Do I allow myself to remain for long stretches of time, and even to celebrate the sacraments, in a state of mortal sin?

• Do I foster a false spiritual fatherhood characterized by self-absorption, seeking always to have a little group of admirers and devotees in my following? Am I attracting and leading souls to Christ — or to myself?

• Conversely, can I identify individuals for whom I am a genuine spiritual father? Do I experience joy in this fatherhood? Do I experience it also as the fulfillment of my manhood?

• And when I do inevitably experience loneliness, what do I do with it? Do I try to suffocate it and ignore it? Do I fill that void with unhealthy things? Do I seek the grace to endure times of loneliness to discover a hidden invitation to divine intimacy?

Priestly Identity

OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

Pulling it all together, let’s finally reflect on priestly identity. The enemy of our souls is normally hard at work to dislodge that core identity. Myriad identity-substitutes tease and titillate our own vanity and self-importance. Am I a media-priest? A golf-priest? A music-artist priest? There is no harm necessarily in engaging in any of these as tools of evangelization, or just as part of healthy self-care. But no one of them should become an end it itself or much less a source of my identity.

What I do should not become a source of understanding who I am as a priest. We cannot misconstrue activity for identity, doing for being. Nor should my own limitations, failures, personal wounds and the experience of my own sinfulness become the source of my identity.

The source of my identity must remain always one and the same: contemplative communion with the Triune God who invites me, through a life of discipleship and mission, to union with himself. Consequently, we can ask ourselves:

• What are my primary motivators at this point in my life? How have my desires and longings evolved since my ordination? Have I become numb to the desire for holiness?

• Are there other identities that have obscured my core identity as a priest?

• What are my most frequent temptations?

• Do I too often allow my interior to be cluttered with frivolous, off-color, empty content from television and the internet?

• Do I entertain unhealthy curiosities? Do I vicariously enjoy a lifestyle — one I have presumably sacrificed — by watching inappropriate things?

• Is priestly ministry for me just a series of functions? Have I perhaps even come to tolerate disordered and sinful habits (especially in the area of chastity) with the rationalization that “I can still function as a priest”?

• Conversely, do I understand myself to be fundamentally and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ?

We continue to be works in progress. This is why we examine ourselves: to fulfill our wonderful calling and to remain true to our being. How succinctly St. John Paul put it: “Within the Church as ‘mystery,’ the priest is called, by his ongoing formation, to safeguard and develop in faith his awareness of the total and marvelous truth of his being: He is a minister of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God (cf. 1 Cor 4:1). … This should be the case with every priest, if he wishes to remain true to his being” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 73).

Each day, we are given the grace and opportunity to become more deeply what our God has made of us: men of the mystery, servants and ministers of that great mystery, which is the font of all light, truth and fulfillment. Let’s never forget that. 

FATHER THOMAS BERG is professor of moral theology and director of seminarian admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author of “Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics” (OSV, $15.95).


Wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers the following observation in the book “From the Depths of Our Hearts” (Ignatius, $19.95):

“‘Sanctify [consecrate] them in the truth.’ Here, it seems also that there is a discreet reference to the rite of priestly ordination in the Old Testament: the ordinand was in fact physically purified by a complete washing before putting on the sacred vestments. These two elements considered together mean that, in this way, the one sent becomes a new man. But what is a symbolic figure in the ritual of the Old Testament becomes a reality in the prayer of Jesus. The only washing that can really purify man is the truth, is Christ himself. And he is also the new garment to which the exterior cultic vestment alludes. ‘Sanctify [consecrate] them in the truth.’ This means: immerse them completely in Jesus Christ so that what Paul noted as the fundamental experience of his apostolate might prove true for them: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). Thus, on that eve of my ordination, a deep impression was left on my soul of what it means to be ordained a priest, beyond all the ceremonial aspects: it means that we must continually be purified and overcome by Christ so that he is the one who speaks and acts in us, and less and less we ourselves. It appeared to me clearly that this process, which consists of becoming one with him and renouncing what belongs only to us, lasts a whole lifetime and continually includes liberations and painful renewals.”


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