A Vision of Priestly Formation in Light of the Words and Actions of Pope Francis

His Excellency Patrón Wong

Assumption Seminary

San Antonio, Texas

January 10, 2015

 A Vision of Priestly Formation in Light of the

Words  and Actions of Pope Francis

Words and actions complement each other in order to present a clear message.  Those who work in the fields of media and communications know this well.  Those of us who have come to know Jesus, also know this, because the arrival of the  Kingdom of God is announced, not just with words, but also with concrete actions. 

The words of Pope Francis are clear and direct. These, along with his actions, which are calming and convincing, have caught the attention of many people, bringing them to a closer relationship with Jesus.  Today, I also hope this for all of you. 

Forming the Heart.

Today I wish to emphasize an expression which Pope Francis repeats continually when he encounters seminarians.  It is a concept permeated with the wisdom and the concern of a father:  Forming the Heart

     The expression entails something profound, tied to a biblical concept of the first order. God speaks to the heart, and man responds from the deepest core of his personality, that is to say, from his heart. 

The expression forming the heart consists primarily of spiritual content. It means to take full advantage of the years in seminary, not just to complete a series of prerequisites and studies, but also to acquire the heart of a disciple and pastor, following after the example of Christ the Servant and Shepherd of the Flock. 

But at the same time forming the heart implies psychological content. This means to broaden the heart of man so that he may be capable to love with the love which Christ has for his people.  This also implies remaining ever vigilant with regard to the soundness of personality, of the affective and sexual maturity which is so much demanded of today’s priests. 

It is essential that a heart exists.  When this is lacking from the interior life of a seminarians, the joy of people disappears, and other interests arise on their existential horizon. 

Forming your heart implies growing in pastoral charity, that is to say, to learn to love in a pastoral fashion.  Let’s delve into what a pastoral heart means, through some traits which normally are present in formation.

Acquiring the sentiments of the Son.  In order to form a heart like that of Christ the Servant and Pastor it is necessary to profoundly self identify with Christ.  All believers live this identity, but in the case of seminarians, we properly speak of a spiritual configuration to Christ.  Such a process is brought about through two moments

·        Believing as a disciple.  In the first, we adopt, in the Lord, an attitude and a mission of service, that is to say,  that our expectations cease being those of ordering others around, and begin to be, definitively, those of service, as happened with the apostles who accompanied Jesus.  In the depths of the personality of the seminarian, the Holy Spirit transforms into service all that he is and all that he has. 

The first step is taken principally in the first stages of formation:  the years of Philosophy and of Pre Theology.  We need to pay close attention in order to form a true heart of a disciple during these first years, establishing the foundation, upon which a priestly personality can be formed. 

·        Being Configured as pastor. The second step consist in internalizing the attitudes of the Good Shepherd, Christ the priest, so abundantly expressed through the Biblical texts.  You continue your formation as a disciple, but now it is done in such a way that you proceed to plan out and enact in your life  the characteristics of a man who has become devoted to the guidance of the People of God. 

This second step is taken as a fundamental part of the theological program of studies. 

This configuration involves all dimensions of formation, but especially puts into play two elements: contemplation of the person of Jesus and the confronting of one’s own attitudes

·        The contemplation of Jesus makes the priestly mystique visible, but this progressive confrontation requires an ascetic apprenticeship, which consists of recognizing ones own contradictions, allowing God’s forgiveness and learning to walk in his grace. 

First one must contemplate Jesus as teacher, placing oneself in his sandals, in order to learn the way of the disciple. Living to love is primary. Afterward, one must contemplate Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who would give up his life for the sheep, in order to form the heart of a shepherd.  In this way we make pastoral charity our own. 

It is evident that the process of configuration cannot be completed without an assiduous practice of prayer and without the human and spiritual accompaniment of your formators. Without the daily and genuine accompaniment on the part of formators, and without a human and spiritual docility on the part of seminarians, formative projects do not touch the heart, nor do they transform from within one’s own personal history, but instead they result in an exterior façade which crumbles after priestly ordination. 

·        Confronting one’s own attitudes.  Human maturity must be preliminary to priestly formation, that is to say, but not only that, it is an outlook which is understood to have been already conquered, and which is achieved in the first stages of growth. Each formative stage must directly impact on personal maturity, which is realized as if on a continuum during the whole of life.  Part of maturity is taking stock and challenging your own attitudes, and effecting change when necessary or helpful to your future priestly ministry. 

The best motivation, which, as a seminarian will help you to bring about this work upon yourself, is love for Christ and for the Church.  Vocational consistency is acquired, thus, in a similar way that constructions workers prepare to lay bricks.  You have to combine the correct ingredients, and mix them until achieving a useful combination.  Today more than ever we are conscious of the urgent need for personal maturity forming the life of a priest, not only in that which refers to priestly celibacy, but even moreso in that which refers to the entire person of the priest, his attitudes, his availability, the way in which he manages the Christian community. 

We all have experienced the terrible consequences which are brought about when direction of the community is placed in the hands of an immature person.  We cannot permit ourselves the luxury to assume maturity or to be negligent in its regard.

         We must accustom ourselves to a permanent human and spiritual accompaniment in which, without restrictions, all personal matters should be addressed, confronted without fear, and affective “regressions” discovered, new feelings, desires, and previously unknown aspirations, things which exhaust or bore us, dreams and frustrations.  It is important to address one’s own vocation as an object of discernment, in order to be able to distinguish what comes from a spirit of good, and what comes from temptations towards a spirit of evil. A true spiritual discernment is at the foundation of a human priestly maturity, which is always in need of constant vigilance. 

Feeling one with the People of God

Pope Francis has spoken of the joy of people.  That is, the experience of feeling oneself part of a community which walks in the name of the Lord.  This people, this profound sense of belonging, has two fundamental aspects, one interior, one towards the external.  We will call the first fraternity, and the second pastoral solicitude

·        Living fraternity.  The presence of the Lord acquires very specific facets in seminary life: one’s own friends, to whom a seminarian refers as “brothers;” the Rector, through clear and transparent treatment; with your formator, allowing yourself to be helped along a true process of maturation; with the spiritual director, who assists in a profound way; with the employees of the seminary, showing yourself always to be friendly and helpful; with the bishop, treating him with respect and at the same time with a profound closeness; with various members of the Christian community with whom you will interact throughout the formative process. All them are also the beloved subjects of your pastoral charity and must be shown merciful consideration. 

In this way a true configuration to Christ quickly becomes a fraternal attitude toward everyone else. He who has acquired the sentiments of the Son is transformed into a brother, and is bonded with the same depth and definiteness to God, to the community to which he belongs, and to each of the persons within it. Therefore it is very important that the vocational maturation of the seminarian is realized within a formative community. It is there that one learns to serve, to celebrate the presence of God in our lives, to share a mission, in sum, to evangelize. 

It is very important that you take advantage of your time in the seminary, as a privileged time of life in common. This is part of priestly ministry, which is radically communitarian.

·        Living Pastoral Solicitude. The heart of a pastor needs to feel the joys and sufferings of the People of God as his own. This must be stated clearly and broadly. A true priestly heart is indifferent to nobody. He knows how to celebrate with everyone the gift of life, each of the gifts received, and the very fact of being a community.

The traits which Gaudium et Spes attributes to the Church which is placed in service of the actual world, must be made concrete in the social attitudes of the priest.  Therefore it is necessary that you take advantage of pastoral experiences in order to make contact with the real needs of others, especially of the poor and marginalized, of families, youth, and the elderly.

The call of Pope Francis to go out to the periphery has its foundation and motivation in pastoral charity. The man configured to Christ, ready to assume always the attitude of a servant, is transformed into a loving pastor to the weakest of sheep. 

Simplicity of Life. Pope Francis’ continual option for simplicity of life and poverty has gotten the attention of many people. His gestures call to mind the criteria established by the Dogmatic Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium for the liturgy, an austere beauty, a noble simplicity. Pope Francis shows us through his repeated gestures a precious trait of priestly life which also will help with your formation. He chooses the simplest vestments, he prefers simple places, and places himself as one among many, without grasping onto special prerogatives, he doesn’t like chairs in the form of a throne, he goes out to the periphery, he places himself in service of others, and consults with other persons. This attitude of the Pope does not arise from a  rigid asceticism, but the result of resolutions quite freely gathered from his spirituality of a lifetime.  Let us now ponder some practical consequences of our observation of the attitudes of the Pope for priestly formation.  

·        Voluntary poverty. The gestures of the Pope regarding poverty and simplicity of life have, indeed, touched many people. When they question him in this regard, he furnishes very simple explanations, more related to his own personal necessities than to some sort of moralizing sloganeering regarding poverty. It remains very clear that his style of poverty springs from his interior life as something altogether presupposed, well discerned in the past, and personally chosen.  Because of this, it does not sound artificial, nor does he presume to impose this style of life on others. He is a good example of what Presbyterorum Ordinis called the “voluntary poverty” of priests. 

Some of the great problems in the priesthood today are the economic level at which, in many places, priests find themselves, the style of careerism, and the seeking of privileges, all dynamics contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.  It is difficult to teach oneself to live a poor and austere life in a consumer society. It is necessary to provoke, in ourselves and others, discernment about the way we use material goods, and the fundamental attitude which each one of us has about material things, in such a way that, as you continue advancing through the formative process, you will become freer with regard to goods, and possess fewer of them. 

If this criteria is good for material goods, it is as good for other types of goods, such as knowledge, our relationships, and attracting attention to ourselves. Each of us has a lot of work to do, as priests and seminarians, in order to form ourselves into priests who live an authentic priestly poverty. 

·        Priestly dignity.  If you write the words “Pope Francis” into a search engine on the internet, a whole series of very priestly images appears.  Above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, we see Pope Francis’ priestly demeanour.  This action of the Pope, which upon first examination might not seem so  important, carries with it much significance for priestly formation.  The Pope is presenting the priesthood in a very positive and clear way.  Consequently, he denounces the seeking of hierarchical positions and other important posts by priests.  He indicates that it is much more honourable simply to be a priest and in priestly service.          

This trait must be cultivated beginning in seminary.  It requires that you train yourself not to exaggerate the differences between yourself and your classmates. These might be differences of family background, of intellectual capacity, of practical skills. This is done in order to underscore with all clarity your gifts received from God through your calling. I requires that you do not have ambitions to be anything else than a priest who humbly serves where he is needed.  It would be marvellous if seminarians would arrive at the point in which the tone of their conversations would be changed, in such a way that instead of speaking continually of those who have special charges and privileges, they would speak of service which might be given to the least among us. 

Seminarians and the Pastoral Work of Vocations

We have spoken of the impact of the words and actions of Pope Francis, which have been a reflection of his own spiritual life.  They are converted into a sign of the presence of God for persons, some closer to and some more distant from the Christian community. It is important that you apply this same discussion to your reality in seminary. Your words and actions are taken into account by people. Others know you are a seminarian and they hope to encounter in your behaviour an authentic reflection of your spiritual life. This is especially important in the pastoral work of vocations, because often a seminarian is the means by which the flame of God arrives at another possible seminarian. 

         We hope that you are a seminarian are moved by love, that you are for others a person moved by your heart. On the one hand, that you act always with mercy, showing that you are balanced and happy; and on the other hand that you have learned to speak of merciful love with words which touch the heart. We hope you to be, then, seminarians with heart, who love and show love, profoundly human and at the same time profoundly spiritual. 

It is hoped, also, that you identify with the people of God. Human solidarity with others is not enough; instead you must develop a nearness and friendliness with the poor and the least powerful; you must learn to pronounce words of true consolation, which alleviate the suffering of the simple.  Above all you must ensure that no one is excluded from your love and personal consideration.  May you come to understand the challenges and difficulties which others must confront and that you become sensitized to those. 

Lastly, it is to be hoped that seminarians become examples of a simple and austere lives.  In the context of a consumer society, you should be notably free from any eagerness to have or possess, and your life should be the hallmark of the tendency toward the austere beauty proper to the things of God; may your conversations refer more to the things of heaven than to those of earth, and may they be in this sense extraordinary.  May you distance yourself intentionally, as is indicated by  Presbyterorum Ordinis, from any appearance of luxury which could scandalize the People of God. 

Certainly other points will occur to you.  What is really important is that you become aware of the great transcendence which your words and actions have in inspiring new vocations.  A seminary which functions well, in which the seminarians are happy, attracts new vocations. 

In this short time we have had together, I have underscored three traits of priestly formation inspired by the words and actions of Pope Francis: Forming the Heart, Feeling one with the People of God, and Simplicity of Life. Surely other words and actions of the Pope exist which attract your attention and which will lead you to important truths in your formative pilgrimage.  I invite you to be careful take note, remaining attentive to the person of the Pope, in order to discover a true model of the priestly life.