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Vatican II on Priestly Training

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 18, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

The eighth document issued by the Second Vatican Council, on October 28, 1965, was the Decree on Priestly Training (Optatam Totius). This simply sets forth basic principles to guide the establishment of more specific programs for priestly formation in the different countries and rites throughout the world (1). The reason for the document, as stated in the opening sentence, is that “the desired renewal of the whole Church depends to a great extent on the ministry of its priests.”

After indicating in the second section the need for everyone in the Church to show forth “the need, the nature and the importance of the priestly vocation”, the Fathers begin their exposition of priestly training. Minor seminaries, however, are treated as incidental. Where they exist, their programs are to be age-appropriate; open to family, social and cultural contacts; and focused on studies which can be easily continued should the students choose a different state of life (3). In contrast, “major seminaries are necessary for priestly formation” (4) and are the subject of the third section.

At the major seminary, students are to be prepared for the ministry of the word, the ministry of worship and sanctification, and the ministry of the parish. Seminary administrators and teachers must be carefully prepared in “sound doctrine, suitable pastoral experience and special spiritual and pedagogical training” (5). These men are “to form a very closely knit community both in spirit and in activity”, forming a kind of family with the students. In discernment, they must consider each student’s progress, intention, and freedom; his spiritual, moral and intellectual qualifications; and his physical and psychic health (6).

The fourth section covers spiritual formation, which must be imparted such that students “might learn to live in an intimate and unceasing union with the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit” (8)—and with love and filial trust in Mary. Traditional practices of piety are to be encouraged, but the essence of spiritual formation is neither pious practices nor affectation but learning to live “according to the Gospel ideal” imbued with faith, hope and charity.

The students are to be “made clearly aware of the burdens they will be undertaking”, and they are to “deeply realize how gratefully” they should receive “the venerable tradition of celibacy”, as “a precious gift of God for which they should humbly pray” (10). They are to be “warned of the dangers that threaten their chastity especially in present-day society”, and they must integrate their renunciation of marriage in a way that, far from experiencing harm, they will “rather acquire a deeper mastery of soul and body and a fuller maturity, and more perfectly receive the blessedness spoken of in the Gospel” (10).

The norms of Christian education are to be “religiously observed” but also “properly complemented by the newer findings of sound psychology and pedagogy” (11). Thus, an effective formation will become evident “in stability of mind, in an ability to make weighty decisions, and in a sound evaluation of men and events”, with resulting virtues such as “sincerity of mind, a constant concern for justice, fidelity to one’s promises, refinement in manners, modesty in speech coupled with charity.” (11) It is left to the bishops to provide for suitable interruptions in seminary training for a more intense introduction to the spiritual life or an introduction to pastoral work, so that the fitness of candidates can be more effectively discerned. (12)

In the fifth section on the revision of ecclesiastical studies, the Council indicates that students should have the humanistic and scientific education common to their culture before they begin, plus good knowledge of Latin, the language of their rite, and the languages of Scripture and Tradition. (13) But the first priority in revising ecclesiastical studies themselves should be “that the philosophical and theological disciplines be more suitably aligned and that they harmoniously work toward opening more and more the minds of the students to the mystery of Christ” (13).

Students should attain a knowledge of man, the world and God, “relying on a philosophical patrimony which is perennially valid”, but also taking into account later philosophical investigations, so that they can correctly understand the “characteristics of the contemporary mind” and will be “prepared for dialogue with men of their time” (15). Theological studies should be “so taught that the students will correctly draw out Catholic doctrine from divine revelation, profoundly penetrate it, make it the food of their own spiritual lives, and be enabled to proclaim, explain and protect it in their priestly ministry” (16). These studies should include Scripture, exegesis, and the themes of divine revelation, leading to a study of the Fathers and of dogmatic theology as properly rooted in these themes.

A deeper theological penetration is to be fostered “with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas” (16). Moreover, students must be taught to recognize the same themes and mysteries in the liturgy and, indeed, in the entire life of the Church, and should “learn to seek the solutions to human problems under the light of revelation” (16). Given the upheaval in the Church since this Decree was written, one point presents itself now with particular force:

Special care must be given to the perfecting of moral theology. Its scientific exposition, nourished more on the teaching of the Bible, should shed light on the loftiness of the calling of the faithful in Christ and the obligation that is theirs of bearing fruit in charity for the life of the world. (16)

The sixth section, on pastoral training, emphasizes preparation for catechesis, preaching, liturgical worship, and administration of the sacraments; works of charity and assistance to “the erring and the unbelieving” (19); fostering and inspiring the apostolic activity of the laity; and promoting the various forms of the apostolate (20). Students are to be initiated into pastoral work not only during their studies but also during their vacations.

The final section charges episcopal conferences with the responsibility to establish various programs of training to be pursued after ordination, through which young priests can be “gradually introduced into the priestly life and apostolic activity” (21). The Council concludes by noting that “the Fathers of this holy synod have pursued the work begun by the Council of Trent”, which first established seminaries as a key to proper priestly formation.

Previous in series: Vatican II on Religious Life
Next in series: Vatican II on Christian Education

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 23, 2010 11:47 AM ET USA

    Priests are essential in their roles as "other Christs", offering themselves as instruments of God in the dispensation of grace. The abandonment of the traditional standards of personal prayer and increased emphasis on social work etc. has taken a tremendous toll. Furthermore, a large proportion of lay folks are not convinced of the necessity of priests in the contemporary Church and are not praying for priests or for priestly perseverance. Holy priests are truly miraculous in current times.