Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Counsels For Seminarians

by Pope Saint John XXIII


An Address Of Pope John XXIII To Seminarians In Rome in which he recalls memories of his own seminary years, reflects on the personal sanctification of priests and the value of reading Scripture.

Larger Work

The Encyclicals and Other Messages of John XXIII



Publisher & Date

TPS Press, 1964

Beloved Sons! Our heart prompted Us to meet with you here, in order to confide to you some thoughts which were suggested to Us by the solemn festivities of the Synod. 1

You make up a numerous and happy group in the diversity of your national origins, and in the glowing charm of your youth: your presence here is the beautiful and ready answer which divine Providence gives to the cares and anxieties of Holy Church, as to the quality, quantity, and apostolic zeal of the future members of her clergy. Your youthful group adorns the Roman Synod, as it were, with a bright promise of future blossoms, and the reflected light of its beauty shines over all the dioceses of the world from which you came.

Inspiring Circumstances

Our meeting is enhanced and given a deeper meaning by the celebration of an event of the greatest importance in the religious life of the City, and by its surroundings—this church of St. Ignatius, which jealously guards its glorious memories and attests to the services rendered by the adjacent Roman College in the cause of sacred scholarship and the apostolate. Especially worthy of respect is the mausoleum of Pope Gregory XV—Alexander Ludovisi—for whom a short pontificate (1621-1623) sufficed to achieve great merits for the role he played in the glorification of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, and in the establishment of world-wide missionary cooperation. Let Us confide to you in a whisper, as it were, that during Our seminary years in Rome We often repaired to this church to the altar of St. Louis and St. John Berchmans to ask for their intercession that the grace of chastity might be preserved in Us forever without any diminution of its delicate splendor.

In those youthful years, Our soul found happiness in seeking the presence and blessing of two saintly popes, first the great Leo XIII, and later St. Pius X, always fatherly and kind.

The Book Of Judges

We will again seek inspiration in the sacred scriptures for Our conversation with you, who are Our youngest sons, just as We did in the last three days, when We addressed the solemn gathering of the priests of Our diocese. We find this inspiration in the Book of Judges, which as you well know, records the deeds of the men who accepted the inheritance of Moses and set the chosen people on the difficult course they were to steer in their life and history.

The Chosen Few

Gedeon, who had under his command an enormous multitude of soldiers, obviously ready and willing to face any risk and any obstacle, is told by the Lord that in great undertakings you must count, not on the many, but on the chosen few. Selection is the law of life, progress, and perfection.

Beloved sons! We like to imagine you, after all the years of preparation in your native lands, as regiments of soldiers who have been chosen and set aside, in obedience to the call of the Lord, for the future conquests by the Kingdom of God. We find this fact admirably described in chapter seven of Judges as follows: "The Lord said to Gedeon: You have too many soldiers with you for me to deliver Madian into their power, lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say: 'My own power brought me the victory.' Now proclaim to all the soldiers: If anyone is afraid or fearful, let him leave.' " 2 This is as much as to say: Whoever does not possess the necessary courage, and is fearful, let him turn back.

After these words were spoken, the multitude was reduced to twenty thousand: and these twenty thousand were further reduced to three hundred, according to the precise instructions of the Lord: "Lead them down to the water, and I will test them . . . there." 3 And here is the ordeal which tests the strength, dedication, and spirit of sacrifice of the individual soldiers: "You shall set to one side everyone who laps up the water… to the other, everyone who kneels down to drink." 4

The implications of this passage are clear: those who hesitate, those who are too mindful of their own comfort, and those who crave to satisfy their thirst at all the sources of human knowledge and experience, are not, and cannot be, soldiers of God's Kingdom.

Three Thoughts

Beloved sons! The secret of fruitfulness and success in your future activity lies in this spirit of detachment. New soldiers of the modern age, you are going to undertake very worthy enterprises, which will bear no resemblance to earthly conquest or dominion. Rather, you will seek new conditions that will make possible a more orderly life together for people; you will, with ardent desire and action, devote yourselves to the unification of all humanity in Christ. Allow Us, then, to entrust to you three thoughts which are very dear to Us.

We did not receive them by heavenly revelation, as was the case with Gedeon, but they are the fruit of long hours of meditation and prayer. Here they are: Walk worthily; accept the Book and read it eagerly; sing the Psalms with understanding and frequently.5

Walking Worthily

1. We say to you, first of all: Walk worthily. These words outline for you the necessity of leading a worthy life, harboring high ideals and purposes, and preserving a spotless priestly character.


Although you came to Rome from different parts of the world, in your daily encounters you are like brothers unto one another. Basically, you are not in any way different from each other, since you share a common inheritance and a common goal in the service of God and souls. When you came to the center of the Catholic world, each of you carried with him from his native land treasures of ancient wisdom and of sound, noble, glorious tradition. Here you learn to know and, consequently, to appreciate one another better, and to share with each other the gifts of nature and grace which every one of you possesses.

Your young hearts, eagerly waiting to reap the future harvests of souls, well know that you are not here in Rome to prepare for positions of privilege; on the contrary, you are here to become the most willing, skilled, humble, and generous assistants of your bishops and of your brother priests, who are counting so much on you. This is, therefore, the most fruitful period of your formation.

True Progress

This is why We say to you with an anxious heart: Walk worthily! That is tantamount to repeating God's invitation to faithful Abraham: "Walk in My presence and be perfect." 6

This means, first and foremost, proceed with dignity; that is, you must progress in enriching your minds, which must open up to all things beautiful and sacred in the light of God; progress in purifying your heart, and freeing it from bondage to any one individual creature, thereby giving it the power to embrace all creatures, in their joys and sorrows; progress in strengthening and maturing your experience with a view to your future responsibility; progress constantly in developing an amiable and attractive disposition. In other words, you must move in the direction of "whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are holy, and whatever things make you lovable and of good repute." 7 From Rome, this city of apostles and martyrs, of monks and missionaries, advances toward new conquests. For, whenever you stop to settle down in comfort and listen to the blandishments of the flesh, you run the risk of becoming like stagnant waters. Advance, then, but advance with dignity.

Clarity And Watchfulness

All the elements of your formation should have splendor; you must look with clear eyes at whatever is before you, not only anticipating the chaste joy of celebrating the Mass in holiness, but also contemplating unflinchingly the difficulties you will meet, and the uncertainties and doubts, which will threaten to cloud and paralyze your judgment.

Walk worthily! Be on your guard against the snares of your heart, your senses, your relations with others, and your reactions. A priest is not a man of impulse, nor is he a sentimentalist, or a partial, aloof, shy, and moody man. A priest is not satisfied with mediocrity. From the first precious years of his formation, he strives to attain self-knowledge, in order to overcome his failings, and approach the ideal perfection, which God demands. And be thou perfect.

Sacred Scripture

2. The second thought is an invitation to enjoy the substantial pleasures afforded by sacred scripture: "Take the scroll and eat it up." 8

Always keep the prophetic symbols of the Apocalypse before your eyes: it is the angel standing on the sea and the earth who, obeying the command uttered by the voice from heaven, offers the Sacred Book to you, just as he offered it to John the Apostle. What a meaningful symbol this is for the Church, who reaches across continents and hands you her precious treasure!

The Book indicates the will of God for each one of us: it points to the right conduct of life and to the secret of success in any effective form of the apostolate; in other words, the kind of apostolate which does not crave human results—indeed, such may not be forthcoming. You see how the Church operates: she sows in one century and reaps in subsequent ones by means of her councils, her synods, and her canonical rulings.

Nourishment From Scripture

Let the Sacred Book, then, guide you toward a firmer and more solid piety, and to a more glowing priestly life. At one time, We found in the writings of the Protopatriarch of Venice, St. Lawrence Justinian, a wonderful consonance of words on the subject of the benefits offered by the divine Book. We are now happy to quote from his work "De Casto Connubio Verbi Dei," in which We found these profound and beautiful expressions: "The Sacred Book is indeed the mirror in which is reflected the knowledge of the Word; it is the holy tabernacle of the Godhead.9 No one who approaches it in a spirit of purity, prudence, and humility will depart from it empty-handed. The Book teaches the ways of righteous living; under the surface of its words, what a current of lofty truths and of mysterious sacraments! In the Book are the wonders of the divine Omnipotence, which created the world; in it is the cooperative role of the angels, as well as the instrumental function of man. Those holy pages exalt, first and foremost, the supreme goodness of the Creator, who by them wished to enlighten human ignorance, lead man to faith, sustain his hopes, and wean his spirit away from visible things, while nourishing it with things invisible and eternal." 10

This is the substantial nourishment, which the Divine Book alone can give you. This is the reason for the exhortation: "Take the scroll and eat it up." As a starting point for more specific manifestations of piety, and for the performance of your priestly mission, the Divine Book can open up before you the horizons of a profound and generous spiritual life, and show you the devotions which have always been the mark of a good priest, anytime and anywhere: the Eucharist, the Sacred Heart, the Most Precious Blood, the Blessed Virgin, and, lastly, the saints of the Old and New Testaments. The sacred scriptures form an orderly and admirable unit, which must be first absorbed by your minds, to enable you to educate God's people for the heights of piety, and the Christian conduct of life.

The Psalms

3. One last thought, beloved sons. "Sing the Psalms with understanding and frequently." Jesus' invitation to this effect is clear and imperative. "They must always pray and not lose heart."11 Let your prayer, then, be incessant, meditative, and wise. Let it be your food and the very air you breathe, which keeps you spiritually alive by protecting you against the poisonous vapors of a worldly mentality that might even seriously jeopardize your vocation. Respond, then, to the joyous exhortation of the Apostle: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly: in all wisdom teach and admonish one another by psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing in your hearts to God by his grace." 12

Study Of The Psalter

The Psalter is an invaluable source of prayer; in the near future you will have to become familiar with it, and make it the thought of your thoughts, and the living substance of your consecrated life. We want you to be conversant with the Psalter right now: you must, therefore, study it and know it both as a whole and in its individual parts. Meditate upon different psalms, in order to discover the hidden beauty of each, and thus acquire a real "sensus Dei" and "sensus Ecclesiae." Rest in the psalms, and rise from them to the contemplation of heavenly things, and learn from them to appreciate the things of the world, such as culture, history, and the daily occurrences of your personal life, with moderation and perspective.

The Habit Of Prayer

It has been said that a priest must always have a prayer on his lips. This habit of prayer, however, like all the things of the spirit, cannot be stored away for future use and aired after ordination, because even then, unless the habit of prayer was formed long ago, there will be no dearth of motives or excuses, under the guise of other occupations and work, for letting the practice die out. Now is the time for you to become men of prayer: how much light, sweetness, spiritual balance, and even influence over souls, you will acquire from your familiarity with the Psalter, the substantial nourishment of your piety!

Papal Affection

Beloved sons! We confided to you these three thoughts, and now We trust that they will germinate and blossom into a revival of devotion, both in your hearts and in the hearts of your brother seminarians all over the world.

The Pope loves you in a very special way, and prays for you many times a day, especially in the morning during Holy Mass, and in the evening at the rosary.

The Pope loves you. When, during audiences and gatherings, Our eyes turn to young seminarians, We feel their hearts close to Ours, in joyous and perfect harmony.

You embody the hope and certainty of the future. The Church loves you, and to you who know neither fatigue nor old age she entrusts the anxieties and preoccupations of her future. You are the flower-scented spring of tomorrow, which, with confident heart, We visualize as rich in holy affirmations for the Church of God, while Our hands are raised in a gesture of encouragement and benediction.

An Exhortation

Continue, then, to walk worthily on the path you have chosen: draw from the sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, the strength of your piety, the willingness of your obedience to the voice of the Church, the splendor of your chastity, and the generosity of your apostolate. May you be the consolation of your bishops, and the purest glory of your native lands. Humbly aware of your frailty, always place your trust in the strength of Jesus Christ, who summoned you to continue the work of the Redemption.

A Heavenly Vision

A priest may walk on earth, but his thoughts, his heart, and his eyes are turned toward heaven. "And they shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more, and they shall have no need of light of lamps, or light of sun, for the Lord God will shed light upon them, and they shall reign forever and ever."13

Our eyes contemplate this moving vision, while a choir of well-modulated voices begins and continues the exaltation of three canticles: Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis, which, in the first pages of the Gospel, proclaim the realization of the ancient prophecies and the dawning of a new era, the era of the eternal Gospel, the Gospel of freedom, peace, and unity for the human family.

The Church, always courageous and progressive, entrusts this Gospel to you. Beloved sons, always keep it the way you receive it: "in your hearts and on your lips, to proclaim it worthily."14

We leave this heavenly vision with you, while We entreat God to continue lavishing his heavenly favors upon you; and We impart to you an affectionate and fatherly Apostolic Benediction, which We also wish to extend to your superiors, to your parents, who understood the inestimable gift of your priestly vocation, and to all the people who have a place in your thoughts, and to whom you are already devoting the best of your apostolate of prayer and sacrifice.

—January 28, 1960


1 The third and final session of the Roman Synod had taken place on the day before this talk to the seminarians. —Ed.

2 "Dixitque Dominus ad Gedeon: Multus tecum est populus, nec tradetur Madian in manus eius, ne glorietur contra me Israel et dicat: Meis viribus liberatus sum. Loquere ad populum, et cunctis audientibus praedica. Qui formidolosus et timidus est revertatur." (Judges 7, 2-3)

3 "Duc eos ad aquas, et ibi probabo illos." (Judges 7, 4)

4 "Qui lingua lambuerint aquas . . . separabis eos seorsum; qui autem curvatis genibus biberint, in altera parte erunt . . ." (Judges 7, 5-6)

5 "Digne ambulate; accipite librum et devorate illum; psallite sapienter et frequenter."

6 "Ambula coram me et esto perfectus." (Gen. 17, 1)

7 See Phil. 4, 8.

8 "Accipite librum, et devorate illum." (Apoc. 10, 9)

9 "Divinitatis armarium."

10 St. Lawrence Justinian, Opera Omnia, Venice, 1721, p. 157; see A. G. Cardinal Roncalli, "La Sacra Scrittura e San Lorenzo Giustiniani," Rivista Biblica, 1958, pp. 291-2.

11 "Oportet semper orare, et non deficere." (Luke 18,1)

12 "Verbum Christi habitet in vobis abundanter in omni sapientia docentes et commonentes vosmetipsos psalmis, hymnis et canticis spiritualibus, in gratia cantantes in cordibus vestris Deo." (Col. 3, 16)

13 "Et videbunt faciem eius, et nomen eius in frontibus eorum. Et nox ultra non erit, e non egebant lumine lucernae, neque lumine solis, quoniam Dominus Deus illuminabit illos, et regnabunt in saecula saeculorum." (Apoc. 22, 4-5)

14 "in corde et in labiis vestris ut digne illud annuntietis!"

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