Many people, even many Catholics, have a vision of seminary as a very strict monastery. They imagine men walking around in hooded robes with folded hands, observing strict silence, and never smiling or laughing. But that is not even true of a monastery, much less a seminary. The truth is that modern seminaries are much like small universities, albeit with a very strong spiritual and community emphasis. Today’s seminaries are filled with joyful men who engage in prayer, recreation and learning together as they prepare for priestly life and ministry. It is a very vibrant setting! Some have called it the best education the Church has to offer.
What is daily life like for a typical seminarian? In a word: full. Because the demands of priesthood are great, formation of future priests is thorough. In addition to university academics, seminarians pray together, go to Mass, meet with their spiritual directors, and go to pastoral assignments at local parishes. Plus there are special meetings and workshops, student government, pastoral work programs, personal exercise and recreation, and retreats. From a secular perspective, you could compare seminary to getting a master’s degree and having a regular job at the same time.
Four Pillars of Priestly Formation
Being a priest, however, is not a job. It is a taking on a new identity. It is becoming an alter Christus, another Christ. To this end, the Church requires rigorous formation in four key areas:
- Human formation: learning how to be a good person; how to appropriately give and receive love; how to be a bridge to Christ; how to represent the Church well to all types of people.
- Spiritual formation: developing a deep and mature relationship with Christ through prayer and virtuous living; recognizing God’s work in this world and one’s own life.
- Intellectual formation: understanding the truths of the Faith and cultivating the skills to teach the Faith to others.
- Pastoral formation: learning how to be a shepherd of souls; how to help parishioners in the joys and trials of life; allowing God to work through one’s actions.
The Stages of Seminary
A man may begin his formation any time after high school. If he has had previous college education, there are still certain areas which he must study, such as philosophy and theology, so that he will have the tools to become a good pastor of souls. Every man who begins seminary studies will be placed in one of the first two “levels” according to his previous education.
- Propedeutic Stage: A year of spiritual and human formation.
- Discipleship Stage (College Seminary): Men studying to obtain a college degree (generally in Philosophy, though not always) while at the same time undergoing the formation required to enter major seminary.
- Discipleship Stage (Pre-Theology): Men who already have a college degree, but who still need to satisfy the requirements of two years of formation and philosophical study, usually at a major seminary, before entering Theology.
- Configuration Stage: Men who have attended either college seminary or pre-theology will continue the final four years of priestly formation at a major seminary. They focus on Theology, Morality, Scripture and the Sacraments among other subjects.
- Vocational Synthesis: A year of practical formation after being ordained to the transitional diaconate.
Installation of Ministries
Seminarians progress through several formal steps on their way to priesthood, typically in the timeframe presented below (with some variations, depending on the seminary). While many laypeople throughout the Church function as lectors, altar servers, or acolytes, very few of them are actually installed ministers. Installation as Lector or Acolyte is traditionally seen as a step on the way to the Sacrament of Holy Orders and is reserved to men alone.
- Ministry of Lector (First Theology): Proclaim the word of God in a liturgical assembly.
- Ministry of Acolyte (Second Theology): Assist the deacon and priest during Mass.
- Admission to Candidacy (Third Theology): The bishop formally calls a man to be ordained.
- Ordination to Diaconate (Summer after Third Theology): A man is ordained to proclaim the Gospel at Mass, preach, baptize, witness marriages, and assist the priest in bringing Jesus to people in need.
- Ordination to Priesthood (Summer after Vocational Synthesis): A man is ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.