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Meeting of Church Heavy-Hitters Calls for ‘Adjustments’ to Priestly Formation

Young people talk during a conference in Rome April 6. The conference was in preparation for next year’s Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment and World Youth Day in 2019. (Photo: CNS)

By Christopher White, National Correspondent

NEW YORK — A major gathering of ecclesial heavy hitters focusing on the future of the priesthood concluded with a call for a reimagining of priestly formation – one that incorporates the laity and women in the process and better reflects the racial and cultural diversity within the U.S. Church.

The two-day symposium at Boston College took place January 2-3 and was organized around “To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry,” a document first published in December 2018, which was the result of a series of seminars sponsored by the college’s Department of Theology and School of Theology and Ministry.

“All consideration of priesthood and ministry must flow from the Second Vatican Council’s affirmation of the Church’s living tradition as it has been received and developed by Pope Francis,” said a communiqué from the conference released on Jan.6. “He has called the Church to missionary discipleship that goes to “the peripheries” and is responsive to the gifts and challenges of contemporary cultures.”

The document goes on to outline ten pastoral recommendations, among them greater human formation in seminaries to “foster authentic psychosexual maturity and integration,” an evaluation process for candidates that allows institutions to “be free to evaluate candidates honestly, without a concern to ‘maintain numbers’ by persevering with unsuitable candidates,” and a call for exploration of new models for ordained ministry.

Some of the strongest language is reserved for the role of women in priestly formation, where organizers noted that women should be included in the faculty of seminaries.

“In the U.S. Church today, eighty percent of ecclesial ministers are women. This ecclesial reality demands that ordained ministers and candidates work constructively and positively with women,” the document states. “To facilitate this, it is desirable that women be included at every stage of the formation process – as peers in class, as teachers and formators, and as collaborators in ministry.”

Among the 42 participants were Cardinals Seán O’Malley of Boston; Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany; Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey; and Blase Cupich of Chicago. Six other U.S. bishops also participated, alongside seminary rectors, theologians, and lay ecclesial ministers.

The communiqué notes that the recommendations reflect the discussion from within the conference but is the ultimate responsibility of the event co-chairs, Boston College theologians Richard Gaillardetz, Thomas Groome, and Richard Lennan.

While several of the participants offered brief opening remarks, the conference primarily took place in small group discussions.

The event was closed to the press, prompting some Catholic commentators to voice frustration that one of the major lessons of recent scandals has been the need for greater transparency in the Church. Organizers, however, contended that the purpose of the closed-door format was to allow for free-ranging, open discussion among participants.

Groome told The Tablet that such an environment provided freedom for participants to speak with candor in an environment of mixed participants.

He said the final communiqué offered was a “consensus document within the tradition” of the Church, meant to encourage new practices, particularly when it comes to seminaries, so that formation does not happen in a cocoon.

“There have to be adjustments made,” he said. “The future of the ministry of the priesthood cannot be the same of the past.”

That sentiment was matched by Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky who told The Tablet that the timing of the conference was fortuitous given the recent approval by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) of the new Plan for Priestly Formation at last November’s general assembly.

Bishop Stowe said that the reflections built on the original document, “To Serve the People of God,” and its understanding that priests are to be considered “disciples among disciples.”

“This incorporates the vision of Vatican II in ways that are not always evident today among those who emphasize a cultic priesthood and a priestly identity that is set apart and above the laity,” he said.

“The conversation should continue concerning how to prepare future priests for collaborative ministry and to employ discernment and accompaniment in their pastoral ministry as Pope Francis has emphasized,” said Bishop Stowe.

Similarly, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told The Tablet via e-mail that “the dialogue focused upon the need to sustain and contribute to a theology of ordained priesthood and formation initiatives that are rooted in God’s threefold call to every priest to be simultaneously: a disciple of the Lord in union with all of the baptized; a collaborator in the call to ministry with the entire array of Catholics, lay, religious and ordained who undertake ministry in service to the Church; and an ordained priest with a specific mission in leading the community, presiding at the Eucharist and preaching the word of God.”

“The challenging recurring theme of the conference discussion was how to make this threefold dynamic a reality in our formation programs and in the lived experience of priesthood,” he said.

“Our conviction was that the identity of ordained priesthood is distinct,” Bishop McElroy concluded, “But must never be separate from the priest’s simultaneous identity as disciple and minister.”

Professor Julie Hanlon Rubio, who teaches Christian Social Ethics at Santa Clara University, told The Tablet that as a female professor teaching in a seminary, she particularly valued the emphasis on including lay women and men at all stages of priestly formation.

“At one point one participant asked if lay people could be expected to take theology classes in seminaries since they might lack the preparation seminarians would have received,” she recalled.

Along with another professor that was present, Hanlon Rubio said she “assured him that in our experience lay students, especially women, are more than capable of holding their own in theology classes.”

“I came away thinking that the presence of women in seminaries, or schools of ministerial formation, is crucial, not just for the benefit of male seminarians, but for the good of the Church,” she said. “As the number of priests declines, we have an opportunity to recognize women in ministry, and make space and resources available for their formation, so that they can better serve the people of God.”

Both Hanlon Rubio and Groome noted that the abuse crisis was “always in the room,” but the aim of the conference was forward thinking and meant to challenge all parties present.

Citing Pope Francis and his condemnation of clericalism, Groome said that the conference sought to consider what causes it, but more importantly, how to avoid it going forward.

“Our best hope was to start a renewed conversation among ministry and the priesthood,” he said. “We sent home a number of significant leaders…with a new consciousness.”

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