The evolution of post-ordination formation for priests in the Catholic Church in England and Wales after the Second Vatican Council takes its roots from the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, which to this day, is used by Directors of Ongoing Formation for Clergy as its overall ‘charter.’ In twenty-three years, a resounding concern for these directors has been the need for a seamless transition from each of the three stages of formation in the priesthood—from his discerned vocation as an enquirer, to his seminary years as a candidate, and his ongoing formation throughout his life as a priest.
While an established relationship between Vocation Directors and Seminary Rectors already exist, thus providing inestimable support for the candidate during the ten or so years of initial formation, there has been far less contact with the Ongoing Formation Director who, together with the candidate’s bishop, will provide care, support and life-long learning opportunities during the fifty or more years of his priestly ministry.
The need, therefore, for dialogue between Vocation Directors, Seminary Rectors and Directors of Ongoing Formation has emerged as a crucial element towards providing a seamless transition for the candidate at each stage of his formation. This was identified both in the paper Committed to Growth, prepared for the Department of Catholic Education and Formation and endorsed by Bishops’ Conference in 2008, and the Charter for Priestly Formation at the start of its revision in 2011.
A meeting with Cardinal Beniamino Stella at the Congregation for the Clergy in 2014 gave the Directors of Ongoing Formation a valuable opportunity to outline their vision of a seamless transition between the different stages of formation and was affirmed by Archbishop Jorge Patrón Wong who not only shared the same hopes and concerns but also had an awe-inspiring passion for priesthood, the priestly life and priests’ formation in the service of God and his people.
In keeping with the new trajectories on priesthood emerging from the papacy of Pope Francis endorsing an awareness—from the very beginning—of a life-long commitment to ongoing formation by the individual who has discerned a vocation to the priesthood, we were greatly encouraged to invite the same conversation with our Vocation Directors and Seminary Rectors, seeking their help in the continuing process of formation that is owned by all.
It was only a matter of time, therefore, at what some may refer to as an historic event, that the directors of the different stages of formation, as well as bishops with responsibility for priestly formation, gathered together for a much anticipated event. The purpose was to meet, to be introduced to one another, to pray together and to make mind and heart connections that now seem more urgent than before.
Archbishop Patrón Wong certainly alluded to the significance of the gathering when he said: “I visit many countries often for week-long meetings like this one. But at those meetings—I meet Bishops separately, Seminary Rectors separately, Vocation Directors separately, and Ongoing Formators separately—and therefore, conversations are held separately. This is the first time where I have experienced the discussions of all formators taking place in one setting—together—and with such generosity of spirit and love.”
Inspired by Archbishop Patrón Wong to reflect both on our common concerns and diverse realities in caring for the priest during his entire priestly life, we are challenged to make a deeper and more profound commitment to the task and was reminded that “we cannot lose time because our work is for this generation.”
Hothorpe Hall, Leicestershire (6-7 April 2016) In what some may refer to as an historic event, a conference entitled “Owned by All” gathered together Ongoing Formation Directors, Seminary Rectors, Vocation Directors, and Bishops with responsibility for priestly formation, to meet with an official from the Roman Curia, His Excellency Archbishop Jorgé Carlos Patrón-Wong of the Congregation for Clergy to reflect on a common concern: Priestly Formation in Christ Jesus for our world today.
Archbishop Patrón-Wong certainly alluded to the significance of the gathering when he said: “I visit many countries often for week-long meetings like this one. But at those meetings—I meet Bishops separately, Seminary Rectors separately, Vocation Directors separately, and Ongoing Formators separately—and therefore, conversations are held separately. This is the first time where I have experienced the discussions of all formators taking place in one setting—together—and with such generosity of spirit and love. As the title of this conference indicates, priestly formation is a unified responsibility of everyone involved in vocations promotion and direction, in seminary formation, and in ongoing formation. I am very grateful for the efforts of the Executive Committee for Ongoing Formation, because despite many challenges along the way, they have made this momentous occasion happen and invited me, on behalf of Cardinal Stella, to be part of a beautiful experience.”
In the first part of his keynote address, Archbishop Patrón-Wong explained that the Universal Church, presided over in charity by the Pope, has become increasingly aware of the urgent need to unify formation which was made clear by the evaluations and suggestions of episcopal conferences. The Holy See compiles what it has received and draws out specific proposals for the good of priestly life, both on a particular and on a general level. The Congregation for Clergy, which has long been responsible for the ongoing formation of priests, also assumed responsibility for the initial formation provided in seminaries as part of this process (Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio, Ministrorum Institutio). In January 2013, therefore, Pope Benedict XVI amended the apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, and transferred competence for seminaries from the Congregation for Catholic Education to the Congregation for the Clergy. Vocations promotion and direction is also currently within the competence of the Congregation for Clergy. Archbishop Patrón-Wong indicates that this is a clear sign of the unity that must be present in all of priestly formation.
“An essential element that cannot be neglected at any stage of training,” Archbishop Patrón-Wong says, “is discernment, as much on the part of those who feel called, as of the Church.” He repeated a reminder from Pope Francis who has referred to the need for formators to keep their eyes open, and examine the motivations of candidates for the priestly ministry. So during his many visits to seminaries, Archbishop Patrón-Wong shared that he very candidly asks those training for the priesthood a very personal question: “How is it, that your generation who have been intensely aware of sexual scandals by priests and all the negativity that surrounds priests because of these scandals—still want to be priests?” He said that the answers he receives are varied but hold two things in common. First, that each of those men training to be priests have met and have been profoundly changed by an encounter with one good diocesan priest. That they may not have been perfect but they were priests who loved and cared about them, their family, and their life—and that was enough. Secondly, Archbishop Patrón-Wong explained, that for the younger generation, “everything is experiential” and that positive experiences from diocesan priests is what draws-in these candidates to and be “part of the renewal of the Church and so to discourage criticism of the Church.” He said that this “positive aspect of the new generation is our new reality.”
Subsequent sessions and conversations during the conference elaborated that along with the process of discernment and maturing of the candidate—who must eventually give a definitive answer in the consecration of his life and in the priestly ministry—initial formation at seminaries must also invite availability so that the priest never ceases to desire formation and learning from life through his pastoral mission and service to the Church. Archbishop Patrón-Wong says that: “If a priest is ordained who has the ability to learn, and to learn daily, the work of the seminary during initial formation has been effective.”
“In other words,” he continued, “the seminary should instil an attitude of lifelong learning. The priest is always called to be a disciple and, therefore, is not to arrive at the end of his seminary formation perfectly formed. Rather he should acquire a docility to let himself be formed, with an ever new availability to be guided.” Archbishop Patrón-Wong shared from his experiences that “…in today’s culture, which is often fluid and fragmented, a seminarian may often run the risk of getting caught up in an individualistic sadness – which Pope Francis says – promotes a lifestyle that undermines the development and stability of relations between peoples. (Evangelii Gaudium 67). The priest of tomorrow cannot be an independent contractor of the sacred; he cannot be privately formed. A priest who perseveres in an isolated ministry chooses a difficult path. If he survives, his ministry will probably not be fruitful.”
“Therefore at present,” Archbishop Patrón-Wong continued, “one of the major concerns of the Congregation for Clergy is the formation of formators. The selection of formators should be made, taking into account the ability to surrender with joy and generosity to the mission of formation so that priests do not risk isolation. When we speak of formators, we do not mean only those who are part of a team of formators in a seminary, but also those who are serving as promoters and directors of vocations and especially ongoing formation directors who will care for the priests during his entire priestly life. We need full-time formators who commit their entire lives to this task. This is important because we cannot lose time. Our work is for this generation.”
In his final remarks, Archbishop Patrón-Wong closes with: “You see, formation and mission are closely linked: from the moment we begin formation for mission, we are being formed by the mission itself. As Pope Francis and other popes before him remind us—the renewal of the church depends on the renewal of priestly life. Please build on continuing the dialogue that has been the fruit of this conference so that we can multiply the instruments that God has given us to fulfil the mission—and let us pray for each other!”
Bishops: His ExcellencyArchbishop Jorgé Carlos Patrớn-Wong, Most Reverend Malcolm McMahon, Right Reverend Terence Drainey, Right Reverend Patrick McKinney, Right Reverend David McGough. Seminary Rectors: Rev Roger Taylor, Rev Brian Coyle, Rev Canon David Oakley, Rev Mgr Philip Whitmore, Rev Canon Philip Gillespie, Rev Mgr John Pardo.Vocation Directors:Rev Christopher Jamison OSB, Rev Dominic Chukka, Rev James Preston, Rev Canon Mark Floody. Ongoing Formation Directors: Rev John McLoughlin,Mrs Karen Foong, Rev Christopher Whitehead, Rev John Patrick Thomas, Rev Paul McNally,Rev Paul Maddison, Rev Richard Walker, Rev Dr Gareth Leyshon, Rev Mgr John, Rev Mgr David Smith, Rev Tony Brennan, Rev Mark Skelton, Rev Paul Mason, Rev Canon Peter Newby, Rev Paddy Sweeney, Rev Michael Moore, Rev Andrew Cole.