Optatam Totius: Concluding Our Look at the Formation of Clergy

Optatam Totius includes an unnumbered conclusion:

The Fathers of this holy synod have pursued the work begun by the Council of Trent. While they confidently entrust to seminary administrators and teachers the task of forming the future priests of Christ in the spirit of the renewal promoted by this sacred synod, they earnestly exhort those who are preparing for the priestly ministry to realize that the hope of the Church and the salvation of souls is being committed to them. They urge them also to receive the norms of this decree willingly and thus to bring forth most abundant fruit which will always remain.

This minor document does contain details that would have great impact on the Church and its life. The experience of the seminarian is mostly beyond the view of the ordinary Catholic. We see the initial stirrings of discernment in our parishes and other outlets. A student is sent away for three to five years, and comes back a newly minted priest. The studies and the life experiences both render a change in a person. Maybe the changes are more or less obvious.

My reading of Optatam Totius leaves me with some general observations about seminarians, young priests, and how I see their ministry in the Church.

I’ve known several priests at the beginning of their ministry and a few seminarians. I’d assess that their training is substantial, but by no means complete. Most of them admit the real learning happens when they take charge of a parish as pastor. While some might say, “Then the education really begins,” I’d suggest instead it is in the parish where the pastoral outlook meets the book knowledge and a priest makes his own mark, as best he can.

The Vatican II optimism about the application of psychology and other social sciences to ministry is evident.

Striking is the emphasis on a “catholic” approach to ministry. Some St Bloggers, even clergy, are too readily given to shirking this in favor of an “orthodox” approach. The Council naturally assumes loyalty to Church doctrine isn’t even an issue. Maybe that’s an overconfidence we can’t afford. Still, the notion that a priest is trained to have a broad effectiveness in ministry can’t be denied.

The collapse of the seminary system for minors is part of the landscape of the past decades. More often than not, a seminarian has been educated as an undergraduate outside of seminary. It would seem that colleges would provide a significant opportunity for searching for candidates and discerning their vocations. Yet most dioceses ignore or slash funding for student parishes, a trend I found alarming when I served in campus ministry in the mid-90’s.

If this document were rewritten today, I suspect a more intense look at recruiting priest-candidates in non-Catholic colleges, and in the young adult world would be merited. The Church’s failure might be tagged at that most basic level of discernment: the choice to move forward seriously at the first signs of a vocation.

From what I’ve seen of American seminaries, this decree has been more or less well implemented. If the challenge is to steer more good candidates into seminaries, I don’t think the Church has taken that charge too seriously. More often, there’s a sense of entitlement in operation: “We’re Catholics, we’re the one true Church; we deserve more priests … where the heck are they?!”

It takes work.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Optatam Totius: Concluding Our Look at the Formation of Clergy

  1. John Michel says:

    Is the seminarian ever left with the thought of his importance in saying Mass? That without priesthood there is no Mass; without the Mass what good is there for me to go on living a Eucharistic life. It is the priest that makes it possible for me to begin my Eucharistic life through the Mass. More and more I am seeing in priests an annoyance in having to say Mass, in having to get up early enough to say it for those going to work, in the administration of the sacraments, visiting the sick and in burying the dead. Yes they now have deacons to do many of these functions, buth the saying of Mass, hearing confessions, and anointing of the sick remain the responsibility of the ordained priesthood. What kind of spirituality do they receive that makes so many of them being ordained lax in these three major functions of the priesthood? So many are ordained wanting to do the things that laypeople do, party, dance and be in the company of the opposite sex in the evenings as if they were their dates. Does not the spirituality of the seminarian promote the life of Christ as being the goal of the seminarian before ordination. Partying, dancing and being out late in the evenings with the opposite sex sends the wrong signals to both the young priest into thinking that he has the life of a layperson still at his finger tips and needless to say that the signals it sends to the parishioners is that they have a priest that is confused of his identity with the priesthood. We have a seminarian that thinks all of these things are his business and sees no harm with his spirituality in being a good pious priest who is dedicated to the salvific purposes of his ordination the salvation of souls and not to be in conflict with the ways of the layperson in the world.

  2. Todd says:

    “That without priesthood there is no Mass; without the Mass what good is there for me to go on living a Eucharistic life.”

    A troubling statement. It might be more accurate to add that without Christ there is no Mass. Christians all over the world, and through time, have experienced a dearth of ordained clergy, through no fault of their own. The challenge in such situations is that lay people continue to cultivate a holy life, though not perhaps a Eucharistic one, strictly speaking. The object of the liturgy, aside from the worship of God, is the sanctification of the faithful. Sanctification can take place outside of the Eucharist, I suppose. I’d grant it might be more difficult to lack such a tangible, incarnational expression of God’s presence.

    And clergy annoyance? That might be either a personal observation or a fact of the Church. I wouldn’t discount the former, but it might be that the neo-conservative clergy are more attuned to moral issues rather than liturgical ones. Who can say?

    Certainly, a lack of joy on the part of the priest-presider is a problem. imo, it’s a dealbreaker for seminarian discernment. Any person unwilling to dedicate themselves to liturgy shouldn’t be ordained. Period.

  3. gorilla man says:

    Is the seminarian ever left with the thought of his importance in saying Mass? That without priesthood there is no Mass; without the Mass what good is there for me to go on living a Eucharistic life. It is the priest that makes it possible for me to begin my Eucharistic life through the Mass. More and more I am seeing in priests an annoyance in having to say Mass, in having to get up early enough to say it for those going to work, in the administration of the sacraments, visiting the sick and in burying the dead. Yes they now have deacons to do many of these functions, buth the saying of Mass, hearing confessions, and anointing of the sick remain the responsibility of the ordained priesthood. What kind of spirituality do they receive that makes so many of them being ordained lax in these three major functions of the priesthood? So many are ordained wanting to do the things that laypeople do, party, dance and be in the company of the opposite sex in the evenings as if they were their dates. Does not the spirituality of the seminarian promote the life of Christ as being the goal of the seminarian before ordination. Partying, dancing and being out late in the evenings with the opposite sex sends the wrong signals to both the young priest into thinking that he has the life of a layperson still at his finger tips and needless to say that the signals it sends to the parishioners is that they have a priest that is confused of his identity with the priesthood. We have a seminarian that thinks all of these things are his business and sees no harm with his spirituality in being a good pious priest who is dedicated to the salvific purposes of his ordination the salvation of souls and not to be in conflict with the ways of the layperson in the world.

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