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.