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A New Type of Seminarian?

It’s now a little more than three years since the world was introduced to Pope Francis. It has been a fascinating, engaging and, at times, somewhat bumpy ride for many. The world’s increased interest level in the Catholic Church because of Francis has been substantial. In the past three years, Pope Francis seems to have had a noticeable impact on the young men currently entering seminaries in the United States. In a recent article from the National Catholic Reporter, the rector of the Theological College seminary at Catholic University of America, Father Phillip J. Brown, maintains that, while a year ago it was too early to call, he has recently begun to see a “Francis Effect.” Given the importance of seminarian formation, I recommend a read of Fr. Brown’s article, even though I find some of his assessments in need of clarification. Perhaps this is due to the manner in which the article’s author captured or put forth Fr. Brown’s quotes.

Father Brown is careful to note that while nothing in his seminary’s approach to priestly formation has fundamentally changed due to Francis, it is the “attitude” of the new arrivals that has shifted. And, he notes, “This transformation [of attitude] will be felt soon at a parish near you.” On this last point, Brown is certainly right. As these men complete their formation and enter the priesthood in coming years, their “new attitude” will be experienced in the parishes in which they will serve. Even prior to ordination, they will serve as pastoral interns and deacons, working directly with parishioners. So we are likely already seeing the impact of Francis at the parish level, through the men currently studying to be priests. This effect will undoubtedly become increasingly apparent over the next five to ten years.

But what is the change we will see? According to Father Brown, the overarching message of Francis to priests is that they are not to be “policemen” but pastors. The new attitude in his seminarians is actually, then, a potentially new or enhanced understanding of the role of authority in the hierarchy of the Church. Pope Francis has called on ordained ministers to avoid seeking power, focusing instead “smelling more like the sheep” through intimate pastoral ministry. The Church, according to Francis, must look more toward the world and less toward itself. I have little doubt that this call will be heeded in noticeable ways.

Regarding Father Brown’s comment that today’s priest needs to be a pastor first rather than a “policeman,” this does not mean he needs to abandon an exercise of his legitimate pastoral authority to act in persona Christi capitis (“in the person of Christ the Head”), which he received at ordination. Rather, he needs to manifest this God-given authority in a truly self-donative, loving way.

This view harkens to Cardinal Dulles’ discussion in his book Models of Church (which is a primary lens through which I’m commenting on trends in the Church) when he notes that the Church is both “Mystical Communion” and “Institution.” According to Dulles, the Church as Mystical Communion emphasizes the Church as a body of believers; here, the pastor is both the leader and a participant in “fellowship.” This model can help moderate an understanding of the Church as solely an Institution, where its hierarchical, “rule-making” function can be seen as all important.

Father Brown goes on to outline several specific ways this new pastoral emphasis has impacted seminarians’ view of and participation in the Church. He suggests they are more interested in how a “nuanced” understanding of Church teachings can be applied in the everyday lives of Catholics rather than simply stating and defending these teachings. Brown observes that there is, consequently, a diminished “embrace of apologetics.” On this point, I think it’s important to note that a “theology of encounter” is certainly easier than engaging in an apologetic discussion of Church teaching. The latter often involves confrontation, which few prefer over harmonious relationship. That said, our seminarians and their teachers will (or should) surely achieve a proper balance between these two approaches— and, in time, Catholics will experience priests who embrace a “both/and” mode of pastoral ministry.

Surely, a “theology of encounter” has captured the imaginations of many of Catholic leaders, teachers, and evangelists in recent years. I consider myself a member of this group. Though we cannot avoid proclaiming the truths of the Gospel, an “encounter” approach will surely open the hearts of many who otherwise might be closed to the truths of the Gospel. We must ensure, however, that “encounter” does not keep us from engaging in the challenging work of leading people to embrace fully the salvific truths taught by the Church. Conversion of hearts to Christ and his liberating teaching must always be our “endgame.”

Many in the Church are coming to see that a “theology of encounter” is an intelligent and necessary approach to a post-Christian culture, one in which the Faith has, for the most part, not been transmitted to recent generations. In a society where people no longer share common beliefs or values, our priests—and, indeed, all Catholic evangelists, catechists, and leaders—need to find a way to meet individuals where they are in their lives. For decades, many orthodox Catholics have argued that we have been too permissive and unintentional in our faith formation, which has contributed to the confusion and lack of formation that now grips many in the Church. In other words, we have created the very problem which, ironically, now needs to approached with a perceived “liberality” in order to be effective.

As a final point, Brown believes that the new wave of seminarians is less focused on the “sacerdotal” nature of the priesthood, i.e., that priests are “set apart” with particular sacramental powers. I hope this is not the case. (And, again, we likely do not know the full context of Father Brown’s comments here. This is a downside to interviews such as this, where column length often only allows for quick sound bites.) No matter how egalitarian we seek to be, the theological reality is that priests truly are “set apart” by virtue of their ordination and endowed with sacramental authority that is not possessed by the laity. Otherwise, what is the purpose of the sacrament of Holy Orders? If Father Brown’s assessment of the reality in our seminaries now, I think this reality will be a short-lived trend and that, in time, seminarians will come to a more balanced understanding of the “pastoral” and “sacerdotal” aspects of the priesthood.

With a few more years of embracing the Francis approach, I believe our seminarians will both desire to “smell more like the flock” and will recognize that priestly ordination has, in fact, set them apart for special work within the body of Christ. I look forward to watching how the “theology of encounter,” when practiced prayerfully and prudently, helps these new priests reach those whom they have been called to serve.