By Doug Culp
Everyone has a vocation, or call, to a particular function or station in life. This call comes from God, who created each of us with a specific purpose in mind. Discovering, or discerning, our vocation then becomes the key to a purpose-filled life as we can only truly be fulfilled when we are in harmony with the purpose for which God made us.
Prayer devoted to listening to the stirring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is the most crucial component in this discernment process. Interests, talents, ordinary experiences, family, friends and the church community also can all help us detect the voice of God and discover our true calling in life – if we are open to hearing it and responding to it.
In the process, some will discover that God is calling them to a special life of service to the church as a priest. This call to priesthood is a call to a particular mission of preaching and living the Gospel message. It is an invitation to an imitation of Christ’s total self-giving for the benefit of his people.
The call to priesthood is continually unfolding and deepening. For the person who believes God is calling him to the priesthood, the discovery of what this truly means begins with the decision to enter a seminary.
Life in community best describes the seminary experience. Seminarians live together in dormitories that share much in common with the average university. Life also entails shared community tasks, such as kitchen duty and cleaning community areas. However, community is most experienced during morning and evening prayers, daily Mass and mealtime.
Seminarians also engage the wider church community. Seminarians often will take an active role in a local parish on weekends and spend their summers assigned to a particular parish in their home diocese. These experiences and relationships are important to the seminarians’ emerging priestly identities.
Some seminarians need to complete the two-year “pre-theology” program to ensure they have a solid foundation in philosophy prior to beginning their studies for a master’s of divinity degree. The master’s of divinity degree combines four years of academic study, various practicum courses and “field” work.
Thematically, the seminarian will study systematic theology, scripture, worship, Christian life, church history and pastoral life in order to appropriate the faith of the church. Seminarians will study everything from Christology (the study of who Christ is) and Ecclesiology (the study of who the church is) to canon law and homiletics (preaching) in the classroom.
Seminarians also will have many opportunities for ministry in the field. For example, they will experience Clinical Pastoral Education, usually at the end of their third year of study. C.P.E. is an intensive period of training, typically in a hospital, where the seminarians learn to put their theological and pastoral skills into practice, while working in a team environment with other people who are engaged in ministry.
The seminary is not just about academic study and job training, but the total formation of the seminarian. Once admitted to a seminary program, the seminarian will begin to be “formed” for the priesthood along four pillars: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral. The goal of formation is the development of not just “a well-rounded person, a prayerful person, or an experienced pastoral practitioner but rather [of] one who understands” his development within the full context of his vocation, i.e. his mission and role within Christ’s church (PPF, para 71).
This formation takes place at all times and on various levels. Community life, academic coursework and field education experiences have already been discussed and are all very important components of formation. In addition, seminarians are assigned spiritual directors; attend special workshops, integrating seminars and conferences; and participate in prayerful evenings of reflection.
At every stage of his preparation, the seminarian explores his call to the priesthood and takes note of his deepening formation. He is assisted in this by annual evaluations by the faculty and administrators, peer reviews by his fellow seminarians and regular meetings with his diocese’s vocation director.
Put simply, the entirety of the seminary experience can be viewed as a process of forming a God-centered and other-centered priest via a continuing prayerful dialogue with God and the church.
1 Bishop In unbroken succession from the apostles, a bishop exercises a ministry of preaching and teaching, sanctifying, governing (CCC 1558). As Christ’s vicar, each bishop has the pastoral care of a particular church entrusted to him, but he also serves with all bishops in the Episcopal College, of which the pope is head. The “fullness of the sacrament” of Holy Orders resides in the episcopacy.
2 Priest A minister of God’s word, a minister of the sacraments and a pastoral guide of the community. He exercises his role in communion with the bishop and in union with the presbyterate of the diocese.
3 Deacon A minister of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity (diakonia). He serves in conjunction with the bishop and priests. Two types of deacons exist: a transitional deacon will serve until he is ordained a priest and a permanent deacon is a married or unmarried man, who will remain a deacon. They may baptize, witness a marriage, preach and assist at liturgies and preside at funerals.