The only thing many of the men have in common when they begin their first year at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity is their desire to serve God. Along with that desire, they bring diverse backgrounds, experiences and talents, said Father Paul Sirba, who directs spiritual formation at the seminary.
The seminary is a place for these men to discern the nature of God’s call, and for the church to discern if they are called to serve her as priests, added Father Peter Laird, the seminary’s vice rector and director of seminarians.
If they are called to this vocation, it’s the seminary staff’s goal to form the men into good, holy priests, Father Sirba said.
As directed by the U.S. bishops’ document “Program for Priestly Formation,” based on Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation “I Will Give You Shepherds,” the St. Paul Seminary strives to provide holistic formation for its seminarians.
The four formation pillars — spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human — encompass every aspect of a seminarian’s life in a distinct yet unifying way, Father Laird said.
The ‘four pillars’ of formation
• Spiritual formation. Through days of recollection, lectures, retreats and regular prayer, confession and liturgy attendance, each seminarian grows in greater union with God, Father Sirba said.
The men pray the Liturgy of the Hours together twice a day and attend daily Mass. The seminary dedicates Wednesdays specifically to human and spiritual formation by hosting speakers on growing in faith and virtue, Father Sirba said.
Seminarians also meet five times a semester with a spiritual director who helps to guide them to grow in holiness.
• Intellectual formation. Intellectual formation is primarily achieved through each man’s coursework. Each seminarian pursues a master of divinity degree, and some also obtain a master of arts in theology. Seminarians are required to complete 128 credits with courses ranging from “The history of Christian tradition” to “church administration.”
St. Paul Seminary fosters intellectual formation — not academic formation, said Chris Thompson, dean of academic life. Academic formation focuses on developing skills, while intellectual formation is about seeking the truth.
• Pastoral formation. A seminarian’s pastoral formation is the practical application of a seminarian’s overall formation, said Father Tom Kessler, the seminary’s pastoral formation director.
Seminarians learn and practice pastoral skills, such as talking with parishioners, caring for the dying and educating students through several programs. They also volunteer at local charities.
“That’s for a little bit of relief so they don’t forget why they’re doing this,”Father Kessler said.
Summers between academic years offer an opportunity for extended pastoral work. Seminarians spend time serving parishes, as hospital chaplains and immersing themselves in a Spanish-speaking culture, depending on their year of study.
About one-third of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, and that percentage is growing, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Learning to celebrate the sacraments and speak Spanish prepares seminarians for the nation’s changing Catholic culture, Father Kessler said.
During the four years of theology study before ordination, a seminarian is assigned to a “teaching parish,” where he learns about parish life throughout the academic year.
• Human formation. Human formation helps the seminarian grow in self knowledge, Father Laird said. He pointed to the words in “I Will Give You Shepherds,” which say that a priest must mold his personality to be a bridge, rather than an obstacle, for others to meet Jesus.
Deacon Allan Paul Eilen, 49, thinks of spiritual formation and human formation as the “bookends” of the seminary program, he said. Intellectual and pastoral formation fall between them.
Nine months before his priestly ordination, Deacon Eilen feels prepared for ministry, he said. During the time he has studied philosophy and theology at the seminary, he has grown in self-knowledge and virtue, he said.
“Formation is such a privileged time to come to know who you are and are called to be,” he said.
The four pillars of formation are not just for seminarians, he added. All of the faithful are called to seek virtue in all areas of their lives, he said.
Because he has had a strong formation, as a priest he will be able to help others with their own, he added.
St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity
The year-round graduate seminary prepares men for ordination to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church; and it is a graduate school of theology that prepares women and men, lay and ordained, for service and leadership in the church and society.
• Founded: 1894.
• 2008 enrollment: 67 seminarians.
Studying for this archdiocese: 30.
Lay students: 74.
• Total number of alums ordained since 1894: More than 3,000.
St. John Vianney College Seminary
The seminary is part of the four-year undergraduate program at the University of St. Thomas. SJV provides spiritual direction to help seminarians grow in their Catholic faith and vocational discernment. It is the largest undergraduate seminary in the United States.
• Founded: 1968.
• 2008 enrollment: 152.
• Total number of alums ordained since it opened in 1968: 340.
Source: St. Paul Seminary
Over the course of a seminarian’s formation, he changes subtly, said Father Laird, who sees men become more humble and less afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. They gain greater conviction in their faith and acquire a deeper sense of freedom and fulfillment.
“They see the word become flesh,” he said. “That’s a great grace.”
The priests at the seminary provide good role models, said seminarian Erik Lundgren. When he entered St. Paul Seminary, he was academically confident, he said. Three years later, he’s learned that the life of a priest is “way, way more than what’s in your head,” he said.
Lundgren, 25, said he is challenged and inspired by other seminarians’ commitment to formation, such as waking up early enough to make a 6 a.m. holy hour.
“If my day doesn’t start with prayer, and is filled with prayer, and ends with prayer, I can do all the studying in the world and it’s pointless,” he said.
This year, the seminary has 67 seminarians from 14 dioceses; 30 seminarians are from the archdiocese. It has 24 new seminarians this year, which is one of the largest groups in recent history, according to Nancy Utoft, the seminary’s director of community relations.
The St. Paul Seminary accepts men who are at the graduate level of study. Candidates apply for admission through their diocesan vocations director.
Seminarians regularly spend at least four years preparing for ordination. Men who begin seminary without the prerequisite philosophy studies often study for one or two years before beginning theology classes.
Each year, seminarians are evaluated on their formation, Father Laird said. Formation directors identify the seminarians’ strengths and areas for growth. “It should be a positive experience,” he added.
Contemporary seminarian formation looks different than it did before the Second Vatican Council, Father Sirba said.
In the past, more men were in seminary, and the large numbers mitigated individual attention from faculty and staff. Instead of meeting one-on-one with men, seminary formation directors gave general conferences. A seminarian may only have met with a spiritual director in emergency situations, Father Sirba said.
More attention is also given to forming a healthy understanding of priestly celibacy, Father Sirba added. In the year before a seminarian is ordained a transitional deacon, his human formation focuses on celibacy, he said.
A deeper understanding of the human person and Pope John Paul II’s writings on human sexuality have contributed to a greater appreciation of a priest’s celibate commitment and the need to recognize a priest’s sexuality, Father Sirba said.
The clergy sexual abuse scandal has also raised awareness of Western culture’s ills and have provoked seminaries to ask questions about their root causes and how to properly form seminarians, he added.
The scandals have tempered the men joining seminary, Father Sirba said. “They still answer a call, sometimes against the pressures of society that sometimes seems to think that living out this vocation isn’t possible or isn’t healthy,” he said.
The seminary maintains a rigorous screening process and addresses sexuality openly and honestly, he added.
Although the number of men joining the seminary is lower than it was 50 years ago, the number continues to increase, Father Sirba said.
Vatican II called for a deeper understanding of each Christian’s baptismal call — that each person had a responsibility to share his or her gifts with the church, Father Laird said.
“What we want to do is prepare priests who have a good sense of what it means to be priests,” he said. “We are ordained to serve.” The Catholic Spirit