The Secretary for Seminaries of the Congregation for Clergy in the Vatican, Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, has warned the French bishops against “spiritual worldliness” in the training of their seminarians, calling instead for the “best priests” of their respective French dioceses to be allocated to houses of formation in order to educate “missionary disciples”.
“Rome has made this request because we have observed that priests who have had a particularly meticulous and thorough formation inspire others to become priests through their witness,” said Archbishop Wong at a meeting this past Saturday in the Church of Saint Bernadette in Lourdes.
According to La Croix, one of the issues on the agenda of the French bishops’ fall assembly, which concludes this Wednesday 8th, is how to ensure the future of the country’s seminaries in the midst of a sharp decline in vocations.
According to a report given to the bishops last Friday by Father Jean-Luc Garin, rector of the Seminary of Lille and director of the National Council of Seminaries, the number of seminarians in France has fallen from 976 in 2000 to 662 in 2016, a drop of 30%. To stem the tide, Patrón Wong suggested to the French bishops that, other than posting the “best priests” to seminaries, what is also needed is more of a balance between the intellectual and missionary aspects of priestly formation. “A challenge, especially for Europe”, acknowledged the Vatican official.
Avoiding “spiritual worldliness”
“If the educators are worried about this, it is perhaps because they themselves are not good missionary disciples”, Patrón Wong added. “But if a priest is not trained to be a good pastor, all his intellectual knowledge won’t be of much use”. The Mexican-born archbishop explained that, in the thought of Pope Francis, for a priest to desire a surplus of intellectual as opposed to pastoral knowledge is for him to have fallen prey to the sin of “spiritual worldliness”. The “new vision” in priestly formation, according to Patrón Wong, is rather in the very image of Pope Bergoglio: “the priest as a father, not an intellectual”.
Reactions to Patrón Wong’s comments were mixed among the French bishops as they turn their attention, during at least four sessions of their assembly, to the development of a country-wide Ratio Nationalis, a series of directives on the formation of seminarians based on the worldwide Ratio Fundamentalis released by the Vatican in December last year.
“The Ratio Nationalis must develop objectives for the disciple and the pastor,” said Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris.“But we must maintain some kind of universal or even national normativity of resources because right now we are in a situation of such scarcity of candidates for the priesthood that, at worst, there won’t be any more seminaries. We will have the best – but they may not actually exist!”
“Over the past thirty years, the situation has changed markedly,” added Bishop Jérôme Beau, an auxiliary bishop of Paris and president of the Episcopal Commission for Ordained Ministers and Laypeople on Ecclesial Mission (CEMOLEME). “Great changes have taken place. For example, the propaedeutic year (before beginning seminary) is becoming more common and seminarians are increasingly being prepared to serve in dioceses where there are fewer and fewer priests in active ministry,” he said.
“If a priest is not trained to be a good pastor, all his intellectual knowledge won’t be of much use”
While I certainly sympathize with the gist of Archbishop Patrón Wong’s message to the French bishops, I wonder how useful it is to draw such a sharp distinction between a “father” priest and an “intellectual” priest. The Ratio Fundamentalis speaks of four dimensions to be fostered in formation in the person of the seminarian – the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral – but, more than that, explains that the purpose of their intellectual formation is to provide them with “the rational tools needed in order to understand the values that belong to being a pastor, to make them incarnate in daily life, and to transmit the content of the faith appropriately” (89).
The new Ratio Fundamentalis goes on to quote from John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (1992) to make the point that the intellectual formation of candidates for the priesthood is justified by four particular challenges in the world today: “religious indifference”, the “legitimate demands of human reason” as spurred on by ever greater scientific and technological discoveries, “pluralism” both in the Church and in wider society, and the human hunger for “critical discernment” (153). Or again, the Ratio Fundamentalis argues that the future priest has a need for an intellectual component to his training to enable him “to enter into fruitful dialogue with the contemporary world” (116), and to help him “listen profoundly to the Word, and also to the ecclesial community, in order to learn how to read the signs of the times” (117).
I doubt, for all that, that Archbishop Patrón Wong meant to denigrate the intellectual formation of seminarians. His words, though, to the effect that “if a priest is not trained to be a good pastor, all his intellectual knowledge won’t be of much use” sit very uncomfortably with me.