Pope Warns Against Admitting Rigid, Fundamentalist Young Men into Seminary

One of the key elements of the vision of Pope Francis has been the renewal of the priesthood. He continued to reflect on this topic both in a speech and some off the cuff remarks at a conference in Rome to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of two Vatican II documents: “Presbyterorum ordinis” (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests) and “Optatam Totius” (Decree on Priestly Training).

Vatican Insider reports that Pope Francis cautioned those gathered to be very careful in evaluating potential candidates for the priesthood:

The Pope told clergy that they must think twice when a young man “is too confident, rigid and fundamentalist.” Hence, his invitation to them to beware when admitting candidates to the seminary: “There are mentally ill boys who seek strong structures that can protect them,” such as “the police, the army and the clergy.”

Not all “good boys” are psychologically healthy. To emphasize the point, he recounted an eye-popping comment he once heard from a psychiatrist who screened candidates for the priesthood.

These boys are fine until they have settled, until they feel completely secure. Then the problems start. Father, have you ever asked yourself why there are policemen who are torturers?

The importance of a wholesome family background and a formation that fosters the maturity of the whole person were also stressed by the Pope. Priestly formation is directed to both personal sanctity and pastoral service.

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”

Lamenting the fact that bishops are not always accessible to their priests, the Pope challenged bishops to respond to the needs of their priests, communicate with them, and not travel too much. “If you don’t feel like staying in your diocese you should resign,” he said.

By putting the Congregation for Clergy in charge of seminaries, the Pope observed that he is carrying out a reform Benedict XVI wanted to introduce.

You can read the whole story here.

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22 comments

  1. I can just see the headlines in one Catholic corner now: No “faithful Catholics” in seminary.

    That said, this input is equally valuable for us lay people in parish ministry, especially liturgy and music. Do we attend to our own formation as whole persons? Are we prepared to come to peace with our own shortcomings, not hiding them or overcompensating?

    That comment about being dominated by our limits is intriguing.

    And lastly, that comment about accessibility could easily apply to many of us. Are we available for our parishioners? Or do we prefer the company of colleagues in workshops, schools, and places outside of the parish?

    Whenever I read Pope Francis talking about somebody else, I have to caution myself and check to see if what he says applies to me. Often it does.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Excellent observations.

      I remember being in communities where certain priests made periodic reference to themselves in their homilies as wounded healers (Henri Nouwen’s book on the topic dating back to 1972), but I found these references often seemed designed to allow the preacher to remain defined by that construct rather than freed from ego-distraction with it. I suspect Pope Francis is concerned about people, having discerned their limits, allowing themselves to get stuck there, as it were.

  2. So, we should admit loose, modernist young men? This sort of advice is simply a club with which rectors and psychiatrists and others can keep out “THAT type of person” that they happen to dislike — the sort who, e.g., actually believes what the Catechism teaches, or has a more traditional piety. It’s all unhealthy and wrong now, right? Lacking in mercy?

  3. Right, so candidates should be neither rigid nor loose and neither modernist nor traditionalist. Who on earth can be admitted to seminary?
    I suspect that we have, once again, a good idea badly expressed. Presumably the point is that priests should be ministering to the faithful rather than debating doctrine.
    Having said that I wonder if that is all. Should a priest be sufficiently rigid not to renounce his faith if captured by Daesh?

  4. I think that this isn’t about ‘ideas’: modernist/traditionalist etc. It’s about psychological grounding. It’s about the priesthood acting as a ‘strong structure’ for those whose psychology is fundamentally unsound (perhaps through no fault of their own). This isn’t a proper reason to want to be a priest, or a soldier or cop, as was said above.

    There’s a big difference here. The Pope is warning about people who need to use an institutional framework as a support or bulwark in an attempt to provisionally remedy their own pathology. Again, these people may well be drawn to the military or the police for the same reasons.

    This has nothing to do with accommodating a broad spectrum of ideas or values within the Church.

  5. Over-confidence, rigidity, and fundamentalism can take many forms. It can be the priest who is bound and determined to bring enlightenment to those he views as backward and superstitious just as surely as it can be the priest who is bound and determined to inflict whatever his liturgical vision of the parish is, regardless of what the parish wants. The same goes for laity or music directors.

    The good news is being a centered, flexible, non-fundamentalist can also take many forms. I’ve known priests who only celebrate in the Extraordinary form who take care of their people and shepherd their flocks. I’ve known priests who are what I’d consider more than a little loosey-goosey in their liturgical sensibilities who, nevertheless, are shockingly rigid in their insistence on it.

    My tour in Afghanistan taught me the importance of flexibility. Sure, left to my own devices, I want incense, six candles on the altar, and organ music, but I can also find peace with a Eucharist served from the back of a humvee with no candles, no music, and the barest of linens and other holy hardware.

  6. As a formation director for more than 8 years, the issus Pope Francis comments on are real and serious.
    Suggest that some may be reading into his comment and others are taking it out of context or applying to the US only:
    – realiity is that if a formation director or bishop does not have experience in formation; the type of personality that Francis is outlining can create problems and, unaddressed, become an issue for the church, colleagues, bishop/diocese, and the people of God. It is also unfair to the candidate or future priest
    – reality – in too many seminaries around the world, lack of experience or knowledge about human development can allow directors, vocation folks to find this type of personality to be appealing – so, Francis is raising awareness and trying to educate
    – even in the US, for more than 20 years there has been a tendency for these types of personalities to predominate candidate lists and there was a built in bias for this……Francis is trying to swing the pendulum back from one extreme (and yes, there are extremes on both sides of the issue but to just react by casting blame on the other extreme is not helpful in this discussion
    – the goal is to have well developed candidates and priests who are prepared to serve the people of God (not to try to score points on the liberal-conservative chart, Peter)

    1. @Bill deHaas:
      Thank you for the groundedness of your comments on the seminary issue. i would have been the better for a more manly formation than the emphasis of “being holy”. I made my mistakes but I would do it all again and am now a happily retired priest of 76 with a stronger faith than I ever had. I am a recovering “pleaser” and can live with my stupid mistakes and decisions.
      May your comments take root in spite of the church’e tendency to be secretive and dishonest.

  7. I think the observation by the Pope should give the Church pause.

    Todd # 1…coming to peace with our own shortcomings allows ministers to pastorally meet those in others. MInisters who meet any shortcomings with “confidence, rigidity and fundamentalism” without peace will force others to define their value before God with those same attributes. Thank you for your observation.

    Loose modernist young men usually do not seek out the seminary or an ordered life. I find they are generally not successful in most endeavors. But Peter #3 to equate modernist young men with seminarians who do not believe is playing into the reason Pope Francis can make the initial observation.

  8. I have seen a good number of priests come out of seminary with a rigid view of the world, a view so constrained that it rejects the insights of their professors and of older priests, whom they cheerfully write off as ‘modernist’. They group pretty much everyone into ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretics’. They obsess about liturgical correctness, primarily as it applies to them and to their ontological superiority.

    And then, sometimes, something wonderful happens: these newly made priests get assigned to a parish, and life with people begins to work its magic. In case after case, they begin to widen their point of view. Homilies that parroted the twaddle recirculated on clerical blogs and published in popular Catholic presses start to become reflective. Rigid judgements give way to thoughtfulness. Shrillness deepens into dialogue.

    It is like watching a wine mature. As with wine, maturation doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes it never takes place. You can easily end up with vinegar. But when it’s good, it’s very good.

    Robert Kegan, the Harvard psychologist, has described the path of this adult development in some detail. Pope Francis summed it up beautifully: “A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord.”

    Kegan’s research suggests that only a small fraction of the adult population gets to this place. But isn’t that what we need from priests in parish service?

    Seminaries and bishops should concentrate on accelerating this process of development – the Jesuits seem to have a gift for doing this – and on removing forces that inhibit it.

    Clerical blogging, I think, can be a potent developmental retardant. It’s great for sharing homilies or conferences, less so as an online outlet for grandiosity and narcissism. I wonder what Pope Francis would say about clerical bloggers?

  9. “Loose modernist young men usually do not seek out the seminary or an ordered life. I find they are generally not successful in most endeavors.”

    You’re casting a wide net; and yet I have no idea what you’re hauling in. Who exactly are these unsuccessful loose modernist men?

  10. Yeah I put an ad on a dating site recently: “old unsuccessful uptight modernist man seeks…oh, never mind”.

  11. The confessional is often more telling of priestly rigidity. My personal custom is to make the sign of the cross with the priest and then immediately confess my sins. I often omit “Bless me”, and most priests go along with the omission to the point where I suspect it is now optional. Once I went to confession. Knelt, made the sign of the cross, but did not say “Bless me”. The confessor flipped out since I didn’t say “Bless me”. He claimed it was an indispensable part of the rite. If I were a priest, I wouldn’t skip a beat. I’d just keep going with the reconciliation rite. Now a priest getting upset over a penitent who doesn’t say “Bless me” is an example of priestly rigidity.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      The confessor was wrong. “Bless me etc” was the invariable beginning of the pre-conciliar rite of penance, but the 1973 Rite of Penance is supposed to start with the sign of the cross and “In the name of the Father etc”, even though most penitents still use the old formula. I can only hope that the confessor mentioned the sin of anger in his next confession.

  12. Jonathan Day,

    I agree, newly ordained priests receive (their most?) important and lasting formation within parish communities, and we need to remember that and receive it as mission. I admit that I was shocked several years ago by the first young priest who was assigned to our parish, filled with near distain for our longtime pastor and fixin’ to set us all straight. Our pastor’s general response then was “just love him” and to encourage many of us to grow in our role as “formators.” This perspective was transformative. Most important was to listen deeply, pick your battles, and not to take offense – much like parenting teenagers into adulthood. Over time we watched him grow into his vocation and ourselves tranformed into a spiritually richer community with a wider embrace. We all need to mature into our lives and rarely do this in isolation.

  13. Linda, and all,

    I don’t usually get involved in these things, but my music director sent me the link and I got caught up in it. Linda, I think you are wise. And I’ve never heard a parishioner, let alone staff, speak with such patience and compassion. You must have a good pastor to say “just love him.”

    Really, what the Holy Father is talking about isn’t liberal/conservative, old Mass/new Mass at all (although in my diocese, and probably all, these are real issues). But he is talking about how the Church – for too long – has been a safe place for people to run under the radar, almost “protected” by status (largely unearned but) granted by Orders. As a priest, if you don’t want to deal with people, you work the schedule so you don’t have to. You can be as busy or lazy as you want, there really isn’t anyone to say otherwise. Priests seem to have this stereotype of being overworked, and it is easy to use that to your advantage. In the same way, if you have a problem that would prevent you from keeping a real job – once ordained, it is possible to go unnoticed. If noticed, people are less likely to call you out because of a respect for the priesthood that is ingrained in the culture. And, finally, if you have a serious deficiency or even pathology (that often finds its expression in individuation through extreme or rigid preferences) these are also somehow allowed.

    It is, however, always and everywhere true that an encounter with love will transform. Priests who have made too many decisions before living in the context of a loving community will change once they encounter it, I believe. Saint John of the Cross says it best: “Where there is no love, let me put love, and there I will find love.” Keep loving.

  14. As part of the seminary application, I would favorably look upon candidates who have about 8-10 hr/wk of volunteer work for at least the past 2 years. If they haven’t learnt by then on how to set aside time & energy for serving others, then how is the seminary with all its classes, etc.,supposed to develop these habits in the candidates?? Waiting until the seminarians serve an internship in the parish is a bit late as well…

  15. Kay – agree but the internships models were inserted because the older models barely allowed for any type of interaction or development along these lines. Too often, the seminary followed the old French School (deBerulle, Vincent dePaul, Olier) and focused on spiritual growth, etc. For years there were debates about how best to do this – some argued that this required that a seminary be separate from the world; a place of meditation, quiet, etc. Others wanted to move the model to being within active universities, communities, and allow (force) candidates to live and experience the real world. Will leave it up to you to make a judgment on which model is best today?
    (in some ways this is also related to the debate at VII about priesthood – do you follow a cultic or a servant model?)

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