Pope Francis on Formation of Seminarians

The Italian Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica has published the transcription of Pope Francis’ conversation with 28 Polish Jesuits in Krakow, Vatican Insider reports. He emphasized the importance of discernment for future priests amidst the complexities of life:

Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore acting within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, disregarding concrete situations: ‘you must do this, you must not do this’. Then, when the seminarians become priests, they find themselves in difficulty when they have to offer guidance to so many young people and adults.

The pope emphasized attention to concrete life, with all its shades of gray:

We need to form future priests not by teaching them general and abstract ideas, which are clear and distinct, but about this keen discernment of spirits so that they can help people in their concrete life. We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of gray prevail in life. We must teach them to discern in this grey area.

Francis noted that spiritual direction is a lay charism as well as a priestly charism, but stressed its importance for priests:

Spiritual direction is not solely a priestly charism, but also lay, it is true. I repeat,however,  that this needs to be taught above all to priests, helping them in the light of the Exercises in the dynamic of pastoral discernment, which respects the law but knows how to look beyond.

Reader Vatican Insider’s story here.


  1. Few people are more conscious of their flaws and imperfections than parish priests. But Jesus said that charity, not laws and rules, covers a multitude of sins. Over the last 43 years as a priest I have encountered the loving providence of God in the countless men, women, and children who have confided to me the stories of their lives. Very few of them come with high confidence that they qualify for a place in God’s kingdom, but I can tell you they leave with their hopes buoyed by the Good News of God’s mercy. There certainly are things that are right and wrong, good and bad, true and false, but we live literally betwixt and between those polarities seeking grace and falling short. How wonderful it is that God counts us worthy, with all our shortcomings, to live in his presence to serve him. Some of the younger priests seem to think that external pieties of various kinds is a substitute for the hard work of seeking holiness through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I know they have good hearts, but they picked up some things in seminary that are less hopeful than showing people their own vulnerability….that they don’t in fact have all the answers and not even all of the questions. May all heed the recommendation of Pope Francis to teach future priests the critically important gift of discernment.

  2. Jack, at least in the culture of the USA, and possibly Europe as well, the capacity to accept and be comfortable with (and even rejoice in) one’s own vulnerability is sorely lacking for many reasons. In spite of the lesson of the Crucifixion, we are hell bent on being strong, believing that strength is our salvation. Bonhoeffer wrote that the weakness and suffering of Christ was and remains ” a reversal of what the religious man expects from God.” (quoted in Fleming’s “The Crucifixion.”)

  3. “The shades of gray prevail in life.”

    Reminds me of that book and film, “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

    Not that I’ll ever read/watch it.

  4. PK: If you haven’t and wouldn’t read it (and neither have nor would I) and therefore don’t really know what it’s about, then why would you attach it to a quote from the pope? Simply because there’s a shared word or phrase? That seems quite lacking coming from someone in academia. Why not Earl Grey tea, or the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit? What exactly in the world did you expect to contribute to the discussion from your offering here? Just a gratuitous dig?

  5. Pope Francis is *not* saying there is no black and white. He is saying there is not ONLY black and white. That is consistent with what our Lord preached and practiced: he didn’t shrink from drawing strong boundaries, but he also didn’t shrink from scrambling what seemed to be strong dichotomies.

    While avoidance of strong boundaries is not healthy, neither is avoidance of seeming to scramble dichotomies. In the case of the latter, what comes to mind is the much-observed learning about human behavior in families or other close groups with active addicts – and how a neuralgic attachment to black-and-white thinking to the exclusion of gray often proves to be a red flag of people who lived in such groups.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      …[our Lord] didn’t shrink from drawing strong boundaries, but he also didn’t shrink from scrambling what seemed to be strong boundaries.

      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” I’ve always found this quite challenging and confusing.

      Anyway, this post leaves out the golden nugget of the conversation: that Brother Bergoglio got a tonsure haircut during his formation!

      Didn’t know Jesuits did that.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn:It was n the 50’s when he entered so I would imagine things were different then. Also I could not tell from his comments if this occurred in his first year in seminary when he was in the diocesan seminary. He went over to the Jesuits the next year.

      2. @Reyanna Rice#8:

        He said he did it during the first year of theology.

        So, yes, as a Jesuit in the 60s, and yes, it was a different time then.

        @Lee Bacchi #10:


        My thoughts exactly.

  6. “I’ve always found this quite challenging and confusing.”

    Indeed: my sense has long been that, if you think can rest comfortably on one side or the other, you’ve missed the point. (Kind of like my favorite homily, about the parable of the pharisee and the publican: if you’re thanking God you’re not like that pharisee, you’ve missed the point.) The challenge is to a human habit to desire that safe resting place or home. Instead, we have the wonderful example in Hebrews 11 of Abraham and Sarah only saluting their ultimate destination from afar, while continuing the journey on faith (and, impliedly, hope). The desire is, of course, good; but it’s the incompletion that is God’s tool for really getting use there. So we have to trust God in that incompletion and cultivate hope for completion in God.

  7. “Pope Francis is *not* saying there is no black and white. He is saying there is not ONLY black and white.”

    Francis is speaking in the context of pastoral guidance. In ‘concrete life’, our situations are complex and muddled. Abstract, or general, moral principles might not address the particularities of each concrete situation. So discernment is required. Discernment focuses on the immediate living situation, which is bound to be messy.

    Moreover, among other things, discernment has to do with identifying where each individual is in their spiritual development. Requiring that someone adhere strictly to the law when they don’t have understanding or capacity is bound to be self defeating. It may be that sanctification is a process more akin to chess–first do this, which then allows you to do that–rather than a static fiat that imposes the heavy stone of “you must do this, you must not do that”.

  8. For the Jesuits, since Bergolio joined, there has been a renewed push for the Spiritual Exercises. Thank you Pedro Arrupe SJ. If one participates in the Exercises regularly and honestly, the presence of God moves one past rigidity because one enters the life of Christ. In reading the Scriptures (thanks Elizabeth Ahn) and participating in the law, it seems that Jesus’ frustration with the law was the rigidity in which it was enforced.

    The Year of Mercy and and Pope Francis’ renowned ability to see the person through the law has been plain enough to see since he started his Pontificate. His challenge to Jesuits in formation would follow his understanding of God’s mercy. For that, I am grateful.

  9. “Discernment of spirits” rather than “clear and distinct ideas” – in other words, Ignatius of Loyola rather than Rene Descartes.

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