Pope Francis on Seminarians: What Does He Want?

Pope Francis has repeatedly railed against the problems he sees in some conservative and traditionalist priests and seminarians. He has strong words about the need for better seminary formation.

What does Pope Francis want? What does he think needs to change?

I think Fr. Richard Gula, author of many works on ministry and longtime seminary teacher, is on to the answer. More about that below.

But first, let’s review some of the things we’ve heard Pope Francis say on the topic.

Francis has said that the training of priests must be a

work of art, not a police action…We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.

He told clergy that they must think twice when a young man

is too confident, rigid and fundamentalist.

They should 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.

At World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, speaking to Polish Jesuits, Francis complained,

Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations.

To counteract this, the Pope exhorted his Jesuit confreres to work with priests and seminarians, specifically to teach them discernment and the art of accompanying people:

I repeat, you must teach this 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 go beyond.

We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black.The shades of grey prevail in life. We must them teach to discern in this gray area.

In a recent conversation with Jesuits, Francis said this:

I note the absence of discernment in the formation of priests. We run the risk of getting used to seeing things in “black or white” when it comes to what is legal. We are rather closed, in general, to discernment. One thing is clear: today, in a certain number of seminaries, a rigidity that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced. And that is dangerous, because it can lead us to a conception of morality that has a casuistic sense.

Strong words, those.

I had all this in mind as I recently read a passage by Fr. Richard Gula, SS, on fitness for ministry. In Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers, Gula writes this:

[W]e are not fit for ministry if we cannot relate – that is, if we show no signs of having sustained friendships, are careless about boundaries, are arrogant or quarrelsome, or if our style of relating is to control, intimidate, exploit, manipulate, demean, or shame. Nor should anyone be a candidate for ministry who is ideologically or emotionally rigid, aloof, passive, defensive, argumentative, authoritarian, selfish, dismissive, or resistant to learning.

Rather, we ought to manifest a fundamental openness to people and ideas, be hospitable and affable, nondefensive, flexible, capable of collaborating, compassionate, desiring justice, and able to move beyond our own interests in order to be ready to serve others. From my years of experience in seminary formation, I have concluded that seminarians come to the seminary with their relational habits well in place. The seminary cannot do much to get seminarians to acquire the habits needed to have life-giving, satisfying, supportive relationships. Consequently, the diocese should not accept candidates who have not already manifested a history of healthy relationships. (pp. 13-14)

gulaI think Gula has given us a pretty good answer to our question, and fleshes out very well what Francis wants in priest, in seminarians, and in seminaries that form candidates for ordained ministry.

I haven’t spoken with Fr. Gula or with Pope Francis about this. But here’s my suggestion: go read everything you can by Richard Gula on ministry. I think he’s on the same wavelength as the pope.



  1. Thank you for this !
    I have met Fr. Gula. He presented a workshop when I was doctoral student at Fordham University. Just Ministry is a terrific resource. It is recommended reading in all my courses!

  2. Coming from a Lutheran Synod that has one seminary forming Pastors in the model of Francis and one in the model of Benedict, I am observing this with great interest.

  3. I have returned from a wedding ceremony in a very beautiful Presbyterian church. The minister is good friends with the bride, and also knows the groom well. She gave a succinct but pertinent homily. This homily demonstrated a faculty with Scripture that focused precisely on the affective needs of the new couple.

    Contrast this perceptive minister with some of the priests I have known. One priest I have known wants nothing to do with weddings. He prefers to let the bride and groom sort matters for themselves. He is content to walk out on the wedding day, open the Ritual, and play sacramental dispenser. This mentality appears to contradict Pope Francis’s ideal for a well-adjusted seminarian and later priest. The nuptial Mass is not a chantry Mass! I would think it would be a good idea for the presiding priest to sit down with the couple at least once and find out more about them, not in a cursory fashion but with plenty of listening.

  4. Imparting techniques of constant discernment and daily examination of conscience – important in the formative years. Then it all about finding time to practice.

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