The major documents guiding the formation of Roman Catholic priests, permanent deacons, and lay ministers all speak of different dimensions of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Human formation concerns the nature of being a mature, integrated human person, who can be a bridge rather than an obstacle to others seeking God. Spiritual formation concerns being attuned to growing in right relationship with God and neighbor, and so touches on practicalities of prayer and morality, among other topics. Intellectual formation deals with the concrete knowledge of the faith and tradition needed to serve well, particularly including foundations in philosophy and theology. Pastoral formation, then, is about gaining ministerial skills needed to be able to serve others well, such as the ability to preside gracefully, or the ability to listen and be present to grief.
As a staff member in residence at a seminary and school of theology, I have ample opportunity to observe students as they grow in these areas. At the start of a new academic year, those recently advanced to new levels take on new tasks at liturgy. Some come to them naturally. Others tend to be a bit more self-conscious or clumsy, at least for a while. It seems that human formation, in particular, affects the ability to do the spiritual and pastoral duties of liturgy well, and this seems worth further reflection.
The Program of Priestly Formation says of human formation:
The qualities to be fostered in a human formation program are freedom, openness, honesty and flexibility, joy and inner peace, generosity and justice, personal maturity, interpersonal skills, common sense, aptitude for ministry, and growth in “moral sensibility and character.” … Growth in self-awareness and sound personal identity are the hallmarks of a healthy personality that establishes a secure basis for the spiritual life. (86-87, including quotation of a standard from the Association of Theological Schools)
In regard to human formation, the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States proposes:
Deacons, above all, must be persons who can relate well to others. This ability flows from an affective maturity that “presupposes… the victorious struggle against their own selfishness.” …. Human formation aims to enhance the personality of the minister in such a way that he becomes “a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, formation processes need to be structured so as to nurture and encourage the participants “to acquire and perfect a series of human qualities which will permit them to enjoy the trust of the community, to commit themselves with serenity to the pastoral ministry, to facilitate enounter and dialogue.” (108-109, quoting from the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons)
Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the U.S. Bishops’ document on formation of lay ecclesial ministers, says this:
Human formation seeks to develop the lay ecclesial minister’s human qualities and character, fostering a healthy and well-balanced personality, for the sake of both personal growth and ministerial service… Human formation, meant to lead lay ecclesial ministers toward greater maturity as adults and as ministers of the Church, includes the following:
A basic understanding of self and others that can help lay ecclesial ministers relate more authentically with God and others.
Psychological health, marked by integrity, appropriate interpersonal boundaries, and the abilty to honor and safeguard the trust that people place in them as Church ministers….
Ability to learn from both praise and criticism, receiving and assessing both with honesty and equanimity….
A genuine respect and concern for others, rooted in the example of Jesus and the Church’s teaching of the Gospel of Life and on the dignity of the human person… (pp. 36-37)
How do such standards for human formation play out in liturgical life? I see it in the demonstrated ability to be at peace with oneself and to connect with others appropriately. The hospitality minister who looks genuinely delighted to see and greet those arriving to mass is secure in his own identity and is ready to welcome others. As one arriving, in his presence I feel wanted and look forward to being part of the gathering. The prepared, relaxed cantor shows her own human formation when she makes no unnecessary show in reverently approaching the ambo, and provides just enough gentle gesture to bring the congregation into song. In her presence I do not feel I am watching a stage production or a robot, but I am sharing with her in common worship, a natural human response to encounter with God. Acolytes with solid human formation are attentive to but not distracted by the presence of those in both the sanctuary and the nave. They are reverent but also relaxed in their duties. The lector who proclaims the Word with expression, who desires that Scripture be heard in its power, is concerned not only for his or her own “getting through the task,” but for the genuine opportunity to connect Christ and the hearts of these people at this moment. Ministers with a solid human formation bring a warmth to their presence at liturgy. You know a real, lovable human person is present. The person is a bridge, not an obstacle.
On the flip side, a lack of human formation makes itself known particularly when ministers or congregants adopt body language that is inattentive or closed to the other. We see this in sloppy execution or distraction, implying a lack of concern for what others see. We also see it in prolonged or overly pious gestures of reverence that suggest the time is only about one’s personal encounter with God, and not a communal experience. Facial expressions may or may not acknowledge the presence of the other. In recent years it seems that hands held in a sometimes rigid “prayer position” have made inroads into the everyday. While this gesture seems appropriate for moments such as approaching the sacrament, held as a default “resting position,” used when proclaiming the Word, or adopted for photos outside of liturgy altogether, it sometimes can come off as a showy prop, a physical barrier between the minister and the people.
The liturgy is replete with signs, symbols, and gestures meant to indicate particular things. However, body language also speaks at a fundamental human level. It can communicate being comfortable with oneself and others, or a felt need for self-protection. It can communicate being at peace with God and humanity, or a rigidity belying an undercurrent of judgment, or a fear of being wrong. Reverence does not exclude the possibility of warmth or expressions of humanity. When we come to the well-prepared liturgy, we are invited to encounter both God and the other in grace, with peace. We are called to be transformed in Christ. Even in his glory, Christ never loses his humanity.