On Vulnerability and Self-Disclosure in Priestly Formation

Thoughts for Seminarians & Formators

By some accounts, millennials—the cultural cohort of young adults born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s—are the “vulnerability generation”, using their struggles, flaws, and personality quirks to their advantage, to connect with others and find acceptance. On this view, most Millennials are an open book, whether in the workplace or in social media. Their mantra is ‘Be yourself’ and their vulnerability often affords them an exhilarating sense of connection with others.

By other accounts, millennials stereotypically struggle to share feelings. They generally prefer, knowingly or not, to medicate their emotional wounds rather than externalize them, and they are often paralyzed at the prospect of being genuinely, emotionally vulnerable with others. On this view, their genuine “self” is elusive, their interior emotional world is perplexing, and attempting to reveal it to others can be a bewildering and even terrifying challenge.

The explosion of popular interest over the past decade in “emotional intelligence” (or EQ, the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships) would seem to lend support to the latter view. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, co-authors of the bestselling Emotional Intelligence 2.0, observe:

Despite the growing focus on EQ, a global deficit in understanding and managing emotions remains. Only 36 percent of the people we tested are able to accurately identify their emotions as they happen. This means that two thirds of us are typically controlled by our emotions and are not yet skilled at spotting them and using them to our benefit.1

Such emotional illiteracy has become particularly apparent in the workplace in the years that immediately followed the older millennials’s entrance into the job market. Emotional illiteracy can ultimately cause havoc in the workplace, impacting productivity, employee relationships, job satisfaction, teamwork, and ultimately a business’s bottom line. Hence, the growing cultural interest in EQ over the past decade.

So which is it? Have millennials learned to capitalize on their emotional vulnerability, or are they hapless at being genuinely vulnerable?

Perhaps it is a bit of both—but understood in the proper contexts.

Millennials will no doubt make forays into their emotional world, giving a selected set of significant others glimpses into their interiority. Paradoxically, and simultaneously, they will often be keeping a lid tightly closed on their true self. And lacking the gratification that selective vulnerability can offer—a “like” on social media, a sense of connecting with others—Millennials often find themselves paralyzed when it comes right down to being vulnerable in other, less gratifying interpersonal settings. Fear, or the simple inability to articulate what’s going on inside, the lack of awareness of their own feelings, or fear of allowing themselves to fully experience their interior states, can be the result of years of self-filtering, performing, and using social-media as a way to shield themselves from the encounter with the true self.

Years of work in seminary formation have shown me that this is often the case with millennial seminarians—and it is a major obstacle to a fruitful formation process in preparation for the priesthood.

Transparency in the Seminary: Sine qua non for effective formation
Transparency can be understood as the act of intentionally exposing to another some aspect of my interior world, some very personal information about myself, especially when such exposure leaves me open to some degree of emotional duress. The act of exposing this to someone in a deliberate attempt at transparency leaves one emotionally vulnerable—in a state of vulnerability. “Vulnerable” comes from the Latin word: vulnus, orwound.” To be vulnerable in this sense means to expose oneself to the possibility of being wounded emotionally. Yet recent decades of reflection on the formation of men for the priesthood have shown that just such vulnerability, in deliberate acts of transparent honesty between a seminarian and the formation team, is an essential element for a fruitful formation process.

The newly updated guidelines from the Congregation for the Clergy on priestly formation—the Ratio Fundamentalis—emphasizes, through and through, that gradual, progressive self-disclosure and transparency with the formation team are essential components of the formation process:

In the process of formation, it is necessary that the seminarian should know himself, and let himself be known, relating to the formators with sincerity and transparency. Personal accompaniment, which has docibilitas to the Holy Spirit as its goal, is an indispensable means of formation (Ratio, 45).

The Ratio foresees this self-disclosure happening by means of “regular and frequent conversations with formators…” (Ratio, 46), while also acknowledging that the intended docility to the Holy Spirit through the process of accompaniment will only be possible if there is an attitude of “mutual trust” (Ratio, 47) between seminarian and formator.

Internal and External Fora
Consequently, effective priestly formation in today’s ecclesial context presupposes that seminarians and formators together not insist too rigidly on the distinction between “internal forum” and “external forum.”2 In the context of seminary formation, the “external forum” refers, for example, to information about the seminarian that may be used and referred to at the level of evaluations (including reports to the seminarian’s Ordinary), discussions and deliberations about the seminarian’s progress in formation by the formation team, and votes on recommending advancement to higher stages of formation and to Orders.

The “internal forum” in the formation context refers to the domain of knowledge that is privately maintained, at least in part, between a seminarian and his spiritual director.3 Seminarians are expected to give their spiritual directors access to deeply personal knowledge about themselves, with a maximum degree of self-disclosure. Yet, both are to keep in mind that “issues of human formation that properly belong to the external forum are not limited to the spiritual direction relationship for their resolution.”4

It is noteworthy that the new Ratio itself, without denying the legitimacy of this distinction between fora,or the validity of their use in the context of seminary formation, seems to have been written with the deliberate intent of eschewing their use almost completely in the text5 The Ratio, on the contrary, reads as if presupposing that seminarians and formators freely and regularly communicate on an interpersonal level—whether that be between the seminarian and his spiritual director, or with his formation advisor—in adequate, yet very personal degrees of self-disclosure, whether the matters in question are of a “private” nature, whether they be deemed matters “of conscience,” or not.

What constitutes an adequate or appropriate degree of self-disclosure, whether with one’s spiritual director, or one’s formator-mentor, will depend in large part on a mix of generosity, courage, goodwill, and the particular circumstances. It will also be something of a matter of prudence and common sense. For example, while it would be prudent and responsible for a seminarian to share with his formator the fact that he has been struggling again with viewing pornography, he certainly need not enter into all the details of that struggle as he would with his spiritual director.

So just because an issue arises initially as a “matter of conscience,” it is not—for that reason—to be understood as a matter to be restricted exclusively to the internal forum. Nor are issues of human formation that “properly belong to the external forum” to be understood as merely those matters that are of a public nature in the seminary environment, and that are subject to the evaluation and critique by the advisors: (e.g., academic performance, liturgical ministry, performance of house jobs, etc.).

Normally, in the course of formation, there will arise any number of quite personal issues that can, and must, be brought prudently and responsibly to the knowledge of those formators who exercise their formation roles in the external forum. Motivated by love for the Church, and a genuine desire to submit himself to the Church’s judgment as to his suitability as a candidate for orders, the seminarian should, from time to time, bring to the external forum those personal issues which bear on his relationship with seminarians, staff, and faculty; issues of personal temperament, health, and mental well-being; issues of personal culpability, irresponsibility, immaturity, or dishonesty; issues of vocational discernment, and so on.

Seminarians Get It
At present, I would argue that the vast majority of seminarians in the United States today understand this necessity. They understand that their formation process requires of them an appropriate degree of self-disclosure and transparency on the part of the seminarian, not only with his spiritual director, but also with his formation advisor-mentor. They know that transparency is their friend.

While the temptation “to submarine” (to hide crucial aspects of self from the formation team) remains an ever-present danger in the seminary, by and large, seminarians understand the devastating consequences that the lack of transparency during the period of formation can wreak on the Church, on themselves, and their families.

Every year in the United States, approximately 450 to 500 men are ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Within the first five years of ordination, a certain percentage of those men fall into vocational crisis: they fall in love with a religious education teacher, they develop a problem with alcohol, they find themselves disoriented and disappointed with a life that was not of their imagining, or they just convince themselves they “need to take some time off.” Some end up being sent for counseling. Many of these end up requesting a return to the lay state. For the parishioners they served, for their classmates, their presbyterate, and obviously for themselves, such outcomes can be devastating.

In the vast majority of these cases, these men had wounds that they never dealt with adequately during their years of formation. They concealed areas of personal brokenness, not only from the seminary formation team, but from their own spiritual director, and ultimately from themselves.

Transparency in the Seminary: Self-knowledge and Fidelity
Today’s seminarian understands quite well that appropriate self-disclosure is a key ingredient to a healthy and happy life, no matter what one’s vocation. There is no friendship, no love, no genuine connection with others, no emotional intimacy without vulnerability.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make the project of progressive self-disclosure any easier.

Seminarians know they are in a fish bowl. Theirs is an environment of constant evaluation. Trust is difficult. Transparency in the formation environment obviously carries with it many risks. The seminary formators are human instruments, with their own weaknesses and imperfections. To open up to a formator-mentor, baring one’s own imperfections, talking about a struggle, sharing about one’s own weaknesses, opening oneself to advice and guidance—it all carries the risk of being hurt somehow. Will the formator really understand? Will what I am sharing about myself somehow get misunderstood, misconstrued, or exaggerated? Or is it that I fear being forced to look squarely at a real and on-going area of struggle in my life, something that in fact might upend the dream of priesthood?

A danger in seminary is that a candidate might have a long history of shielding himself from his own wounds, or at least of convincing himself that he has already adequately dealt with those issues, when the truth might be quite the opposite.

The bishop, as we all understand, has the duty and, therefore, the right to know the man he is ordaining. Bishops, in general, rely on the evaluation of candidates to the priesthood provided to them by the seminary formation team through the rector.

Seminarians, for their part, are invited by the Church to acknowledge this reality, and the role of the formation team, with humility and generous interior detachment before God’s will. The seminarian has a positive moral obligation to make himself known, inside and out, during the course of his formation, with appropriate degrees of self-disclosure to both his spiritual director, and to the seminary formation team.

For a seminarian deliberately to conceal those internal realities—psychological issues, unresolved past emotional traumas, severe struggles with chastity—or any other personal aspect that could present itself, in the Church’s judgment, as disqualifying him for ordained ministry, is, of course, a grave, moral aberration.

It goes without saying that such deliberate concealment immediately raises grave questions about the genuineness of a man’s vocation which—if real—must always be lived as a gift, in humility, not in an attitude of entitlement, or with attitude and manner of a secular career choice. Ultimately, it is out of fidelity to the Church, and love for her, that the seminarian is called to open up and expose his true self during the period of formation: his wounds, struggles, personality quirks, weaknesses and gifts, failures and triumphs, temperament, vices and virtues.

The Fruits of Transparency: Interior Freedom and Healing
The upshot, of course, is that such transparency engenders interior harmony. The seminarian experiences the peace and equilibrium of interior consistency. Duplicity is psychologically crippling; transparency is liberating, and it can fuel and empower a seminarian to respond with a maximum degree of interior freedom, peace, and serenity as he seeks continued clarity on God’s plan for his life. Consistent transparency with his formators affords the seminarian a privileged participation in the peace and joy that flow from “doing the truth in love” (Cf. Eph. 4:15).

Most importantly, such transparency opens a pathway to the healing that most seminarians need. Suitability for ordination does not exclude the reality of having gotten quite beaten up by life, and having had to open ourselves to the Divine Physician, who expects us to avail ourselves of the means he gives us to seek, ever deeper and more mature, psychological and human integration. While strictly speaking, the seminary is not the appropriate place for seminarians to be engaged in remedial psychological therapy,6 the seminary must be a place where seminarians can attain to ever-greater self-integration, personal wholeness, and healing.

Some Suggestions for Seminarians and the Formation Team
If seminary formation is going to have any chance of attaining its goals, seminarians will have to traverse the rugged and, oftentimes, difficult road of self-disclosure and transparency with their formators. But that road need not be tortuous. In fact, it can, and should be, rewarding, joyful, and fulfilling. Here are some ideas about how seminarians and their formators can work together to make that a reality.

Formators can lead by example in modeling appropriate self-disclosure
The seminary formation team is bound by the serious obligation to “guarantee an atmosphere of trust, so that the candidate can open up and participate with conviction in the work of discernment and accompaniment.” 7 Appropriate self-disclosure by formators can go a long way in building that trust. In fact, they are called to model appropriate self-disclosure for their men in formation.

Such vulnerability on the part of the formators themselves helps men feel safe. In fact, nothing in the formation setting more positively provokes and encourages healthy vulnerability and transparency in a seminarian toward the formation team than appropriate, and frequent, gestures of vulnerability on the part of the formators themselves. Candidates for orders will be vulnerable in the formation setting only when they feel the formators are real, that they care, and that they are not just there to evaluate the seminarians.

In a word, seminarians need to know that their formators are human (just as one day, the parishioners of these future priests will want and need to know that these future priests, too, are human). Our presence with the men as formators—not as one of their chums, of course, but as a brother and mentor—our willingness to let the guys bust our chops, to have fun or be serious, to speak freely, to share candidly and deeply, and to be vulnerable doing so, all this can engender and sustain an atmosphere of growing mutual trust in the seminary.

Seminarians can use a number of tools at their disposal to progress gradually in transparency
The Millennial seminarian will no doubt find himself—much like his generational cohort—lacking in ability to articulate his emotions, even in spite of a genuine desire to be as transparent as he can. In that case, the seminarian needs to avail himself of certain tools he has at his disposal. There are plenty of very useful self-help books and materials out there (including tools such as Emotional Intelligence 2.0).

In addition, seminarians should be able to avail themselves, freely and confidentially,8 of the seminary psychological counseling services. Often times in dialogue with a trained counselor, and in an atmosphere of professional privacy, seminarians can be coached in identifying and naming interior mental states, and increasing their emotional vocabulary.

Seminarians might even be inclined, especially with regard to issues of a particularly personal nature, to give permission for their psychological services counselor to communicate that issue, orally or in writing, to both the seminarian’s spiritual director, and formation advisor. That way, the issue can be clearly and adequately articulated, and both seminarian and formator have provided for them a vocabulary in which to dialogue about it together.

Over and beyond the ordinary inhibitions that anyone can feel when it comes to bearing our soul, and sharing difficult truths about ourselves with another, the seminarian needs to know if there are not other obstacles that make this endeavor more difficult still: is he possessed of an exceptionally private, withdrawn streak, or a heavily introverted personality? Has there been some previous emotional trauma, in childhood, perhaps, whose residual effect is panic, or anxiety, before the prospect of self-disclosure? Counseling can normally be an enormous help in this regard.

Seminarians can support each other in the work of transparency
The individual seminarian is not alone in the challenging work of personal transparency. On the contrary, he forms part of a community of peers who presumably strive to support each other toward the goal of priesthood. If the shared ideal is to create and sustain an environment fraternal charity in which brothers in Christ can together pursue human excellence and personal holiness, then positive peer support in interpersonal transparency has to be a top priority. Seminarians simply must challenge each other toward greater openness, honesty, and candor in their own mutual interactions. Seminarians can create a living environment in which transparency is rewarded with the joy of interpersonal connection, and in which secrecy and duplicity, when they are discovered, are met with fraternal correction.

Informal seminary peer support groups in which men openly share struggles and victories on themes such as chastity, family, loneliness, or the local clergy can be genuine schools of transparency. The struggle for transparency with the formation team would itself be an ideal topic for such group discussions. If seminarians are habitually vulnerable with each other, this should have the effect of making it less difficult to be vulnerable with their formators.

It goes without saying that personal friendships in the seminary can be the wellspring where men discover the added support to sustain the work of transparency. The sense of security, of existential anchoring and safe space that friendship uniquely and wonderfully affords us, provides the necessary counterbalance to the felt awkwardness, emotional exposure, vulnerability and anxiety that can accompany a man’s efforts at transparency with his formators. Seminarians should rely on the balm of friendship to ease that sting.

Seminarians can discover, in contemplating Christ’s wounds, a pathway to attain ever-more generous self-disclosure and interior detachment
Above all, the seminarian who understands the value and necessity of transparency in his formation will turn first and foremost to prayer and contemplation for the spiritual strength necessary in the battle for transparency.

Through contemplation, the seminarian can make of his transparency and vulnerability in formation a genuine oblation, a genuine spiritual offering of self-gift to the Father. We should not forget that historically the oblation or offering in the religious context was normally presented to the deity cut, dissected—opened—and perhaps burnt.

In the Christian context, the oblation par excellence offered to God the Father is God the incarnate Son, poured out, spent, open, and bleeding on the cross: the pinnacle of salvific self-emptying. Christ’s is a vulnerability and self-disclosure in self-gift that literally became bloody and self-emptying.

To meditate upon Christ’s act of self-donation upon the Cross as a direct result of his obedience, as a result of his listening to the Father’s heart, becomes the model of our own vulnerability before God. In such obedience, Christ re-ordered human reality, and bestowed upon man a new relationship with God. If we, too, listen to the Father in Christ, we can participate in this great “re-ordering” and thus prolong Christ’s own listening heart in time. But first we must make a commitment to become “like little children” so that our actions are established, through grace, upon the same intimacy that Christ had with the Father.9

The contemplation of such a love can, and must, fuel a seminarian’s determination to live in a state of appropriate self-disclosure and vulnerability in the formation setting.

Resistance to self-disclosure is often due to profound, and ultimately, selfish and unholy attachments—even a disordered, selfish and myopic attachment to the hope of priestly ordination itself. Through the contemplation of our Lord, in his self-emptying and utter vulnerability to his Father’s will, Christ can lead the seminarian through progressive stages of interior detachment. Even in the desire for priesthood, the seminarian must learn—existentially, in his own flesh and blood—that “the grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die.” He must come interiorly to understand that this encompasses even his very ideal of priesthood.

Transparency in the formation environment supports this graced process of detachment from poorly conceived, self-centered, and false conceptions of priesthood. Through contemplation and transparency, these can be challenged, corrected, and displaced by true conceptions. Attitudes of entitlement, often subtly present, can be gradually shed as the man in formation comes to understand that it is never “his” priesthood that is at stake. It is rather the priesthood of Jesus Christ, a sharing of which none of us is entitled. And if all goes well, the seminarian will, over time, come to understand a great paradox of priesthood: you ultimately must be willing to let go of who you think you should become in order to let Christ mold within you the priest He wants you to become.

  1. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (San Diego, CA: TalentSmart, 2009), 13.
  2. The two expressions arise from canon law, but they should not be understood as referring to two separate and exclusive spheres. Sometime after the Council of Trent, it became common to refer, for example, to the “internal forum” as the “domain of conscience” as if this were entirely separate from the “external forum,” understood as the sphere of public and observable governance and application of moral and legal norms in the Church. Over time, however, the inadequacy of such an understanding became evident. Today, canonically, the two expressions refer respectively to the “private” and “public” domains where one and the same moral and legal normativity, and the Church’s exercise of jurisdiction, are applicable to an individual.
  3. The “sacramental forum” is the domain of what is said and confessed in the context of the sacrament of Penance. The sacramental forum is protected with an absolute degree of confidentiality, the “seal of confession.” “Disclosures that a seminarian makes in the course of spiritual direction belong to the internal forum. Consequently, the spiritual director is held to the strictest confidentiality concerning information received in spiritual direction. He may neither reveal it, nor use it. The only possible exception to this standard of confidentiality would be the case of grave, immediate, or mortal danger involving the directee or another person. If what is revealed in spiritual direction coincides with the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (in other words, what is revealed is revealed ad ordinem absolutionis), that is, the exchange not only takes place in the internal forum, but also the sacramental forum, then the absolute strictures of the seal of confession hold, and no information may be revealed or used” (Program of Priestly Formation, 134).
  4. Program of Priestly Formation, 131.
  5. In fact, the notion of “forum” surfaces only once in the document, at n. 136 where the role of the spiritual director is explored; there the term “internal forum” is employed—the one and only time it is used in the document. And it only appears in this paragraph because it is part of a larger quote from the “Directives on the Preparation of Formators in Seminaries” (1996), quoting from n. 45 of that document.
  6. “The admissions process ought to give sufficient attention to the emotional health of applicants. Special care and scrutiny should be given to those who manifest dysfunction, or come from dysfunctional families. It is possible for some seminarians to address these issues in the course of a seminary program through counseling or other means. Their willingness, however, to confront these, or other personal issues, should be determined prior to the decision about admission. If long-term therapeutic work is indicated, this is best accomplished before the decision is made concerning entrance into the seminary. At times, the gravity of family or personal issues is such that, if the candidate has not yet adequately dealt with these issues, entrance into the seminary program should be denied” (Program for Priestly Formation, 5th ed., 53).
  7. Congregation for Catholic Education, “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood,” n.12, (2008).
  8. Neither the seminarian’s bishop, nor the rector, nor anyone involved in the formation process may compel a seminarian to undergo psychological evaluation, or to consent to have the attending psychologist/psychiatrist engage in some type of reporting process (e.g. to the man’s bishop) on the progress of the counseling. “It must be recalled that recourse to an expert in the psychological sciences can only proceed when the person concerned has given his previous, informed, and free consent, in writing. On the other hand, “a candidate for the priesthood cannot impose his own personal conditions, but must accept, with humility and gratitude, the norms and the conditions that the Church herself places, on the part of her responsibility.” (Ratio, 194). Consequently, “if the candidate, faced with a motivated request by the formators, should refuse to undergo a psychological consultation, the formators will not force his will in any way. Instead, they will prudently proceed in the work of discernment with the knowledge they already have.” (Congregation for Catholic Education, “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood,” n. 12 (2008)).
  9. James Keating, “Vulnerability as a Place of Divine Encounter,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (December 14, 2015). Available at: hprweb.com/2015/12/vulnerability-as-a-place-of-divine-encounter/
Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD About Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is Professor of Moral Theology and Vice Rector and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author most recently of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, January 2017). In addition to moral theology, his areas of specialization include natural law theory, medical ethics, and philosophical and theological anthropology. He has published or been quoted in Crisis Magazine, the National Catholic Register, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He can be reached at: ftb@fatherberg.com

Comments

  1. Open versus transparent. Having come to the priesthood from other walks of life and late in life, some would say, I would suggest that we consider the preparedness of men for the priesthood in less clinical terms especially for men who enter the seminary with too few challenges in their development. In my experience I was struck by the number of men in the seminary who would take their meals quietly and quickly and run to their rooms afterwards. Many with whom I never had a conversation. The emotional issues you raise with millennials are not theirs alone and from my experience exist in all age groups and among the laity as well. Much of this may be remedied with a better understanding of Jesus and his Good News. I remember visiting a seminarian with a friend of his, soon to be ordained, who was discussing his studies and I asked, had he read any of the Gospels separately from his seminary studies, and he hadn’t.

  2. Sherie Berg says:

    Well said, but is this particular to millennials? And especially millennial seminarians? Wasn’t it also true of previous generations?

  3. Fr. Robert Migadde: Dean of Studies at Sacred Heart Seminary Mubende - Uganda. says:

    Great. Formation is something that must be handled with care and attention to avoid error.

  4. Fr. Robert Migadde: Dean of Studies at Sacred Heart Seminary Mubende - Uganda. says:

    Addendum: The Psyche will always remain as the pivot and balancing line for answering one’s call; if it is neglected, then Formation is wholesomely neglected. Psychological tests and counseling sessions ought to be obligatory in each seminary and other institutions of higher learning. otherwise, the indiscipline and other horrendous results in formation years -in all seminaries may be as a result of this neglected part both at the commencement of formation (admission) and during formation itself. Otherwise we are navigating very tricky waters if the psychological stand of the seminarian is not considered. All in all, a very inspiring article on formation. Keep it up Thomas and long live HPR.

  5. Vulnerable Seminarian says:

    As a seminarian who has never met him, I agree with what Fr. Berg has written. I only wish that he or others sufficiently qualified would also address two items that Fr. Berg omits above:

    1. The reality that the seminary formators need to be authentically trustworthy, because even now, some are not, and that also strongly influences seminarians’ self-disclosure.
    2. What seminarians should in fact do when one or more of their formators are not trustworthy, because the seminarians’ default self-preserving behaviour is to minimize self-disclosure, which Fr. Berg correctly writes above has proven very problematic over the last few decades.

  6. Fr. Frederick Gruber says:

    “Honesty with formators; transparency with spiritual director.” This is the sound motto for formation. Otherwise you are practically abolishing the internal forum by your insistence on transparency. You will be held accountable before the Judgment Seat of Christ if you violate the internal forum of your seminarians. You speak so much of trust, but your trust of your seminarians is lacking if you demand transparency instead of trusting their personal responsibility with their spiritual director.

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