A Passion for Christ (II)

Pedagogical Considerations
for Roman Catholic Seminary
Intellectual Formation

Fill it up
or light it up?

The activity of teaching has taken on many forms throughout the course of history, whether it is manifested in the dialectics of the original Academy, or the mentoring of young scholar-monks in the middle ages, or in the relativistic eclecticism of contemporary university life.  Teaching is integral to the fabric of every age and society.  Yet, there is a uniqueness about the activity of teaching theology, and, even more, the activity of intellectual formation in a Catholic seminary.  Conversion is at the heart of intellectual formation; it is the foundation from which genuine knowledge is communicated and acquired.1  At the same time, professors are responsible for a sound, comprehensive andIt should be noted that we are not speaking merely of conversion in the heart of the student, but also in the heart of the professor.  The effective professor will be attentive to the need for conversion in his or her own heart as a starting point to the privileged apostolate of teaching. effective presentation of doctrine.  In doing so, they should be attentive to the way in which the students receive, absorb, and integrate the material.  Thus, the uniqueness of the teaching apostolate in Catholic seminaries lends itself to a more integrated approach, recognizing the role of conversion, and the personal encounter with Christ. But, also the way in which, through the power of the Spirit, the Church, through the centuries, has faithfully handed on the message of the Gospel.

 This essay seeks to explore the ways in which seminary professors can assist their students in the process of spiritual and theological integration.  That is, how can professors help students unite and interiorize both prayer and doctrine, spirituality and theology, affect and intellect?2  The essay will consider, from a practical perspective, the unique responsibility of the seminary professor in developing intelligence of heart in the student.3  Thus, the goal is to present various pedagogies, evaluating their effectiveness, leading to a proposal of a “signature pedagogy” for intellectual formation in Catholic seminaries.

Signature Pedagogy
What is meant exactly by the term “signature pedagogy?”  In a 2005 Daedalus article entitled “Signature Pedagogies in the Professions,” Lee Shulman writes:  “The psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, once observed that if you wish to understand a culture, study its nurseries.  There is a similar principle for the understanding of professions:  if you wish to understand why professions develop as they do, study their nurseries, in this case, their forms of professional preparation.  When you do, you will generally detect the characteristic forms of teaching and learning that I characterize as “signature pedagogies.”  This are type of teaching organizee the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions.”4

Shulman continues in his article by noting that a signature pedagogy has three dimensions:  “First, it has a surface structure, which consists of concrete, operational acts: of teaching and learning, of showing and demonstrating, of questioning and answering, of interacting and withholding, of approaching and withdrawing.  Any signature pedagogy also has a deep structure, a set of assumptions about how best to impart a certain body of knowledge and know-how.  And it has an implicit structure, a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values, and dispositions.  … A signature pedagogy invariably involves a choice, a selection among alternative approaches to training aspiring professionals.  That choice necessarily highlights and supports certain outcomes while, usually unintentionally, fails to address other important characteristics of professional performance.”5

Shulman is speaking, in a general context, about all professions, but presents three fundamental dimensions that are certainly applicable to the dynamics of intellectual formation.  With more specificity to the training of clergy, it is noted that “clergy education involves more than teaching students a particular way of thinking; it requires that those ways of thinking be linked constructively with ways of being and doing.  In this linking, we can see in clergy education the necessary interdependence of the cognitive, practical, and normative apprenticeships of professional education.”6

From the more general considerations of signature pedagogies, we can move to specific pedagogies for intellectual formation in Catholic seminaries.  These pedagogies are intimately linked with our tradition, the norms elucidated in Pastores dabo vobis, as well as the requirements in the Program for Priestly Formation, 5th edition.  How then might the insights from professional educators impact the teaching activity in Catholic seminary intellectual formation?

Teaching and Learning
The development of a signature pedagogy begins with a sustained reflection on the nature of the teaching activity and student learning.  While these two activities are distinct, they need to be considered organically in the development of an effective pedagogy.  The result is that teaching and learning find a synergy in the classroom through which professors are challenged to develop their knowledge and skill, while students are formed to be life-long learners.  As mentors and experts in the field, the professors should give attention to the “who, how, where, and why of the students.  We will consider each one of those questions briefly.

The who: Each student in a classroom represents a unique learner with a very unique perspective (or frame of reference) for learning.  Understanding the frame of reference of the students, opens a portal to effective strategies for teaching.  In this way, the professor is not merely dispensing material, but is keeping his or her teaching lively and innovative.  The how:  Each generation of student has a unique starting point, processing material differently.  The challenge in the classroom setting is that professors inevitably teach in the way that they feel most comfortable, not necessarily in the way that optimizes student learning.  In order to optimize student learning, the professor must intentionally consider how students learn and explore a variety of methods that will engage the student in the learning process.  The where:  Goals and outcomes are established for degree programs and for specific courses.  Students themselves also develop personal goals.  These goals and outcomes have a direct impact on how the students progress through a program.  At the same time, the goals and outcomes shape the way in which professors engage the students, allowing them to assess whether or not their teaching is effective.  The why:  With regard to the development of syllabi, projects, exams, or other components in a course: consideration should be given to the relevance of each activity.  What is the purpose of the activity, or what is to be gained from engaging the students in the activity?  To this end, professors should be intentional about each activity and not merely default to certain projects without reflection.

Banking or Teaching Reflectively
The questions briefly treated above contribute to the initial formulation of a signature pedagogy.  From that point of departure, the next consideration is to examine the first category (teaching), and two methods that are often employed.  The first method can be described as the “banking” method.  In this method, the professor is primarily engaged in the activity of depositing information to the students.  There is very little interaction between student and professor, other than clarifying questions or terms.  In the Catholic seminary context, this method can be especially tempting because of the enormous demands placed on the institution, and the professor, to cover core components as articulated in normative documents, such as Pastores dabo vobis and the Program for Priestly Formation (5th edition).  As one examines those normative documents, and then considers the amount of time the students have in the formation program, one suddenly realizes that: “We do not have enough time!” 

In light of those challenges, the “banking” begins.  The temptation arrives in the form of “time anxiety.”  Given the short amount of time we have with students, and the enormous amount of material that needs to be presented, we feel the need to force everything possible into the course, even if that means excessively over-loading the students.  As the banking method is employed, students often disengage from the learning experience.  They are not placed in a position to take initiative in the course, but rather are placed in a position to receive passively.  In the process of disengagement, they lose the dynamic process of learning, as well as the opportunity for a deep integration of the material.  As a result, students often resort to cramming in material for a short period of time (usually around exams), and then purge the material, then moving on to the next course.

One area that is impacted negatively by this method, is the development of the life-long learner.  This method, when taken to an extreme, does not acknowledge that the student is to be given a solid foundation and tools for the future.  Instead, it considers the formal time in the course or program the only time the student will learn, thus the need to bank everything possible.  Clearly, the method has components that are relevant to teaching and learning, but the temptation to default exclusively to the banking method can have a negative impact on student learning, along with the connectivity to the course/program outcomes.

The second pedagogical approach is referred to as teaching reflectively.  This involves more intentional efforts by the professor to connect the material with the learning processes for students.  In a recent book, edited by Mary Hess and Stephen Brookfield, a matrix for reflective learning is presented.7  Although this matrix presents eight areas of reflective teaching, the last three are particularly relevant for the unique characteristics in Catholic seminary intellectual formation.  The matrix demonstrates how a less reflective approach to teaching isolates the majority of the activity with the professor, requiring very little initiative by the students.  Students are permitted to ask questions, but only for the purpose of clarification.  In addition, there is no evaluation related to the effectiveness of the teaching.  The more reflective approach, on the other hand, takes into consideration “who, how, where, and why.”  In this context, students are encouraged to ask questions that lead to synthesis and application.  It requires that students take ownership of their intellectual formation, coming to understand that intellectual formation is a life-long project.  Finally, a more reflective approach leads to effective integration.

The value of the matrix is that it demonstrates how a more reflective approach to teaching increases the initiative and investment of the student in the process of learning.  At the same time, the quality of instruction by the professor increases because of the continual feedback and subsequent adjustments.  In this context, activities that demonstrate integration of the material are clearly expected and valued.  Students are challenged to move beyond a merely receptive posture in the classroom to a more active and dynamic role, whereby they use the content learned through the class, whether by instruction or reading. They then engage in a range of activities that require the student to apply, analyze, and synthesize the material, truly integrating, and connecting to, the fundamental aspects of conversion.

While the reflective method has positive qualities and limitations, any method that requires student ownership, initiative, integration, and application will be superior.  We might consider it analogous to the distinction between the master craftsman and the production line.  A master craftsman respects and recognizes the uniqueness of each piece of material, seeking to work with the material, in order to realize the project.  The master craftsman does not manipulate the material to fit a pre-conceived idea or form, but rather, allows the piece to take a natural course.  The production line, on the other hand, uses a mold and the same material for each piece.  There is a degree of separation from the material, with the uniqueness of the final product being reduced.  This analogy, which is certainly not comprehensive, serves to illustrate how professors might envision themselves more as master craftsmen—who use knowledge and experience to form and shape the material—but at the same time, continue the learning process through a genuine interaction with the material itself.

The Learning Environment
The second category that impacts the development of a signature pedagogy is learning.  It is essential for the professor to be attentive to the learning environment at all times.  The learning environment includes attentiveness to the development of trust with the students, the arrangement of the students in the classroom, an awareness of the number, age, and gender of the students, and the incorporation of a range of activities that engage the multiple learning styles in the classroom itself.

In order to facilitate successfully the process of engagement, the professor should make room for learning.  By this, I mean, that the concrete steps or activities are in place which will encourage the student to engage in the learning process.  Often, there is not a sufficient amount of time given to process material, nor are their particular learning activities that enhance the learning process.  Without specific attention to these dimensions, the learning environment can be restricted.  Bloom’s taxonomy for effective learning, on the other hand, can be a very helpful tool in creating a positive learning environment, incorporating more elements of reflective teaching as noted above.  The value of the taxonomy is that it demonstrates the progressive engagement and integration of the students in the learning process.  Each level demands more from the student, but it also demands more from the professor.  In doing so, the level of integration increases, challenging students to engage the material from a variety of perspectives.

By this method, the professor is truly being a master craftsman, guiding the students to a deeper integration. In the case of the intellectual formation in Catholic seminaries, can lead to an organic theological vision and desire for life-long learning.  Ideally, professors will give sustained attention to the way in which the particular course engages the students at these levels.  The key words contextualize each level, giving professors a direction for assignments, projects, or presentations.  The questions present an additional perspective for arranging material that assist students to move through each level to the extent that they are able to do so.  In the end, the taxonomy serves an important function in student learning: moving them to a deeper and more personal engagement with the content of the course.

Signature Pedagogy:  Fill it up or Light it up?
With these developmental considerations of teaching and learning, the final question then arises:  what does a signature pedagogy for Catholic seminary intellectual formation incorporate?8  The answer is that it incorporates a more reflective teaching style, with intentional efforts that encourage the students to engage the material effectively.  It creates an environment where students are engaged in application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This then makes them better equipped for their ministry of teaching the faith, as well as better prepared for the “evangelization of the culture,” integral to the new evangelization.9

I propose three elements that characterize a signature pedagogy in Catholic seminary intellectual formation.  First, the uniqueness of Catholic seminary intellectual formation values the professor as master craftsman, guiding the students to a genuine encounter with Christ.  Second, the professor creates a learning environment that fosters learning which leads the student to pastoral integration.

The master craftsman guides the students to a genuine encounter with Christ.  The first element of the pedagogy is rooted in the foundations of conversion, fostering in the student a passion for Christ. One way to explore this element, is to consider ways from the reflective model, which the teaching activity can provoke with purpose.  Professors should never provoke simply for the sake of provoking, but rather, provocation in order to challenge students to awaken, in themselves, a recognition that intellectual formation is, fundamentally, a relationship.  It is not merely the exploration of ideas, but an encounter with the one who illuminates the darkness.  By way of example, then, professors can provoke with purpose by preparing a series of challenging reflective questions, spaced periodically throughout the semester, that have the clear purpose of drawing out of the student aspects of the encounter with Christ.  These questions can be in a written format to be done privately (for personal engagement), or done in small groups, for short periods, in the classroom (for a more public process).  These questions, linked to the outcomes of the course, challenge the student to explore or think outside the normal range.  Engagement, at this level, comes through questions that challenge the student to consider the meaning of something, and/or the impact of something, in one’s life.  They are not simply questions of fact, but rather, moments of encounter.

Another way professors guide the students to a genuine encounter with Christ is through the encouragement of conversation.  In doing so, the professor, as master craftsman, guides the students on a purposeful journey.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus were conversing about the meaning of the events that had occurred.  They were actively exploring through the sharing of ideas.  Then, through the profound encounter with Christ, they came to recognize him.  Their hearts burned, eliciting a passion for Christ.  In each course, professors can certainly foster an environment of conversation in a variety of ways.  With the time anxiety that burdens many, the idea of giving class time to conversation may seem ineffective.  Yet, intentional conversations often lead to unique moments of synthesis that do not occur in private study.  Also, structured conversations need not be limited to classroom time.  They can be an integrated part of the syllabus through which students are required to have a prolonged or extended dialogue throughout the course of the semester.  In some cases, this is done as an on-line activity, but it does not have to be on-line to be effective.  The on-going dialogue in small groups can certainly create a distinctive opportunity for the student.  In order to do this, the professor should be mindful, at all times of the unique character of intellectual formation, seeking  to call forth from the students, on a  regular basis, how the theological studies have deepened their commitment, their faith, or their passion for proclamation.

The master craftsman creates a learning environment that fosters the formation of intelligence of heart.  This is an environment in which students are engaged and curious about knowledge, make application, and are encouraged to integrate material.10  Within this element, the professor seeks to create an environment in the class that stimulates curiosity and engagement.  All students have a natural desire to know,11 but not all students learn in the same way.  Each student has a particular history, with regard to learning and different gifts, for integrating material.  We know well that some students process material more effectively through independent studies; others are more fully engaged in a small group setting; others excel by a specific project or presentation; and, still, others are more successful through listening and processing/integrating material later.  In other words, every student is a unique learner. The professor who limits the teaching activity to one particular pedagogy, may unintentionally be putting constraints on the potential for some students.  One of the central goals in teaching is that students engage the material enthusiastically. In order to facilitate that, the professor needs to know who the students are, and how they learn.12

In the formation of “intelligence of heart,” it seems that professors should be more attentive, then, to “lighting up,” rather than merely “filling up,” their students minds.  The limitations of filling up, or banking, were noted previously.  To light something up, on the other hand, requires a distinct activity.  It normally requires someone to initiate a process whereby electricity causes a reaction or movement.  In lighting something up, electricity passes through the object, causing a change or action to occur.  The difference between filling something up, and lighting it up, is striking.  The one who facilitates the process of lighting up, allows the electricity to be the catalyst as it ignites, empowers, stimulates, or activates the object.  The object itself reacts to the electricity that passes through it.13  The challenge, then, is to facilitate the process of lighting up the students in order that they receive, understand, and apply their knowledge as life-long learners.

Within this element, the various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy can be very helpful in lighting up the curiosity and wonder of the student.  The first example of incorporating the taxonomy is to use the key questions to help in the formulation of study guides and exams.  Discrete questions can be articulated that seek to assess the student’s knowledge.  Study questions, and exam questions, can be carefully planned to assess each level, leading to synthesis and evaluation.  But the taxonomy does not have to be limited to study guides and exams.  Very often, classroom presentations (when the class size is appropriate) can foster analysis and application by giving students the opportunity to show the relationship between various ideas, elaborating on the reasons why certain perspectives are more credible than others.  A final example, and perhaps the most ambitious, is to embed within the syllabus an activity associated with each level of the taxonomy.  By explicitly linking a learning activity to each level, the students are drawn more intentionally through a rich learning process that, indeed, progressively forms intelligence of heart.

In the context of intellectual formation, then, our pedagogies certainly need to have components of filling, but they cannot be limited to that.  They need to provoke the students to think, to understand, to analyze, and to evaluate.  These aspects of learning are essential to forming a solid foundation for future ministry.

The master craftsman models the value of life-long learning that will lead the student to pastoral integration.  The final element of a signature pedagogy for Catholic seminaries focuses on the example and witness that the professor gives. It is the way in which the professor fosters within the student a deep appreciation for life-long learning.14  There are a number of things that a professor can do to accomplish this goal, among them being:  “a love for learning, particularly of the subject he or she is teaching (this is something he or she needs to nurture); a cheerful disposition in presenting the material (i.e., helping his students to see that learning in general, and this subject matter, in particular, can be an occasion “of coming to a deeper appreciation of God’s goodness and the bonds of fellowship that the common pursuit of learning can forge and the joy that this can bring”); and an alertness to student reaction(s), “ready to clarify difficult matters, patient in answering questions.”15  It is imperative that the professor recognize that the act of teaching is an act of forming the mind and heart of the student in seeking continually the mystery of God.  This involves professors demonstrating to the students their own desire and passion to seek, to ask, and to knock.  Through this demonstration, the students come to realize that intellectual formation is a life long journey, and that the years in the seminary are meant to be a starting point, not an ending point, of their formation.

Within the context of fostering life-long learning, is the core component of pastoral integration.  This is one of the key outcomes that should take place through effective intellectual formation.  This formation begins with a genuine encounter with Christ, leading naturally to intelligence of heart.

At times, however, the idea of pastoral integration (and ultimately pastoral charity) is unintentionally detached from the dynamics of intellectual formation.  In more extreme cases, the two are set in opposition to each other.  When this happens, intellectual formation is seen as something that inhibits the development of pastoral integration and pastoral charity.  It is perceived as a threat, or as that which makes one less inclined, and less capable, of effective pastoral integration and pastoral practice.  It seems to present pastoral practice more as a skill-set than an integrated part of the person.  This sad occurrence is not a genuine representation of the way in which integration of intellectual formation, and pastoral integration, are intrinsically linked.

Authentic and effective pastoral integration (and pastoral charity) arises from a pedagogy that values sound doctrine, but does not leave it detached from the very source of that doctrine, the Word himself.  How can a genuine exposition of doctrine not lead the student to encounter the Son, whose life and ministry, whose passion, death and resurrection, and whose call to follow him, touches our very core?  This is precisely what professors model when they challenge the students to think about application, appreciating the fact that they have been given the tools to continue the learning process.[16. Latkovic, Fostering Theological Excellence in the Classroom Among Catholic Seminary Students and Faculty.  A 2004 address to the East Coast Association of Academic Deans, 9.]

The considerations for a signature pedagogy noted above are made in light of the unique mission, and identity, that Catholic seminaries have, and the way in which we understand the whole program of formation.  The unique role of seminary professors, in the context of intellectual formation, is such that they guide, motivate and encourage the student to a deeper engagement, allowing the burning love for Christ to be enflamed through creative, theological exploration.  It is not merely a dispensing of knowledge, for the sake of more knowledge, nor is it the superficial development of a pastoral skill-set allowing the seminarian to “perform” well in active ministry.  Rather, the unique contribution of seminary professors is the way in which they foster a passion for Christ in the heart of the student, thus leading to a genuine knowledge of the divine mysteries.

In light of the specific elements of the signature pedagogy, there is one step that remains to be developed.  The three elements of this pedagogy give the basic framework for effective teaching, incorporating a matrix and taxonomy. However, the final step is the way in which each professor will adopt these elements in his or her course development.  It is by no means an easy task to revisit each course we teach, every time we teach it, yet, that is precisely what sets the foundation for effective teaching.  As we consider our individual courses, we are challenged to give focused attention to the way in which we link the goals of our course to the program outcomes.  Do the questions on our exams really serve to draw out from the student their knowledge, their ability to apply, or their ability to synthesize?  Do the research papers and assignments serve to address the outcomes of our specific course?   We are challenged to ponder our teaching styles, considering ways that will truly prompt the students to encounter personally the mystery of the Triune God.  We are challenged to recognize that there are a variety of student learning styles, making an effort to identify questions, assignments, projects, or presentations which will light up students, rather than just fill them up.  We are challenged to create projects or presentations that serve as moments of integration.   We are challenged, ultimately, to renew our commitment to be master craftsmen, who model for students, a passion for Christ.

By the grace of God, intellectual formation is a transformative activity, an encounter that lifts up the mind and heart to the contemplation of the one who is truth.  As Pope John Paul II notes in Fides et ratio: “Men and women are on a journey of discovery which is humanly unstoppable—a search for the truth and a search for a person to whom they might entrust themselves.  Christian faith comes to meet them, offering the concrete possibility of reaching the goal which they seek.  Moving beyond the stage of simple believing, Christian faith immerses human beings in the order of grace, which enables them to share in the mystery of Christ, which in turn offers them a true and coherent knowledge of the Triune God.”16

  1. It should be noted that we are not speaking merely of conversion in the heart of the student, but also in the heart of the professor.  The effective professor will be attentive to the need for conversion in his or her own heart as a starting point to the privileged apostolate of teaching.
  2. Pastores dabo vobis, §15.
  3. Pastores dabo vobis, §51.
  4. Shulman, Lee.  “Signature Pedagogies in the Professions,” Daedalus 134 (2005): 52.
  5. Shulman, 54-55.
  6. Educating Clergy:  Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination, ed., Charles Foster, Lisa Dahill, Lawrence Goleman, and Barbara Wang Tolentino (San Fancisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2005) 22.
  7. Teaching Reflectively in Theological Contexts:  Promises and Contradictions, ed. Mary Hess and Stephen Brookfield (Krieger Publishing Company, 2005).
  8. It should be noted that a signature pedagogy begins with reflection on the mission of the institution and the outcomes of the degree program.  The mission statement and the outcomes form a target for teaching, and the pedagogy is then formed within that specific context.  In addition, the three dimensions noted by Shulman will also be embedded as a foundation for the development of the pedagogy.
  9. Program for Priestly Formation, §155.
  10. This section incorporates the first dimension (surface structure) of Shulman’s signature pedagogy.
  11. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, A, 1.
  12. Refer to section Teaching and Learning.
  13. Blessed Theresa of Calcutta wisely noted that “each one of us is merely a small instrument.  When you look at the inner working of electrical things, often you see small and big wires, new and old, cheap and expensive lined up.  Until the current passes through them there will be no light.  That wire is you and me.  The current is God.  We have the power to let the current pass through us, use us, to produce the light of the world.  Or we can refuse to be used and allow darkness to spread.”  Blessed Theresa of Calcutta.  No Greater Love.  Novato:  New World Library, pgs. 67-68.
  14. This element incorporates aspects of Shulman’s third dimension of a signature pedagogy, implicit structure.
  15. Latkovic, Fostering Theological Excellence in the Classroom Among Catholic Seminary Students and Faculty.  A 2004 address to the East Coast Association of Academic Deans, 9.
  16. Fides et ratio, §33.
Rev. Todd Lajiness About Rev. Todd Lajiness

Rev. Todd Lajiness is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and serves as the Academic Dean at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He earned his STL from the Gregorian University and his doctorate in philosophy from the Angelicum. In addition to pastoral and administrative positions in the archdiocese, he has also served as secretary to Cardinal Szoka at the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State.


  1. If the choice is “fill it up or light it up,” I’ll definitely vote for light. The challenge for a teacher of priests, or of future priests, must be that of facilitating for them a real, personal meeting and continuing communion with the One who is Light. The danger, I suppose, is settling for a smaller and more manageable occupation: one that man can more easily do, can more easily study, speak and write about. Yet the calling is to nothing less than the one that costs everything: to follow Christ. I am reminded of the explanation of the aim of catechesis, written by Blessed John Paul II:
    “…the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only He can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.” (CT 5)

    As a lay teacher, I’m convinced that such an explanation is crucial, foundational and essential to any discussion of preparation for any form of religious work including, I would say, to priestly formation and the priesthood. How we need holy priests! Only a man saturated with Christ and the Gospel himself can be an authentic witness to Christ! We need not merely the well-trained or the well-educated; we need those well-formed in Christ. We need witnesses. Paul VI said (EN 41),
    “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”