In Processu

Seeking holiness by living in intimate and unceasing union with the Trinity

Spiritual formation…should be conducted in such a way that the students may learn to livein intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. Those who are to take on the likeness of Christ the priest by sacred ordination should form the habit of drawing close to him as friends in every detail of their lives. They should live his paschal mystery in such a way that they will know how to initiate into it the people committed to their charge (Optatam Totius §8, Pastores dabo Vobis §45).

The call for seminarians and priests to live in intimate and unceasing union with the Trinity speaks to a man’s deep thirst for holiness but at times may seem unattainable. An examination of three important facets of this mandate may assist him: first, to be rooted firmly in his identity as beloved son of the Father; second, to foster the gifts of discernment to more clearly recognize Satan’s temptations; third, to draw close to Christ daily through the opening of his heart in relational prayer.As Jesus received the truth of his identity from the Father as he was going forth into mission, so too the priest in Christ needs to receive this same truth, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).  Once he knows who he is as beloved son of the Father, a man loved in the midst of weakness, vulnerability and sinfulness, he can more faithfully remain with Jesus. As the man daily prays to the Father to receive the Father’s gaze of love, his word of Truth, and his tender affection, he becomes strengthened as beloved son, and thus grows in becoming a spiritual father. This requires the man to ask the Father in humility for the grace to be strengthened in his identity with the Father, and to surrender daily to the Father’s will. Secure in the Father’s will, while receiving his identity, the man can rest in communion with the Trinity.

Challenges occur as Satan tempts the man with lies, which come against his identity and this communion in which he is called to live.  Some lies might be: “You are inadequate;” “You continually fail;” “You can never be forgiven;” “If anyone really knew you, they would realize how unworthy you are to be a priest;” “Your life will bear no fruit;” or, “You are alone.” Satan tempts the man in hidden ways, wrapped in partial truths. For example, there is a partial truth to the statements that “you are inadequate” and “you continually fail.” In his humanity, the priest is weak; however, in Christ, he can state with St. Paul, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). The enemy wants the focus to be on the priest’s lack, instead of the truth of Christ’s strength within, and the Father’s complete faithful love.

Why is this so important?  As the seminarian or priest is drawn away from knowing his identity in the Father, he becomes more vulnerable to further temptations, to overwork, to over responsibility, to discouragement, to addictive patterns, to isolation and to the eroding of zeal for mission. The fruit of being strengthened in his identity will be seen in the efficaciousness of his preaching, teaching, healing, and growing ability to allow Jesus’ love to flow from his heart to others. However, this only comes through a daily dying to the often unnamed sin of self-reliance. The man is called to a life of deep intimacy with the Trinity, surrendering his own will, and receiving everything from the Father as Jesus did.

The opening of the man’s heart is foremost in formation, whether in seminary life, or in ongoing priestly formation. PDV 45 states the necessity of drawing close to (Christ) as friends in every detail of their lives. Notice the language: drawing close, friends, in every detail. The invitation comes from Jesus Himself, “Come to me … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28; 30). The Cross becomes easy, and the burden light, as the man draws close to Christ in every detail of his life. Here, Jesus draws him into the Father’s own heart, that place of communion from which Christ’s saving love flowed in total self-emptying gift.  The font of life can flow from the priest only as it is received from the communion of Trinitarian love.

The seminarian or priest must live his life in honest dialogue with Jesus, with the Father, with the Holy Spirit, and, also, with Mary, St. Joseph or other saints. In his holy hour, he acknowledges the thoughts, feelings, and desires present to him at that time. He relates this in a way that is honest and straight forward, crying out from the inner groanings of his heart, both for the needs of those he serves, and his own personal needs. Here, he receives the Trinity’s strength, assurance, hope and truth. Finally, he responds, in gratitude and love, to the Trinity for such intimate love, and he responds to others in a virtuous life.

As the seminarian or priest is strengthened in his identity, discerning Satan’s temptations, and daily opening his heart to Christ, he learns how to initiate others into the Paschal Mystery. As he himself enters into the sufferings, death and rising, which is Christ’s life in him, he will know how to draw his people into this same intimate and unceasing union.

Recommended Reading:

Reclaiming Our Priestly Character. David Toups (IPF Publications, 2008).

The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living. Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V. (Crossroads Publications, 2005).

The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today,  Timothy Gallagher, O.M.V.  (Crossroads Publications, 2006).


In Processu is a monthly feature in HPR, providing a place for those involved in seminary life to address concerns particular to today’s seminarians. Following the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Program of Priestly Formation,” each month’s guest columnist will treat the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of the Church’s future priests still “in process.”

Kathleen A. Kanavy, MA About Kathleen A. Kanavy, MA

Kathleen A. Kanavy, MA, serves as the director for spiritual direction training at the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. A consecrated virgin, she lives her vocational call as a laywoman serving IPF, whose mission is to assist bishops in the spiritual formation of diocesan seminarians and priests.


  1. Avatar David Carlon says:

    I don’t believe one can achieve a conscious unceasing union with God in this world… but I will continue to work on it.

  2. Isn’t this what St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena and many others experienced? So it is not impossible.

    • Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange describes this (unitive) stage in this way:

      “After the passive purification of the spirit, which is like a third conversion and transformation, the perfect know God in a quasi­experimental manner that is not transitory, but almost continual. Not only during Mass, the Divine Office, or prayer, but in the midst of external occupations, they remain in the presence of God and preserve actual union with Him.”

      Note the “almost continual.” We may or may not attain this wonderful state in this life – to abide in Him – to remain in Him – but we are obligated to seek it, to want it, to strive for it! And if we die in such a “remaining”, then we will “remain” in it for eternity.

    • Again, in reference to a possible “conscious unceasing union with God in this world,” I find this in The Interior Castle (

      6th Mansions, Ch. 1:3. ….. If, however, the soul has already reached the seventh mansions, it fears nothing: boldly undertaking to suffer all things for God, it gathers strength from its almost uninterrupted union with Him.

      (And again, note the “almost uninterrupted union” referenced.) In a further footnote discussion of the possibility of continual union in the faculties of a person, even in the heights of spiritual marriage of the soul with God, we find this quote of St. John of the Cross:

      [400] ‘Though the soul be always in the high estate of marriage since God has placed it there, nevertheless, actual union in all its powers is not continuous, though the substantial union is. In this substantial union the powers of the soul are most frequently in union, and drink of His cellar, the understanding by knowledge, the will by love, etc. We are not therefore to suppose that the soul, when saying it went out, has ceased from its substantial or essential union with God, but only from the union of its faculties, which is not, and cannot be, permanent in this life.’ (St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, stanza xxvi. 9. On the words: In the inner cellar of my Beloved have I drunk, and when I went forth’).

      This is a remarkable and awesome statement – St. John speaking of an unceasing “substantial or essential union with God” (!) in the spiritual marriage, yet still an impermanent “union of its faculties, which is not, and cannot be, permanent in this life.”


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