Vir Catholicus: Seminary Formation in Affective Maturity

The Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, written in 1992, was a major gift to priestly formation from Pope St. John Paul II. Most fundamentally, it was an encouragement to all involved in priestly formation to take seriously the human context of such formation and how that context supports and promotes the relational identity of the priest.1 “The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a specific . . . participation in Christ himself.”2 This configuration to Christ serves the “new priestly people, the church” as it too “receives from Christ a real ontological share in his one eternal priesthood.”3 Thus it is the reality of communion with the Divine that priesthood seeks to promote and serve, both in the ministerial priesthood and in the priesthood of all believers, each in their own way.

Fundamentally, the human is a worshipper (CCC, 28) one ordered toward living in intimacy with the Divine. The ministerial priesthood is dedicated to the mystery of calling out the worshipper in every human being. What is so fascinating about the priest’s formation period is that the man who seeks priesthood, the one who seeks to lead others into their deepest identity as adorers and worshippers of the Most Holy Trinity, must first fully embrace that identity himself. Formation is a journey of healing. It is a set of relationships ordered toward helping a man identify what obstructs him from fully worshipping God, from being a free human being. “In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.”4

Upon entry into the seminary, a man must be prepared to notice his own emotional and spiritual wounds in order to present them to proper sources of healing, both sacramental and therapeutic. Such courageous living prepares a seminarian’s body to be a conduit and not an “obstacle” to the salvation of others. “Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a ‘man of communion.’”5

Due to many causes within a man’s own family of origin and within the larger Western culture, and the subcultures which boys and adolescents inhabit, the seminarian may enter formation with a stunted capacity for communion with God, others, and himself. He may occupy a space within his own soul which has grown dull to noticing any habit of simply coping with emotional and even physical isolation. So habitual may this isolation be, and its accompanying coping skills, that the man may be confused about his level of discipleship, believing that he is further down the road to self-forgetfulness than is objectively true. He is, in fact, still a boy, still affectively immature.

“Affective maturity . . . is a significant and decisive factor in the formation of candidates for the priesthood. We are speaking of a love that involves the entire person . . . and which is expressed in the ‘nuptial meaning’ of the human body. . . . Affective maturity, requires a clear and strong training in freedom . . . to fight and overcome the different forms of selfishness and individualism . . . Intimately connected with formation . . . the candidate . . . should [also] become accustomed to listening to the voice of God, who speaks to him in his heart, and to adhere with love and constancy to his will.”6

Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted this same connection between listening (obedience) to God and emotional and spiritual maturation: “The more like young children we are in opening our hearts to this source (which is God Himself) to receive its riches, the more grown up and adult we shall be in opening our hearts to give to the world and its needs.”7 This paradox of maturity birthed through childlike vulnerability and trust is an essential meditation point for seminary formators and spiritual directors to attend to as they listen to the life testimony of seminarians. What have been the sources of formation the seminarian has attended to up until his time of admission to seminary? What has been the effect of these sources upon his interior life and identity? With such knowledge, formators will be able to assist in freeing the man from any negative influences that have entered his heart, healing it where needed, inviting him to reject these sources when evil or untrue, or leading him to affirm and build upon it when it was a source of grace.

We can see here that Pope Francis’s metaphor for the Church as a field hospital has merit for seminary use as well.8 Not that the seminary enlists men with clinical pathologies but formators do recognize many normal men have been inadvertently “hit” with the shrapnel of exploding bombs against truth in the war waging to promote the dictatorship of relativism, political ideology and moral license. David Fagerberg describes the condition of these men accurately: “In our sinful state we direct our life outward toward things that dazzle us at the present moment . . . We are distracted by superficial outer noises because in the Fall we have gone deaf to celestial voices. We mistakenly conclude that the world outside of us is more important than the world within us.”9

John Paul II’s articulation of the need for seminarians to become affectively mature, become capable of self-giving, ignited formators’ imaginations to ponder how such maturity can be reached within the relationships that are seminary. Seminary, understood now as a set of relationships, facilitates a man’s maturity through his integration of the four areas of seminary community (intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, human) within his own body. Since human formation is foundational to spiritual formation John Paul II can say, “Human formation, when it is carried out in the context of an anthropology which is open to the full truth regarding the human person, leads to and finds its completion in spiritual formation.”10

The seminarian must be formed in “the full truth regarding the human person.” In a real way the early years of formation seek to form a seminarian in the truth of these questions: what is a man, what is a Catholic, what is a Catholic man (vir catholicus)? Here formation serves to eliminate any partisan bias or emotional affliction that a seminarian might have upon entering seminary. More than ever the priest must be the bearer of a Catholic anthropology and not the secular reductionism of the partisan left or the idiosyncratic devotionalism of the right. In this way the seminarian is immersed in the very remedy that will heal the wounds inflicted upon his soul by the contemporary Western culture.

Having his eyes opened to the full truth that humans are meant to worship and adore God, that they are ordered toward the transcendent, already establishes in him an orientation toward priestly ministry. As formation expands and deepens in him, any trace of partisan thinking can be more readily noticed and jettisoned in light of the spiritual, theological, and human formation within which he is immersed in seminary. As he is formed in mature habits of virtue and ponders the meaning of human life before God he enters a remote preparation for respecting the dignity of those to whom he will be sent in ministry. The goal of seminary human formation is to gift the church with a mature and unbiased man, one who has diminished interest in himself. As a result of this diminished interest it becomes clear that an awakened or renewed fascination with God can emerge, thus preparing him to meet the spiritual needs of others.

Due to Original Sin (CCC 390) the interest a man has in himself is dominant within his own consciousness. Only committed involvement in sacramental worship and all manner of purification and asceticism by the seminarian, commensurate with his own emotional capacities, will begin to heal this stubborn nascent default setting. The seminary completes, therefore, the sacramental journey of moral conversion and identity formation begun by family and the pastoral settings of his earlier life. In this way the seminary facilitates the seminarian’s stable habitation “in Christ” (Col. 3:3).

In a real way the relationships within seminary move a cooperating man to live permanently in a liturgical state. And all the components of seminary conspire to effect this new permanency. To become a priest one has to leave self-interest behind by contemplating and participating in the mystery of the Eucharist. “[Seminary] spiritual formation is first and foremost a participation in public worship of the Church that is itself a participation in the heavenly liturgy offered by Christ, our great High Priest. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, the seminarian learns to offer himself with Christ to the Father and receives spiritual sustenance, Christ’s own flesh and blood.”11 The relationships and rituals that are seminary exist to invite men into the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and hold this mystery as his deepest love and most enlivening commitment.12 If accepted, this invitation will invite the seminarian to be generated anew.

The healing of a man from the inflicted wounds of popular, political, economic, or domestic culture, or simply from his own selfish choices, progresses deeply as the seminarian gives himself to all the therapeutic sources located in his studies, spiritual direction, counseling, worship, friendships, and pastoral assignments. This constellation of sources has no power to heal in itself, however. A seminarian is only healed if he generously participates in all of seminary with a vulnerable heart and not a private agenda.

Developing this vulnerable heart is vital for the seminarian, or all the labor of the formation will be in vain. History has proven that some men remain in seminary with impenetrable affect, thus avoiding vulnerability and fashioning a presence of outward conformity, of precise and anxious role playing, so as to hide their character and true motives for seeking a celibate clerical life. Such men were never really present as persons but as shape shifters, regularly discerning the best way to hide truth rather than reveal it and be formed by it. They cling to their goal of priesthood with all their might, never considering the possibility that they weren’t even called by God to ecclesial celibacy — but choose it for their own private and personal motives. Such men will always enter priesthood because the admissions and formation processes are human ones administered by broken and fallible humans all along the way. We can only hope that, through prayer and prudence, bishops choose their best priests, intelligent, holy priests, to administer formation programs. Those men administering a seminary carry the best hope for the Church that any shape shifters will be few and far between.

In men of character, therefore, the heart becomes vulnerable by allowing the Beauty of the Paschal Mystery to affect it. In other words, men who fall in love with the most holy Trinity. These men place their whole person before God in prayer, revealing their emotional and moral wounds to Him for healing. They discuss these same wounds in every forum of seminary life: human formation, spiritual direction, the sacrament of reconciliation, and psychological counseling, and they pour out their hearts before God in Eucharistic adoration and in lectio divina. These men, vulnerable men, want formation and they entrust themselves to the church to assist in their discernment of a priestly vocation. When this discernment is complete, they are ever ready to deepen their appropriation of their authentic, chaste, celibate priestly vocation.

  1. Pope St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 12.
  2. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 12.
  3. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 13.
  4. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43.
  5. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43.
  6. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 44.
  7. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement with God (San Francisco: Ignatius 2008) 49.
  8. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis,” translated and published by America, September 30, 2013,
  9. David Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2019), 35.
  10. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 45.
  11. Program for Priestly Formation, Sixth Edition (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2022), 229a.
  12. Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism, 15. Here, Fagerberg discusses how the Eucharist generates the Church, obviously what the Eucharist is generating is the spiritual life of the Church’s members, most emphatically its priest members.
Deacon James Keating About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, PhD, is a professor of spiritual theology at Kenrick Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, MO.


  1. Excellent reflection. An entire semester at seminary could be designed to focus on these factors. At times the seminary experience seems to work against this process, rather than supporting it. Probably a topic that needs expanding in a series of deliberations on seminary curriculum.

  2. Avatar Daniel Johnson says:

    I have never been more disappointed in the poorly prepared men for priesthood. Many are very disrespectful to the Permanent Diaconate. One issue I have noticed is the affinity to pre Vatican II mindset. Secondly the absence of Pastoral Care and verbatim experience to reveal and address relational issues. Many Priests I have worked with have deep seeded problems that impact the entire community ie one abandoned by mother another alcoholic father both presented Major management problems. The seminaries need to better incorporate the students in formation to real life parish issues. St. Meinrad Archabby refused clerical dress until diaconal ordination. Currently pre theology students prance around in clerics while permanent deacons dress as Lutheran clergy. Pathetic. Do not get me started on the poor quality of preaching. Pastoral care in hospitals is another area of weakness.
    Deacon Dan Johnson