Healed, Mystic, Teacher: Seminary Spiritual Formation

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“Spiritual formation is directed at nourishing and sustaining communion with God . . . This intimate relationship forms the heart of the seminarian in that sacrificial love that marks the beginning of pastoral charity.”1  The seminary, established simply as a set of relationships, human and divine, orders itself in the service of forming men of interiority and self-possession. This service endeavors to heal men who enroll in seminary living out of identities derived from external performance or those who lean toward projecting appearances as their way of being in the world. Men of interiority move differently through society and seek to attain a self-knowledge (capacity to grasp true self) unto a self-revelation (capacity to be known by others) unto self-donation (capacity to discern needs of others and respond).

Today, formation concentrates on equipping future priests with the deepest resources of interiority because the faith is no longer borne by the culture. When one scans the priestly formation documents of fifty or more years ago, the well-formed priest is described in terms of professionalism and pastoral accompaniment.2 Today one notices that the well-formed priest is mystical, a man possessing an interior adherence to the mysteries of Christ (mystic).3 This emphasis upon the interior life of the cleric responds to that same dissolution of the faith, once borne by the habits, symbols, and values of Western culture, but now in large measure absent.

Congruent with this mystic turn4 is an urgent need for intellectual prowess on the part of seminarians to counter the diminished place of reason in culture and repel antagonism toward ecclesial doctrine. “Intellectual formation applies not only to a comprehensive understanding of the mysteries of the Catholic faith, but also to an ability to explain and even defend the reasoning that supports those truths”5 In a sense, priestly formation today is aimed at producing the mystic teacher. “The task of intellectual formation is to acquire a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness and completion of God’s revelation and the one Teacher.”6 But more completely, in light of what we know about male adolescents in the Western culture, we can add a third component to modern formation: a commitment to heal wounds of addiction to technology and self-involvement.7

The goal would be to have this healed-mystic-teacher live as a priest who abides in the sacramental mysteries and internalizes the Word of God unto self-donation. He is a man formed through fortitude, so exercised in becoming a man of interiority at the service of others’ spiritual and moral needs. Spiritual direction assists with this formation in a very concrete way. It is the hope of the director that the formation process produces a man whose way of life is personal union with God as sustained by the Liturgy.8 If internalized, this way continues throughout a priestly life, a life capable of remaining in union with God and capable of repentance when union has been eschewed for immediate gratification. Both capacities, communion and conversion, are marked in the man by the grace he welcomed in formation and welcomes still. This is a lacerating grace which deflates his own way (Acts 1:25), and empties it of illusory power, while allowing memory to reorient the priest to welcome the Way (Jn 14:6) in and through the depths of liturgical living. When a seminarian becomes a contemplative and knows that such a life is “life to the full” (Jn 10:10) then his will has been ordered toward availability, toward that object of contemplation which presents itself as The Way (Jn. 14:6).

Seminary spiritual direction is put at a crucial place in the overall set of relationships that make up priestly formation. In this forum a director and a seminarian delve into that seminarian’s current relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. This is usually done by focusing upon the content of his personal prayer in the context of a sacramental environment. The priestly formation documents of the Church remind spiritual directors that they “should foster an integration of spiritual formation, human formation, and character development consistent with priestly formation . . . assisting in the seminarian acquiring the skills of discernment.”9 Priestly spiritual direction “is directed at nourishing and sustaining communion with God and with our brothers and sisters, in the friendship of Jesus the Good Shepherd. . . . This intimate relationship forms the heart of the seminarian in that . . . sacrificial love that marks the beginning of pastoral charity.”10 The director promotes a life in the seminarian that is ordered toward intimate and unceasing union with God in the context of the Church.11

The director, then, holds the “whole man” before him when a direction session begins. Listening to this whole man calls the director to engage in supplication for the gift of integrative intuition, an intuition that connects what is being shared by the seminarian to the various facets of seminary formation, his life as he is living it now. That is, those aspects of his history which he carries in his body from a past boyhood, and his nascent generosity toward and desire for letting Christ live His priesthood over again in his body. This kind of intuition can emerge over years of experience in direction but is founded upon a desire in the director to listen for openings to the full truth when only its beginnings or traits are revealed. Begging the Holy Spirit for wisdom when these “openings” emerge is the standard disposition in all direction sessions. Fundamentally, the director follows these openings so discernment can be furthered regarding the seminarian’s capacity to receive priesthood in his body. Is his humanity becoming hospitable to the supernatural, and vulnerable to receive a gift (priesthood) so as to give himself away in charity as response to that gift?12 This self-donative life embraced as vocation is reflective of the interior maturity that formation is aiming to cultivate in the seminarians.

“The pastoral care of the faithful demands that a priest have a solid formation and interior maturity. . . . He is called to act with great interior freedom. It is expected of him to internalize the spirit of the Gospel thanks to a constant and personal friendship with Christ. . . . In contemplating the Lord . . . he will be able to give himself generously and with self-sacrifice for the People of God. . . . The interior man [is] centered principally on communion with Christ through the mysteries celebrated [liturgically] and nourished by personal prayer and meditation on the inspired Word. In silent prayer, the seminarian becomes docile to the action of the Spirit and . . . molds him in the image of the Master.”13

The Church will recognize the man who is truly called to priesthood by his conversion: one that connects pastoral ministry to interiority, internalizes a constant and personal friendship with Christ, embraces contemplation as a source for charitable service, and focuses that interior life upon the Mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In all this the seminarian has come to deepen a love for and immersion in interior silence. These character traits truly identify who in the seminary is surrendering to the process of Christological “molding” (Ratio, 41) and who is resisting.

Inviting them into divine intimacy in its call to connect pastoral ministry with interiority, the Ratio (2016) may raise some fear within clergy and seminarians. Many men will not sit with such a contemplative description of priesthood; instead, they will move to fashion a foundation for pastoral ministry that is manageable, controllable. Theirs would be a foundation set in the realm of personal tendencies and well-trod avenues of skill sets and organizational competencies. To base priestly ministry upon interior configuration to Christ can seem unimaginable and so easily dismissed as “poetry.” But the spiritual director is charged with keeping future priests in reality: the charge in the Ratio is not poetry. It is, instead, a recognition of the morality of a death sentence of sorts — approval for priestly formation to “kill” the ego. The director is charged to ask: Considering this death sentence, do you wish to go forward in priestly formation and become a man of interiority? Do you wish to find your identity in communion with the Holy Trinity or in ego-initiated functions?

Emotional and spiritual intimacy with the Holy Trinity is demanding. Those seminarians with unhealed personal agendas will resist such intimacy to use priestly life as a way to remain self-focused. In formation this resistance can take the shape of role playing, external adhesion to “the program” so that later they can fit the life they really want to live into the priesthood. Authentic encounter with the living God, of course, dismantles this role playing but a man must be humble enough to want to be affected by God. Inviting men into authentic intimacy with God in prayer, teaching them how to receive divine love, and encouraging them to remain in a receptive posture toward such love is the director’s contribution to a unified formation process identifying such “role players” and inviting them to exit formation.

If the whole formation team understands and promotes the authentic vision of the Ratio and the Program for Priestly Formation, it will create a communal environment which makes it difficult for “users” to grow comfortable. Such an environment will be overtly evangelical and contemplative. It will not tolerate cynicism among seminarians, nor will it tolerate seminarians who only think in terms of political ideology, men who remain focused upon immature “self-care” or who attempt to “enlist” other seminarians in the ways of clericalism, role playing or duplicitous living. When these seminarians master such a “system” they find, quite chillingly, that “they no longer have to fight against God; they can simply do without Him.”14 In these rare, but ecclesially damaging, cases a man clings not to intimacy with the Trinity as his way of formation but simply to his own way (Acts 1:25) of formation. This way is ordered toward domesticating the mystical into the personally expedient and useful. These men are masters at adverting their eyes from the supernatural approach of God so they might become ecclesial bureaucrats with eyes on the clock and their travel apps.

The thought of beginning a process of intimacy with God is intimidating even for those without a personal agenda for being in seminary. For those men of “pure heart” who wish to simply be formed as priests, the call for transparency in prayer can begin as a halting experience. Directors know they need to be gentle, invitatory, and unfold the goals of prayer in a developmental manner as they share their recommendations with seminarians on how to become vulnerable to the presence of God. This patient work will secure a healthier and holier priesthood in the future.

  1. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Program of Priestly Formation (Wash, DC: NCCB, 1971), 6th ed, n. 225. Hereafter PPF.
  2. PPF n. 11. In reviewing past Programs for Priestly Formation from 1971, one can see that the image of a priest was one of a professional pastoral presence; today, in response to cultural transformations, I would indicate that the vision of priesthood has become one of a healed-mystic-teacher. The healing needed is emotional and spiritual, stemming from a boy’s participation in adolescent culture and its lack of demand for a boy to rise to interior maturity.
  3. “The pastoral care of the faithful demands that a priest have a solid formation and interior maturity. . . . He is called to act with great interior freedom. It is expected of him to internalize the spirit of the Gospel thanks to a constant and personal friendship with Christ. . . . The interior man needs to take special care of the interior spiritual life, centered principally on communion with Christ through the mysteries celebrated and nourished by personal prayer and meditation on the inspired Word. In silent prayer, the seminarian becomes docile to the action of the Spirit and . . . molds him in the image of the Master” Congregation for Clergy, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation (20160, n. 41–42).
  4. “Priestly formation implies a process of configuration to Christ the Head, Shepherd, Servant and Spouse (Cfr. RFIS, 35), which consists in a mystical identification with the person of Jesus, just as it is presented in the Gospels. This mystical process is a gift from God that will reach fulfillment through priestly ordination and constitutes a formative journey that will remain valid throughout all the ongoing formation. Every mystical gift demands the Counterpart of ascetical practice, which is the human effort that follows the gifts of grace.” Archbishop Patron Wong, Foundations of Priestly Formation, p. 5, www.clerus.va/content/dam/clerus/Dox/Conference%20-%20Foundations%20of%20Priestly%20Formation.pdf, accessed 9/16/2022.
  5. PPF 6 n. 267.
  6. PPF 6 n. 263.
  7. See my “From Fantasy to Contemplation: Seminarians and Formation in a Paschal Imagination” in James Keating, Configured to Christ: Clerical Formation and Spiritual Direction (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2021), 91–104.
  8. David Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2019), 26.
  9. PPF 6 n. 106; Ratio, n 107.
  10. PPF 6, n. 225–226.
  11. PPF 6 n. 226–7; Ratio, n. 101–102.
  12. PDV, 23.
  13. Ratio n. 41–42.
  14. PDV, 7.
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. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    Wow! You present a seminary formation so different from the one I experienced; I wonder Is it possible? The issues you identify when such a spiritual formation has not been followed are present in many of my interactions with Catholic priests today. My own spiritual formation in the seminary did not lead to a deep interior life of prayer flowing from the Eucharist. That came much later through experience with faithful disciples of the WAY. That raises a question. Is it possible for a man to be mature enough when he leaves the seminary, that he can live his life of the WAY you describe? What is the role of his relationship with faithful men and women with whom he ministers in his spiritual growth as a Missionary Disciple in the WAY?

    • Avatar james keating says:

      With the right priorities a man can be ordained knowing that God is his all in all, choosing a life of prayer as the foundation of his celibate commitment. If such maturity is not reached what would be the foundation of his vocational commitment? service alone? the single life as the occasion for availability?
      I think without the contemplative foundation the erotic is short changed and unaddressed. With such an oversight what will become of a man’s need to be loved and love in return? If we are going to continue to invite celibacy as part of priesthood then contemplative prayer has to be achieved.

      • Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

        I could not agree with you more, “without the contemplative foundation, the erotic is short-changed and unaddressed.” One cannot redo the past, but for me, the lack of contemplative prayer at the beginning of my priesthood contributed to the decisions I made to leave the active ministry of the priesthood.

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