How the seminary prepares men to become well-rounded Catholic priests

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Fr. James Bernard was ordained this year at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

If you have come to The Saint Paul Seminary recently, you have likely had a visit with Father Aaron Downing from the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. Not only would you find him sitting in the lobby during his free time to welcome visitors, but you would encounter him in the hallways having a chat with staff, faculty, or anyone else around who needed a smile.

“He always has something to say,” said seminary business administrator Sue Quam with a laugh.

For Father Downing, his openness to conversation led to experiences of grace and formation throughout his time at The Saint Paul Seminary. “One of the reasons I love the seminary is the conversations I have with faculty and staff,” Downing said. “They have helped me learn how to better relate to people in a pastoral way.”

Downing’s simple story touches on an important point. Seminary formation is not isolated to one aspect, such as academic progress, but rather growth in four dimensions: human, intellectual, pastoral, and spiritual. In other words, everything matters—prayer, one’s health, studies and even the conversations with visitors.

“We are not learning in a vacuum but applying what we learn in action.” — Fr. James Bernard

The experience of Father James Bernard of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is a fitting example of integrative formation in action. After entering the seminary’s teaching parish program, where he was assigned to the Church of St. Henry’s in Monticello under the guidance of Father Patrick Barnes, Bernard realized his academic studies came to life when he was serving at the parish. “I never did amazing on tests,” Bernard said, “but when I went to my teaching parish, I saw how much I had learned and how internalized the classroom content had become.” On teaching parish weekends, Bernard preached on Sunday, helped with parish administration, and provided pastoral guidance to parishioners through RCIA and other parish activities.

“We are not learning in a vacuum but applying what we learn in action,” Bernard said.

Because each seminarian comes with his specific strengths and weaknesses, it is not surprising that one dimension of formation may come easily while another requires more significant effort and attention. The good news is that brother seminarians, priest formators, professors, and the rector are present to walk and guide the men to becoming fully alive in all the dimensions. It is within the daily life of the community where real growth happens.

“Whenever you need support or advice, there is always a seminarian, faculty member, or priest formator who is there to walk with you,” Downing said.

Father Downing felt a particular maturation in the area of human formation. Just two years after arriving at the seminary, he lost 80 pounds. Downing took a class taught by Susan Torborg, a Catholic health and fitness expert in the Twin Cities. The program, offered to all seminarians, focused on living a healthy lifestyle informed from a Catholic perspective.

“When we take care of ourselves, it helps complete and inform how we live,” Downing said. “I have way more energy now! I have even seen more fruit in my prayer and studies since losing the weight.”

There is no doubt the men of the class of 2021 have grown in each dimension of formation, and the list of stories is hard to count. But one thing is clear: the time God allowed the men to be formed at the seminary is a great gift. “We are truly blessed to have been here,” Downing said. “And now, God is calling us to go out and be missionaries and to share our testimony.”

With ordination complete, thank-you notes sent and parish placements assigned, the new priests are ready to go out into the world with the desire to see the Church on fire with the Holy Spirit. “It may seem like the world doesn’t want Christ,” Bernard said, “but it does because God made us for Him.”

“It is beautiful to see the work we do in all four dimensions of formation come together in a given seminarian as he prepares to give his life to Christ and the Church at his priestly ordination,” Taphorn said. “These new priests are an inspiration to me.”

Here are the four primary dimensions of priestly formation

The following are excerpts from Saint John Paul II’s document on priestly formation Pastore Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”).

Human: “The human formation of the priest shows its special importance when related to the receivers of the mission: 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.” (Paragraph 43)

Intellectual: “[Intellectual formation] is a fundamental demand of the human intelligence by which one “participates in the light of God’s mind” and seeks to acquire a wisdom which in turn opens to and is directed toward knowing and adhering to God…The intellectual formation of the future priest is based and built above all on the study of sacred doctrine, of theology. The value and genuineness of this theological formation depend on maintaining a scrupulous respect for the nature of theology.” (Paragraphs 51, 53)

Spiritual: “Spiritual formation … should be conducted in such a way that the students may learn to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit … Spiritual formation has its roots in the experience of the cross, which in deep communion leads to the totality of the paschal mystery.” (Paragraph 45)

Pastoral: “The whole training of the students should have as its object to make them true shepherds of souls after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, teacher, priest and shepherd… They [seminarians] should be trained for the ministry of worship and sanctification so that by prayer and the celebration of the sacred liturgical functions they may carry on the work of salvation through the eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments.” (Paragraph 57)

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of St. Paul Seminary’s magazine, the Oracle.

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