May I thank Fr. Lawrence Pinto for inviting me to give you this “keynote” address. My task, I take it, is to set the tone of the consultation and provide some preliminary points of reflection. Two questions are in my mind as I develop this reflection, namely:
a. What kind of priests are to be formed in and for Asia?
b. What kind of formation should they undergo?
It is not my intention to respond to these questions but only to describe the pastoral situation from which these questions arise. I hope that at the end of this consultation, the concrete shape of the answers might begin to emerge from your own reflection and discussion.
This reflection is from the perspective of a former seminary formator and of a pastor. My pastoral experience has been generally in rural areas and, for 20 years years, in a situation where the population is almost equally divided into Muslim and Christian.
Although my perspective so described may apply to many parts of Asia, I do not intend to generalize for Asia. I really wish to apply my observations to a much more restricted area, i.e., Southern Mindanao, Philippines. I shall develop my topic in three steps:
A. Lights and Shadows of the Life and Ministry of Priests in Asia;
B. Some Observations on the Formation Of Priests;
C. A Vision of Priests in Asia.
A. Lights and Shadows of Priestly Life and Ministry in Asia.
On May 25, 1992, Pope John Paul II issued his post-synodal exhortation on the formation of priests in our present circumstances, Pastores Dabo Vobis. He began with the words of Yahweh to the Prophet Jeremiah: “I shall give you shepherds after my own heart.” How would we see the fulfillment of these prophetic words today?
With lights and shadows, I am quite certain.
First of all, it would be safe to say that generally in Asia, God has blessed us with an embarrassment of riches with regard to vocations to the priestly and religious life. Seminaries and religious houses of formation usually do not lack candidates. Our problem is usually not the lack of vocations but the lack of material support for vocations. For instance, in the past five years I have seriously thought – twice - of temporarily closing our philosophy seminary until I could find enough financial support for it. I begin every school year with an act of faith, bordering on presumption, that “Deus providebit.”
There are many more lights in the situation regarding shepherds after the heart of God. Generally our priests are well educated, above the average population. Although most would come from obscure provincial or regional seminaries, priests do have solid academic training and a reasonably adequate spiritual formation. They might not always be the best and the brightest, but we can certainly be proud of them when they are ordained. They are deemed “worthy” in so far as human judgment can declare. They have successfully undergone many years of training and formation.
In the priestly ministry the lifestyle of our priests is simple, many times even austere to the point of being poor. They do reach out to the margins of society, even to remote villages. They exhibit a particular closeness – solidarity - with the poor, an ability to talk with them and be with them, based on sincere Christ-like compassion. Asian priests usually do not come from the Asian social elite. But after many years of seminary formation they generally do not forget or abandon their humble roots. In their ministry among the poor, they demonstrate an authentic seeking for the freedom and love, justice and peace of the Kingdom of God. They would be great promoters of a Church of the Poor.
Generally they get along well with most of their fellow priests and exhibit, at least with their ordination group, a deep human and spiritual bonding, befitting the sacramental bonding of all priests. They do strive together toward an ever deeper spirituality through prayer and ongoing formation by way of occasional seminars, regular retreats and recollections. There is no doubt that each one wishes and strives to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, his pastoral charity, his life and message.
But in the Asian priestly landscape are certain shadows that darken and disfigure the image of the priest. The number of priestly failure is surely insignificant among the tens of thousands of Asian priests. But the notoriety that this small number creates is sadly disproportionate.
People are scandalized and shocked by the extreme cases of egregious infidelity to priestly commitments, particularly to celibacy. They talk among themselves about the playboy image of this or that priest or suspect the sexual orientation of some others. It is tragic to note that in this matter a few priests may have become predatory. People are deeply pained by the lack of congruence between priestly commitment and priestly behavior. But the faithful are often a captive audience and they just have no choice but to bear with and pray for their priests, although they might send letters of complaint, even a delegation of parishioners, to their bishop.
So they also bear with the aloofness and patronizing attitude of some priests, their superior and domineering attitude, their lack of consultative and enabling leadership, the absence of collaboration with the laity and religious in pastoral decision making.
But they are even more saddened by what they see as pastoral mediocrity among some priests, their apparent disinterest in seeking more effective ways of ministry, their proclivity for the “easy way” of merely “sacramental” ministry, their wanting to remain in the status quo of ministry.
We can also see that quite a number have succumbed to the temptation of comfort and security. Sometimes it is also obvious that some priests have abandoned their priestly idealism and spirit of self-sacrifice for the more practical outlook of considering their priestly vocation as a step-up in the social and economic scale. For them the priesthood has become a means of livelihood, a career, rather than as a God-given vocation to serve. People make snide remarks about the “Church of the Poor” when they see some priests with the latest expensive electronic gadgets or even vehicles.
Moreover, in the eyes of people, a good number of priests are good priests simply because they are good organizers or planners, excellent managers or administrators.
Most of all, the fall of many a priest from their identity and place before the Lord and among the people has been significantly due to the lack of prayer life, a loss of awareness of the more fundamental elements of the gift of priesthood as a configuration to Christ, Head and Shepherd. This is the loss of an intimate relationship with Christ. The mutual cause-effect relationship between prayer and virtue, or between spiritual dryness, vice and errant personal relationships can be explored by scholars. But sooner or later, the loss of intimacy with the Lord leads to complete disaster -- the breakdown of priestly identity and the collapse of priestly ministry.
What is particularly tragic in all these various situations is the inability of a troubled priest to seek advice and solution from his bishop or from his fellow priests or to find any strength and healing as well as a compassionate support from his fraternity of priests. Most of the time, his undoing is his own sole responsibility. Sometimes his problem might be the bishop himself. Or it could also mean that the presbyterium does not live up to what it should be – a prayerful, caring, loving, personally and vocationally nurturing community of priests. Or the problem is all of the above.
Whatever the problem may be, priestly failure has far ranging ripple effect that does great damage to the priestly image and to the credibility of the Church. We need only cite the example of the Church in the United States.
B. Some Observations on Priestly Formation.
Many observers naturally inquire about the reasons for these lights and shadows in priestly life and ministry. Some will attribute responsibility to the kind of seminary formation that candidates to the priesthood go through.
There is some validity to that observation. Still I can sincerely state that despite the failures of a small minority of priests that I have spoken about, seminary formation – in terms of both personnel and process – is doing quite well.
However, may I mention a few areas where substantial improvement would be greatly desired.
1. It is axiomatic that seminary formation has to be a holistic continuum. It builds up from stage to stage. Yet in many cases there seems to be a lack of continuity between a special stage – a year - of spirituality formation and the other stages of formation. For instance, since the year of spirituality formation has been undergone, spiritual formation seems to be gradually taken for granted. There seems to be no real systematic follow-up of spiritual formation in the succeeding years.
2. In many cases there does not seem to be a definite orientation for the priesthood from day one of seminary formation. The idea seems to be that the seminarian should be given an opportunity to get a good education and in the process he would somehow get the call from God. Or there is the case of candidates, not yet deemed mature in their decision-making, where every year is a year of testing and discerning, until the final months before diaconate ordination.
3. The absence in seminary formation of a definitive orientation toward the priesthood or of a so-called mature decision to be a priest seems to make it possible for seminarians to have dangerous relationships up to the eve of definitive decision-making, i.e., up to the last year of theology.
4. In many cases, too, human maturity is not presumed until the beginning of theology, while their peers outside the seminary are considered mature enough to marry and have children of their own. This point of view is also carried over to the first few years of priestly ministry, during which the “baby”, meaning young, priests are not given heavy responsibilities. Surely the need for special care of priests in their first few years of ministry does not include the idea of being “babied” with regard to pastoral ministry and decision-making.
5. In the growth toward human maturity, perhaps not enough attention is given to the various stages of human development, as in Erickson’s theory regarding identity, intimacy and generativity, especially when the absence or delay of a definitive orientation to the priesthood makes “identity” problematic. Is it not rather late for already ordained priests to have seminars on psycho-sexual maturity? Would it not be better for such formation to be given to seminarians, especially in the latter part of their formation?
6. In many formation staff the services of a professional guidance counselor / psychologist are lacking. Where these are present, the need for consultation and coordination with professionally trained Spiritual Directors is strongly felt, with absolute respect for the “internal forum” and professional confidentiality. However, much care has to be taken to ensure that professional guidance counselors and psychologists at the service of seminary formation have the Christian vision of the human person and demonstrate great fidelity to the teachings of the Church on human behavior.
7. The idea and the reasons for “regency” or “leave of absence” to enable seminarians with special difficulties to continue their formation outside the seminary setting have to be better understood, both by the seminary staff and the diocesan pastoral staff to whom such seminarians might be asked to report. A lack of understanding, consultation and coordination has very unfortunate results on the vocation of a seminarian.
8. In most seminaries that I know of there is a lack of a practical pastoral theology course that would provide seminarians with the knowledge and skills of inter-religious dialogue, of pastoral planning, organizing and community building, e.g., the building of Basic Ecclesial / Human Communities, etc. Thus they do a sort of “on the job” training after ordination, most of it on their own, or through short term seminars.
D. A Vision of the Priest in Asia.
The final point I would like to deal with is the question: What kind of priest should we be forming in and for Asia?
The answer is suggested by the vision of Church in Asia that the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences has articulated in various ways.
Let me highlight certain elements of that vision in terms of priestly identity. These elements address the shadows of priestly failures and build on the lights of priestly life and ministry that I have mentioned.
I believe that Asian seminaries should help form a priest who is:
1. An integrally mature person – humanly, intellectually, spiritually, pastorally;
2. A person of God-experience;
3. A person driven by the Reign of God;
4. A person of the evangelical counsels;
5. A person of the poor;
6. A person of community;
7. A person of dialogue and peace;
8. A person of mission, in-mission, led by pastoral charity;
9. A humble companion, brother, father, mother, friend on the journey to the Kingdom;
10. A compassionate servant-leader.
The list above is quite formidable. Seminaries have about 10 years of formation to achieve this vision of the priest. Seminary formators can only do so much. The individual candidate himself is the principal agent. We can be strengthened and comforted by the realization that throughout the entire process of formation, the Holy Spirit is the Primary Formator.
But the teacher, as wise men in the Church have told us, cannot be really effective unless he is also a witness -- of the Good Shepherd unto whose image he helps form the seminarian. Beyond teaching then is the daunting task of being a role model.
May Mary, the Mother of Priests, intercede for us as we respond to the Lord’s call, Pastores dabo vobis.
+Orlando B. Quevedo, O.M.I.
Consultation by FABC-Office of the Clergy
Hua Hin, Thailand
May 15, 2006