An updated program to guide seminaries around the country published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will serve as a model for best practices in the formation of priests at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. The sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) was published in June.
A statement released on June 6 by the USCCB reads: “The sixth edition of this document which was promulgated on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 24, is particular law in the Church in the United States and serves as the guide for seminaries and priestly vocations programs that form men for the ministerial priesthood. This document was released in accordance with the Holy See’s 2016 document, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis. The PPF sets forth the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood, norms for the admission of candidates, norms for the formation of candidates and norms for the governance and administration of seminaries.”
Diocese of Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea (Class of 1973) and former Dean of Studies at Sacred Heart, served on the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations which updated the document. The committee submitted the PPF to the USCCB for approval and then to the Holy See for final approval. Bishop Boyea will become the chair of the committee in November; he also contributed to the previous, fifth edition of the PPF. Some of the changes resulting from the PPF could be implemented as early as the 2023-24 school year.
The PPF defines four stages of priestly formation: Propaedeutic, Discipleship, Configuration and Vocational Synthesis. Benchmarks at each stage allow seminaries to consider the men’s formation as movements in stages versus in academic sequences such as pre-theology and theology.
“We’re moving away from a strict understanding of the seminarians’ advancement as an academic succession to this idea of benchmarks,” said Bishop Boyea. “How do we help men meet certain standards as they are moving along in the process? That will be a change of mindset for faculty and formators.”
Father Stephen Burr, Rector and President of Sacred Heart, is approaching the PPF in a prudential manner as modifications are discussed and eventually implemented.
“This sixth edition of the PPF will ensure that we’re updated for the care of the seminarians and of their future ministry,” Father Burr said. “Ultimately, our goal here, and the goal of any seminary, is to form men into the heart of Jesus Christ so that the people of God are served and cared for. This PPF changes some of the language used and even the structure of seminary formation with that in mind.”
The beginning of formation for seminarians, the Propaedeutic Stage, and final phase of seminary, the Vocational Synthesis Stage, are the points at which the majority of the changes will occur.
“Right now, we follow a formation process that mirrored the intellectual formation process, meaning college and graduate school. Now with this first phase, the Propaedeutic Stage is the entry point for a seminarian in which they wouldn’t yet enter rigorous intellectual study,” said Father Burr. “Instead, they’ll take an in-depth approach to their human and spiritual formation. This would be a time for the man to break away from the world, to understand himself as well as the culture and life of the Lord’s Church, and to bring himself in a relationship with Jesus that would be difficult to have with daily life in the working world or in college. We want them to understand who God is and how he has made them. To be able to pause and do this without the rigor of academic life will be a great gift.”
The Vocational Synthesis Stage will allow each seminarian to experience pastoral life for six months within his own diocese prior to being ordained. The change will be especially significant for seminarians who attend seminary outside their home dioceses, especially those far from Detroit. Sacred Heart serves seminarians from thirteen dioceses and three religious orders.
“This stage is meant to synthesize your vocation—to integrate into the diocese with your bishop, your presbyterate and all the things associated with your diocese,” said Bishop Boyea. “It’s not meant to be an evaluative six months because you’re already evaluated when you become a deacon, but rather, to learn how to enter into that priestly life in one’s home diocese.”
Father Burr, in consultation with bishops, vocations directors and faculty, has formed committees to study the document in order to incorporate the PPF into the life of the seminary.
“I think this updated PPF gives us an opportunity to discern how we interact with and form the seminarians on a daily basis,” Father Burr said. “How do we form a man so that his interior self and his exterior output of ministry are ready every day for the people of God for the rest of his life? A document like this gives us a chance to regroup and refocus our efforts and to improve through the design in which the Holy Spirit is moving his Church.”