In this article Fr Tolhurst [Spiritual Director in the English
College, Valladolid, Spain] puts forward the case for a more radical
approach to the spiritual training and formation of students for the
priesthood. By "radical" he means a return to the genuine
"roots" of Christian Formation, neither legalistic nor
open-ended, but based upon discipleship of Christ our Master.
It is a sad fact that we often realise the lack of formation only
when it is too late. Monica Baldwin (author of "I leapt over the
wall") wrote in later years "I am convinced that in my case
the cause of the trouble was failure to guard the citadel in the early
stages. When the big attack comes, you are swept away".1
Significantly she takes up the image from the parables of Christ and the
writings of St Teresa which speak of the work of construction, and the
chaos which follows from building on inadequate foundations.
We have tolerated an enormous variety of recipes in the field of
training future priests. Undoubtedly this was made inevitable by the
extreme legalism of most of the seminaries whose rule of life matched
their architecture in many cases. But this must not be over-exaggerated,
for in such surroundings Fr William Purcell (Spiritual Director of All
Hollows and later President) was able to do great work.2 It
is always possible—and stimulating for
academics—to take an aspect of a system and
maintain that "the retention of the Tridentine seminary absolutizes
an historical situation which is no longer relevant, favouring
inactivity and bureaucratic mediocrity... Exactly what Christ and His
Apostles tried to do away with in their dealings with the law-bound
priesthood of the synagogue".
So often the introduction of the "legalism" theme, like
that of usury in the contraception debate, is a device to support quite
another line of thinking. In the seminary-training debate it is
frequently argued that because the old system was rigid and did produce
some rigid priests, the solution would be to recast it in a form that
"is not very different from a university residence". The
resultant freedom would eliminate the possibility of pharisaism. But it
was not legalism which led Thomas More's father to withdraw his son from
Oxford, but the formation in heterodox teaching which he was likely to
receive from the disciples of the Reform. Oxbridge Colleges were
training grounds for the priesthood in the beginning, but they could
only remain so with strong doctrinal and moral teaching allied to a rule
of life. This was precisely the point at issue between the young Newman
and the provost of Oriel. "Newman thought such private supervision
was what the tutors were already paid to do; he also thought they had a
duty to take a personal interest in the young men, a pastoral care. This
in fact, was what tutorship became in Oxford, and Oriel never recovered
from the measures the Provost now took to ensure that it should not be
so in his college".3 In the measure that there
was little formation in the old dispensation, the university-residence
arrangement merely canonized a state of affairs. But insofar as
formation was made possible under a tighter set-up, this would be edged
out by the general academic spirit of an agnostic academic environment,
and by a frenetic pace leaving no time for reflection.
The stimulus of changing from a rule-oriented system to a free range
programme is also supported by the argument from "alienation".
The former training is alleged to inhibit the normal development of the
personality, producing the scrupulous and inhuman characters of
literature seen in the novels of A. J. Cronin and James Joyce and more
recently in Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Their
counterparts do exist unfortunately in real life but it is not certain
that a more pastoral emphasis (which the Decree Optatam totius calls
for)4 would overcome what are personality problems, due often
to personal, spiritual weakness.
It is no accident that the new style seminary-cum-university
residence has produced more than its share of personality disorders. The
Council decree warns that the discipline of seminary life should not be
regarded merely as a sensible arrangement within which community life
and mutual charity can flourish.5 A loose system will lead to
loose morals—that is the law of fallen
nature and the constant experience of the Church's history, and it is
naive to think otherwise.
We must try and shrug off the guilt complex that seminaries are an
expedient faute de mieux. We can apologise for past
failings and most of us in seminaries feel at times that we are atoning
for them also, but enough is enough. Let us realise that seminaries were
a providential development and, as the Council says, "continue to
be necessary for the formation of priests".6 A glance at
history will perhaps reinforce our case.
The seminarist as disciple
Although Cardinal Bellarmine can be pointed out as the first founder
of a diocesan seminary subsequent to the recommendation of Trent, he was
giving a new meaning to a very old truth. The Book of Kings refers, in
the Elijah and Elishah cycle, frequently to the "sons of the
prophets" (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7 etc.,) who are described as "men
of strong Yahwistic faith who lived a common life under their
teacher". We notice in these highly coloured, charismatic accounts
many of the features of the master-disciple, or guru-samanera (to use
the Eastern terms) which explain the strength of prophetic tradition in
Israel. It coalesces with the priestly role to a greater or lesser
extent as can be seen in the relationship of Eli and Samuel, and the
members of the Qumran community. There is a continuing debate as to
whether John the Baptist retired into the desert to share their common
life or not, but in him, the son of a priest of Aaron's line, the
master-disciple relationship was expressed in a unique way.
It is not fashionable to pine for features of the old liturgy but one
must admit that the composers of the Confiteor brought off a
master-stroke by including the intercession of John the Baptist. We have
Our Lord's own witness that "there is no greater prophet than
John" (Luke 7:28), and the quality of such greatness which humbles
itself in the presence of the Lamb of God is shown by allowing his
disciples to desert him, the bridegroom's friend. Such was the
understanding between them that John's disciples come to tell Jesus of
his death (Matthew 14:12) as if to underline that John would go before
him in all things (Luke 1:17).
There is great scope for dramatic talent which has scarcely been
explored, if we except Salome and a short story by Flaubert
which, even so, both ignore the personality of John and his
fascination. Our Lord had but to build on this personal bond when he met
two of his disciples to whom he had been pointed out by their master.
They would have recalled again and again the first words of that deep
and abiding relationship "What do you seek"! for never did man
speak as this Man. He offered the supreme invitation, inspiring them to
walk with him in the cool of the evening as man walked with God in
paradise until the shadows lengthened on the wall and still they had not
finished their questions.
While researching the inner meaning of Scripture we must not become
so academic that we pass by the vibrant, larger than life, Personality
of Jesus, the Messiah; that living relationship which bound the
disciples to him, their Lord and God, must surge out of the pages of the
Gospel as we research their hidden depths. He was at great pains to form
them in the mysteries of the kingdom despite their slowness of
intellect, asking frequently: "Have you understood all this?"
(Matthew 13:51). "Do you not yet perceive?" (Mark 8:17).
Finally "interpreting to them in all the scriptures the things
concerning himself" (Luke 24: 27, 45-47).
This same task was eagerly accepted by the Church. We have only to
think of Peter and Mark, John and Polycarp, Paul and Timothy. The great
apostle to the nations can refer to the son of Eunice as "my true
child in the faith" (1 Timothy 1:2) and "my son" (2
Timothy 2:1) so great is the bond between them. The Church dares to bare
its very soul as a father would to his own flesh and blood "for I
became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then,
be imitators of me" (1 Corinthians 4:15-16) "as I am of
Christ" (Philippians 3:17).
The formation of a follower of Christ is a work of great depth and
honesty. It dares to say "be imitators of me"; and can be
compared to a new birth: "my little children, with whom I am again
in travail until Christ be formed in you!" (Galatians 4:19). No
wonder that so many took refuge in legalism and now suggest open-plan
training. There is less risk involved, much less to be both lived and
If we grant the defects of the "Colditz era" of seminary
training, we ought to realise that what often redeemed it was the deep
commitment of certain members of the staff. It was not so much what they
actually said but their whole attitude of care and involvement with our
own lives which ultimately formed us.7 We could see in them
the commitment in peace and joy which lay at the root of our own
vocation, the fulfilment of those lines of Chaucer on the parish priest:
His business was to show a fair behaviour
And draw men thus to heaven and their Saviour.
Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their love
He taught; but followed it himself before.8
What has always been demanded is the showing of love, caught from the
love of Christ for us and our response to him.
The essence of formation is not by itself the fulfilment of certain
requirements: "Do this and you will live..." (Matthew 10:29)
but the perfecting of the law in love, the acceptance of the demand
"If you will be perfect..." which cannot be understood outside
a personal and direct appeal from Jesus Christ: "and Jesus looking
upon him loved him" (Mark 10:21). We must dare to restore that
dimension to the work of priestly formation. Students for the priesthood
must be inspired to follow Christ not simply as an ideal and as the
great High Priest but as a response in love communicated to them by one
who spends himself willingly for them out of love for Christ.
There must be "personality cult"
There is no room for the bureaucratic job orientated approach neither
in the seminary, nor in the family; for the priest who forms
students is called to be a Father above all. This was the role,
which God's providence gave to the Abbé Balley in the life of the Curé
of Ars, whom he called "his beloved Vianney" and to Fr van
Esch at a turning point in the affairs of St Peter Canisius. It must be
true that every priest was inspired by another to think of the
priesthood for himself, glimpsing what Father means. When an old
man, Thomas Godwin recalled his days when he was a member of the
Birmingham Oratory under Newman: "Little do the other world know
how beautifully the family was managed—I
think I can see the Father (Newman) sitting in his little room receiving
first this one and then the other, directing, guiding, calling each by
their names as if he was their very father."9 A father
naturally gives his whole self for his children, he cannot do otherwise.
Because a priest is called Father there is even more reason why
we should not regard it merely as a courtesy title but exercise that
fatherhood to which we are called by him from whom all Fatherhood in
heaven and on earth takes its title.
It has been said that the priest's "fatherhood" is the more
real as it becomes a pure transparency for the unique Fatherhood of God
and knows its dependence on the one Spirit who alone guides our hearts.
The father who is worthy of that name in the natural order knows himself
to be dependent in the exercise of his authority on an order greater
than himself in which he is included. Even more is this true of the
spiritual father. "...These images are not simply the external
reproductions of a reality that we could never attain, but a sort of
participation, thanks to which finite beings, in the activities that
they are called by nature or by grace to exercise, are carried along in
the movement of creative love and become the repositories of a power
that is greater than themselves. In the disinterestedness with which a
spiritual father undertakes, for no advantage except for love, to commit
himself to the service of another in order to help him on his way to
God, there is a dynamism which, if we could perceive its source, would
seem to spring from the depths of divine compassion".10
It is strange that we ever thought otherwise. The whole
seminary system did not emerge from some penitentiary blue-print
discussion but arose out of a desire to further and temper the love
which beckoned: "come and see". This cannot be
accomplished by rules nor even by exhortation, it must be communicated
by the personality. Christ is the Living Personality of the Word of God
and in the formation of priests he uses the personality of others
"since every priest in his own way assumes the Person of
Christ".11 In theory we accept this in our expression "alter
Christus" but have we given a real assent to the
character being a sharing in the likeness of Christ the Priest in his
relationship to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and to
mankind? Obviously this point exceeds the scope of the present article
and can only be considered in so far as it affects the vocation of the
priest to form disciples in wisdom and truth. It is mentioned here
because there is a current of opinion which finds the notion of
"character" difficult and therefore reduces it and allied
terms to the realm of the cliché. Yet priestly formation is a specific
work of the priest. His vocation should impel him to make disciples
because he shares the priestly character of Christ who from the very
beginning of his pastoral activity began to form those who would follow
his way. It is a question of "having that mind which was in Christ
Jesus" (Philippians 2:5) with all that it implies. It is an
awe-inspiring perspective because Christ is Priest for ever of the whole
of creation until he delivers the Kingdom to God the Father (1
Corinthians 15:24). He is also priest in and through us.
Forming of men in wisdom and love
It is pointless protesting that we are unworthy servants if we are
then going to take refuge behind our wretched lack of spirituality and
become neither worthy nor servants. We must allow His Personality to
impact on us, drawing us out "to the measure of the stature of the
fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Is this perhaps the deep
meaning of those words "let your light so shine before men, that
they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in
heaven" (Matthew 5:16)? For Christ wishes to suffuse the whole
personality in such a way as to draw our disciples to follow after that
Light which enlightens all men.
If we are meant to form disciples by the impact of our personality on
theirs we must reflect on the challenge this makes as well as the
restraints it imposes. It is a challenge to allow oneself to be seen as
one who loves God and strives to do his will in all things, finding joy
in that above all. For, as the financier is committed to the rise and
fall of the money market, waking or sleeping, so must we radiate a total
fulfilment in the things that are of God and communicate it to others.
There should be that spirit which animated Peter and John when they
replied to the chief priests "We cannot but speak of what we have
seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).
We can glimpse in the apostles that warmth which spread to the whole
communion of those who believed. If Christ does take hold of the whole
personality, He must transmit that warmth which then spreads from us. We
cannot expect disciples to be formed in the notion of the Way of wisdom
and truth, pursued in love unless they are shown it in practice. The
Word of God was made flesh, and the Christ-principle extends throughout
the Church, down to the poor individual priest who is only too conscious
of his own inadequacies but at the same time relies on the strength of
Christ "for his power is made perfect in our weakness" (2
The place of perfect honesty
Here is the solution to the problem of "personal
attachments", if we heed the advice of the great spiritual writers.
We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, as we must inculcate
honesty in our disciples. Such honesty requires it to be said that it is
an Anglo-Saxon, Freudian misconception that friendship must topple over
into a sexual relationship. It was born from a cold mind in a cold
environment. We have, on the other hand, the witness of Scripture that
David loved Jonathan "as he loved his own soul" (1 Samuel
20:17) and, after he had been slain in battle, could say: "your
love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel
1:26). Is it not also true that St John was proud to call himself
"the disciple whom Jesus loved" and that he reclined on the
breast of Our Lord at the Last Supper? It is quite dishonest to drag in
sex and, in fact, is bad psychology also. A priest-psychologist has
written "from my experience I can affirm quite definitely that the
greater part of the unconscious motivation that drives priests to
question, or even to abandon celibacy is the lack of a living, fraternal
Not only is it possible not to drag sex into friendship but honesty
demands that we make the effort to evaluate the spiritual feeling of joy
and discriminate between it and the specifically sensual. Such is the
impact of original sin that in any teacher-disciple relationship, there
can be a triggering of sensual reactions but these should only serve to
deepen our humility if we really do desire to serve God in the
friendship and draw others towards the love of God, and are not looking
for some secret gratification of the ego.13 It is perhaps the
coy unwillingness to accept such humiliation and discipline that has led
to the growth of charismatic groups involving priests and seminarians.
These provide for an outlet to the "deep need for personal security
and emotional expression"14 but because of their
emphasis on emotions do not bring about that formation in wisdom which
alone can centre the whole personality on God who alone is perfect joy.
Personal growth in Christ through contemplation
It is surely essential that a journey on the way to God of teacher
and disciple must, if it is to avoid needless delays and false avenues,
follow the writings of the contemplative Fathers and Saints of the
Church. Every seminary possesses the great sermons of Basil, Chrysostom,
Damascene, Augustine, Leo, and Hilary in translation. The works of the
two great modern mystics and Doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and
John of the Cross are also now in paperback.15 Their
teachings will burn-in the message of all formation for the priesthood,
that "it is in silence of spirit, in discipline, in contemplative
prayer that one must die that one may live with more abundance".16
The teacher must measure himself by the standards of the Saints, and
in humility of heart apply the teachings to himself. At the same time he
must gradually, like a builder laying his foundations, introduce his
disciple to the total challenge asked of him. The rate or progress must
be in proportion to each individual so that he does not become
discouraged. But the personality must be inexorably led in the path of
wisdom and reminded from time to time if he is holding back. In this way
there is a real spiritual growth which can resist the ravages of
spiritual decay, and the other pitfalls of a shallow personality.
We return again to those words of St Paul "be imitators of me,
as I am of Christ". We must not think this implies any arrogance
either on the part of the apostle or the teacher of future priests. We
are asked to share with another all that Christ means to us, the
sufferings and joys which make up the work of his priesthood. We must
allow our personalities to speak for themselves as did Blessed Peter
Favre, of whom we are told by a contemporary "in his dealings with
others, there was a singularly charming sweetness and grace, such as, to
speak truly, I never found in anybody else. By some means or other, he
would win their friendship, gradually steal into their hearts and with
his amiable manner and slow, pleasant words, kindle in them a mighty
love of God".17
Just as the Spirit of God's love infused with life the dry bones of
Ezekiel's vision, so can our love and dedication breathe into our
present structures all that is needed18 to make the
preparation for the priesthood that perpetually relevant enterprise. It
is this love, guided by wisdom and deepened in humility, which urges not
a way of expediency but an ever deeper commitment. May we strive
together to build up that commitment until Christ is formed.
1) Letter to The London Times 5th January 1968.
2) Cf. Between The Unseen and Seen (a collection of his
conferences) (All Hallows Dublin 1971).
3) Newman's Journey: Meriol Trevor (Fontana 1974) page 41.
4) Decree on Priestly Training: paragraph 19.
5) Decree iam cit. paragraph 16 and "The Role and
Training of the Priest as Spiritual Director" Fr Curtis Hayward's
working paper 1976.
6) Decree iam cit. paragraph 4.
7) Priestly Ministry and Life: paragraph 5.
8) Canterbury Tales: The Prologue (Coghill Translation page
9) Newman's Journey page 165.
10) The Direction of Conscience: Jean Laplace (Chapman 1967)
pp. 70 and 92.
11) Priestly Ministry and Life: paragraph 12.
12) Celibacy and Personality Problems: J. B. Torello (Catholic
Position Papers: August 1972).
13) The Power and Meaning of Love: Thomas Merton (Sheldon
Press 1976) p. 77 and The Way of Perfection: Teresa of Avila
14) The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues: J.P. Kildahl
(Hodder 1972) p. 30.
15) Complete Works of St Teresa of Avila (translated by E. Allison
Peers) 3 volumes (Sheed and Ward). The Collected Works of St John of the
Cross (translated by Kieran Kavanagh and Otilio Rodriguez) (I C S
Publications Washington). The Interior Castle of St Teresa is
published separately by Sheed and Ward, and The Dark Night of the Soul
by St John, by Burns and Oates.
16) Catholicism: A New Synthesis: Edward Holloway (Faith
Keyway 1976) page 131 and Christian Formation (Faith 1976) page
17) Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesus: Epistolae (Madrid
1903) p. 453.
18) Cf . Pope Paul to Roman Clergy 20 February 1975: "Let us
have the humility to sanctify the Body, even the prosaic,
administrative, material things of the Church, to raise them in their