In 1981 the Holy Father John Paul II initiated an apostolic visitation
of all major seminaries and religious houses of priestly formation in
the U.S.A. Bishop John Marshall of Burlington was appointed Apostolic
Visitor. Two years of consultation, preparation and recruitment
followed. There are so many seminaries in the U.S.A. that Bishop
Marshall has had to draw on nearly seventy bishops, religious superiors
and seminary experts to assist him. His chief assistants have been
Bishop Donald Wuerl and, more recently, Mons. Richard Pates.
The visitation teams of five or six members began their visits in
1983. The last visits will be completed in October 1987. Each seminary
sends a complete set of its documentation to the Apostolic Visitor in
advance of the visit. Normally this documentation amounts to about six
hundred pages, since it contains all the formation programmes,
timetables, syllabuses of courses, bibliographies, seminary handbook,
rule, balance sheet, and an extensive self-evaluation. These documents
are read by the members of the visitation team.
The actual visit is conducted in a week. The visitation team examines
every aspect of priestly formation: the admissions procedure, the
faculty, the spiritual, liturgical, academic and pastoral dimensions of
formation, the rationale, morale and potential of the seminary.
Interviews are conducted with the bishops who send students to the
seminary, with the rector and staff, with many of the seminarians, with
some recent graduates of the seminary, and with some of their pastors.
On the last day of the visit a verbal report is given to the
seminary. This is put into writing and submitted to the Holy See. Then,
the Holy See makes an analysis of it, and then addresses a final report
on the seminary to the bishop or religious superior who is responsible
A general report on the first phase of the visitation, i.e. mainly
theologate level formation of candidates for the diocesan priesthood,
was sent in September 1986 to the U.S.A. Episcopal Conference. The
second phase concerns the college (philosophy) level seminaries for
diocesan candidates; and the third phase treats the candidates for the
priesthood in the Religious Orders and Congregations. General reports on
these phases will be issued in due course.
The Holy Father is kept informed of the progress of the visitation on
a regular basis, but very important are the occasions when Bishop
Marshall is received by him to report in person, once or twice a year.
Bishop Marshall's patience, diligence and management have been superb.
The cooperation of the seminaries with the visitation has been
excellent. Praise, of course, is always acceptable, but even criticisms
have generally been constructively received. In fact, one of the
findings of the visitation so far is that good seminary staff, i.e. the
people who do the basic work of priestly formation—and who do it well—do
not receive the recognition they deserve. They are taken for granted.
Individual seminaries which have a clear idea of the ordained
priesthood, a sound understanding of vocation, and a conviction born of
theology and experience of the need for a specialized formation for the
priesthood have received particular praise. Vatican Council II affirmed
the necessity of seminaries for the formation of priests, though some
seminaries have been subjected to much pressure to become centres of all
sorts of ministerial formation, their concept of the ordained priesthood
being in danger of being submerged in an undifferentiated notion of
ministry in general. The visitation is enabling these seminaries to
recover their identity and vocational clarity.
Every seminary without exception has a spiritual formation programme.
Within the spiritual formation programme much attention is given to
formation for priestly celibacy. Commitment required by the priesthood
is for life-long service after the example of our Lord himself. In the
Latin Rite of the Catholic Church our priests are celibate because the
Lord was celibate, a dimension of his self-sacrificing ministry and
death. It has particular value in the modern world and one of the
features of the visitation is to see that our seminarians are
theologically, spiritually and psychologically prepared for it.
Some seminaries have academic programmes of the highest quality, but
some others have lacunae, largely because of the erosion of
philosophy and the many demands for the introduction of new courses into
the curriculum, resulting in a theological thinness. The report on each
seminary points out its intellectual strengths, and indicates what
intellectual weaknesses are to be repaired, especially if there be any
confusion about the teaching of the Magisterium.
The conciliar emphasis on pastoral formation has been well received
in the U.S.A., though some seminaries responded too enthusiastically,
with dire effects on the spiritual and academic dimensions. Most
seminaries have learned quickly from their experience in this matter.
Sometimes, a report on an individual seminary has called for the
development of a clearer idea of the priest's contribution to the
various pastoral situations.
By and large, the seminaries have actually enjoyed the visitations.
They have particularly valued the involvement of the bishops, the
generosity and hard work of whom have raised much frequent comment.
Other apostolic visitations of seminaries have been planned, are under
way or have already been completed in Italy, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and
the Philippines. Each visitation is conducted in accordance with each
country's needs. In the U.S.A. this has meant teamwork and the intimate
involvement of the bishops, under the leadership of the Apostolic
Visitor. When the Holy Father launched the visitation he asked that it
"take the pulse" on priestly formation in the U.S.A. That is
what it is doing. In a way, it is the Pope's contribution to the
formation of priests who are holy, humble and learned, steeped in the
Word of God they preach, hallowed by the sacraments they celebrate for
the people, compassionate and reconciling of sinners, concerned and
generous to the poor, the sick and the afflicted, faithful to the
Magisterium of the Church, and confident of the grace of God to help
them hand on his Revelation.