The Apostolic Visitation of Seminaries in the U.S.A.

Author: Cardinal William W. Baum


Cardinal William Wakefield Baum
Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education

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 for it.

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.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 August 1987, page 2

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