This is the first of what I hope to be a series of essays on the topic of priestly formation. This is a topic that I believe needs some serious study in the Orthodox Church in the 21st century.
Recently, a priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese, was convicted of one count of assault and battery on a woman with whom he had a counseling relationship. Last week a story appeared in the National Herald of a 50 year old married seminarian at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts who is alleged to have had a sexual relationship with a teenage girl. In the same edition of the National Herald appeared a story of the New Dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in new York suggesting that the priest had anger issues that have existed for most of his ministry. These are just a few, very recent, examples of why I believe we need a discussion about how we are forming our clergy.
Back in the early 90’s I applied for admission to Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts. As part of the acceptance process I was required to undergo a battery of psychological and personality tests. Over a period of two days the tests were administered followed by an interview with a psychologist. The final report was given both to me and to the monastery. Since I was accepted for entrance I will assume there were no “red flags.”
Now fast forward to 2000 when I applied for admission to St. John’s Seminary of the Archdiocese of Boston. The psychological evaluation I had previously taken was used as well and another battery of tests to fill in the gaps since the test was first administered. Again no “red flags” as I was accepted to the seminary.
On March 25, 1992, Pope John Paul II released a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis – I Will Give You Shepherds. This exhortation covered all aspects of priestly formation and changed the way candidates for the priesthood are formed. It laid out a plan of four pillars of formation, Academic, Pastoral, Spiritual, and Human. Each area was fully explained and I will leave it to you to read the document if you wish. I submit that at the present time, for the most part, our seminary formation consists of academic and little less on the others.
As part of the seminary formation at St. John’s, each seminarian was required to have a faculty advisor and spiritual father. The seminarian would meet with both of these men once each month. Part of the spiritual father relationship was the sacrament of confession. I will suggest that a priest that does not receive the sacrament of confession on a regular, and by that I mean monthly, needs to reexamine their relationship to the Church. I say that to myself as much as to others. Confession for the priest is extremely important. If you do not have a spiritual father, GET ONE AND SOON!
Also, as part of the formation process, was the weekly meeting for human formation. During these times we had discussions about sexuality and, as it was the Roman Catholic Seminary, celibacy. Another topic was appropriate boundaries in pastoral relationships with children, people of the same sex, and people of the opposite sex. I found these sessions extremely helpful in my own formation and use the things I learned every day in pastoral ministry. I would also suggest that candidates for ordination who are married need to undergo some sort of marriage counseling. Realizing that marriage is challenging during the best of times, add the stress of pastoral ministry to it and it is a recipe for disaster. If the married couple is not properly formed in their married life, they need to learn skills that will assist them in ministry. I would add that in my belief couples should be married for several years after seminary prior to their ordination. I have seen many couples meet in seminary and start having children, graduate, get ordained, and head to their first parish all before they have really experienced married life.
Academics are important to the life of the priest, and yes the church needs theologians, but a priest is called to lead a local community first. He is called to be the spiritual head of that community, and although he needs a sound academic formation what I have found in close to eight years in ministry, is that I needed far more practical pastoral formation rather than the excellent academic formation I received.
We are living in a crazy world and what we need more than anything at this point are true pastors that understand that the role of the pastor is to love the people that God has put them in care of and to lead them to salvation. We need confessors and spiritual fathers who understand not only the sacrament of confession but also understand humanity in all its craziness and we need pastors who know their limitations and are not afraid to ask for help. I would also suggest that what is need is true Orthodox Monasticism here in America. We have some but we need many more. Authentic, stable monastic communities that can be examples of spirituality for the Church.
I have no credentials to suggest these things other than I am struggling in the fields and see where the church is going and only wish to help. I have made mistakes and learned from them. What I hope is that we can have a discussion on this topic, a true discussion and see where it leads.