Ever since Vatican Council II, formation of priests has gained great attention in the church. There have been repeated acts from the part of the magisterium on this matter of great importance for the life of the church. The Council itself issued two documents Optatam Totius on priestly formation and Presbyterorum Ordinis on the ministry of priests.
On the basis of the documents from the Council, on 6th January 1970, Congregation for Catholic Education, the then competent dicastery in this matter, published the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacramentalis. (Only on 16th January 2013 priestly formation was entrusted to the Congregation for Clergy). On 19th March 1985 the Congregation for Catholic Education itself amended the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacramentalis, above all, by updating the foot notes in the light of the Promulgation of the Code of Canon Law. St John Paul II issued the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis on 15 March 1992. Pope Benedict XVI published the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio “Ministrorum Institutio” on 16th January 2013. It is by the encouragement of Pope Francis that a recent document “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation” was published by the Congregation for the Clergy on 8th December 2016. It could be considered the latest Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacramentalis.
This document sates: “In accordance with the norms of Articles 56 & 58 § 2 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, this Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacramentalis does not apply to the Eastern Catholic Churches subject to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. They must prepare their own liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony” (n. 1).
The Charter for Priestly Formation in the Syro-Malabar Church was for the first time prepared by the Synod and was issued by the Major Archbishop Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil on 15 August 2007. It is a well studied document taking into consideration the teaching of the Church through various magisterial documents and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. It is up to us now to examine whether the Charter for Priestly Formation requires a revision taking into consideration the new orientation proposed by the Congregation for the Clergy in the revised text of Ratio Fundamentalis (2016). On the basis of this latest document from the Congregation for Clergy and the theological and pastoral developments in the pastoral care for vocations I would like to make the following observations:
1. Priestly Vocation- its origin from and fulfilment of the basic Christian vocation. By baptism every Christian is reborn in the Holy Spirit and becomes a child of God in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. By baptism every person participates in the common priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood of Christ. “There is only one priesthood, the priesthood of Christ. However, there are two ways of participating in it: common priesthood of all the baptized and ministerial priesthood of the ordained. They are ordered to one another but differ essentially, and not in degree (LG 10). ‘The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood’ (CCC 1547) in the sense that it is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians and the building up of the Church” (The Charter for Priestly Formation in the Syro-Malabar Church, n. 11)
2.Discernment of Vocations. A baptised person gets his priestly vocation in the community of faithful where he lives his life of faith. His vocation is also nurtured and brought to maturity by the community of faithful. The parents, the teachers, especially the formators of faith, the priests, the consecrated men and women and the laity involved in different ecclesial activities are all responsible for the discernment of vocations of a candidate to priesthood. Priestly formation is an ecclesial responsibility, guided and approved by the overseeing role of the Bishop in a local church. In the present circumstances the discernment of vocations is of prime importance. The motivations of the candidates are to be well ascertained and cared for by the different institutions in the church.
3. Initial Formation and Ongoing Formation. It is a new insight very much emphasised in the new Ratio Fundamentalis that the priestly formation given in the minor and major seminaries continues in the ongoing formation of priests during their ministry. Both initial formation and ongoing formation are seen to be just two parts of the one whole. Through both the initial formation and the continued formation, the person who has priestly vocation attains the discernment, maturation and perfection in priestly personality and pastoral ministry. “Beginning with presbyteral ordination the formation process continues within the family of presbyterate. It belongs to the Bishop, with the help of his assistants to lead the priests into the dynamic of ongoing formation” (Cf. Directory for the pastoral ministry of Bishops from the Congregation for BishopsApostolorum Sucessores, n. 83; Ratio Fundamentalis, n. 79)
4. Holy Priests for a Holy people. The vocation to priesthood is both for the perfection of the priest and the people whom he serves. The initial formation in the seminary and the ongoing formation in priestly life should help the priests to attain his holiness in life and lead the people to holiness through his ministry. If the purpose of the formation in the seminary is to form a priestly heart, the purpose of the ongoing formation is to feed the ‘fire’ that gives light and warmth to the exercise of the ministry. Priesthood is perfected in pastoral charity” (Cf. Ratio Fundamentalis, n. 55& n. 80)
5.The Task of Evangelization. ‘Every Priest is a missionary’, says the Charter for Priestly Formation of the Syro-Malabar Church. “The call to ministerial priesthood is a call to discipleship, a call ‘to be with Him and to be sent out to proclaim’ (Mt. 3, 14). The priest is a person with the mission to proclaim the Word and to build up the community of believers. Hence, basically priestly ministry is nothing other than missionary activity. They are entrusted not only with the pastoral care of the Christian community but also with the evangelization of their fellow citizens who do not know Christ. Seminary formation should equip and encourage the candidates in every way for this missionary-pastoral life”. (The Charter for Priestly Formation in the Syro-Malabar Church, n. 45). It is to be noted that the Charter for Priestly Formation presents missionary formation as one of the dimensions of priestly formation together with the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions, while only these latter four dimensions are dealt with even in the Ratio Fundamentalis
In the introduction the Ratio Fundamentalis also emphasizes the missionary role of the priests. “Since the priest-disciple comes from the Christian community, and will be sent back to it, to serve it and to guide it as a pastor, formation is clearly missionary in character. Its goal is participation in the one mission entrusted by Christ to His Church that is evangelisation, in all its forms”.
6.Human Formation. I know very well that this seminar was on human formation in major seminaries. The Charter for Priestly Formation in the Syro-Malabar Church has dealt with it in its chapter two. It says that human formation is to facilitate the process of becoming fully and genuinely human. It helps the candidates to priesthood to become integrated human persons. The Charter deals with the different aspects of human formation under the titles, ‘A Sound Mind in a Sound Body’, ‘Nurturing One’s Talents’, ‘Emotional Maturity’, ‘Affective Maturity’, ‘Mature and Healthy Relationships’, ‘Responsible Freedom’ and ‘Sound Value System’.
It is my observation that the Charter for Priestly Formation in the Syro-Malabar Church has not gained sufficient attention and study in our Church. However, I presume that the contributors of this seminar have made references to this important document. It is quite normal that we make our studies and references on the basis of the magisterium of the Universal Church. At the same time, in the Indian context, contributions of our own Church also have to be taken into account in matters of ecclesial importance.
Seminary Formation- Responsibility of the whole Church
Finally, I would like to bring to your attention a new emphasis in seminary formation. Formation of candidates to priesthood is not simply the responsibility of Bishops and Seminary authorities. It is a common commitment from the part of the candidate, the family of the candidate, the parish priest of the candidate and the people of God as a whole, under the overseeing and guidance of the Bishop concerned. After having discussed this ecclesial concept of seminary formation the Synod decided to have a Formation Consultation Council in every seminary incorporating lay people and religious men and women. Recently the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church decided to, “to request the seminaries to constitute Formation Consultation Council, incorporating lay people and religious men and women (Cf. Minutes of Monday 29 August 2016 of the XXIV Synod (2016) held from 22 August to 2 September 2016).
Let me place on record my deep appreciation to Dharmaram College and in particular the organizers of this seminar for your farsightedness in visualising the need of the times to reflect on the aspect of human formation in seminaries and the perfection you have manifested in the conduct of this seminar. May God bless you all!