Three Downstate Dioceses Pursue New Path in Priestly Formation


Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn and Bishop John O. Barres of Rockville Centre announced Oct. 27 the launching of new programs at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie to enhance seminary training, beginning next fall, as part of their implementation of a new model of priestly formation in the United States.

That model, released earlier this year in the sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, a publication of a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, aligns with the 2016 document of the Holy See, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutiones Sacerdotalis, where priestly formation seeks to form “missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master…”

Candidates for the priesthood will journey through four stages accompanied by a community of formators: Propaedeutic, Discipleship, Configuration and Vocational Synthesis.

“Demands on the priesthood today require a deep friendship with Jesus and a team of mentors willing to journey with the priests of tomorrow, particularly during these years of formation,” Cardinal Dolan said.

St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie will be the new site for the recently created Propaedeutic Year for intensive human and spiritual formation as well as for the study of graduate-level philosophy. The Propaedeutic Stage will seek to give priesthood candidates a firm foundation in prayer, discernment and personal growth. The Dunwoodie campus will provide a dedicated space in a reflective atmosphere and allow for the engagement of an experienced faculty.

Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, detailed the program in a phone interview with CNY last week. “Given the challenges that young people today face in our increasingly de-Christianized culture, this program helps the seminarian to acclimate to the life and ministry of the priesthood.”

The world around us, he said, holds different values and perspectives “on everything from technology to how we find fulfillment in life.”

“This is really an opportunity for seminarians to be acculturated to the life of the Church as a priest, in a priestly vocation.”

Asked how the new program differs from what has been done, Bishop Massa explained it looks at formation for the priesthood “not in terms of academic steps to be taken. In the past we spoke about minor seminary and major seminary” and used terms such as “pre-theologians or college seminarians and major seminarians.”

The nomenclature, he said, has changed for a reason. “Now there are four stages of the journey of the seminarian to the priesthood.”

Bishop Massa used the word “organic” to describe the process. “We’re dealing with living, human beings. And we’re inviting them into a process in which they grow humanly, spiritually, intellectually and pastorally. It’s not just about getting a degree in theology. Ministry is not like that. It’s the whole human being that God wants and needs for this service.”

From the moment a man begins to respond to the call to the priesthood, he is an aspirant. “These are those who are aspiring to the priesthood. They hear the call of the Lord. They’ve encountered Christ in their lives and they hear the call and they are responding to the call,” Bishop Massa said.

They are received into seminary formation as aspirants, Bishop Massa said. For those who enter without a college degree, that could include one or two years of undergraduate studies, living in a college seminary, not at Dunwoodie, but out of state, followed by the Propaedeutic Year at Dunwoodie, Bishop Massa said.

For those who enter the system with a college degree, they begin with the Propaedeutic Year, he said. 

“Some have compared this, for good reason, though it’s not an exact comparison, with a novitiate year as happens in the religious orders. Both groups do the Propaedeutic Year.”

The Propaedeutic Year “is a year of intense human and spiritual formation,” Bishop Massa said. “They have to do a very, very deep dive into their personalities, into their wounds. We all carry wounds in life and we have to know ourselves, and know our backgrounds, our family backgrounds, all the challenges we have faced on a human level throughout our lives. This is the time to do that. 

“In addition, it’s a time to really learn the disciplines of prayer that are part of the life of a priest,” including morning and evening prayer, night prayer and reading the Bible from cover to cover. “We have to be men of the Word of God, able to preach the Word of God to our people in a way that’s engaging, the way that speaks to their issues.”

Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church “from start to finish” and doing a study of the Catechism will also be on the agenda “so you know well the beliefs of Catholics.”

They also get to know their diocese during this year by visiting with priests.

There will be time allotted for apostolic work, Bishop Massa said, and perhaps a pilgrimage. Another feature of the Propaedeutic Year, he explained, is that “we want the guys to cultivate interior freedom in relation to technology so we’re going to ask them to do a smart phone fast, a computer fast, from Sunday evening until Saturday morning.”

For what is now called the Discipleship Stage, seminarians pursuing their master’s in Catholic philosophy will be moving from the Immaculate Conception Center of the Diocese of Brooklyn in Douglaston, Queens, to the Dunwoodie campus. Undergraduate seminarians will study philosophy and complete this stage of formation at one of the pre-existing programs out of state. 

During the Discipleship stage, a second discernment is considered, Bishop Massa said as they ask themselves, “Am I confident? Am I ready to be engaged?”

The Configuration Stage, with the study of theology, will continue at Dunwoodie. “What are you being configured to? The answer is who,” Bishop Massa said. “You are being configured to Jesus Christ, the High Priest. He is the first priest. All priests of the Church, to exercise their ministry well, to live this vocation, truly must be configured to Jesus Christ the High Priest.”

At this stage, theology and its subdisciplines are pursued, including Sacred Scripture, Church history, moral theology and dogmatic theology. “They become men who are immersed in the intellectual tradition of the Church and they’re going through further formation of the human and spiritual areas.” They are also exposed to various ministries, including teaching religious education in parishes and visiting hospitals and prisons.

The Vocational Synthesis Stage will take place upon the completion of the study of theology and ordination to the diaconate. During this stage, a transitional deacon will serve in a parish in his respective diocese under the direction of a mentor priest. 

The priest will help them integrate, “put it all together, everything they’ve learned—all of their spiritual experiences, their human growths, their pastoral, field education”—in the parish, doing sacramental ministry among other outreach. “One stage builds on another,” Bishop Massa said. “There’s a final integration that allows for the greatest possible freedom to say yes to the call of God.”

Since 2011, the three diocesan bishops have worked together in the formation of priests, deacons and lay leaders for service in the Church. This collaboration, known as the St. Charles Borromeo Partnership, has allowed for sharing personnel and governance at each level of priestly formation and theological education.

The Cathedral Seminary House of Formation at the Douglaston facility will no longer host seminarians but the center will continue to offer graduate-level theology courses for candidates for the permanent diaconate and lay faithful at the Douglaston campus and serve other offices and programs for the Diocese of Brooklyn, including the Bishop Mugavero Residence for senior priests.