Priests are Disciples First and Always

Archbishop John Wilson

Towards the end of Christus Vivit, the 2019 Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to Young People, Pope Francis writes ‘to discern our personal vocation, we have to realise that it is a calling from a friend, who is Jesus.’ (CV 288)

The beauty of this unconditional friendship, of love given and received, connects everything within us, even our hidden self, with our loving Saviour, and with His mercy and His grace. This reality must underpin every vocation to the priesthood. It may sound rather obvious, but seminarians, and those ordained as deacons, priests, and bishops, must always, in a primordial sense, be consciously living, first and always, as disciples. The connection between discipleship and priesthood is vital. Discipleship is the indispensable foundation for vocational discernment and priestly formation.

When I served as a seminary formator I remember reading Dean R Hoge’s book The First Five Years of the Priesthood – A Study of Newly Ordained Catholic Priests. It examined the experiences of young priests and why some of them remained in the priesthood, and why some of them, sadly, felt they had to leave. While written back in 2002, some of the rationale it describes remain the same.

One contributor commented: ‘Make sure people are in touch with their heart. I think I made my decisions from my head.’ Another said: ‘I would recommend the seminary really push people about their motivations for being a priest.’ The issues covered included spirituality, sexuality, appointments, and mentoring. Some of the problems revolved around the apparent inhumanity of presbytery, parish, and diocesan life. Others concerned a sense of unpreparedness and inadequacy, or the real, previously unappreciated, impact of celibacy.

Seminaries today are seeking to address many of the concerns identified in Hoge’s research. It remains true, however, that alongside all the important dimensions of contemporary formation for priesthood there remains the basic requirement of authentic discipleship lived from within a mature character of generous spirit.

Pastores Dabo Vobis in 1992, and the new Ratio Fundamentalis, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, in 2017, have brought increased appreciation of the necessary integration of the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral aspects of seminary preparation. The Ratio identifies within the process of formation thedynamic of discipleship of Christ moving towards configuration with Christ. This remains dependent on the inner relationship each seminarian has with the living Lord. The Ratio puts is like this: ‘The heart of spiritual formation is personal union with Christ, which is born of, and nourished in, a particular way by prolonged and silent prayer.’ (RFIS 102)

The Ratio mentions specifically moments of crisis as potential opportunities for conversion and renewal, if adequately understood and addressed. ‘These moments,’ says the Ratio ‘will lead the seminarian to question himself critically about the journey so far, about his current condition, about his choices and about his future.’ (RFIS 96) But it should not only be at points of crisis that such critical reflection takes place. Conversion and renewal requires a clear sense of towards what, or more properly, whom am I converting, and what exactly is to be renewed? The entire formation process is totally dependent on knowing the Lord Jesus intimately as my ‘first love,’ the one for whom, and in whom, I live, and move, and have my being.

In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis quotes from a poem by the former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr Pedro Arrupe. Entitled Enamórate, it reads like this:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything. (CV 132)

Priestly discernment and formation has personal and intimate loving friendship with the Lord Jesus as its touchstone. The obligatory acquisition of knowledge and skills – humanly, pastorally, intellectually and spiritually – pivots on this primary relationship, without which we merely construct a house built on sand. To know oneself for the person and gift God has created, to bring that self-knowledge into relationship with Christ, and to place oneself under formation, is a continuous activation of discipleship. 

In the context of listening and accompanying, Pope Francis speaks in Christus Vivit of three kinds of sensitivity to be practiced with those exploring their Christian life and vocation. These are equally applicable to priestly formation and raise considerations for formators and seminarians alike.

Pope Francis speaks first about the sensitivity directed to the individual. ‘It is a matter of listening to someone who is sharing his very self in what he says.’ (CV 292) Priestly formation rightly focuses on the individual, but in the context of their life of faith and their sense of belonging to Christ and to His Church. It will both accommodate the particularity of an individual’s journey of discipleship while giving ecclesial shape to their call to serve. This is, says Pope Francis, an ‘Emmaus’ kind of accompaniment, where the Lord Jesus walks alongside, even when the disciples are going in the wrong direction. The dawning awareness of the presence of the Lord Jesus, and the gentle revealing of His truth, results in a personal encounter that changes hearts. This gives confidence to the downhearted disciples, turning them from escapees into evangelists.

Pope Francis identifies a ‘second kind of sensitivity’ as one ‘marked by discernment.’ This ‘tries to grasp exactly where grace or temptation is present.’ (CV 293) In this, formators will ask: ‘What is it that the other person is trying to tell me, what [do] they want me to realise is happening in their lives.’ (CVC 293) We want, says the Pope, ‘to appreciate their thinking and the effect it has on their emotions.’ Seeking to discern the ‘salutary promptings of the good Spirit who proposes … the Lord’s truth’ from the ‘empty works and promises’ of the ‘traps laid by the evil Spirit’ requires ‘courage, warmth and tact’ if we are ‘to help others distinguish the truth from illusion or excuses.’ (CV 293)

A third kind of sensitivity ‘is the ability to perceive what is driving the other person.’ (CV 294) A deeper kind of listening seeks to discern the direction in which a person truly wants to move. Recognising what they feel and think, and conscious of whatever has happened in their life so far, the real issue is what and who they would like to be. This means going beyond superficial wishes and desires, ‘beyond the surface level of their likes and feelings,’ to the deeper inclination of their heart. This kind of sensitivity seeks to help discern a person’s ‘ultimate intention, the intention that definitively decides the meaning of their life.’ The Lord Jesus ‘knows and appreciates this ultimate intention of the heart’ and, therefore, our prayerful intimacy with Him allows and enables Him to help us recognise this. (cf. CV 294)

The resilience of twenty first century priests requires a formation that hinges on having being captured by the loving heart of Jesus. Only priestly disciples can step out in to the future and ‘go, make disciples of the whole world and all creation.’ (Mt 28:19)

This was written for the 2020 edition of The Evangelist, the journal of St John’s Seminary, Wonersh.