“Can a training program for priests formulated in the 70’s or 80’s still be relevant in the 21st century?” - a valid question given the rapid changes and progress in the field of research, science and technology. The social and cultural changes brought about by such progress are undeniable.
The Church, since the 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965), has highlighted the need to read the signs of the times, i.e., given the current historical circumstances - to make the necessary changes and adjustments in the mission of evangelization and in the living out of the Gospel.
While the question seems to assume that the training program for priests has not changed since then, the issuance of the New Program of Priestly formation proves the contrary. Last December 8, 2016, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy issued the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis. It recognizes the ‘numerous contributions on the theme of formation of future priests coming from the Universal Church, the Bishops’ Conferences and particular churches or communities.
It cites another document issued by Pope John Paul II, entitled ‘Pastores Dabo Vobis’ (1992) which highlights the integral formation of seminarians, namely: human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral. It also cites the ‘Ministrorum Institutionis’ (2013), a document issued by Pope Benedict XVI, which emphasizes that the formation of seminarians is continued in the ongoing formation of priests, such that these two form a single reality. These two, among many others, prove that the program of priestly formation has continued to be examined by the Church. Nevertheless, societal changes are incessant and very fast.
The drafting of the new document required a worldwide consultation which was done in 2015. Professors and formation experts have offered their valuable contributions to the discussion of the formation of Candidates for Holy Orders. Such consultation allowed for a broader scope, and to apply the spirit of synodality.
Asked about the rationality of the new document, Cardinal Stella, the head of the Vatican Congregation which issued the document, has this to say:
The last Ratio Fundamentalis dates back to 1970, even though it was updated in 1985. In the meantime, as we know, the historical, socio-cultural and ecclesiastical contexts have changed, above all due to the effects of the rapid evolution to which the world is subjected nowadays. Within these new contexts, the Priest is called to incarnate the mission of Christ and of his Church. This rapid evolution has not been done without significant changes relative to other aspects: the image or vision of the priest, the spiritual needs of the People of God, the challenges of the new evangelization, the language of communication, and many more. It seemed that the formation of Priests needed to be revamped, renewed, and restored to the centre. We have been encouraged and illuminated by the Teaching of Pope Francis: by the spirituality and prophecy with which his words are inscribed, the Holy Father has turned often to Priests, reminding them that the priest is not a functionary, but a Pastor anointed for the people of God, who has the compassionate and merciful heart of Christ for the weary and exhausted throng. The words and admonitions of the Holy Father, some of which have regarded temptations tied to money, to the authoritarian exercise of power, to rigid legalism, and to vainglory, show us how the nurturing of Priests and of their formation has been a fundamental aspect of the ecclesial action of this Pontificate, and should also become the focus, more each day, of every Bishop and of every Local Church. (Interview with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, His Eminence, Beniamino Cardinal Stella, L’Osservatore Romano, 7 December 2016)
It is hoped that countries will make their own Ratio Nationalis, a National Program on Priestly Formation based on the new Ratio Fundamentalis. The Church hopes and strives to form priests after the heart of Jesus, ready to give witness to the Faith in the circumstances of the 21st century. (R. Francisco A. Evangelista)