Rorate Caeli

For the record - In latest interview, Pope attacks "rigidity" in seminaries and in priestly formation. Are seminaries soon to be targeted for "reform" by Francis?

 St. Francis Seraphic Seminary, Andover, MA. Closed as a seminary in the 1970's, finally demolished in October 2016.

It is extremely difficult to keep up with the unending barrage of words from Pope Francis. One interview after another, press conferences, speeches, letters, phone calls, off-the-cuff remarks, daily homilies... the endless flow of words results in people knowing not so much what the Pope has exactly said on this or that topic, but rather the general run of this Pope's thinking and the main themes of his stated policies. Rather than being a sign of Francis' sloppiness, a case can be made that this is an excellent strategy. Liberal would-be reformers, who tend not to bother with exactitude, make use of the very strong impressions left by Francis without being tied down by his exact words. Meanwhile some "conservatives" still remain hesitant to call out Francis precisely because they are obsessed with nailing down exactly what Francis said on each particular occasion, and in trying to find excuses for these while dismissing as "misinterpretations" nearly anything that would force them to face the facts.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) the Pope tends to repeat himself much of the time, with the result that the general direction where he wishes to take the Church has by now become evident to all but the most blind deniers of reality.

One of the increasingly prominent themes of the Franciscan pontificate is the need to combat "rigidity" among seminarians, the need to teach them "discernment" (especially by Jesuits) and the need to exercise "vigilance" over new vocations, so that "quality" is valued over "quantity". In early 2015, Francis spoke about the "problem" posed by "traditionalist" diocesan seminarians and their "imbalances" as reflected in the liturgy. Later that year (November), during an address to a major conference on priestly formation he again returned to this theme, using even stronger language that compared "confident, rigid, fundamentalist" seminarians to criminals and insinuated that they might be mentally ill:

Speaking off the cuff, Francis told a story about when he taught the novices of the Society of Jesus. A “good” boy didn’t pass the psychiatrist’s test and she said to Bergoglio: “These boys are fine until they have settled, until they feel completely secure. Then the problems start. Father, have you ever asked yourself why there are policemen who are torturers,” the doctor apparently asked Francis. The Pope told clergy that they must think twice when a young man “is too confident, rigid and fundamentalist”. Hence, his invitation to them to beware when admitting candidates to the seminary: “There are mentally ill boys who seek strong structures that can protect them”, such as “the police, the army and the clergy”.

During WYD 2016 in Krakow, Francis spoke to Polish Jesuits during which he complained that "Some priestly formation programs run the risk of educating in the light of overly clear and distinct ideas, and therefore to act within limits and criteria that are rigidly defined a priori, and that set aside concrete situations". To counteract this, the Pope exhorted his confreres to work with priests and seminarians, specifically to teach them the "wisdom of discernment" and how to "accompany" people:

I repeat, you must teach this above all to priests, helping them in the light of the exercises in the dynamic of pastoral discernment, which respects the law but knows how to go beyond," the pope said.

"We need to truly understand this: in life not all is black on white or white on black," he said. "The shades of grey prevail in life. We must them teach to discern in this gray area."

Last month Francis spoke to the International Conference on Vocations and, according to a Vatican Insider report:

Speaking at a Vatican conference today, Francis told an audience of cardinals, bishops and vocation experts to re-think their vocations ministry so it did not simply become a bureaucratic pastoral programme.

The Pope told the gathering that their work involves “going out” and listening to people: he pointed out that his own vocation was not the result of a “nice theory” but having experienced the “merciful gaze of Jesus over me.”

In order for this to happen, Francis explained, the Church should stop reducing Catholicism to a “recipe of rules” while clergy needed to break out of their closed worlds. 

“It's sad when a priest lives only for himself, enclosed in the safe fortress of the rectory, the sacristy or among a restricted group of loyal followers,” the Pope told the International Conference on Vocations, organised by the Congregation for Clergy. “On the contrary, we are called to be shepherds among the people, capable of showing pastoral care and taking the time to welcome and listen to everyone, especially young people.”

Francis stressed that the world needs “mature and balanced” priests and appealed to bishops to be vigilant when vetting candidates for ordained ministry.

“When it comes to vocations to the priesthood and those entering the seminary, I beg you to discern the truth, to have a shrewd and cautious look,” Francis explained. “I say this especially to brother bishops: vigilance and prudence.”

And so we come to the Pope's latest eruptions on this theme, which came out in the last few days in yet another interview published in La Civiltà Cattolica. Vatican Insider has a report on this interview, which is actually none other than the "conversation" that he had in October 24 when he paid a visit to the delegates at the 36th general congregation of the Society of Jesus.

Among the many things that he has to say on Amoris Laetitia, on clericalism and on vocations he did not lose the opportunity to attack, no longer just seminarians, but the entire process of priestly formation -- which he accuses of having no place for "discernment" -- and even "certain seminaries":

On the subject of morality, “I note the absence of discernment in the formation of priests;” the Pope stated. “We run the risk of getting used to seeing things in “black or white” when it comes to what is legal. “We are rather closed, in general, to discernment. One thing is clear: today, in a certain number of seminaries, a rigidity that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced. And that is dangerous, because it can lead us to a conception of morality that has a casuistic sense.”

It is highly unlikely that Francis is merely letting off steam in these speeches. We already know from various reports (such as this one) that a new document on priestly formation is in the works. The current Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, is considered as one of the Curial officials who most faithfully mirror his thinking. He was advanced to his current position in 2013 while the then-Prefect, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza (a Siriani or protege of Cardinal Siri, and known for his strong defense of celibacy and classical priestly spirituality) was pushed off to the Apostolic Penitentiary at the age of 69 without even having finished his term. Under Cardinal Stella and the Secretary, Archbishop Patron Wong, the new document will assuredly be very "Bergoglian" in vision and tone.

We can also mention here Francis' crackdown on dioceses accepting traditional-minded men from outside their own borders, which has been one of the rationales for the crackdown on the Dioceses of Albenga-Imperia and Ciudad de Este.  Add to this the new rule requiring diocesan bishops to first "consult" with the Vatican before they can even establish a new institute of consecrated life. This new rule specifies that the "originality" of the charism of the new institute be first verified; this new rule, in effect, dooms many new "strict observance" projects which are premised precisely on reviving the existing charism of religious Orders that have gone cold in their fervor. It is clear that avenues for traditional-minded seminarians are slowly but unmistakably being constricted under this pontificate.

Finally, we already know that the Synod of 2018 will be about "Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment". Whether or not it will delve into the question of married priests, it will assuredly touch on seminary and priestly formation. Since Francis is said to want to "irreversibly change" the Church, it only makes sense that he will work on reforming priestly formation; the state of the priesthood will, by its very nature, have an irresistible and incalculable influence on the entire life of the Church.

Where will this all lead, at least for vocations?

The current pontificate has coincided with a worldwide decline in major seminary enrollments. After many years of small but steady annual increases in the number of major seminarians during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the numbers slightly dipped in 2012 then went down more steeply in 2013 and 2014. To be more precise: at the end of 2011 there were 120,616 major seminarians. This went down to 120,051 by end of 2012, 118,251 by end of 2013, and 116,939 by end of 2014 (the latest for which statistics are available). If the experience of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires is any indication, and if Francis manages to impose something of his vision on the actual process of priestly formation all over the world, we are convinced that we will see a collapse in vocations far greater than that which has already transpired in the first years of his pontificate.