The Seminary as a Communion of persons

Colloquium 2016/2017 Academic/Formation Year
Theme: The Seminary as a Communion of persons

 1. Introduction

“The seminary should not be seen as a place to live and study… it should be a community that relives the experiences of the group of twelve who were united to Jesus” (Pastores Dabo Vobis No 60).

The words of the Holy Father quoted above not only embody the fundamental reason for the setting up seminaries, but also define the way of life in a seminary, even in this 21st century. They cannot be dismissed as a statement made in the 20th century that has already been overtaken by the dynamics of this 21st century. In fact they serve as bulwarks against the negative influences of an ever changing world that despite the warnings of Pope Paul VI (Populorum Progressio 86) continues to define progress in terms of individualistic material gains. The effect of this mindset is that despite the progress made in the field of technology and the quest to unite humanity in a global village, the human person seems to be moving psychologically, spiritually and mentally further and further away from his fellow men. According to Pope Francis, the world has failed in its bid to build a universal brotherhood because of the wrong basis upon which it wants to build them (Lumen Fidei 54). Thus, the reemerging waves of nationalistic sentiments worldwide; the raising up – once again of barriers which globalization has been fighting hard to put down; the upsurge in the number of countries that are closing their bothers to foreigners and the concomitant rise in intra and intercontinental conflicts, ethnic rivalries and wars are all symptoms of a world that is at odds with the meaning and value of communal relationship. Coupled with these are religious bigotry and fundamentalism that  are threatening to plunge the world into the Abyss.

The above scenario, directly or indirectly affects the Church, which is no stranger in the global arena. Christians find themselves on different sides of the divide. Walls between Christians are going up instead of coming down. People who profess to one baptism don’t want to see eye to eye. Noticeable cracks are developing in Unum Presbyterium of different dioceses. Some priests end up building cages around themselves, creating their own empires (material or the so called spiritual powerhouses), amassing inordinate powers, thus segregating themselves from others and promoting individualism instead of communality.

The seminary as the nursery ground where vocations are nurtured is often blamed or accused of failing in its responsibility to ingrain in its candidates the communal spirit and stem off the tidal wave towards individualism.

Taking the above situation into consideration, this colloquium paper invites us to examine the nature of the seminary; explore the meaning of communion from a Christian perspective; analyze the attitudes of seminarians as future builders of Christian communities and their understanding of life lived in communion; evaluate obstacles to communal life and means to overcoming them for effective ministries in various parishes and dioceses.

 2. The nature of the seminary

Pastores Dabo Vobis no 60, defines the seminary as “a community established by the Bishops to offer to those called by the lord to serve as apostles the possibility of relieving the experience of formation which our lord provided for the twelve”. This means that we cannot talk of the seminary without reference to Christ and his association with those he called to be his disciples. It is Christ that gives the seminary its meaning. His relationship with the apostles serves as a blueprint for life in the seminary. Thus, it is not out of order to regard the Christ and his disciples’ relationship as the first seminary.

It is the same Christ who called the apostles to himself that today also calls those he wants to train/form in a special way to carry out and continue his work on earth. Although the manner of this call varies from individual to individual, it has to be present at the very beginning (Jr 1:5) otherwise coming into the seminary would be self-defeating – “no one takes this honour on himself; it needs a call from God, as in Aaron’s case” (Heb 5:4).

Thus, when the bishops establish seminaries, they do so in the name of Christ who actually calls candidates into the seminary. They also make sure that seminaries reflect the ideas of the first seminary, taking into consideration the circumstances of their time. In this regard they endeavour to build a bridge across the c. 2000 years that separate the first seminary from the present ones. There is no gainsaying the fact that building a bridge that spans over 2000 years of history is a herculean task. It requires a balancing act between maintaining the ideals and bringing in the necessary changes in line with the demands of each epoch. It requires constant revisiting and renewal of method of formation in the seminary. In as much as it is out of our scope to narrate the history of the development of seminary life, it must be bone in mind that there is an intimate relationship between development of monastic life and formation of priests in line with the Christ and Apostles’ experience.

Thus, when we read about St Basil’s modeling of the lives of his priests in line with the monastic life, or St Augustine writing rules for those who are called to the presbyterate or the rules of St Benedict and the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, the main focus has always been: modeling the training of those called to the ministry after the relationship between Christ and the first apostles.

A cursory look at the rules laid down by the above men of God shows that they were articulated to ensure that candidates:

a. Are gathered in the name of Christ

b. Pray, eat in common and engage themselves in theological studies

c. Demonstrate in concrete terms, love for one another

d. Undertake works of charity

f. Carry out their pastoral ministries in Christian communities and beyond (“Priestly formation in history” in Formation and communion p 13.)

The above articulations continue to define life in the seminary even today. As will be demonstrated in the course of this paper, they are responsible for creating the enabling environment for the building of communion of persons.

 3. Communion from Christian perspective.

The story of the first century Christianity gives us an insight into the true meaning of communion:

“These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42)… “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, as everything they owned was held in common… (Acts 4:32-33; and cf Acts 2:44-45).

A summary of the above passages highlights the distinctive nature of the first Christian community in the following manner:

a. Their faithfulness to the teachings of the apostles invariably meant faithfulness to Christ who is the central figure of the apostolic faith. The apostles preached nothing else than the crucified Christ (cf Rom 1:20).

b. Their faith in Christ finds concrete expression in the exchange of brotherly affection, prayers and shared burdens and responsibilities.

c. They forged a unity that transcended race, age, sex, culture and class. There was no distinction between Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, men and women, all were one in Christ. According to Fr. Silano Cola, the brotherhood the first Apostles shared transcended culture, blood, personal interest… (“Relevance of Communitarian spirituality in the process of formation” in Formation and Communion p.39)

It must be emphasized that the first Christian community did not develop these characteristics all of a sudden, but went through a process of conversion, renunciation and total commitment. At the heart of conversion is repentance and the concomitant willingness to change from the old way (Mk 1:15). Without it one cannot climb the ladder to true Christian communion. Renunciation is the logical follow up to true conversion. This is because one empties oneself, detaches oneself from the material and spiritual imprisonment and is ready to offer oneself to the other, just as Christ did on the cross. It involves a movement from affirmation of self, in the negation of the other to the affirmation of others, in the negation of self (Formation and communion p.39). It involves seeing the other as a transcendent subject that shares the same nature and destiny with oneself, in the conviction that there exists a triangular unity between one, the other and Christ himself.

In more practical terms, this involves:

a. Sharing material goods with other. It is in sharing of material goods that one loses oneself for the sake of the other – “unless a grain of wheat falls… and dies it remains just a single grain” (Jn 12:24). In sharing with one in need one gives back to God what belongs to him. Without communion of material goods one cannot arrive at the communion of spiritual goods. This is because if you don’t share with others, you don’t recognize God’s presence in them, “since whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20). One who is not ready to share his material goods remains in his exaggerated self-worth and cannot transcend his selfish ego.

b. Total commitment. Commitment to the word of God had to be lived out in the sacraments and liturgy of the Church. Without this commitment, one’s labours bear no fruit. One has no taproot and cannot persevere, in the face of adversity. The parable of the sower tells the story of those who accepted the word of God with joy but ended up losing everything because of their lack of commitment and readiness to develop strong roots that would have helped them remain steadfast in times of trials and temptation. Mt 13:4-23. (Formation and communion p.44).

When these are realized, Christians will no longer see themselves as a conglomeration of persons but as a communion of persons (Formation & communion p.41).

Since this communion needs to be established, nurtured and sustained, it is imperative that candidates have to be trained to be builders of Christian communities and consequently communion of persons. Let us examine how the seminary lives up to its expectations, as the place where this is done.

4. The seminary institution and the task of building a communion of persons

By the very nature of their calling, priests are designated to be builders of Christian community (Presbyterorum Ordnis 6). As we have seen above, a Christian community is not just a conglomeration of individuals living together but a communion of persons (Formation and Communion 43). To undertake the responsibility of building a Christian community presupposes that one not only has a theoretic but also a practical knowledge of life lived in communion with others – “nemo dat quod non habet”. Since the onus lies on the seminary institution to provide the enabling environment for the development of the above qualities, those characters seen as the hallmarks of a true Christian community must be present in the seminary.

In his article “the seminary as a community of disciples” in Formation and Communion 67ff, Fr Hubertus Blaumeiser opines that a true Christian community and ipso facto a seminary must embody the following characters:

a. Con-vocation: the invitation to form this community is from God not from man. This differentiates the Christian community from other social groups, clubs and organization. It is God himself that invites people to be his sons and daughters and through baptism they “become children of God in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Rising from the waters of the Baptismal font, every Christian hears again the voice that was once heard on the banks of the Jordan River: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’ (Lk 3:22)” (Christi Fideles Laici 11). Candidates for the priesthood share this call with the lay faithful and together they form one body in Christ (Presbyterorum Ordnis 9). However, they are also set apart from the people of God to teach, sanctify and govern them in the name of Christ (Lumen Gentium Nos 10, 21). This means that while they form one community with the people of God they also belong to the community of those set apart. Since the demands of these two seemingly different but complementary communities are immense, only candidates who are truly called should be admitted into the seminary. The onus lies on those responsible for discernment of vocation to put into place serious programmes of evaluation of candidates (Presbyterorum Ordnis 5). If those who are not called find themselves into the seminary, there is every likelihood that they will never consider themselves as part of the seminary community.

b. Con-ventus: When Christians and consequently seminarians see themselves as those called by Christ, they will not be averse to being with Jesus. This entails sharing his words, communicating with him through prayers, devotions, meditations and other liturgical activities. Being with Jesus has not only a vertical but also a horizontal dimension. This is because through it seminarians are united with God, fellow seminarians and the rest of the world. It is the duty of those responsible for the seminaries to lay out concrete programmes for constant interaction with Jesus in line with the above. According to Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 76 private prayers are good but it will be an illusion to limit prayers to when one feels like. Laid out times for prayers in common are important and help one cultivate the right attitudes towards prayers. If not slothfulness could set in. We need disciple to internalize our prayer lives (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 74). Aversion to communal prayers is an indication that one is not ready for communal life as understood in the seminary. Christian faith is communitarian in nature. There is nothing like private faith (Formation and communion p. 65). The saying, “family that prays together stays together” is applicable here.

c. Perichoresis: The unity in the seminary should reflect the Trinitarian unity: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit (Formation and communion p.70). “As you, Father are in me, and I in you; that they be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21). In this unity, even though the three persons are distinguished by relation of opposition between them (Dictionary of Theology p. 377), they remain one. Thus, the oneness that is to be promoted in the seminary does not negate the individual identities of those called. Each retains his identity and works for the good of the community. In fact, the community stands to gain from the individual talents just as the individual stands to gain from the community. This unity should also be reflected in the seminarians-formators-relationship. They should see themselves as a unity, their diverse responsibilities notwithstanding. Classroom- encounter alone is not enough to build this relationship. Here in Bigard, there are many religious, social and cultural organizations each headed by a formator. Seminarians and formators should maximize the opportunity which these fora afford them to work for unity that transcends individual diocese, parish, tribe, culture and tradition.

d. Kenosis: To be Christ-like entails emptying of oneself. Anyone who is full of himself cannot imbibe the communal spirit. Followers of Christ should empty themselves and be like Christ, who came to serve and not to be served (Cf Mt 20:28). Such is the spirit that should reign in the seminary. To make this realizable, Guide To Priestly Celibacy advocates splitting the seminarians into smaller groups where responsibilities are allotted and shared (Cf no 73). Tasks to be undertaken should include among other things communal/manual work. This enables students get acquainted with each other and also promote team spirit. Again students learn not to be a burden to the community and are awash with charitable spirit that enables them to sacrifice their time, energy, talent and even material possession for the good of others.

Self-empting is also demonstrated by obedience to the rules and regulations of the seminary. Though freedom is an essential part of formation, “freedom should not be seen as absence of rules…A seminarian who freely chooses to enter the seminary must also accept its terms” (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 74). Acceptance of these rules should lead to their internalization otherwise they will not serve their purpose (Formation as Transformation 2010, pp 7-10).

e. Apostolicity: The Christina community is not closed in itself but has a mission to the world. Jesus did not train the apostles to remain enclosed within themselves but to be sent out into the world Mk 3:14-15; Mt 28:19. He used his constant dialogue with the world to school them in the intrigues of human relationship and in so doing prepared them for their future dealings with men of every possible background. In the same manner, the seminary whose aim is to form shepherds of the people of God (Pastores Dabo Vobis 61) has to create the necessary environment for the students to be in constant dialogue with the world and not hide from the world. It is true that the tight relationship between the development of seminary and monastic lives meant that at some points in history seminaries were isolated from the world, the post Vatican II Church recognizes the importance of this constant dialogue with the world (Optatam Totius 19). By engaging in constant dialogue with the world seminarians are exposed to the religio-socio-political problems of their fellow men, and the need for possible solutions. To this effect, nobody should enter the seminary because he wants to escape from the world or ignorant of the world (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 83). However, dialogue with the world has to be done in a controlled atmosphere. This is why “the seminary should have a precise programme, a programme of life …to be translated into concreate details with the help of particular norms that are aimed at regulating community life, establishing certain precise instruments and time tables” (Pastores Dabo Vobis No 61). Thus, dialogue with the outside world has to be done without compromising the identity of the seminary. This requires a balancing act on the side of the formators and good understanding on the side of seminarians.

5. Seminarians themselves and the task of building communion of persons

Some of the themes treated in our past colloquia include: seminarians as the protagonist of their vocation and formation as transformation. These themes laid emphasis on the central role of the candidate in the formation process. The famous saying that you can take a horse to the river but you can’t force it to drink is most appropriate in describing the formation process.

Thus, it is one thing for seminaries to create the enabling environment and another thing, for the seminarians to utilize the opportunity offered to form themselves and forge a communion of persons. Without the cooperation of the seminarians the whole idea of forming a communion of persons would be an exercise in futility. Seminarians have to appreciate the need and the values of life lived in communion according to the mind of the Church. As was mentioned in the earlier part of this paper, seminarians have to see themselves as part of the community under discussion otherwise they would neither make effort to integrate themselves into it nor work for the common good.

The path to true communion is challenging and requires commitment on the part of seminarians: “No one who does not carry his cross and come after me can be my disciple” Lk 14:27. This path starts from the very beginning of the seminarian’s life so that at the time of entry into the senior seminary, he must have developed certain qualities that dispose him for life in communion with others. It is in line with this that Pastores Dabo Vobis recommends that those entering into the seminary must have:

a. The right intention

b. Sufficient degree of human maturity

a. Sufficient knowledge of the doctrine of the church

c. Introduction to forms of prayers

d. Behavior in conformity with the Christian religion

e. The right attitude to Christian religion (PDV 62)

Due to the nature of this colloquium, we can only afford to take a closer look at two of the above viz: Right intention and sufficient degree of human maturity.

a. Right intention

Without prejudice to efforts of those responsible for discernment of vocation  and selection of the right candidates for the seminary, the true judge of the presence or absences of the above qualities are candidates themselves. For this reason, the candidates themselves should have a sincere internal conversation before deciding to enter into the seminary. In his contribution to identifying the root course of the crisis in seminary formation, Fr. Heinrich Timmerevers postulates four different reasons why candidates want to enter into the seminarian in this order:

i. Some want to serve Christ and the Church

ii. Some want to fulfil an unconscious need for recognition

iii. Some want to find their personal identity

iv. Some for personal support and company

(“Being first of all Men” in Formation and communion pp. 102-103)

Those who belong to the first group are more likely to dispose themselves to the formation process that is community oriented. This is because the desire to serve Christ can only come from true love and willingness to do his will. Likewise, is the desire to serve the Church. This love for Christ and his Church incorporates one into the communion that exists between Christ and his Church and disposes one to see other seminarians as brothers and part of this one communion, not as adversaries. In so doing, one accepts the seminary as a place and period in life (Pastores Dabo Vobis 61) where this communion is experienced and translated into action.

Those who belong to groups ii to iv are self-centered and narcissist by nature. Their self-centered nature drives them to form cliques (of like-minds) to further their selfish interests. They are not only avers to communal spirit but work assiduously against it. They are frustrated and complain about everything when their wish/wishes are not fulfilled.

b. Sufficient degree of human maturity

As we have mentioned earlier in this paper, attainment of sufficient degree of human maturity is a sina qua non for entrance into the seminary. Without it one cannot cope with the demands of seminary training talk less of building a human community (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 24). An immature personality lacks the capacity to either understand or make himself understandable to others. This is a recipe for discord that destroys community spirit.

According to A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 30, “priestly vocation demands human and Christian maturity, so that the answer to this divine call may be an answer based on faith, and so that the seminarian may be able to understand, the sense of a vocation from God and realize what it demands”. Christian maturity means living “in a profoundly intense way of life of faith, hope and charity in Christ”.

Human maturity entails the ability to be in control of one’s emotional, sexual and active life in the following manners:

i. Emotional maturity: To be emotionally matured is to have ones reason rule over ones emotional nature. This is because “as a part of psychic life, the emotions are variously understood; either as the complex of internal and external reactions to satisfaction, or as the ability to show feelings, or as the ability to love, or as the potential for a man to form attachments” (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 20). This entails having the right temperament and self-control in resolving the continuous tension between one’s ideals and drives.

ii. Sexual maturity: This entails the capacity to appreciate sex as a gift from God which is actualized in personal encounter. It is to understand that human sexual relation is fundamentally different from animal mating. It entails understanding the different modes of expression of human sexuality viz: in marital and celibate lives. Such understanding enables one see celibate life not as suppressing but sublimation of love and sexuality (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy nos 27-47). Through sublimation of love and sexuality, priestly celibacy affords one the opportunity to maintain “relationship with others lived in fraternal community where one can reach out to others without having hem, ie without the intention of possession them” (A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy no 49). Such inter- personal relationship devoid of any sort of possessiveness creates the necessary environment for life in communion, especially for celibates. The words of St Paul “the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” come to mind (1cor 7:32-34).

iii. Spiritual maturity: this means that one’s personal encounter with God is guided by His words and sacraments under the guidance of the magisterium (Cf Optatam Totius 8-9). As stated above, there is nothing like private faith. A spiritually balanced student would neither be averse to common spiritual exercises nor the teaching of the Church.

These are the qualities that enable seminarians form communion of persons.


The words of the psalmist, “if Yahweh does not build a house in vain do its builders toil…” (Palm 127) make it imperative that without the Lord, the task of building a communion of persons remains an exercise in futility. It is the lord who calls and chooses those he wants in his community (Rom 8:28). However, this neither removes nor diminishes the role of the human person in the formation of communion of persons because of the freedom given us to make choices.

The paper has tried to expose the roles each group has in the realization of the true meaning of life lived in communion with others, first as Christians then as candidates for the priesthood. The onus lies on each group to make the necessary effort towards the realization of the objective.

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