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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Training Catholic priests for a changing world
Priests of yesterday were formed in the religious and patriarchal mold while the world today is secularized, pluralistic and democratic
September 30, 2021 10:21 AM GMT

September 30, 2021 10:26 AM GMT

Not many know that the seminary, as we know it, is a Jesuit invention. This is why in many places seminaries are still run by Jesuits.

Fewer still know that when seminaries first began in the 16th century they were hailed as a welcome innovation.

Until the Council of Trent (1563), priests received their training through the apprenticeship model. A young man, desirous of being a priest, learned the mechanics of saying Mass, pastoral counseling, with some little Latin thrown in, from an older priest in the neighborhood.

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The candidate stayed with the older man receiving his instruction. It wasn’t much, but then much wasn’t expected. Priests at that time were celibate only in name — they usually lived in concubinage with a local woman, an arrangement generally acceptable to all.

But then two things happened during the Reformation which changed the situation. Firstly, Lutheran and Calvinist preachers were seen as obviously better: they were more skillful in preaching and writing; they had studied the Scripture and the early Church Fathers in greater depth and outshone the Catholic clergy.

They also publicly promoted marriage as a vocation for the clergy instead of the shabby common law system practiced by Catholics.

So they set up special schools to form candidates for ordination in a graded and systematic way, both intellectually and spiritually

The Jesuits — men like Ignatius, Lainez, Canisius and Bellarmine — quickly realized that their clergy could not compete with their Protestant peers unless they were better trained.

So they set up special schools to form candidates for ordination in a graded and systematic way, both intellectually and spiritually. The seminary (“seed-bed”) was born.

Already two Jesuit innovations — the catechism and the textbook — used the new printing technology.

The catechism, popularized by Canisius and Bellarmine, presented “frequently asked questions” matched with simple and intelligible answers. It was so successful that it quickly became a Catholic staple and was used ever since wherever the faith was preached.

The textbook was the intellectual equivalent of the catechism, with specially prepared chapters on a topic graded to give one a grasp of a new subject, printed and bound for easy reference.

It changed the whole way of learning, giving birth to the Jesuit school.

A third innovation, which also spread like wildfire in the hands of resourceful preachers, was the practice of the Spiritual Exercises with its insistence on frequent confession and communion and the daily examen. It became integral to the training of young men as future priests.

In the post-Tridentine Church, these new schools of formation spread rapidly in every diocese, not just in Europe but in mission countries as well. Francis Xavier started one in Goa, the college of St Paul, almost as soon as he landed there in 1542.

For 400 years, therefore, the seminary system provided the Church with a corps of educated and dedicated men who ran its churches, parishes, schools and welfare institutions, and provided a model for what all Catholic boys could aspire to.

If it was so successful a model, then why seek to change it? Because the world has changed. What succeeds in one age or culture may become a hindrance in another time and place.

The Reformation told the Church that its leaders should be well educated. This is why seminary formation had an intellectual focus, especially philosophy and theology.

The priests of yesterday were formed in a religious and patriarchal mold. In addition, they also had a strong sense of entitlement.

In the secularized world of today, however, problems are more related to the social sciences, management and technology. Our social situation is also more pluralistic and democratic than in earlier times.

No wonder that many priests find themselves out of their depth in relating to the wider public. Their training has been too abstract and one-sided.

In recent years we have been appalled by the sexual predators among the clergy and by their pedophile rampages in particular.

But there are more serious issues still. The seminary has forever been a unisexual institution, men training men, men accompanying men for years on end.

As a reaction to the Protestant stress on married clergy, the Catholic tradition emphasized lifelong celibacy. Sadly, soon enough this practice turned hostile to women and ignorant of the needs of human sexuality.

In recent years we have been appalled by the sexual predators among the clergy and by their pedophile rampages in particular.

An emphasis on intellectual skills alone, and that too in a segregated atmosphere, has contributed greatly to the emotional deprivation of many priests.

Many are poor in relating, aggressive in behavior and ambitious in aspiration — an attitude we know now as clericalism. Pope Francis has denounced clericalism as a cancer among the clergy. In order to destroy it, the present-day seminary must go.

We can be guided by how Jesus trained his disciples, as described in the Gospels. He formed his disciples in the midst of the people, not by keeping them aloof.

One or two things draw our attention. When he called someone on a mission, Jesus demanded that the disciple give up all attachments to family and property.

How crucial is this in a culture which clings to family and caste at every step, and is so reluctant to give up the perks of office, status and benefices? 

Then, as a mentor, Jesus interacts with his disciples and clarifies their difficulties, even as he encourages them to share in his ministry of teaching and healing. A mentor’s teaching is based on experiences, shared and reflected on.

Every great change ultimately dismantles the society from which it comes

This raises an important point. The Church of the last two millennia has been noted for its misogyny, its hatred and distrust of women.  And yet we know that psycho-social maturity can only be attained by intersexual harmony. For it is true that for many, women can be excellent mentors.

That this may imply having a married priesthood in the future, and women priests too, the relinquishing of obligatory celibacy is probably part of the picture.

Alas, the fierce opposition to these changes on the part of both clergy and hierarchy shows how little openness there is to a different kind of priesthood.

Every great change ultimately dismantles the society from which it comes.

Here are a few contemporary examples: inter-caste and inter-racial marriages, unthinkable some years ago, are on the increase; fertility rates for women are dropping precipitately in almost every country; mass migration has destroyed the homogeneity of many societies.

But the unfamiliar is always threatening, and we see this in the world today.

How will we then react if leaders in the community, pastors, prophets, are married or women, Dalit or tribal people? We who have always been used to a celibate male foreigner?

How will we react to community discernment and interreligious cooperation? We who have always unthinkingly obeyed our superiors, be these bishops or a distant pope in Rome?

So the breakdown of seminaries and the rise of small diverse communities, the “seed-bed” of our future priests, will change the Church as we know it, for it’s a different Church in a different world.

But it starts with a different kind of priest leader in our parishes.

* Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

8 Comments on this Story
I challenge just about everything said here. I am a 60-year-old woman, lifelong Catholic, and have never experienced the Church as "misogynistic." The Church has, on the contrary, upheld the dignity of woman as distinct from man, and proposed a model of the "feminine genius" (to quote John Paul II) which emulates the Blessed Virgin and celebrates the uniqueness of women. The current fashions of the modern world are opposed to this, so why would we want to ape them?
Well said!
In a seminary, a trainer or a mentor-either man or woman- is responsibleto train sinners ,who are called by God to inculcate & reveal the values of Jesus IN their lives and thus like Paul (Gal 1:16) feel confident to be sent on mission. Jesus did not use his divinity to satisfy his own needs (Phil 2:6-11)- the truth - (clericalism in reverse) – like making stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger but multiplied the loaves to feed the flock. Celibacy is a choice, humanly impossible but by the grace of God while marriage will not stop the sexual predator. Mentors & seminarians should be handpicked.
Your experience as a woman in the Catholic Church is certainly unique. This would not be the experience of the majority of women. Ther roles traditionally would be that of sacristan or cleaners, no research is needed to substantiate this fact.
Most of the Catechism teachers were women in the parishes I have visited so far. Though minority, I find various women who teach in seminaries in India. The number is comparatively higher in European seminaries. There can be still more feminine touch. But you can't come to such a blunt conclusion!
I am horrified by these terrible lies and falsehoods this article contains. It's wrong. Total opposite of the actual truth. None of it is true. I have been in very close contact with Catholic church, priests and nuns my whole life. Nothing in the article is true. The reporter should be reprimanded for the false information and filth he is spreading.
I studied in a Regional Roman Catholic Seminary in the Philippines but I completed my baccalaureate degree in a Jesuit-run University. It caught my attention on the matter of catholic priest may marry.Being a catholic celebate priest spells out the difference from other religions or sects whose pastors are married. As a catholic I maintain my position that priest must not get married, otherwise, Catholicism is or will be an another religion to align with. The catholic teachings and structure are different from others -that is why we are unique in essence.
Then you wouldn't follow the teachings of the bible (1 Timothy 3: 1This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5(for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?...);
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