Seattle Vocations


Seminary Life - 4 Pillars of Formation

May 08, 2016

As Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Seattle, I get a lot of questions about Seminarian Life.  People bring up these concerns to me like “what does life in seminary look like?  Why is seminarian formation so long? What do I do while I’m at seminary? What’s expected of me?”

Of course seminary life looks very different depending on whether you’re a in a diocesan seminary or part of a religious order, but the similarities between the two come from the bishops’ document on the Program for Priestly Formation (referred to as PPF).  That document outlines four primary areas of formation for seminarian who is studying to be ordained as a Catholic priest.  These are the basic tools for seminarian formation, all the activities, classes, and retreats stem from these four pillars:

Spiritual Formation

The Spiritual Formation of a seminarian is really the foundation of their life not only in their possible future as a priest but as a disciple of the Lord who desires to grow in holiness.

Our seminarians are taught the foundations of the richness of our Catholic Tradition and Spirituality through the liturgy, the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours (morning and evening prayer). There’s other devotions in the Church, the rosary, Stations of the Cross, adoration, divine mercy chaplet, all these are offered to the men, as well as retreat days that take place in the seminary. Each seminarian is also given an annual retreat, usually at the seminary with their brothers.

There are days called “desert days” of meditation throughout the course of the semester, where they get individual time to spend in prayer and reflection. It’s important for them to form those habits before they become an active busy priest in a parish. 

Every seminarian is provided with a spiritual director who can also serve as their confessor if desired – it provides a man with the opportunity to grow deeper. This spiritual director provides him with affirmation and support while at the same time challenging him and asking him to grow deeper in his own spiritual life as he discerns God’s will.

Human Formation

The second piece of formation is what’s known as “Human Formation”.  I like to think of this as ‘community’. It’s important that a man is able to have good relationships with men and women of their own age, with their family, with their friends from before or work or school relationships as well as with their seminarian brothers. 

This also means these seminarians are living a healthy life, they get enough rest, they exercise on a regular basis, if they have any ongoing needs for counseling or any kind of deeper needs, those are addressed, we provide resources for them. If they have any sort of ongoing health issues, those are dealt with so they’re able to be good stewards of the bodies and gifts that God has given them to be able to serve God’s people most effectively. 

Human formation is really concerned with someone’s growth as a healthy individual.  It even includes the integration of human sexuality so these men are able to live as a joyful, happy, fruitful and celibate priest.  Obviously it takes time to grow into these vows, so this seminary environment provides a great environment to pray and reflect upon how they can sustain their life in the church and in their ministry.

Intellectual Formation

Most men entering seminary can expect about 6 years of study, on top of a college degree that they’ve already earned. In my experience, when I entered seminary I already had an undergraduate degree, but I still took two years of philosophy.  These classes provided me with a basic framework and structure of the history of Christianity and Theology, rooted in Aristotle, Plato, dealing with logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and history of philosophy.

This is followed by four years of theology.  Theology classes range widely from moral theology and systematic theology (which deals with trinity), ecclesiology, Christology more pastoral courses such as pastoral counseling, liturgy, preaching (homiletics), many courses in scripture as well as church history.

It really gives these seminarians a really well-rounded understanding of our church tradition in all of its depth and wisdom.  These studies are essential so that someone is able to represent the church well, is able to preach God’s word.

Pastoral Formation

Pastoral Formation is where someone’s being trained to the different ministries of the Church. Throughout the course of seminarian formation, they’re given different placements: maybe for RCIA, teaching confirmation, maybe working with the poor, serving a soup kitchen, possibly working in a hospital setting chaplaincy with those who are ill.  They could be working with youth at a catholic school or CYO summer camps.

It really helps them to see the whole breadth of a ministry experiences that the church is calling them to.  While all the men have several different placements throughout the year, most men will do a pastoral year: an internship year where they work with one of our local parishes in the Archdiocese. Usually we have 1 to 5 men on their pastoral year at a time. It’s a great opportunity to be formed by the local parish community, see the life cycle of the parish thought the course of a year, and get more in contact with the local priests at the Archdiocese. It’s a very important year. 

Our men also come back for summer placements, they’re either placed in a parish in the Archdiocese or they participate in other programs: Spanish immersion, hospital chaplaincy, working in CYO summer camps.  The pastoral placements are great opportunities to be exposed to the administrative side of parish life and the pastoral side of all the many things happening in our wonderful parishes around our Archdiocese. 

Through all four of these areas of the priestly formation, the prayer, the human growth, the intellectual formation and the pastoral formation, a man should be formed over time in the span of 6-8 years (God-willing) to be ordained as a deacon and then (God willing) to be ordained as a priest!


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