Discernment is a process of interior spiritual discovery that leads us to understand God’s will for our lives. When it comes to discerning a vocation to the priesthood, a seminary is the best place to do so. The seminarian is able to rely on and trust the wisdom of the Church and benefits from the support and advice of priests and brother seminarians.
To discern a priestly vocation well, seminarians participate in a program of priestly formation which is intended, first and foremost, to assist seminarians in responding to the transforming grace of God at work in their lives. The goal of formation is the development not just of a well-rounded, prayerful person, but one who understands his growth within the context of a call to serve and build up the Church.
The “four pillars” of priestly formation explained below – human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral – were developed by St. Pope John Paul II in his 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis. In the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), a document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops of the United States articulate and apply these dimensions of formation more specifically to the preparation of priests for ministry in this country.
The human formation program at Saint Joseph College Seminary seeks to form each seminarian by conforming him more completely to Jesus Christ. As the Program for Priestly Formation states: “In his fully developed humanity, he was truly free and with complete freedom gave himself totally for the salvation of the world” (PPF, 74). The central dynamic of the human formation program consists of a three-fold process of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift. Seminarians participate in weekly instruction or formation sessions that address the topics necessary for personal understanding, growth, and spiritual conversion. These sessions are arranged topically in accord with the PPF.
At the beginning of each year, each seminarian prepares and signs a formation covenant which incorporates both the seminary’s expectations and the seminarian’s own growth goals for that year. Each seminarian is assigned a formation director with whom he meets regularly to review his growth, provide feedback, and call him to greater maturity. He is expected to prepare for these sessions by reflecting on his life, the current state of his vocational discernment, and ways in which he desires to grow further. At the end of the year, the seminarian completes a written reflection on his progress and discusses it with his formation director. The formation director uses this self-evaluation, along with his own observations, to prepare an annual written assessment of the seminarian’s growth.
At Saint Joseph College Seminary, community life also constitutes part of the human formation program. Seminarians learn discipline and responsibility by following the schedule of prayer, study, and community life, as well as by engaging in work-study. All seminarians are assigned to a cam (short for camerata, “brotherhood”) in which they live with other seminarians and a cam priest. This is to foster charity, fraternity, and a spirit of generosity in service.
The spiritual formation program is central to the daily life of Saint Joseph College Seminary. It forms seminarians “to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. This is the foundational call to discipleship and conversion of heart. Those who aspire to be sent on mission, as the apostles were, must first acquire the listening and learning heart of disciples. Jesus invited these apostles to come to him before he sent them out to others” (PPF, 107). Through the celebration of Mass, meditation before the Blessed Sacrament, and weekly Benediction, Saint Joseph College Seminary seeks to cultivate a love for the Eucharist in each seminarian, as the Eucharistic sacrifice is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (LG 11). The seminary community prays the Liturgy of the Hours together every morning and evening. During the course of the year, seminarians become familiar with the practices of Catholic life by praying a weekly Rosary in various languages, the Stations of the Cross on Fridays of Lent, blessings before meals, and other devotions. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is available several times a week.
In the end, Saint Joseph College Seminary not only provides an environment for seminarians to be formed as disciples of Christ through ongoing conversion, but also offers them the opportunity to continue discerning a vocation to ordained priesthood. Each seminarian is assigned a spiritual director with whom he meets twice a month. Spiritual directors are priests who assist seminarians in the development of their own spiritual life and in responding to a possible call to priesthood.
In order to live as a disciple of the Lord and to preach and teach in a manner that helps others to do so, a priest must understand the Catholic faith in depth and be able to articulate it with clarity and conviction. As the Program for Priestly Formation notes, “There is a reciprocal relationship between spiritual and intellectual formation. The intellectual life nourishes the spiritual life, but the spiritual also opens vistas of understanding.”(PPF, 136) Through its longstanding affiliation with Loyola University Chicago, the largest Jesuit university in the United States, Saint Joseph College Seminary is able to give its students what the PPF calls a “double course of intellectual formation” (PPF, 146). Seminarians study the liberal arts as part of the Loyola University Chicago’s core curriculum. All of them major in philosophy; they may also pursue a double major or a minor in an additional subject. In order to prepare them to advance to the theologate, where these topics will be studied in greater depth, seminarians take introductory courses in theology, Sacred Scripture and Latin. They attend most of their classes in the regular classrooms of Loyola University Chicago, and also take several courses on the campus of Saint Joseph College Seminary.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of seminary life is the Pastoral Formation Program. Each year, seminarians are assigned to a new ministry, beginning in their freshman year with direct service to the poor. During subsequent years, they provide pastoral care to the sick and suffering, teach religious education courses to youth at a parish, and engage in various forms of outreach to those on the margins of society. In each of these ministries, seminarians are directed and evaluated by competent supervisors. Ongoing reflection on the ministerial experience happens both in the classroom and through a seminarian’s regular conversations with his Formation Director.
Perhaps the most important element of a student’s pastoral formation is his participation in the Summer Apostolate Program. This intensive ten week experience is designed for students who have completed at least two years of college seminary their sophomore year. Through this experience, seminarians are immersed in the daily life of a parish community and in the ministry of the priests and other staff members who serve it.