Teaching Our Faith — ‘I will give you shepherds’

Rev. Jeffrey Shooner
Vicar for Priests

To coincide with the beginning of the Year of Faith, Archbishop Kurtz will be participating at a synod on the new evangelization in October in Rome. I am excited about the emphasis and direction that this synod will give for the ministry and life of the church in the coming years.

Synods often create energy and vitality that ripples through the life of the church for decades. When I entered seminary in 1996, there was much excitement surrounding Blessed John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis.

Promulgated in 1992, it had an immense impact on the understanding of priesthood and how to form men to become priests, especially through the revisions of the Program for Priestly Formation, which guide seminary formation. This teaching editorial will focus on Pastores Dabo Vobis, which followed the 1990 synod on priestly formation.

The English title for this document, “I Will Give You Shepherds,” quotes the Prophet Jeremiah — “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (3:15).

Confident that God will not leave his people alone, like sheep without a shepherd, Blessed John Paul II encourages the people of God to place their trust in the Holy Spirit, pray for priests and priestly vocations, and “propose clearly and courageously to each new generation the vocational call, help people to discern the authenticity of their call from God and to respond to it generously, and give particular care to the formation of candidates for the priesthood” (2).

In a contemporary context, priestly formation must focus on friendship with Jesus Christ, the one High Priest, growth in holiness, and generous service to the church and the world. In Pastores Dabo Vobis, this is done through the four pillars of formation:

  • For the first time in a church document, human formation is identified as “the basis of all priestly formation” (43). Human formation requires that the candidate for priesthood be a good and mature human being capable of ministering in the name and person of Christ as a bridge, and not an obstacle, because of his integrity, freedom, wisdom and capacity to relate well to others.
  • Spiritual formation is characterized as developing “a deep intimacy with God” (47). The relationship with Christ, fostered intentionally through a number of concrete spiritual practices and prayer, strengthens the priest to live the promises of celibacy, obedience and simplicity of life with joy. Human formation finds its completion in spiritual formation.
  • Intellectual formation requires that the candidate for priesthood be a believer, a person of faith, but one “who asks himself questions about his own faith, with the aim of reaching a deeper understanding of the faith itself” (58). Through prayer, theological study deepens one’s relationship with God and equips one to address the challenges posed by our contemporary culture, especially about the relationship between faith and reason.
  • Pastoral formation grounds the practical experience of service and ministry in the pastoral charity of Jesus with an understanding of the church as mystery, communion and mission. This recognizes that the work the priest is called to is a gift and work of the Holy Spirit, is done in heartfelt cooperation with the different members of the Church and is essentially missionary in nature.

The four pillars of formation provide the framework for the preparation of candidates for the priesthood and the ongoing formation of priests. This helps them to become more fully who they are called to be: configured through the Sacrament of Orders by the laying on of hands and gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ, the head and shepherd of his people. The document reminds us that priests share in the threefold ministry of Christ: priest (sacrifice and sacrament), prophet (proclamation of the word), and king (leadership and service).

According to Pastores Dabo Vobis, a priest sacramentally represents Christ, the good shepherd, through his pastoral charity and qualities of “faithfulness, integrity, consistency, wisdom, a welcoming spirit, friendliness, goodness of heart, decisive firmness in essentials, freedom from overly subjective viewpoints, personal disinterestedness, patience, an enthusiasm for daily tasks, confidence in the value of the hidden workings of grace as manifested in the simple and the poor” (26). This vision of priesthood in Pastores Dabo Vobis is both daunting and exhilarating, for only with God is it possible. In his conclusion, Blessed John Paul II reminds us again, “God promises the Church not just any sort of shepherds, but shepherds ‘after his own heart.’ And God’s ‘heart’ has revealed itself to us fully in the heart of Christ the good shepherd.”

The Rev. Jeffrey P. Shooner
Vicar for Priests

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