Priestly formation and the new evangelization: Assessing candidates for the priesthood
Something good is happening in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the area of priestly vocations. In the Office of Vocations, we are continually receiving inquiries via telephone, email and social media from young men (and sometimes not so young men) every day. There is great reason to be optimistic and hopeful.
The challenge for us in the Office of Vocations is to be cognizant of an ever-present reality — the need for both quality and quantity of candidates for the priesthood. Certainly we have a great need in the archdiocese for many, many more priests.
But what the Church does not need is just anyone to become a priest. Rather, we need those who are truly called by God and recognized by the Church to have an authentic priestly vocation.
Our previous article, “Priestly Formation and the New Evangelization: The 4 Pillars of Formation” (July 4), dealt with the four essential dimensions of priestly formation in the seminary. We need well-rounded, holy men of prayer and study and learning who demonstrate the capacity to serve God’s people well as parish priests. Thus, while a great quantity of new seminarians is a primary goal, the quality of each candidate is also of supreme importance.
Therefore, not all the men who inquire about the priesthood make it to the seminary. Most who call us are men of deep faith and service in their parish and other archdiocesan ministries. Some who call us are sincere in their desire to be priests, but suffer from certain psychological pathologies or other character flaws that disqualify them as viable candidates.
Still others have canonical impediments, substantial personal debt, criminal records, significant health problems or other issues that also similarly disqualify them. These men are still called to be active members of the Catholic Church but unfortunately the painful lessons of the past 10 years have taught us valuable lessons of how to better prescreen candidates for the priesthood.
The current procedures and policies to evaluate candidates for the priesthood were in place long before the clergy abuse scandals of our recent past. We both applied to and were accepted as seminarians for the archdiocese years before the scandals and went through a very thorough and comprehensive application process and review, as intensive and comprehensive as any law enforcement agency in the country.
This process included a criminal and financial background check, fingerprinting, a psychological examination, a full physical exam, a pastor’s letter of recommendation, academic transcripts, a letter of release or recommendation from previous seminaries attended or the religious order(s) that one belonged to (if applicable), interviews and evaluations by the Office of Vocations’ assessment team, and finally interviews by the admissions committee of the seminary.
The Office of Vocations enters into a thorough process of discernment with possible candidates for the seminary, a process that can last up to two years or more, or perhaps be as short as six months. While following the criteria set out by Pastoris Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds,” by Pope John Paul II, 1992) and “The Program for Priestly Formation” (Fifth Edition from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), we take each candidate where he is. Each candidate is unique and has his own personal gifts and limitations that he brings to the discernment process. Questions that we ask include, but are not limited to, the following:
— How long and how seriously have you been discerning a vocation to the priesthood?
— What is your motivation to be a priest? Are you making this decision freely or are you being pressured in any way?
— What experiences do you have in serving God’s people in parish and/or Archdiocesan ministry?
— Tell us about your level of education. Are you ready for the study of philosophy and graduate-level theology studies?
— How is your physical health?
— What do your family and friends think about your vocation?
— In what ways do you feel ready to live a chaste and celibate priestly vocation? How do you understand celibacy?
— Tell us about your prayer life. How and when do you pray?
— Do you accept the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church? Why or why not?
— Have you considered other vocations or careers? Religious life?
As we get to know each candidate — through individual interviews and meetings with him, through our monthly discernment groups in each pastoral region, through other events (both spiritual and social) organized by the Office of Vocations, and in “Come & See” retreats at the seminary — we discern with him the authenticity of his call from God to the priesthood.
If and when both the candidate and we determine that he is ready to apply to either Juan Diego House (house of formation for college-aged men) or St. John’s Seminary (graduate-level School of Theology), the more formal assessment phase begins, as detailed above.
The assessment team of the Office of Vocations, which makes the formal recommendation to the Juan Diego House or St. John’s Seminary admissions committee, consists of 10 members: the two vocation directors, the five regional vocation directors from each pastoral region, and three Catholic lay women (two of whom are licensed counselors and one who is the director of the Office of Parish Life).
This “team approach” allows us to consider the valuable points of view of both priests and laity, representative of various ethnicities, and both men and women in assessing the viability and suitability of each candidate for the Seminary. Thus the Office of Vocations, and subsequently both Juan Diego House and St. John’s Seminary, can be reasonably confident in our ultimate recommendations of candidates for Holy Orders to the archbishop after a comprehensive discernment and assessment process, seven to nine years of seminary formation according to the four pillars of priestly formation, many years of prayer, and the spiritual and personal growth and maturity of each seminarian.
The hope is that with God’s grace and an excellent formation program, the archdiocese is preparing the best men we can to serve as priests for the cura animarum, the care and salvation of souls.
We entrust all of our seminarians and men in discernment, the seminary faculties and staffs, our assessment team, and all priests to the maternal care and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the intercession of St. Joseph, St. John Vianney, St. John Paul II and all holy men and women. Please keep us all in your daily prayers.
This is the third in an occasional series on the formation of seminarians and the promotion of priestly and religious vocations in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Father Steve Davoren is the director and Father Sam Ward the associate director for the archdiocesan Office of Vocations. They can be contacted at (213) 637-7248 or through www.LAVocations.org. Follow the Office on Twitter (LAVocations), Facebook (LAVocations) and YouTube Channel (LA Vocations).
BY REV. STEVE DAVOREN & REV. SAM WARD