Context and Need
Historically, the training of Priests was rather uncontrolled and highly dependent on the local bishop, cathedrals, monasteries, places of learning, and even on the person’s family financial or educational resources. By the 16th Century, the almost haphazard way of training priests in some countries had truly become a major concern for the Church.
Responding to the Reformation, the Fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Trent felt it imperative to legislate on this important area of formation which clearly had every potential of benefiting the life of the Church in a very practical way. Well-trained Priests had to be a priority if the Church was to face up to the challenges of the day and beyond. The seminary system became widespread and over the years adopted what still remains the traditional combination of 3 years Philosophy and 3 of Theology, or close variants along these lines.
Times have indeed changed since Trent. Not only did the Industrial Revolution challenge the way we lived, but more recently, technological development has had a significant influence on our life-styles and attitudes, which in turn have affected our spiritual and human outlook to life. In recent times, the need has been voiced for new ways of providing some untrammelled space, away from the noise and clutter around us. A call to Priesthood can then be heard all the clearer before committing oneself to the demands of the full seminary programme. If formation is to look towards the ‘Priest of Tomorrow’ today, it should to be sensitive to this need for space conducive to an openness to formation within which one can begin to shape a response to the Lord’s call.
In Pastores dabo vobis, Blessed John Paul II emphasised the need for what can be termed a ‘Propadeutic Year’ , better suited to cope with the varied social, economic, family or religious backgrounds of persons coming forward for Priesthood today. Not every candidate today is a cradle Catholic and even if he is, the quality, depth and practice of his Catholicism cannot be taken for granted. The Propaedeutic Year gives the student an opportunity to explore the faith: in its basics; as an introduction to the more complex areas of Philosophy and Theology; in the richer liturgical practices and styles prayer, etc. When they move on to the next seminary phase, where the academic element is quite substantial, this challenge will not seem so daunting.
The emphasis in the Propaedeutic Year is certainly the spiritual and human formation. These are vital in developing the listening skills of the Gospel, enabling them to look towards the next stage of formation with greater personal self-awareness as the principal fruit of the Year’s discernment process.
Why call it a Propaedeutic Year? In our label-prone world, it is not easy to find the right name for this type of programme. In essence, formation neither begins in seminary nor ends with ordination. Formation is something which starts from the moment we can be taught, until the moment we can no longer learn. However, in practice, a person who feels called will take the first step by approaching his Vocations Director or a member of the Diocesan Vocations Team. If he is accepted, specific formation to the Priesthood can then begin. To distinguish this year from the traditional seminary phase of formation, we have therefore decided to call it a Propaedeutic Year, taken from the Greek propaideúo, ‘to teach beforehand’, as it well describes the nature and aim of our programme.
Ultimately, whatever one would choose to call this Year, it should certainly reflect that it is essentially a quest, a self-discovery. Seeking to be truly open to the kind of formation the Lord desires, is a constant recognition that it is the Lord who forms and no other can take His place. With Him, the man called to Priesthood will discover the wonder of a deeper relationship with Christ. Only as he sees a new horizon dawning, can he genuinely reply to the invitation given: "Yes, Master, I will follow you, wherever you may go." (Mt 8:19).