By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond
One of the issues brought forward in recent sex abuse stories was that of priestly formation in our seminaries.
Throughout the years, I have been involved in seminary formation, and I consider it of utmost importance to ascertain that the formation is balanced and spiritually grounded and also prepares seminarians to be good shepherds, as we see modeled in the life of Christ.
We are blessed in our archdiocese to have two outstanding seminaries. Notre Dame Seminary is the second-largest theologate in the United States, and St. Joseph Seminary College is the largest seminary college in the United States.
Please don’t get me wrong. The size of our seminaries does not, on its own, mean they have excellence in priestly formation. However, from my close contact with both rectors – Father James Wehner of Notre Dame Seminary and Benedictine Father Gregory Boquet of St. Joseph Seminary College (St. Ben’s) – and from my contact with the seminarians, I can assure you that the priestly formation and the theological formation at both seminaries are superb.
A part of priestly formation is “human formation,” as defined by St. John Paul II. Human formation involves psychosexual development, a firm commitment to celibate chastity and a determined desire to live a moral life and to be faithful to the teachings of the church.
Our seminary faculty are carefully prepared for this unique ministry. I meet with the rectors on a regular basis in order to discuss priestly formation in general and, at times, to deal with specific questions.
Attached are two reflections concerning priestly formation by Father Wehner, the rector of Notre Dame Seminary, and by Father Kurt Young, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. They discuss many things about seminary life and, in a particular way, the screening of seminarians, which is of utmost importance. If any of us can answer any questions in this regard, please do not hesitate to ask us.
Father James Wehner
What is the current process for admissions and screening of seminarians?
The screening process is extraordinarily extensive these days for a candidate to even enter into the seminary. The process includes psychological testing, medical testing, recommendations from clergy and laity, and criminal background checks. Once they first get here, there is another round of scrutiny. I do what’s called a canonical investigation, where I interview every seminarian individually to confirm his suitability and his standing to even be a seminarian. We have 46 new seminarians this year, and I have an individual meeting with every one of them the first week that they’re here. The second level is how does the church confirm the suitability of seminarians for ordained ministry? Once again, the evaluation of seminarians is rigorous; it’s continuous, throughout the year and from year to year; and it requires the involvement of laity and clergy alike. Every seminarian has a pastoral assignment that requires evaluation from laity, supervisors and clergy, and then internal to the seminary is a whole evaluation board that involves the formation team that requires input from our professors and teaching faculty, staff and certainly from the priest formators. Then the process goes in the other direction from the seminary back to the diocese. At the end of every year, we write up a report that goes back to the vocation director and the bishop, and they do their own independent review to assure that they are satisfied with the seminary’s evaluation. As you may know, the seminarians are not at the seminary 12 months a year. When they’re home for a month over Christmas and for three months over the summer, they all have responsibilities that include parish assignments, hospital ministry, mission trips, etc. The vocation office in the diocese often has its own assessment of the seminarian to ascertain how the summer ministry succeeded. So there exists a partnership between the seminary and the diocese to assure that when the time comes before diaconate and priesthood ordination, that as best as humanly possible, we’ve received all of the feedback and assessment required to make a final recommendation if they should be ordained.
Do individual bishops visit during the year to talk to their seminarians in New Orleans?
They do. Every diocese has a vocation director or a director of seminarians – sometimes it’s two separate positions. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Father Kurt Young is the vocations director; Father Billy O’Riordan, the pastor of St. Ann Parish in Metairie, is the director of seminarians for Notre Dame Seminary; and Father Gil Martin is the director of seminarians at St. Ben’s. They have monthly meetings with the New Orleans seminarians, which often are on an individual basis. The New Orleans seminarians then come together for the evening for prayer and fraternity. Father Kurt, as the vocation director, makes regular visits with the guys. More formally, Archbishop Aymond sits in on the annual evaluation of each New Orleans seminarian. For every other diocese, either the bishop or the vocation director sits in on the evaluation itself. Once again, the evaluation process is a partnership between the seminary and the diocese.
In your years as rector at different seminaries, has the process changed at all or much in the last 10 to 15 years?
Yes. This is my 16th year as a rector, serving in three different seminaries, so generally speaking, the admissions process and the evaluation process, as a process, has remained the same but the instruments have been refined and enhanced so that there’s greater, detailed information that we’re receiving. For example, the psychological evaluations that maybe took place 15 years ago did not necessarily factor in the impact of social media. There exists today types of social media that did not exist 10 years ago. There is social media today that touches upon the use of pornography and the wide range of social relationships through cyberspace. Therefore, admissions instruments take these situations into account. Psychological testing has been required at Notre Dame Seminary for more than 30 years, but the instruments have been enhanced to include matters of family issues, human sexuality, addictions, etc. The same thing with the interview process. From the vocation office or the seminary standpoint, we have to now consider questions of psychosexual development or family of origin issues that are much more intense than issues of 10 to 15 years ago, which were less prevalent. Also, there’s always been professional, pastoral training of seminarians, but now safe environment training, which is required of all people in ministry, is a standard part of seminary formation that did not exist as it does today.
If Pope Francis authorizes an apostolic visitation of seminaries in the U.S., what is involved in that process and how do you feel Notre Dame Seminary would fare?
In the past, there have been two types of visitations. There’s an apostolic visitation where the Holy See appoints a team that comes to the seminary. It’s comprehensive – it involves the interview of faculty, staff, administration, seminarians; it reviews all of the policies and practices from admissions processes all the way through to ordination recommendations. Usually what happens then is a report from the team goes back to the Holy See, which then makes a comparative study between what the report is finding and what the standards and principles of priestly formation are to determine if the seminary is in compliance with universal standards. The Holy See issues a report back to the seminary and the bishops with recommendations. A second type of visitation is coordinated by the bishops’ episcopal conference. That’s more of an internal review to determine if those same standards are being met but in accord with national standards. Both processes have the same goals in mind. I think Notre Dame Seminary not only meets the expectations of all of the principles of formation but also exceeds them. And I think there’s a spirit of excellence reflected at all stages of our priestly formation program. I would welcome a visitation to the seminary.
What are the emotions of the seminarians right now? Have you been able to gauge that?
Ironically, we have our largest enrollment in nearly 20 years. We have 46 new seminarians, which is the largest incoming class since I have been rector. We are the second-largest seminary in the United States (behind Mundelein Seminary in Chicago). Obviously, the year began last week with a great sense of enthusiasm, joy and renewal that you see at the beginning of every semester. I think today there’s disillusionment – not with the priesthood or with seminary formation – but I think there is disillusionment with accountability. Archbishop Aymond addressed this with the seminarians last week at the opening of the seminary year. There is disillusionment with clergy who make a promise of integrity – celibacy and obedience – and how that violation has diminished that commitment. So, I think that’s where there’s disappointment. The seminarians are primarily disappointed by the large number of people who have been victimized at the hands of clergy. The second level of disillusionment, you might say, is the lack of accountability. However, there is also a great trust that they see in God and in the Holy Spirit, and in the fact that leadership is now taking a greater responsibility to make the church stronger and healthier for them, in their own formation and certainly when they are ordained.
Did the seminarians have a chance to ask questions of Archbishop Aymond?
The archbishop stood at the back of the chapel and made himself available to any seminarian who wanted to talk with him. The seminarians just wanted to thank him for his presence, for his affirmation. He offered an apology for any seminarian who himself may have been a victim of abuse, and he also apologized if there was any sense of disappointment that they had in the hierarchy of the church. But I know they expressed great appreciation for his commitment to Notre Dame Seminary. He has made priestly formation a priority in his own ministry as a bishop. For myself, I gave probably the most difficult rector’s conference I’ve had to give in 16 years. I decided to do it on Facebook live feed. It was an hour and a half. I wanted people to look in, letting people see how we were responding to the issues and how we are encouraging our seminarians to take formation seriously. I had to deal with sensitive issues such as homosexuality, abuse and personal accountability as seminarians, and how to develop a healthy human sexuality. It was a strong, difficult conference. Following the conference, the seminarians broke into groups without the priests being present so that the guys could speak in candor and honesty about the conference or about any themes that I touched upon. I thought it was a very healthy way to start the year off.
Could you mention a few things that people might not know about the screening process for men considering entering the seminary?
A lot of people have this opinion that anyone who wants to be a priest is going to be a priest, which is not the case. We need to help people understand that there is a process of thorough screening. Every man who is seeking application to the seminary, first and foremost, goes through a personal interview with me where we discuss basically every aspect of his life. I ask some very pointed questions to see what they’re going through, what they’ve been through, what their past has been like, what their current life is like and to try to ascertain, especially, their spiritual development. That oftentimes indicates what type of man we’re dealing with. Then, once they begin the application process, they’re required to submit to a background check where we look to see if there are any criminal records with any law enforcement. They also have to submit five references. There are forms they have to fill out, as well as names of people that we can call individually or send a letter to to ask other questions. Of course, the biggest of all, which I think some people don’t realize we already do, is the psychological screening. That’s something that no man coming into the seminary is allowed to overlook. They have to sit down with the psychologist to be evaluated and to see if there are any issues that need to be addressed. And at the end of their testing – it’s a long process, about eight hours’ worth of a battery of tests and the personal interview with the psychologist – they compile a report that they send to us which details everything. They also give us a summary which says these are some issues to be aware of and to look out for, and these issues could be indicative of X, Y or Z. So, once we have all of that, we can look at the picture of this person based on his own autobiography and personal interview with me. Then the archbishop can look at the fullest picture that we can get to see if this is somebody who we feel perhaps does or does not fit the criteria to be a priest. Even though we have all of these good things in place, the archbishop and I are currently looking to evaluate if we can do more on the front end to ensure that men coming to us to be formed are men of integrity, honesty and personal conviction.
Has the process changed or been refined in any significant way over the last several years?
In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, psychological testing for all seminarians has been in place for more than 30 years. This is across the board. The testing has gotten more advanced through the years.
What impact if any do you think this may have on men who may be considering a priestly vocation?
For many, it may have strengthened their desire to be a holy priest. It may have strengthened their desire to step up to the call to be that holy man of God that we’re all called to be. For some it may also be a source of inspiration. I haven’t received any phone calls from anyone about this.
What do you hope the end result of this trial the church is going through?
First and most important, I can’t imagine what the victims and their families have gone through and are going through. My heart goes out to them. But also this is an opportunity for growth in virtue and in holiness. That’s where I see the hope in this – that we will become the holy men of God that we are called to be. If anything, from my own perspective – and I can see it among the seminarians – this has been a motivation for us on an individual level to recommit ourselves to being holy men of God that we’re called to be through our own prayer lives, through our own personal principles, through our own living out, day in and day out, that call to be Christ in the world. This has really become a motivation to become holier, and, ultimately, to become a saint. I have a deep conviction in my heart that I want to be a saint. I feel that now more than ever. So, I’m hopeful that it’s going to ultimately build up the church by helping people become holier in the end.