A Parent’s Primer on Priestly Formation
by Kevin Cummings
You might be surprised when your son sits you down and says, “Mom, dad, I’m thinking of becoming a priest.”
A vocation may not have been on your radar. You always said you’d support your son whatever he chose to do, but … religious life? It’s kind of a big idea to absorb and, if you’re like a lot of folks, you probably have a lot of questions.
Most of us don’t know much about the priesthood because most of us don’t really know our priests. We see them at Mass on Sunday, at baptisms and weddings, perhaps in the confessional or at Bible study. But, we don’t usually know them as human beings. What did your pastor do before he became a priest? What was his training like? Does he have family? What did his parents think when he told them? It’s all a mystery.
Not knowing raises a lot of questions. What the heck is a vocation? How long is this going to take? Will my son be happy? What is seminary like? Who’s going to pay for his training?
The answers to most of those questions – and the hundreds more that are probably swirling through your mind – are closer than you think. If your son has already made contact with a vocations office, he’s probably already working with a vocation director. That individual will be more than happy to talk to you and answer any questions you have.
In the interest of getting you off on the right foot, let’s go through a few of the common questions.
Broadly speaking, vocation is what you’re called to do with your life. For some, this is marriage. For others (religious such as nuns and monks), it’s consecrated life. For still others (priests, bishops, and deacons), it’s Holy Orders. All priests are ordained to service and so all have had the sacrament of Holy Orders.
It’s worth taking a minute to talk about secular (diocesan) vs. religious (order) priests. The term “secular” in this case refers to a priest who is ordained by and for a diocesan bishop. The majority of the parishes are served by secular priests. Religious priests are ordained for a particular religious community or order. The Jesuits (formally called the Society of Jesus) are a worldwide order with priests serving in parishes and missions around the world. The Paulist Fathers (formally the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle) are based in North America and serve at parishes, centers and missions, primarily in the United States and Canada.
Secular priests generally live alone and will spend their careers in parishes within the diocese. They draw a salary from the diocese and are expected to provide for their own needs from that salary.
Religious priests live in community with two or more priests of the order sharing living quarters and will be sent wherever the order needs them to go. They may serve a local parish for a few years before being reassigned to a campus ministry center or other mission (or vice versa). In a religious community, property is usually held in common and the priest’s needs are generally provided for by the community.
Of course, before your son is assigned anywhere he’ll have to complete his training. This is called “formation” and this brings us to our next question.
The answer depends on a lot of factors including the level of education your son has when he enters formation, whether or not he’s going to be a religious or secular priest, and which community he plans to join if he’s a religious.
Priests in this country almost always have to complete a master’s degree in theology as part of their training. If your son is just entering college, he may opt to go to a college seminary for his bachelor’s degree before entering “major” seminary to complete his master’s degree. There also will be more practical training to prepare him for the duties of the priesthood including time spent in hospitals and parishes working with men who are already ordained.
As a rule of thumb, a priest will undergo five years of training after completing his bachelor’s degree and before he is ordained. This entire period is considered part of his discernment of his vocation and he can “discern out” during that time. This allows the young man time to work with a spiritual director to determine that he really is called to the life of a priest.
Spiritual directors and vocational directors aren’t recruiters; they aren’t interested in “making the quick sale.” Their job is to help men through the discernment process and to assist them in finding the path God has for them.
According to the research, the answer is “very probably.” In 2011, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, clinical associate professor of pastoral studies and associate dean for seminary and ministerial programs at Catholic University of America, published a book titled “Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests.” In his research, 90 percent of priests self-identified as happy. They cited a feeling of inner peace, a positive view of celibacy, and a good relationship with God as the primary reasons.
I think a lot of parents imagine seminary as a cross between boot camp and a monastery. They picture their sons wearing hair shirts, sleeping on beds of straw and getting up every three hours to pray.
I suppose there might be a seminary like that somewhere, but they would be the exception. The seminary exists for the sole purpose of helping a young man grow closer to God as he is trained for the priesthood. Certainly, there are rules to be followed and participation in the Liturgy of the Hours is an important part of formation, but it’s not penitential. His day will likely begin with prayer in the chapel with the other seminarians and will probably end the same way. In between there will be Masses, classes, work in the community and local parishes, private prayer and study, and time spent with a spiritual director. It is not a life of leisure, but it is a life of joy.
Many seminaries offer parents’ days and will give you the opportunity to share in the seminarians’ lives for a day or two. Having a chance to see the seminary will go a long way toward answering your questions.
This question comes up a lot and the answer is like the answer about how long formation takes – it depends.
If your son is starting out in college seminary and working on his bachelor’s degree, he’ll probably have to pay for his schooling on his own. This can include government grants for college (in some cases), scholarships, or sponsorships by the diocese. Again, the vocation director will be able to answer your specific questions.
Once a man reaches major seminary and is working on his master’s degree and priestly formation, the costs are usually covered by his diocese or his order. This will include his living expenses as well as educational costs.
If money is a concern, though, there are groups which are willing to help sponsor seminarians. Ask around your parish, check with the diocese, and remember to talk to the vocations director.
The whole idea of priestly formation is foreign to a lot of us. We never had a priest, nun or sister in our family and we don’t really know the local priest all that well. One easy way to solve that is to get to know your local priest as well as any other priest you have access to.
Take them to dinner. Talk to your pastor after Mass and invite him over for a meal or offer to take him out. Ask him about his experience of the seminary. If a visiting priest happens to come to your parish, invite them for a meal. They’ll be happy to answer your questions.
The journey your son is starting is one that thousands of priests before him have taken. Talk to them and learn about their experiences. Their answers will likely settle your nerves and give you a better idea of what your son is doing.
Kevin Cummings is the father of Paulist seminarian Evan Cummings. He also writes at Seminarian Parents . which has more resources for parents of seminarians and those discerning a call to the priesthood and religious life.