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Father Nicholas Nelson: Changes coming in the formation process of future priests

In 2016, the Catholic Church issued new universal guidelines for the formation of priests. These guidelines would mean significant changes to seminaries and dioceses as they form young men for the priesthood. Each country was then tasked with taking those guidelines and developing a new “Program of Priestly Formation.” This would be the sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF 6) in the United States. The PPF 6 was promulgated on Aug. 4, 2022. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

The formation of priests is something that all Catholics should be interested in. I know that many of you are very invested in vocations to the priesthood through prayer and finances. You write cards to the seminarians, you send money, you are praying, you are talking to young men and encouraging them to consider the seminary. I know you get excited when you hear of a young man going to the seminary, especially if he is from your parish. 

I know all this because you tell me so. As director of vocations for the Diocese of Duluth, I thought I would use my column this month to talk about the changes that we see in PPF 6. And while a lot of details still need to be straightened out, and we need to see how this plays out in practical terms, there is still much I can write about already. 

The first change to note is that the church will no longer speak in terms of academic phases such as college seminarian, pre-theologian, or theologian, or a seminarian in philosophy or theology, or a man in minor seminary or major seminary. The church wants to speak of “stages.” There are four stages now, and they are sequential. Every man needs to meet specific objectives before moving on to the next stage. The first stage is the propaedeutic stage, followed by the discipleship stage, followed by the configuration stage, and finally, the vocational synthesis stage. 

The propaedeutic stage is meant to be a pre-academic stage. This is altogether new. In PPF 5, men would immediately be taking a full load of classes. In PPF 6, the most they can take is 12 credit hours. The focus is on human and spiritual formation. The men are to grow in greater self-knowledge and learn to pray to God in a relational way. This stage is to be no less than 12 months and is to have a component that strengthens the man’s relationship with his diocese. The goal of this stage is to strengthen and heal what may have been wounded and to give them the solid foundation needed before the more formal formation begins. 

The discipleship stage is basically the old philosophy level. This is the majority of a man’s time at college seminary or what we used to call pre-theology for those who are entering formation already having a college degree. 

The configuration stage is basically the old theology level. After completing his philosophy degree or its equivalent, a seminarian would study theology for four years. This stage, as the name suggests, is about the seminarian configuring himself to Christ the high priest. Formation includes learning to do what priests do on a day-to-day basis. Instead of discerning, “Am I called to be a priest?,” a man has the understanding, “I am called ….” 

The vocational synthesis stage, as is the propaedeutic stage, is altogether new. After and only after the previous three stages are completed, including all theology classes, a man may be ordained a transitional deacon. He now begins the vocational synthesis stage. He minsters as a deacon for a minimum of six months in a parish. This stage allows the man to transition from seminary to the priesthood and integrate himself into the fraternity of priests in the diocese before ordination to the priesthood. 

I could mention a number of the questions that arise and follow from the new Program of Priestly Formation. I will mention two. One, we will no longer see deacons in the seminary. They will finish their seminary time and then be a deacon back in the diocese. Therefore, does the requirement of six months as a deacon following seminary mean that a man will be ordained a priest in December? There is discussion whether a seminary can squeeze four years of theology into three and a half, so that he could finish seminary in December, be ordained a deacon, and then be ordained a priest in June. This all still needs to be seen. 

Second, how soon will we begin to actually speak of these stages in our everyday usage concerning vocations? People intuitively grasp “college seminary” and “major seminary.” It will take awhile for people to understand what we mean when we say “discipleship stage” or “configuration stage.” Most likely, we will have to add that the man in discipleship stage is at the college seminary. This year for the vocation poster, we will begin to use these stages to indicate where a man is in regards to his formation. 

Finally, and most important, please continue to pray for, encourage, and financially support our seminarians. This fall, we will have five new men entering the seminary! We may even have one or two more enter in January too! We haven’t had a new class that large for years. God is providing laborers for his vineyard! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].