My first memory of any conversation about young men “training for the priesthood” took place over the family dinner table when I was a young child about seven years old. Back then it was commonplace for those called to religious life or the holy priesthood to begin their formal preparation at the age of 16.

When I was eight or nine, I recall my mom setting the kitchen table one summer afternoon with cups and saucers from the “china cabinet” because the “priest in training” assigned to do the “parish census” was expected to visit our home. The precious gold leaf dishes, a wedding gift given to my parents, had never been used for fear that they would be accidentally dropped and broken. This rule was suspended on that sunny summer day because of the prestige of our honored guest. The young man who was “studying” or “training for the priesthood” was welcomed into our home as if he was Jesus Christ himself.

This was the Catholic culture in which we lived. To some extent, my Protestant grandmother and other non-Catholic relatives would treat an aspiring priest or minister of the gospel in a similar fashion.

Curiously, the language of “training for the priesthood” or “studying for the priesthood” is echoed in Optatam Totius, the Vatican II “Decree on Priestly Training” outlining the perspective and general principles of priestly formation. This decree is the first of two Vatican II decrees that deal specifically with the ministerial priesthood. The second, a decree on “the ministry and life of priests” called Presbyterorum Ordinis came less than two months later on Dec. 7, 1965.

The English translation of the Latin title, Optatam Totius (OT), literally means “desired by the whole,” which refers to the desired renewal of the whole Church that depends on the ministry of the ordained priest. In this context, the document outlines the Church’s desire for an updated program of priestly training encompassing studies as well as other aspects of formation.

This desire was realized 27 years later, when Blessed John Paul II penned the 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV), a universal document on priestly formation. Whereas OT uses language of “training” and “studying” for the priesthood, the terminology of PDV and later Church documents pertaining to priestly preparation, uses language that focuses on the entire person and his relationship to Christ. More far-reaching terms such as “formation” and “competences” are used in these post-Vatican II documents in an effort to address the significance of priestly leadership patterned after the person of Jesus Christ in a more balanced and comprehensive way.

All countries throughout the world, following the advice of OT, would eventually follow its directives and construct a “Program for Priestly Formation” appropriate to the unique cultural and pastoral circumstances of the region. Each Bishops’ Conference would likewise adapt the model and language of PDV to insure a continuity of priestly formation worldwide.

Formation of candidates for the priesthood would now follow the same outline under the general categories or pillars of human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation set down in PDV. With the intention of providing a formation process concerned with the individual needs of the candidate and the needs of the Church, the four pillars of formation would open a new path that served both the Church and the individual candidate. The desired outcome would be a balanced persona with the necessary competences for priestly life, ministerial leadership and pastoral presence.

Substantially, the content of the Vatican II decree OT reflects the later Church documents on priestly formation. However, the language that suggests “academics” or “studies” or “training” or the “intellect” is the most important component is replaced by a more balanced approach to formation whereby one’s intellectual ability, although important, is not the main criterion for priestly suitability. Equally important is one’s spiritual life and pastoral know-how. Above all is one’s human formation which, according to PDV, is the “necessary foundation” of priestly formation (PDV, 75). In fact, Blessed John Paul was so convinced that human formation was paramount that he placed it first among the four pillars. PDV explains: “Applicants must give evidence of an overall personal balance, good moral character, a love for the truth, and proper motivation … for priestly ministry” (PDV, 44).

As well, according to Blessed John Paul, the Church’s way of thinking acknowledges the individual seminarian as the subject of his own human formation. As such, the future priest is to be a bridge for others, and not an obstacle, in establishing a relationship with Jesus. Article 69 of PDV summarizes well the Church’s perspective regarding the key role that the candidate himself embraces when pursuing priestly formation:

“… the candidate himself is a necessary and irreplaceable agent in his own formation: All formation, priestly formation included, is ultimately a self-formation … the agent par excellence of his formation is the Holy Spirit, who by the gift of a new heart configures and conforms him to Jesus Christ the good shepherd. In this way the candidate to the priesthood will affirm in the most radical way possible his freedom to welcome the molding action of the Spirit. But to welcome this action implies also, on the part of the candidate, a welcome for the human ‘mediating’ forces which the Spirit employs. As a result, the actions of the different teachers become truly and fully effective only if the future priest offers his own convinced and heartfelt cooperation to this work of formation.”

In short, what this passage states is, as the old idiom suggests, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” In other words, for priestly formation to take hold and become a valuable experience, the candidate himself must totally submit to the process.

Although well intentioned, my mom’s hospitality toward the young seminarian so many years ago was based, not on earned respect but on assumed respect, given the high value placed on those preparing for the sacrament of holy orders.

As members of the People of God, we always value and respect the holy priesthood because it is Christ’s gift to us. We respect as well those priests who earn our respect by living the life expected of those called to be special followers of Christ. As priests of Jesus Christ what is celebrated at Holy Mass must be lived out in daily priestly ministry. The words of consecration in the Eucharistic Prayer point to the manner in which the priest is expected to live his daily priestly life. “This is my body … given for you …This is my blood … shed for you.” (cf. Mt 26:26-28).

Priestly presence and pastoral ministry ought to mirror the daily “being broken and poured out” for the good of the people whom the Lord calls his ordained priests to care for and comfort. After all, God promised to sustain his people with pastoral care when he said through his prophet, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer 3:15).

Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit