by Fr. Sebastian Francis
How shall we prepare for the future? Fr. Sebastian Francis,
drawing from his knowledge and experience as a Dogmatic Theology
Lecturer and a Spiritual Director for the past 10 years, believes
that the challenge in priestly formation lies in guiding the
seminarian in an on-going theological reflection in his quest for
meaning and truth which will lead him to a transformation in
I would like to focus my reflections on two areas of formation -
the theological and spiritual.  With the present emphasis on the
identity of the priest as foundational to his ministry, I believe
the identity is shaped by his theological and spiritual formation
in very specific ways. The consequences for his pastoral ministry
and insertion into a living community where he plays the role of
animator and unifier is obvious.
The search for meaning and truth, both human and divine is surely
one of the primary motives of a seminarian. The faith dimension
of a vocation is kept very much alive in this relentless search
for God, the God of Truth. Pope John Paul II's apostolic
exhortation on the formation of priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis,
places transformation in faith within the context of theological
formation, as faith always incorporates a cognitive element - cf.
PDV n.53 & 54. This is very exciting for me as a teacher of the
faith as I see the seminarians grow in their understanding of
faith, expanding their vision of God, the world and themselves.
As much as theology is faith seeking understanding, this
enterprise cannot take place in a vacuum, as this faith is
incarnated in human experience, in history and in culture. The
seminarian is trained to familiarise himself with questions about
God and how God communicates.  He must be at ease with the
various languages God speaks.  He must be sensitive to detect the
crucial moment for the occurrence of the divine-human encounter.
Moving from meaning to the truth question he is able to make a
commitment of his life based on the discovery of truth. I would
like to expand the above into six approaches to the quest of the
God of Truth. The essence of a vocation is to be true to oneself
by being true to the God one discovers in the encounter.
The search for truth here is the creedal or propositional truths
drawn from the rich traditions and dogmas of the past and
present. The crucial moment for the occurrence of God is the
clear propositional statements on matters pertaining to faith and
morals. The need to cultivate a conscience that is clear, free
and responsible is indispensable. God communicates as an
infallible teacher who communicates authoritative teaching in the
form of propositions to a recipient who is expected to be
attentive and docile.  The language in which God communicates is
Thanks to Vatican II and the massive return of Catholic theology
to the Scriptures as the soul of all speculation, the vision of
God and his communication has expanded to include many other
languages.  The language of history has entered the world of
theology and is asking if God is a transcendent agent who
communicates by means of historical events to a community of
faith which must discern and interpret the signs given.  The
crucial moment for the occurrence of the revelation of God is his
great and small acts in history then and today.  It may often be
easier to discern and interpret the scriptural past as the issues
may be more academic and we may only be distant observers.  To do
likewise in the events of history where we are no longer admirers
or observers but active participants is probably more crucial and
controversial. The truth that one tries to grasp in an
intellectually honest manner is the historical truth. Here
belongs the relentless quest for the historical Jesus, so as to
get to the originality of the message as is humanly possible and
also here lies the quest for the God of history as God continues
to speak the same language of revelation today.  Some have even
dared to suggest that the poor have a hermeneutical privilege in
helping us to discern and interpret the signs given then and now.
A new and exciting language that has entered the theological
scene and is widely spoken of and utilised today in a variety of
ways is the language of Inner Experience. The truth one
encounters has a very personal and experiential depth to it.  It
is the personal truth in the sense of direct experience whether
immediate or mediated. The crucial moment for the occurrence of
the God of revelation is the privileged interior experience of
grace.  These experiences can be brought to the living community
with its scriptures and traditions to be evaluated and refined.
The language of inner experience seeks God who is the divine
guest of the soul, who communicates by means of an immediate
interior experience of his presence to a recipient who must be
prayerfully open.  This revolution of Copernican magnitude in
theology with its shift of emphasis from authority to experience
has rocked the boat and needs to be attended to systematically in
theology.  An inability to grasp this reality and harmonise it
within the mainstream of the Church can be negative. But it has
brought theology from its ivory towers to the marketplace, where
the Spirit moves freely and God reveals himself to whomsoever God
wishes.  It has enlivened the world of spiritual direction as
recipients speak about themselves and their personal experiences
when seeking direction.  It has brought the language of grace
where God dwells within the human subject and the language of
revelation where God reveals himself and his truths to the human
subject into closer inter-relatedness.
In the language of dialectical presence God reveals himself as a
compassionate judge who communicates by means of a powerful,
transforming word (proclamation) to recipients who must be
obediently submissive in faith.  The crucial moment for the
occurrence of revelation is the proclamation of the transcendent
word which has the quality of both revealing and concealing, thus
creating in us a thirst for more. The truth that confronts us is
the transcendent truth in the concrete circumstances of our life.
The word of God functions in this way in the lives of many
individual Catholics and communities today.
From the introduction of experience in the search for God and the
constant search for the religious dimension within human
experience comes an offshoot which is the language of New
Awareness.  Here God reveals himself as a lure to the human
imagination and communicates by means of breakthroughs in human
consciousness to recipients who dare to dream new dreams and
build a fully human world.  All the human faculties including the
world of dreams, visions, fantasies and the unconscious are
potentially means for God to reveal and manifest himself to one
who dares to dream of this new and humane world.  The crucial
moment for the occurrence of revelation is the expansion of human
consciousness and the truth that emerges is the Immanent Truth.
Another off-shoot of the experiential approach to theology is the
return to the language of symbol, metaphor, parable and story.
Theology here becomes the sustained reflection of the theologian
on the way in which men and women react to and appropriate the
story of Jesus into their own stories.  God is disclosed as
present and redemptive in the very talking itself of the
greatest story ever told, the never ending story.  The theology
of story is the theology about the human and divine subjects who
speak, tell stories, eat meals and relate to one another through
the ceaseless babble and chatter which goes on to make up the
world we live.  The original stories always revolve around Israel
who symbolises Yahweh  who is the God of our fathers who saves
his people.  It is the story of Jesus who symbolises the kingdom,
who is a prodigal father who embraces His son.  It is the story
of the Church who symbolises Jesus, who is the beloved son who
dies with a loud cry and was resurrected by the father. In this
orientation, story is the primary language, thanks to the
re-discovery of Jesus who is the story teller par excellence who
teaches in parables. Definitions tend to be abstract, deductive
and propositional. Descriptions are more historical and
experiential. Both are secondary language, subordinate to the
primary language but are indispensable.  The truth that one
encounters is the symbolic truth which never runs dry but
provokes one to enter deeper into the mystery of truth.
So the quest and search for the God of Truth and the discovery of
self and the other are intricately and intimately intertwined.
The seminarian tries to expand his vision by learning the various
languages that God uses to communicate to human subjects, so he
can help himself and others to discern the promptings of the
spirit in seeking the will of God as Jesus did.
I have provided a broad theological outlook that will usher us
into the present and future.  Now I would like to draw some
conclusions for spirituality based on the images of God that are
emerging in Catholic theologies.  They are experiential and open
to dialogue with Catholic Tradition. A healthy co-relation
between experience and tradition is vital as a foundation for
emerging spiritualities.
A seminarian seeking the direction of the spirit today is
gradually introduced into the human aspects of his life and
formation.  These include whatever he has experienced in the area
of self-acceptance, affective maturity in relationships and
sexuality, and his personal responsibility and freedom.  Knowing
the truth of oneself and accepting it is to lead ultimately to a
process of self-integration.  This grounds the caption of Pope
John Paul II, that all formation is ultimately self-formation.
The integration of psychology and spirituality in recent years
has provided a tremendous boost to this area of human formation.
In some ways, it reinforces St. Thomas Aquinas' caption that
grace builds upon nature ( - although some transcendental
Thomists have even suggested that grace builds into nature). This
human level which some refer as humanistic counselling is only a
preparation for the next step in the direction of the spirit
which is healing.
Spiritual formation and direction is sensitive of the failures,
weaknesses, and sinful tendencies in the seminarian and after a
process of self-acceptance, brings these areas into the open
forum of faith and prayer seeking understanding, further
acceptance of the reality of one's life in faith and seeking the
healing and transformation which the spirit wants to offer and
acceptance of whatever weaknesses the spirit wants to retain for
our continued growth in the ways of Christ.
This second  phase in the ways of the spirit prepares for the
third which is a more intense phase in the discernment of one's
identity and mission.  As I mentioned in the beginning, today
there is a greater emphasis on priestly identity as foundational
to mission and ministry, which in turn reinforces the identity.
Here the seminarian is open to discover his specific calling to
the secular priesthood and his identification with the
ministerial priesthood of Christ.  All his formation in the
human, spiritual, intellectual and community phases of formation
have their finality in the pastoral dimension of formation, where
he will more concretely discover his specific calling to the
priestly life and ministry.  He will have to discover the
charisms that are specific to this calling and make a decision to
offer his life and services to the church.  The church will
discern and confirm his call to the priesthood and confer the
sacramental character of the priesthood on him.
In conclusion, a vocation that has a religious flavor to it
cannot be sustained without an on-going theological reflection
which nurtures it and leads it to a transformation in faith.  It
also needs a constant spiritual input in following the promptings
of the spirit. In moving through the three phases of human
self-acceptance to spiritual healing of the self and to
self-transcendence in discovering and accepting his identity and
mission, the seminarian must recognise all this as coming from
God, in Christ Jesus and confirmed by the church.

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