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From Trent to Vatican IIHistorical and Theological Investigations$

Raymond F. Bulman and Frederick J. Parrella

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195178067

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0195178068.001.0001

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Priestly Formation

Priestly Formation

(p.117) 7 Priestly Formation
From Trent to Vatican II

Kenan B. Osborne

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on a single theme central to both the Trent and Vatican II councils — the formation of priestly leadership. The goal of the chapter is twofold: on the one hand, to indicate the clear differences between the two councils, and, on the other hand, to emphasize the undeniable similarities regarding the respective positions of the two councils on the issue of formation of priestly leadership. The chapter begins with an overview of the basic official statements regarding the Tridentine reform of priestly formation. Second, it gives a historical background, listing the major factors that occasioned such a reform in priestly formation in the 16th century. Third, it presents a review of the major developments of the seminary system in the 17th century, immediately following Trent. Next it gives an overview of the basic official material on priestly formation as developed by Vatican II and its postconciliar reception an finally, some concluding remarks are offered.

Keywords:   Council of Trent, Vatican II, priestly leadership, seminary system, priesstly formation

Both the historians and theologians of the Roman Catholic Church have found the relationship between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council of great interest, since the two councils profoundly influenced the Catholic Church during the second millennium. In many ways, however, the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council were worlds apart. Trent and Vatican II, separated by four centuries, took place in vastly different situations. They differed in their respective epistemes, their central problems and issues, and their goals. In both councils, the highest leadership of the Roman Catholic Church developed a doctrinal and pastoral message that was based on the Word of God and the traditions of the Church. Nonetheless, the messages reflect different ages and dissimilar worldviews, as well as changing foci and diverse goals. If one does not understand both the common and the distinctive elements of the two councils, one will never appreciate the depth and breadth of these two historic events in the Roman Catholic Church.

In this chapter, the focus is on a single theme central to both councils, the formation of priestly leadership. The goal is twofold: on the one hand, to indicate the clear differences, and, on the other hand, to emphasize the undeniable similarities regarding the respective positions of the two councils on the issue of formation of priestly leadership. To do this, I have arranged the material under the following topics: first, an overview of the basic official statements regarding the Tridentine reform of priestly formation; second, a historical background, listing the major factors that occasioned such a reform in priestly formation in the sixteenth century; third, a (p.118) review of the major developments of the seminary system in the seventeenth century, immediately following Trent; fourth, an overview of the basic official material on priestly formation as developed by Vatican II and its postconciliar reception; finally, some concluding remarks.

An Overview of the Basic Official Statements Regarding the Tridentine Reform of Priestly Formation

In his bull of 1542 convoking the Council of Trent, Pope Paul III made it very clear that not only doctrinal questions, but also issues of reform, were to be discussed. The agenda was to include “the restoration of what is good and the correction of bad morals.”1 In 1545, the Decretum de inchoando concilio of Paul III, which officially and formally opened the Council, was read to the small gathering of bishops at Trent. In this decree, the reform issue was made explicit. The bishops were officially asked: “Does it please you … for the reform of the clergy … to decree and declare that the holy and general Council of Trent begins and has begun?” The bishops then answered: “It pleases us.”2 With this agreement, a doctrinal and a reform council of the Church began. One of the major goals was, therefore, the reform of the clergy.

As the sessions of the Council of Trent took place, the reform of the formation of priests appeared repeatedly, and the issue was considered essential to the broader goal of reform of the clergy. Starting with the fifth session of the Council, in 1546, each session issued a doctrinal decree and a reform decree (decretum de reformatione). In the Decree Concerning Reform issued in 1546, the bishops mandated two particular issues bearing on our theme. First, only competent Scripture scholars should train seminarians (chapter 1); and second, preaching the Word of God was a major task of bishops and priests, and such preaching should be done regularly on all Sundays and solemn festivals (chapter 2). This second mandate implied that seminarians should receive competent training for preaching.3 In 1547, the seventh session of the council issued its Decree Concerning Reform that stressed the competency of the clergy for the cura animarum. Special attention was given in chapters 11, 12, and 13 to the suitable training of seminarians, focusing specifically on precautions and regulations for the promotion of any seminarian to major orders.4 In the fourteenth session, held in 1551, one finds a similar focus on formation of clergy in its Decree Concerning Reform in chapters 1, 2, 3, and 7, in which the promotion or advancement to orders of unworthy seminarians was once again the concern.5 At the twenty-first session in July 1562, the Decree Concerning Reformation, chapters 2 and 6, concentrated on priestly formation. Seminarians who had no means of livelihood were not to be ordained, and since illiterate rectors and vicars should not be given beneficiary positions, the decree implied that illiterate seminarians should not receive holy orders.6 In September 1562, (p.119) at the twenty-second session, the Reform Decree, in chapters 1 and 2, focused specifically on the spiritual life and the moral conduct of those in formation.7

It was in the twenty-third session in July 1563, however, that the Decree Concerning Reform developed in extensive and intensive detail the seminary system for the formation of the clergy. The entire reform decree of this session of Trent, in eighteen chapters, was devoted to the details of seminary training.8 The main themes of this lengthy decree were the following: the cura animarum in a diocese is a matter of highest priority, implying that formation for the cura animarum is also a matter of high priority; the bishop is responsible for all ordinations in his respective diocese, and this includes the admission to the clerical state or tonsure; a seminarian must be at least fourteen years old; competent examiners must vouch for a seminarian's ordination; ordinations must be public events, and the interstices between orders must be observed; a seminarian must be at least twenty-two years old to receive the subdiaconate, at least twenty-three years old to receive the diaconate, and at least twenty-five years old to receive the presbyterate; vagrants and incompetent seminarians are excluded from ordination; and, finally, seminaries are to be established in every diocese or at least in a provincial diocese. In the span of roughly seventeen pages, a general program for seminarians and seminaries was promulgated by the conciliar bishops.

All of this material indicates that reform of priestly formation was a central task for the Tridentine bishops. The specific details indicate a widespread deficiency in the training and formation of priests. Too many seminarians were illiterate, unable to provide for their basic needs, morally unfit, ordained too quickly and without discernment of their solid spiritual and ethical life, unfit for the cura animarum, woefully ignorant of the Holy Scriptures, and incompetent in regard to preaching the Word. The very mention of these major shortcomings of seminarians indicates that the status of priestly vocations was in a major crisis. Let us consider the historical basis for this needed reform of priestly formation.

A Historical Background: The Major Factors in Priestly Formation in the Sixteenth Century

Each of the decrees mentioned above was officially titled Decretum de reformatione (Decree Concerning Reform). Today, at the beginning of the third millennium, the very word “reform” sounds ominous. Today, Roman Catholics are far more comfortable with the word “renewal.” The Second Vatican Council has been described as a council of renewal, and few authors have spoken of Vatican II in terms of “reform.” However, at the time of Trent, even with the Protestant Reformation still active, “reform” was a treasured term. Indeed, “reform” had enjoyed a long and even privileged history in the late medieval (p.120) world. In a most remarkable way, the period from approximately 1000 to 1500 witnessed the appearance of a number of disparate reform movements, initiated by a wide variety of Catholic Christians from all levels of medieval society. During this lengthy period, one cannot speak of a single reform movement; rather, there were many reform movements with varying degrees of interconnection and interdependency. Within monasticism, there was the Cluniac reform (927–1157), led by five outstanding abbots. There was the Cistercian reform, begun by Robert of Molesme (ca. 1028–1112). Other monastic reformers followed: Robert of Arbrissel (d. 1117), Vitalis of Sauvigny (d. 1122), Bernard of Tiron (d. 1120), and Gerald of Salles (d. 1120). The list could go on. In 1046, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, began a reform of the papacy with the installation of a German Pope, Clement II. There followed a series of German Popes down to Urban II in 1088. This Germanic reform movement has been given the name Gregorian Reform, since Gregory VII (1073–1085) was its most notable leader. During the period 1000–1300, hundreds of lay reform movements can be added to the “reform” tendency. New religious communities—for example, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Servites, Carmelites, Hermits of St. Augustine, Williamites, and Mercedarians—developed as well, and all them were reform-minded. In the sixteenth century, the establishment of the Jesuits was a continuation of this reform spirit. The Protestant reformations were part of this same movement, and after the reform Council of Trent, an officially designated “Catholic Reformation” was furthered by Paul III (1534–1549), and even more forcibly by his successor, Paul IV (1555–1559).

The Counter-Reformation or, as it is also called, the Catholic Reformation, continued using the notion of reform up to the American Revolution and the French Revolution. These two revolutions with their own agendas for reform created an atmosphere in which the term “reform” became anathema to Roman Catholic leadership. “Renewal,” rather than “reform,” became the acceptable term, and this preference continues to the present day in the Roman Catholic Church.

However, for the bishops at the Council of Trent, “reform” was the proper term, and reform of priestly formation was a major part of their agenda. Although the “seminary system” was mandated by the Tridentine bishops, it predated the Council of Trent. Historians note that the reform movements in the Church of Spain at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries played a major role in the development of the “seminary system” throughout the Roman Catholic Church.9 Three episcopal leaders were key to the Spanish reform movement: Hernando de Talavera, Archbishop of Granada; Cardinal Mendoza (d. 1495); and Ximénes de Cisneros (d. 1517). Besides the efforts of these three men, two regional councils were held in Toledo (in 1473 and 1512), at which reform decrees were promulgated and effectively applied. Mendoza wrote a catechism of Christian life, and he established a number of colleges and universities. The seminary program at Granada pro (p.121) vided a model that the bishops at Trent appealed to when they were developing their material on the seminary system.10

One should not conclude, however, that the “seminary system” thrived throughout Europe before Trent. It did not. Most candidates for the priesthood did not have any seminary training at all. Before Trent and even during its sessions, a large number of priests and not a few bishops lived openly in concubinage, that is, they lived on a permanent basis with a woman.11 Other issues also indicate that priestly formation in the late Middle Ages was below standard. First, at Trent the residency of bishops in their dioceses, which had become a major problem, was enjoined on several occasions.12 Bishops, at this time, were notorious for not staying at home. In their absence, scandalous leadership often took over the direction of dioceses, and such a leadership did not have “priestly formation” at the top of its agenda. Second, historians have consistently noted that just prior to the Council of Trent there were too many priests.13 Such an overgrowth of priests had been mentioned at the regional Council of Sens in 1528; a similar mention can be found in the sessions of Trent in 1547 and 1562. Not only were there too many priests, but a large number of them were morally deficient, intellectually unqualified, or professionally incompetent.14 Some men became priests for economic reasons; poorer people sought ordination in order to have a modicum of economic security, and those better off in life entered the clergy in order to have a more affluent life or more power within society. Based on historical data, the cause for this overgrowth seems to lie primarily with the benefice system. Given this set of circumstances at the time of Trent, the Tridentine bishops had every reason to be concerned about the formation of priests.

If the diocesan clergy was in shambles, one might expect that the religious clergy were better off. They were, but hardly in a significant way. First, in contrast to diocesan priests, religious postulants for ordination were required to undergo a lengthy period of spiritual formation. This formation was, of course, the formation of the candidate for religious life that took place before the novitiate, during the novitiate, and the few years after the novitiate. Second, in the more established religious communities, care was generally taken to provide intellectual and theological formation. Unfortunately, in some monastic communities prior to Trent, a two-track system existed regarding ordination. Postulants or religious seminarians were ordained with a minimum of theological training, but as priests, they were not given any ministerial office. Because of their lack of intellectual and theological training, they could not exercise the cura animarum. They had enough education to read Latin and to celebrate Mass, but they had no training for preaching and other ministerial or pastoral duties. The historical data indicate that the custom of daily Masses in monastic communities, with the concomitant financial stipends that they engendered, played a major role in ordaining many to the priesthood but prevented many of them from active participation in the pastoral ministry. They (p.122) were simply “Mass priests.” Once again, the conclusion is obvious: at this time, there were too many priests, both religious and diocesan, and a large majority of these ordained men were not adequately trained for the cura animarum.

Abbots and major priors were, in too many instances, similar to bishops in their absence from the monastery for long periods of time. If they were in residence, they had other issues to take care of than the religious life of the monks. Since they were in charge of wealth, they could live in more elegant ways than ordinary religious could, and in many instances this allowed them to live in some form of concubinage. Many of these abbots, considered princes of the Church, often held the title “prince of the land” as well. Accordingly, they lived as many princes lived: with great moral or, perhaps better, immoral latitude.

Given all of this, one cannot view the Council of Trent simply as a council that was called to reestablish true Catholic doctrine. Clearly, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, had presented a theology that challenged the operative theology of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Clearly, the operative theology itself, as found in the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, needed a major realignment; theological issues were significant and deserved a major reply. However, the many reformations mentioned above, which began more or less around 1000, were not generally concerned with theology itself, but with the spiritual life of the Church. Two quotations are of major importance in making this point. The first is from S. Harrison Thompson:

It is commonplace to assert that the Protestant Reformation did not come unheralded onto the European historical scene. It had a long preparation. Every failure to remove the abuses that had crept into the Church only made it more certain that the effort would have to be repeated in a more forceful manner. If any of the reform endeavors—for example, those of the councils, the mystics, certain progressive popes or cardinals, the reformers within the older orders, the reform-minded laymen, or the humanist reformers—had succeeded, the Protestant Reformation would probably not have occurred, or at least it would have been postponed for a long time.15

Thompson's words are painfully accurate. Abuses had indeed infested the Roman Catholic Church, and these abuses were not primarily theological but spiritual. Almost every reform movement that Thompson notes was spiritual, not theological. Since 1000, there had been a call to lead an apostolic life, that is, a call to go back to the Gospels and make them the center of one's Christian living. The Word of God nourished the reform spirit of many lay movements, of the new communities of religious such as the Franciscans, and of the mystics, many of whom were women. In the “standard” forms of the Roman Cath (p.123) olic Church from 1000 to the mid-1500s, the Gospel, the Word of God, was woefully missing.

The second quotation, from the outstanding historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, speaks of a major lack in the late medieval church. He writes:

The institutions of medieval Christendom were in trouble, and everyone knew it. Intended as windows through which men might catch a glimpse of the Eternal, they [the institutions] had become opaque, so that the faithful looked at them rather than through them. The structures of the Church were supposed to act as vehicles for the spirit—both for the Spirit of God and for the spirit of man. … Instead what he [the individual] found was a distortion of the faith. … Captive in ecclesiastical structures that no longer served as channels of divine life and means of divine grace, the spiritual power of the Christian gospel pressed to be released. The pressure exploded in the Reformation.16

Once again, as Pelikan points out, the spiritual aspects of Christian life were pressing for release from the institutional structures. Clearly, both theological and spiritual issues were involved. The spiritual indigence that Thompson and Pelikan discuss might have been remedied had there been better Church leadership. In late medieval times, leadership of the Catholic Church was in the hands of the clergy. However, if the formation of priests was spiritually deficient, then the leadership itself could not help but reflect these same defects. From 1000 on, reform-minded people and reform-minded groups had expressed their frustration with these spiritual shortcomings. Some of these groups succeeded in bringing about a more spiritual Church, and these people provided enormous nourishment to many laymen and laywomen who were hungering and thirsting for spiritual depth. A number of priests were active in this search for spirituality, and a smaller number of bishops were leading the way as best they could. While the late Middle Ages was not a complete wasteland, the spiritual situation of the Church was in crisis.

Complicating the entire period from 1000 to 1550 was the rancorous battle between the imperium and the sacerdotium. Even Paul III's bull of convocation of the Council of Trent examines in great detail the social and political world of his time. Paul was strong enough to convoke a council, but he made sure that the bishops at Trent in no way tried to diminish the power and prestige of the papacy. Hubert Jedin notes: “The fact that the pope [Paul III] was filled with anxiety, lest his authority would be tampered with at Trent, is abundantly proved by the frequent directives to the legates not to tolerate any narrowing of the papal authority, even in small matters, such as the granting of indulgences.”17 Paul III's defensive stance toward the powers of the papacy, even in small matters, included a similar protective cover for the papal curia. For most (p.124) of the Tridentine fathers, however, the call for Church reform at the Council of Trent was directed toward both head and members. By the term “head,” the bishops and the vox populi certainly meant the Pope, but with him they also included the bureaucratic curia. The call for a reform of head and members began in the eleventh century with the reformation efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor and the German bishops. At Trent, no substantial reform of the papacy or the papal curia took place. Thus, the call for curial reform has continued to the present day, but in spite of some minor personnel and titular changes, no Pope has made vital changes in the curia. In other words, structural reform of the Church has been, and remains, significantly blocked by the deliberate refusal to allow internal changes in the structure of the curia. This failure to reform the curia at Trent, at Vatican II, and since Vatican II remains an important obstacle to the renewal of priestly formation.

Gregory VII had ended with a failed reform because he viewed his every gain and his every loss at such a reform through the criterion of a gain or a loss for the papacy. Working with this premise, he doomed his reform to failure from its inception. His reform efforts did not focus on the major causes of abuse in the Church. For most Christians in the medieval West, the issue was not who was greater, Pope or Emperor—Gregory's main issue—but the desire to live out the Gospels, the good news and the message of Jesus himself. Theological issues, spiritual issues, and political issues came together and struggled together. Nonetheless, historical data indicate that there were very few “bad guys” and very few “good guys” among the leadership of the period from 1000 to 1500. In those centuries, great Catholic men and women lived their lives and enriched thousands of Catholic Christians. In those same centuries, people and movements were responsible for major ecclesial abuses. The formation of clergy during those centuries was touched by both these positive and negative factors. Unfortunately, at the time just preceding Trent, the Roman Catholic Church's formation of priests was mainly in a state of disrepair. Thus, the bishops at Trent were very courageous to mandate the reforms for the seminary system and the formation of priests.

A Review of the Major Developments of the Seminary System in the Seventeenth Century

Let us now consider the immediate aftermath of the Council of Trent, with a particular focus on the reforms in the formation of priests. In the seventeenth century, we begin to see the reception of Trent on the issue of these reforms. During the first century after the Council of Trent, bishops throughout the Roman Catholic Church began to develop diocesan seminaries, perhaps not universally but at least in a major regional way. The efforts of Jean-Jacques Olier (1608–1657) are a good case in point. Olier was ordained a diocesan priest (p.125) in 1633 and engaged in parish ministry with St. Vincent de Paul (1580–1660). Olier eventually founded the Society of St. Sulpice (the Sulpicians), and Vincent de Paul founded the Congregation of the Missions, commonly called the Vincentians. Both of these communities of priests were strongly dedicated to the training of seminarians. Both leaders were strongly influenced by the spiritual movement of Barbe Acarie (1566–1618), who established the Carmelite reform in France. Olier's book Traité des saints ordres, published posthumously in 1676, captures his long experience in the formation of seminarians.

This volume eventually became a vade mecum for seminarians throughout Europe and the Americas. It presented norms for a “good seminarian” and a “good priest.” Its influence can hardly be stressed enough, since the development of the post-Tridentine seminary system owes much to its vision. In 1984, three Sulpician scholars, Gilles Chaillot, Paul Cochois, and Irénée Noye, published a critical edition of this work, titled Traité des saints ordres (1676) comparé aux écrits authentiques de Jean-Jacques Olier (d. 1657).18 They found that the third Superior General of the Sulpician community, Louis Tronson, who had personally arranged for the publication of Olier's work in 1676, had actually rewritten parts of Olier's work but had failed to mention that he had done so. Of major importance was a change in the image of the priest that Tronson introduced into the text. In the preface to the critical edition, C. Bouchard mentions that the image of the priest in Olier's writings was essentially paschal, baptismal, and mystical, while that of Tronson was clerical and ascetic. Olier had emphasized the pastoral dimension; Tronson, the ascetic dimension.19 From 1676 to 1966, it was Tronson's view that dominated the seminary system. The priest was a man apart and a cleric separated from the laypeople. Seminarians should be trained to keep themselves distinct from laypersons and separate from the nonspiritual life of ordinary Christians.

In the twentieth century before Vatican II, the ideal diocesan priest was a “rectory priest” or a “sacristan priest.” His contact with the laity was official rather than casual. The apostolate was Church-centered, not society-centered. The horarium of a priest's day was governed by the Eucharist and prayer, in particular the breviary. The times for the Eucharist and the praying of the breviary were two spiritual parts of the priest's day that were considered sacrosanct and ordinarily merited a priority above all else in the daily cura animarum. During the years of seminary formation, the diocesan seminarians were trained for this kind of eucharistic-breviary horarium. Both the ideal seminarian and the ideal priest were judged, in no small way, on their daily preparation for and celebration of the Eucharist and on their conscientious praying of the breviary at specified times during each day. This was the ideal presented repeatedly to the diocesan seminarian.

When one considers the general status of a diocesan priest prior to the Council of Trent, as we saw above, with the general status of a diocesan priest who had been trained in a Sulpician or Vincentian way from 1700 onward, the (p.126) quality of difference is quite apparent. From the latter date, the Roman Catholic diocesan priest was both an educated individual and a spiritual person. This image of an educated and spiritual priest continued throughout the twentieth century to the time just prior to Vatican II. There is no doubt at all, historically considered, that the reception of the seminary system, as mandated by the Council of Trent, ultimately improved the quality of priests throughout Europe and in the non-European countries as well. The reception of the Tridentine mandate on priestly formation had been profoundly enhanced by Olier and Vincent de Paul, who, in major ways, injected a strong spiritual tenor into seminary life. While both men were committed to the intellectual life of the seminary formation, their influence on the spiritual formation of the seminarian was especially distinctive.

Protestant churches, from the 1600s on, have emulated the Roman Catholic seminary system, so that in the same period, Protestant pastors largely came to be regarded as well-educated and deeply Christian individuals. Even the name “seminary” was slowly attached to the schools in which the formation of Protestant clergy took place. In novels, movies, dramas, and short stories, both American and European, the authors generally depicted the priest or the clergyman as well educated and spiritually integrated. Exceptions to this image did occur, but the social standing of a priest or clergyman was generally respected and honored. For many a seminarian, the goal of the priesthood was fostered by relatives and friends. To have a priest in the family brought honor to a family. For all its faults and failures, the seminary system developed and received after the Council of Trent accomplished a major reformation in regard to the formation of a priest. The Second Vatican Council, unlike the Council of Trent, was not convened in order to reform the clergy and the formation of seminarians.

An Overview of the Basic Official Material on Priestly Formation at Vatican II and Its Postconciliar Reception

Let us move from Trent and its reception to the Second Vatican Council. In this council, the bishops eventually addressed the issue of priests and priestly formation. However, these two topics were not on the original agenda. Only in the course of the Council did the bishops realize that they could not return home without a statement on priests, and this involved, consequently, a second statement on the formation of priests. We have, then, two major conciliar documents: the Decree on the Training of Priests, Optatam totius, promulgated on October 28, 1965, and the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, promulgated in the final session of the council on December 7, 1965. It is essential that both documents be studied through the lens of the primary doctrinal document of Vatican II, Lumen gentium. Lumen gentium was, (p.127) and remains, the major statement of the Council on the theology of the Church. In many ways, the document has defined the meaning of the Roman Catholic Church from 1965 to the present.20 Since a theology of the priest can be understood only in the light of a theology of the Church, and since the formation of priests can be accomplished only in the light of a theology of the Church, the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium is foundational. One cannot lose sight of the fact that ecclesiology determines the meaning and role of the ordained person in the Church. The theology of the ordained person does not determine ecclesiology.

An entire volume is needed to elucidate the ways in which Lumen gentium, the basic ecclesiology of Vatican II, has affected the theology of the priesthood. Since this chapter does not allow such a lengthy and detailed examination, I can offer only a few major themes regarding the integration of Vatican II's ecclesiology, on the one hand, and a theology of ordained ministry, on the other. These major themes, as a consequence, become crucial for the formation of candidates for the priesthood.

The documents of Vatican II on priestly formation focused primarily on the diocesan priest. Throughout all the conciliar documents, with the exception of chapter 6, on religious life, in Lumen gentium; the decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae caritatis (October 28, 1965); and some other obiter dicta remarks in Ad gentes and Apostolicam actuositatem, the issue of religious communities of men and women was not center stage at Vatican II. On the specific issue of the priesthood, there was no extended focus on the meaning of the priesthood in the religious life. Consequently, the presentation on the formation of priests and the presentation on the priesthood itself in the documents of Vatican II are centered exclusively on the diocesan form and life of priestly ministry. Since I presuppose this focus in the following pages, the seminaries to which I refer are primarily diocesan seminaries.

The important themes from Vatican II that have had significant impact on the formation of priests, as well as on the identity of priests, are the following. First, the foundational ecclesiology of Vatican II was deliberately linked to Christology by the conciliar bishops.21 While Christology itself never became a detailed question in any of the conciliar documents, the selection of the title Lumen gentium was made by the bishops to indicate that Jesus alone is the Light of the World.22 The Church itself is not the light of the world. The conciliar bishops were in total agreement on this issue. Jesus, not the Church, was, and is, and will remain the Light of the World. Bonaventure Kloppenburg, one of the periti at the council, elucidates this relationship by a comparison of the sun and the moon. In our world, the sun is the major source of light; the moon has no light of itself, but it does reflect the light of the sun. So, too, Jesus is the major light of the world; the Church has no light of its own and, therefore, fulfills its identity only when it reflects Jesus.23 Kloppenburg writes:


Only Christ is the light of the world. He is the Sun, sole source of light. At the side of this Sun, which is Christ, stands the Church like the moon, which receives all its light, brilliance and warmth from the Sun. We can understand the Church only if we relate it to Christ, the glorified Lord. The Church lives by Christ. If the Church is absolutized, separated from Christ, considered only in its structures, viewed only in its history and studied only under its visible, human and phenomenological aspects, it ceases to be a mystery and becomes simply one of countless other religious societies or organizations. It does not then deserve our special attention and dedication.24

This lunar relationship of the Church to Jesus has an immediate effect on the identity of the priest and thereby plays a major role in the formation of the priest. A priest is truly a priest if and only if, when and only when, he reflects Jesus. The formation of seminarians is a formation into a lunar reflection of the one Light of the World, Jesus. When this ceases to be the major guiding principle in seminary training, the training itself has ceased to be of value. Ecclesiology is constitutively dependent on Christology. This is the mystery and identity of the Church as traced out in chapter 1 of Lumen gentium. Such a Christology and ecclesiology are the authentic basis for seminary formation.

Likewise, the decision by the bishops at Vatican II to place the material on the “people of God” in the second chapter of Lumen gentium was an important moment.25 Strong voices among some of the bishops, who insisted that chapter 2 be a chapter on the hierarchy, turned the debate into a lengthy and at times abrasive one. The final decision to devote chapter 2 to the people of God influences the way one considers the ordained person or the hierarchy. “The people of God” is only one of the terms used for the common matrix of all Christians. Two other phrases were also used: “believers of Christ” (Christifideles), and “the priesthood of all believers” (sacerdotes generales). This means that the ordained priesthood cannot be understood apart from, unrelated to, or prior to the priesthood of all believers. Although the documents of Vatican II present both “priesthoods” and give preference in chapter 2 to the priesthood of all believers, the bishops also approved the passage which states that an essential difference exists between the two priesthoods (Lumen gentium, 10).

Two points on this matter need to be kept in mind. The first is the use of the term “essential.” In the common and operative theology of the priesthood just before Vatican II, the term used by theologians was not “essential” but “ontological.” This is found in many of the manuals of theology, the official theological textbooks for seminary curricula. While they provided no reason for their decision, the bishops at Vatican II deliberately avoided the term “ontological.” Second, the bishops used the term “essential,” but never defined in a clear way what the essential difference might be. In several sessions prior to the eventual promulgation of Vatican II, groups of bishops met with various (p.129) theologians who attempted to indicate the difference between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood. Some of the distinctions that the theologians presented to the bishops included the following:

priesthood of all believers

ordained priesthood

1. A figurative priesthood

a real priesthood

2. A spiritual priesthood

a real priesthood

3. An interior priesthood

an exterior priesthood

4. A nonsacramental priesthood

a sacramental priesthood

5. A private priesthood

a public priesthood

While this list includes more, in the end the bishops decided not to settle the question of the difference between the two, leaving the issue open for further theological precision. After the Council, when the committee was established to revise the Code of Canon Law, its members invited theologians to present the difference between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood. Once again, the listing of differences by reputable theologians and biblical scholars was diverse, and the committee, much like the conciliar bishops, decided not to indicate any basis for the distinction in the revised Code of Canon Law. The new code simply states that there are a priesthood of all believers and an ordained priesthood. Further precision was left up to theologians and biblical scholars.26 Nonetheless, one cannot speak about ordained priesthood today in a vacuum. The two issues regarding priesthood are interrelated. The formation of seminarians must include an identity of ordained priesthood in relationship to their own identity as part of the priesthood of all believers.

Thus, the bishops at Vatican II deliberately changed the meaning of an ordained priest, and this newly presented understanding of priest belongs to the current teaching of the Church. The full assembly of bishops was presented with this change when the Archbishop of Rheims, François Marty, told them that “the scholastic definition of priesthood, which is based on the power to consecrate the Eucharist,” was no longer the operative theology of the priest at the Vatican Council. “The priesthood of presbyters must be looked at … as embracing not one function but three,” namely the tria munera: prophet, priest, and king.27 The tria munera understanding of the priest became an essential part of the revised Code of Canon Law, and it was also used in the later writings of Paul VI and in the writings of John Paul II. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the ministerial priesthood “is entirely related to Christ and to men.” The office “is in the strict sense of the term a service” (1551). It is “measured against the model of Christ, who by love made himself the least and the servant of all” (1551)28 In the Catechism, the teaching office is called the “first task,” namely, to preach the Gospel of God (888). Second is the sanctifying office, especially visible in the Eucharist but also in the prayer and work of the priests, (p.130) in the ministry of the Word and in sacramental celebrations (893). Third is the governing office, and the Good Shepherd is presented as the model and form of this pastoral dimension of the tria munera (894).

In his essay “Clerical Reform,” Christian Dequoc presents a well-argued position that the documents of Vatican II moved in disparate ways when the bishops began to reconsider priestly ministry in today's socioecclesial world. The rethinking of priestly ministry in a triadic fashion, especially in a Gospel-centered priesthood, while at the same time retaining the traditional hierarchical elements that had dominated Trent, creates a major problem. He writes: “The determination, already expressed in practice, to change the situation of the clergy in the Church is manifesting itself everywhere. If this [changing of the situation] is not done, we shall end with restoration, not reform—the very thing that Vatican II wanted to avoid.”29

Repeatedly, in the documents from Rome on priestly ministry, the primacy is given to the preaching of the Word. This has major ramifications for the formation of priests: seminarians must have a very solid training in the biblical word of God. This comes through competent professors of biblical studies in the individual seminaries, and it comes through competent professors of homiletics as well. Moreover, preaching the Word of God will become the major task of priestly ministry only if the Word of God becomes one of the primary sources of personal spirituality. If there is one book with which a seminarian should be thoroughly conversant, it is the New Testament. The same book should be the spiritual nourishment of bishops, priests, and deacons. An academic and intellectual appreciation of the New Testament is not enough for the formation of priests today. The Word of God should be a major source of their spiritual life. In this sense, Catholic clergy are called on to be more “Protestant.” For Protestant clergy, the Word of God has been, since the Reformation, the major source of their spiritual life, often more so than sacraments. For the Roman Catholic clergy, the stress in the past was on sacramental nourishment, especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. Today, since Vatican II, the Word of God has begun—but in practice only just begun—to be a major source of priestly spirituality. If the preaching of the Word of God is the primary task of a priest, then the Word of God must enter into the life of a priest—and by implication of a seminarian—not only intellectually but spiritually as well.

In the development of the conciliar document on the ministry and life of priests, Presbyterorum ordinis, a tug-of-war developed over which section should come first: the function of the priest or the life of the priest. In many ways, this argument mirrored the Olier–Tronson division. Is the priest primarily a person of service to the community? The emphasis in the Catechism on the priesthood as essentially service (diakonia) indicates this. Alternatively, is the priest before all a man called to perfection, a spiritual person? After heated discussion, the majority of bishops voted that the priest as a person of service (p.131) should come first. Thus, chapter 2 of this document contains a threefold division: the function of the priest; the relation of the priest to others; and the distribution of priests and priestly vocations. Only in chapter 3 does the focus move to the life of the priest, with its threefold division: the priest's call to perfection; the special spiritual requirements in the life of the priest; and the helps for the priest's life.

Postconciliar material on priesthood and priestly formation, which includes papal, curial, and episcopal documents, has vacillated between an emphasis on the mission and function of the priest and/or on the life and spiritual growth of the priest. This ambivalence plays a major role in the seminary training today, with some seminaries emphasizing the mission and function of the priest first, and other seminaries emphasizing life and spiritual growth as primary. This is not a question of either/or; rather, it is a question about which is primary. The selection of one over the other has as its major influence the way in which a young man develops himself for the priesthood. The primacy issue affects the self-identity of the priest. If the emphasis is on function and ministry, the spiritual life can be seen as secondary and only secondary. If, on the other hand, the young man sees himself as a spiritual person, the role of ministry can be seen as secondary and only secondary. As of today, there is still a tension between these two “primacies.” Some seminaries are considered “conservative” because they give the primacy to the “spiritual life,” that is, to a life apart from people and functions. Other seminaries are termed “liberal” because of their primacy on “function,” the cura animarum. Such appellations are damaging. In the history of the priesthood, some priests have been too aloof from people and the cura animarum; other priests have been too involved in the cura animarum and have not given time to their own spiritual and mental health. Clearly, what is called for is a holistic formation.

In the decree on the training of priests, Optatam totius, many issues of practical import, all of major help to seminary directors, are taken up by the conciliar bishops. One area presents serious questions. In sections 9 and 10, the spirituality of a diocesan priest is described in terms of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This same focus found at greater length in Presbyterorum ordinis, 15–17. This approach to priestly spirituality antedates Vatican II by hundreds of years. However, it should be pointed out that such a spirituality, which has its origin in monastic life and religious life with the three evangelical vows, has tried over the centuries to make diocesan priests into “mini-monks.” What is needed for the third-millennium Church is a spirituality for the formation of diocesan priests that is priestly and not monastic. The 1977 document from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, As One Who Serves, provides only a few paragraphs on priestly spirituality, with the emphasis on prayer, reception of the sacrament of penance, and the celebration of the Eucharist. The 1990 synodal working document Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day presents a priestly spirituality that is basically personal, ethical, and private, (p.132) and not ministerial, social, and public. In number 14, however, this document states clearly that all priests are called to mission, namely, “to announce the gospel of God to all.” The implication should be clear: every candidate for the priesthood who is not profoundly and spiritually anxious to bring the Gospel to others should be considered far from the mark of readiness for ordination. Priestly spirituality is pastoral spirituality, and seminarians should be formed in this way. Priests who are too timid to leave either the monastery or the rectory are by no means the priests that today's world needs. Robert Schwartz's book Servant Leaders of the People of God, with its focus on the spirituality of the North American priest, forthrightly faces the issue of a contemporary priestly spirituality, at least for priests in a basically Euro-American world.30

Finally, collegiality is part of the theology of priesthood presented by Vatican II. The priest is an essential part of a presbyterium, and the bishop also is an essential part. Whenever the presbyterium of a diocese meets together or has a convocation, the bishop should be there during the entire time. The bishops as well form a collegium, and they cannot be seen as isolated from each other. Interrelationship and interdependence form part of the very essence of priestly ministry. Moreover, the relationship of the priest/bishop—the ministerial priesthood—is unthinkable and unlivable apart from, and must be in collegial union with, the priesthood of all believers. The same emphasis of interrelationship is found in the documents of Vatican II that consider the papal ministry in which the Pope's rights are fully recognized but are presented in the broader framework of ecclesial collegiality.

Concluding Remarks

The reception of Vatican II continues. It took several centuries for the reception of Trent to reach its end. So, too, Vatican II will continue the process of reception throughout the twenty-first century. The contemporary situation of sexual abuse by clergy and the concomitant question of episcopal credibility tend to focus the discussion of priesthood and episcopacy in a very circumscribed area. As a result, the leadership of today's bishops tends to center on the “resolution” of the credibility crisis, and the identity of the priest tends to focus on sexual behavior. Meanwhile, the structural changes in the Church that Vatican II visualized are being placed to one side. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church wanes. Leaders of vision are urgently needed, and these Church leaders are not confined to priestly or hierarchical persons. In the long history of the Church, there have been leaders—men and women—who have refocused even the hierarchical leadership on the meaning of Church: reflecting the Lumen gentium, Jesus, the Light of the World. The Church stands in dire need of leaders who can bring it back to its lunar identity, its sacramental identity, for the Church is the sacrament of Jesus. Jesus in his humanity is the sacrament (p.133) of God. Jesus is the Light of and for the world. Jesus is also Light from the God who is Light from Light.




(1.) See Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translation, translated by H. J. Schroeder (St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1941), 1–9 (Eng.), 281–289 (Lat.). Future citations will read Schroeder, Canons. The quotation is from the Bulla indictionis, Schroeder, 9 (Eng.), 288 (Lat.).

(2.) Decretum de inchoando concilio, ibid., 11 (Eng.), 290 (Lat.).

(3.) Schroeder, Canons, 24–28 (Eng.), 303–307 (Lat.).

(4.) Ibid., 59–60 (Eng.), 337 (Lat.).

(5.) Ibid., 107–108, 111 (Eng.), 381–382, 385 (Lat.).

(6.) Ibid., 136–137, 139–140 (Eng.), 410–411, 413 (Lat.).

(7.) Ibid., 152–154 (Eng.), 425–426 (Lat.).

(8.) Ibid., 164–179 (Eng.), 436–450 (Lat.).

(9.) See Hermann Tüchle, C. A. Bouman, and Jacques le Brun, Réfome et Contre-Réforme: Nouvelle Histoire de l'Église (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968), 9–11.

(10.) Ibid., 10.

(11.) Ibid., 34: “Parmi les nombreux écarts individuels dans la vie du clergé de cette époque, le concubinage était fréquent. Les comptes rendus de visites épiscopales parlent d'un quart (Pays Bas), voire d'un tiers (Rhénanie 1569) des prêtres vivants dans cette situation. Le registre des punitions de l'officialité de Châlons vise un quart du clergé.”

(12.) See Robert Birley, “Early Modern Germany,” in Catholicism in Early Modern History: A Guide to Research, 11–30, who states that residency for prince-bishops in the German area did not become normative until they were removed during the secularization of 1803.

(13.) A. Duval, “The Council of Trent and Holy Order,” in The Sacrament of Holy Orders (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1962), 221.

(14.) Kenan Osborne, Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 276.

(15.) S. Harrison Thompson, Europe in the Renaissance and Reformation (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 459.

(16.) Jaroslav Pelikan, Spirit Versus Structure: Luther and the Institutions of the Church (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 5.

(17.) Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, translated by Ernest Graf, 2 vols. (St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1957–1961), vol. 2, 42.

(18.) G. Chaillot, P. Cochois, and I. Noye, eds., Traité des saints ordres (1676) comparé aux écrits authentiques de Jean-Jacques Olier (1657) (Paris: Procure de la Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice, 1984).

(19.) Ibid., “Les Enjeux de la présente édition critique,” xxiii–xxvii.

(20.) It is clear that Lumen gentium is not the only document on ecclesiology that Vatican II promulgated. Nonetheless, it is the primary one. It would be difficult to arrange the other Vatican II documents on this matter in any order of importance, but the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, (p.134) deserves a major emphasis. So, too, does the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, Ad gentes, since from Paul VI to John Paul II, evangelization is seen as central to the very identity of the Church, and Ad gentes articulates the meaning of evangelization in a major way. Since a priest is a sacramental and liturgical leader, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, is of prime importance, especially the section that presents the criteria for all liturgy. These criteria are conciliar criteria, and therefore next to an infallible papal or conciliar statement in terms of being of the highest importance. Since Vatican II reinstated the office of bishop into the sacrament of orders, and since it refers to episcopacy as the “fullness of priesthood,” the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus, also must play a major role in the understanding and formation of priests. The remainder of the documents relate to priestly formation in one way or another, but they focus on specific aspects of a relationship to priestly formation. That they are important cannot be denied; that they are as important as the ones just mentioned cannot be asserted in a generalized way.

(21.) The Christological relationship between the Church and Jesus, found in the documents of Vatican II, continues the emphasis of Pius XII, as found in the encyclical Mystici corporis. In fact, the bishops at Vatican II went further than Pius XII in their theological understanding of the Church's relation to Jesus. The phrase “Mystical Body of Christ” or simply “Body of Christ,” as designating the Church is indeed found in the documents of Vatican II, but it is not the centralizing theme.

(22.) The selection of the title Lumen gentium was made by the bishops at Vatican II for many reasons. One of them was that John XXIII had used this term in preparatory documents for the Council, and the choice of this phrase was an honor that the bishops wanted to give to him. However, the Christological import of the phrase was clearly the most important reason for the selection of the title.

(23.) Bonaventure Kloppenburg, The Ecclesiology of Vatican II, translated by M. J. O'Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1974). See especially chapter 1, “The Nature of the Church.”

(24.) Ibid., 19–22.

(25.) See Gérard Philips, La chiesa e il suo mistero (Milan: Jaca, 1975).

(26.) See Kenan Osborne, Ministry: Lay Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. Its History and Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1993; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 535–536. Details of these theological presentations at the Council are provided in this volume. See also Philips, La chiesa e il suo mistero, 131–137. Excellent coverage of the common priesthood can be found Hans-Martin Barth, Einander Priestersein: Allgemeines Priestertum in ökumenischer Perspektive (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990).

(27.) See Osborne, Priesthood, 316, for the quotation from Archbishop François Marty. Also see François Marty, “Décret sur le ministère et la vie des prêtres,” in Documents conciliaires (Paris: Centurion), vol. 4, 159–182.

(28.) See Friedrich Wulf, “Decree on Priestly Ministry: Commentary on the Decree,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), vol. 4, 215–217. Also see Joseph Lécuyer, “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” ibid., 183–209.

(29.) Christian Duquoc, “Clerical Reform,” in The Reception of Vatican II, ed. (p.135) Giuseppe Alberigo, Jean-Pierre Jossua, and Joseph Komonchak, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 308.

(30.) Robert Schwartz, Servant Leaders of the People of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1989). At the very end of this book, Schwartz writes of priestly identity and its roots (213ff.). He does not devote many pages to this very insightful view. I have tried to elaborate on Schwartz's position in “Mixed Signals: Priestly Identity and Priestly Spirituality Since Vatican II,” in The Candles Are Still Burning: Directions in Sacrament and Spirituality, ed. Mary Grey et al. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995), 70–81.