As part of the discussion on safeguarding our authority, today’s post explores the status of seminarians preparing to exercise authority in the Church as clerics. The easiest question is: who is a seminarian? One describes him as one under formation.
The formation process is as old as the priesthood, with the twelve apostles being the first set of seminarians in the ministerial priesthood Christ established. Formation to the priesthood evolved from when future priests lived under priests (the model of Samuel staying with Eli) to establishing a specific community to train priests (seminary). Various Church documents describe the process of formation and what formation entails. Pope John Paul II categorised the aspects into four in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis: human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation. He called for this ‘integral’ formation to prepare the priest in this modern world for the arduous task ahead.
A more difficult question is: Do we treat seminarians as one under formation or use them as cheap labour? Two points are worth highlighting. First, given the context of seminary formation in Nigeria, seminarians carry out certain services out of fear for their vocation and not because they really want to carry out those services. Second, we pay or compensate non-seminarians when they carry out the same services. These two points must be present to identify a situation where a seminarian is used as cheap labour.
Examples include sending a seminarian on apostolic work to regularly work on the farm or using him as a personal driver or cook while he is supposed to carry out pastoral activities. Often, these are accompanied by poor feeding, very poor remuneration, continuous reprimand, and threat to vocation. What of seminarians on pastoral duty compelled to import and export ‘goods’ and related matters for priests?
Like every practice, arguments are in favour and against. Arguments in favour maintain that these services are part of seminarians’ training. They inculcate discipline in the seminarians and help them to develop and mature. Seminarians are under the service of the priest. Hence, all services fall within the pastoral ministry of the priest. The Decree on the Training of Priests, Optatam Totius, affirms that “all forms of training, spiritual, intellectual, disciplinary, are to be ordered with concerted effort towards the pastoral end” (Optatatm Totius, 4).
Are these services ordered towards the ‘the pastoral end’? The response depends on one’s interpretation. However, one must realise that these services distract the seminarian from his core training. One grave danger is that it perpetuates clericalism and abuse of clerical authority.
Drawing inspiration from the Last Supper, where Jesus (formator) ate together with his apostles (seminarians), a formator once argued that seminarians and formators should dine together because there is no justification for formators feeding better than and different from seminarians, while seminarians need better food to grow and study well.To his greatest surprise, seminarians majorly opposed the idea. They argued that they preferred staying on their own to have something to aspire to. What were they aspiring to?
Exercise of clerical authority, preferential treatment, ability to use and control people, including those under formation, and access to funds. The structure breeds sycophancy as seminarians live to please formators rather than prepare for the mission. This attitude is brought into the priesthood, where priests exhibit fawning obsequiousness in relating to older priests and the bishop, often for favours and not for the mission Christ entrusted to us.
The first is that one sees priestly ordination not as the beginning of ministerial service to the people but as the end of seminary suffering and exploitation. One who considers the priesthood as an end to suffering has a wrong mentality that undermines the exercise of the ministry as a service to the people. Such a person tends to be Machiavellian to maintain power and influence rather than seeking to serve or, as Jesus puts it, the greatest of you must be the servant of all.
I-have-arrived mentality stirs up the entitlement mentality, where everything should come to us, and people should always bow to us even if we abuse them, misuse our authority, or lie to them with the gospel. This is why we hear statements like: “Don’t you know that you are talking to a priest”. “Don’t you know that I am a priest?”
As with every achievement and success, post-success depression sets in as people fail to accord us the glory we desire, challenge our authority, or as we are being kidnapped. When kidnappers began abducting priests, some early comments were that our people had lost sense of the sacred to attempt kidnapping a priest – a reaction to a threat to our authority, control, and influence.
We cannot accept that we are no longer the lord that our seminary formation has prepared us to be. Ultimately, there is disinterest in the ministry, which undermines the salvific mission of the Church and leads to mental health crises for the priest, especially depression.
The Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the document aimed at promoting priestly formation according to the indications of the Second Vatican Council, was issued in 1970 and revised in 1985 and 2016. Since the Ratio is up to date with the demands of modern society, we rather need to revisit the implementation of our seminary formation structure in Nigeria, particularly the role of cultural conventions in breeding priests that are power-conscious, sycophantic, egoistic, intolerant, and abusive.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾