CNEWA

CNEWA Connections:
What is Formation?
Part 1 — Priests and Religious

While the word “formation” may not be familiar to most Catholic Christians — at least, not as an educational term — it is very familiar to seminarians and members of religious orders. The current edition of ONE is focused (as the cover notes) on the subject of “Forming the Future,” so this is a good opportunity to explore just what that means and how “formation” figures in both the Church and the mission of CNEWA.

Since Vatican II there has been a lot of discussion about the word “formation” — not the concept — questioning whether it is the best expression of what it is trying to convey. For many members of religious orders “formation” seems to imply too much passivity. A young priest or religious just sits back and “gets formed.” Unfortunately that has sometimes been the case, producing people who are often lacking in initiative and openness. In one of his talks, Pope Francis — who, in his many years as a Jesuit, has witnessed both the strengths and weaknesses of religious formation — spoke of formation sometimes creating “little monsters.” I think many of us who spent years in religious life can recall some of the “little monsters” in our past. While the discussion about the appropriateness of the word formation goes on, the concept behind it is accepted by all.

Although CNEWA does not engage in actual formation — we do not staff or run seminaries, novitiates, etc. — we are, nevertheless, deeply involved with it in the areas where we work. This week and next, we will look at two different but related types of formation: the formation of clergy and religious and the formation of lay people. We will also see how CNEWA is involved in both.

When a person enters a seminary or a religious order, there is a long process of formation which extends anywhere from four to ten years. The religious goes through different stages of membership in the community; the seminarian has increasing involvement in the diocese where he will serve. Formation involves personal growth, spiritual discernment and learning. For seminarians and most religious there is a lengthy, multi-year program of academic studies in philosophy and theology with required courses and electives. For most seminarians, this program covers a minimum of four years.

While academic studies are extremely important — a primary principle of pastoral practice is to know what you’re talking about– they are not the only element. Members of religious communities learn about the “charism” of their order. The “charism” is, among other things, the special spirituality of the community and the special aspect the community brings to the people it serves. Both seminarians and religious have to learn how to live authentically and as adults among the people we are called to serve.

Among other things, the formation of seminarians and religious helps them to deal in a healthy way with celibacy and how one serves credibly and with sensitivity in a community where most believers are not celibates. They learn how to be what St. Paul calls “all things to all people so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

While the word “formation” may or may not be the most appropriate, the goals it seeks to achieve are extremely important. Formation programs provide the service corps of the Church. They produce clergy and religious who are educated, articulate, pastorally committed and authentic. While clergy and religious are not the only people involved in the Church’s mission (as we shall see next week), they form a critical part.

It should be obvious that formation programs require that local churches and religious communities commit a great deal of resources to them. Somewhat crudely put: good formation programs are not cheap. They requite residences, faculties — people who teach and inspire — and books, to name just a few. In all the regions from southern India to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and northeast Africa, CNEWA helps the local church educate, train, prepare — in a word, form — the leaders of the Church of the future.

It is a long-term investment that literally takes years to bear fruit. However, the future of Christianity depends upon it.

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