Till Christ Be Formed

Author: Rev. James Tolhurst


Rev. James Tolhurst

In this article Fr Tolhurst [Spiritual Director in the English College, Valladolid, Spain] puts forward the case for a more radical approach to the spiritual training and formation of students for the priesthood. By "radical" he means a return to the genuine "roots" of Christian Formation, neither legalistic nor open-ended, but based upon discipleship of Christ our Master.

It is a sad fact that we often realise the lack of formation only when it is too late. Monica Baldwin (author of "I leapt over the wall") wrote in later years "I am convinced that in my case the cause of the trouble was failure to guard the citadel in the early stages. When the big attack comes, you are swept away".1 Significantly she takes up the image from the parables of Christ and the writings of St Teresa which speak of the work of construction, and the chaos which follows from building on inadequate foundations.

We have tolerated an enormous variety of recipes in the field of training future priests. Undoubtedly this was made inevitable by the extreme legalism of most of the seminaries whose rule of life matched their architecture in many cases. But this must not be over-exaggerated, for in such surroundings Fr William Purcell (Spiritual Director of All Hollows and later President) was able to do great work.2 It is always possible—and stimulating for academics—to take an aspect of a system and maintain that "the retention of the Tridentine seminary absolutizes an historical situation which is no longer relevant, favouring inactivity and bureaucratic mediocrity... Exactly what Christ and His Apostles tried to do away with in their dealings with the law-bound priesthood of the synagogue".

So often the introduction of the "legalism" theme, like that of usury in the contraception debate, is a device to support quite another line of thinking. In the seminary-training debate it is frequently argued that because the old system was rigid and did produce some rigid priests, the solution would be to recast it in a form that "is not very different from a university residence". The resultant freedom would eliminate the possibility of pharisaism. But it was not legalism which led Thomas More's father to withdraw his son from Oxford, but the formation in heterodox teaching which he was likely to receive from the disciples of the Reform. Oxbridge Colleges were training grounds for the priesthood in the beginning, but they could only remain so with strong doctrinal and moral teaching allied to a rule of life. This was precisely the point at issue between the young Newman and the provost of Oriel. "Newman thought such private supervision was what the tutors were already paid to do; he also thought they had a duty to take a personal interest in the young men, a pastoral care. This in fact, was what tutorship became in Oxford, and Oriel never recovered from the measures the Provost now took to ensure that it should not be so in his college".3 In the measure that there was little formation in the old dispensation, the university-residence arrangement merely canonized a state of affairs. But insofar as formation was made possible under a tighter set-up, this would be edged out by the general academic spirit of an agnostic academic environment, and by a frenetic pace leaving no time for reflection.

The stimulus of changing from a rule-oriented system to a free range programme is also supported by the argument from "alienation". The former training is alleged to inhibit the normal development of the personality, producing the scrupulous and inhuman characters of literature seen in the novels of A. J. Cronin and James Joyce and more recently in Three Cheers for the Paraclete.Their counterparts do exist unfortunately in real life but it is not certain that a more pastoral emphasis (which the Decree Optatam totius calls for)4 would overcome what are personality problems, due often to personal, spiritual weakness.

It is no accident that the new style seminary-cum-university residence has produced more than its share of personality disorders. The Council decree warns that the discipline of seminary life should not be regarded merely as a sensible arrangement within which community life and mutual charity can flourish.5 A loose system will lead to loose morals—that is the law of fallen nature and the constant experience of the Church's history, and it is naive to think otherwise.

We must try and shrug off the guilt complex that seminaries are an expedient faute de mieux.We can apologise for past failings and most of us in seminaries feel at times that we are atoning for them also, but enough is enough. Let us realise that seminaries were a providential development and, as the Council says, "continue to be necessary for the formation of priests".6 A glance at history will perhaps reinforce our case.

The seminarist as disciple

Although Cardinal Bellarmine can be pointed out as the first founder of a diocesan seminary subsequent to the recommendation of Trent, he was giving a new meaning to a very old truth. The Book of Kings refers, in the Elijah and Elishah cycle, frequently to the "sons of the prophets" (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7 etc.,) who are described as "men of strong Yahwistic faith who lived a common life under their teacher". We notice in these highly coloured, charismatic accounts many of the features of the master-disciple, or guru-samanera (to use the Eastern terms) which explain the strength of prophetic tradition in Israel. It coalesces with the priestly role to a greater or lesser extent as can be seen in the relationship of Eli and Samuel, and the members of the Qumran community. There is a continuing debate as to whether John the Baptist retired into the desert to share their common life or not, but in him, the son of a priest of Aaron's line, the master-disciple relationship was expressed in a unique way.

It is not fashionable to pine for features of the old liturgy but one must admit that the composers of the Confiteor brought off a master-stroke by including the intercession of John the Baptist. We have Our Lord's own witness that "there is no greater prophet than John" (Luke 7:28), and the quality of such greatness which humbles itself in the presence of the Lamb of God is shown by allowing his disciples to desert him, the bridegroom's friend. Such was the understanding between them that John's disciples come to tell Jesus of his death (Matthew 14:12) as if to underline that John would go before him in all things (Luke 1:17).

There is great scope for dramatic talent which has scarcely been explored, if we except Salome and a short story by Flaubert which, even so, both ignore the personality of John and his fascination. Our Lord had but to build on this personal bond when he met two of his disciples to whom he had been pointed out by their master. They would have recalled again and again the first words of that deep and abiding relationship "What do you seek"! for never did man speak as this Man. He offered the supreme invitation, inspiring them to walk with him in the cool of the evening as man walked with God in paradise until the shadows lengthened on the wall and still they had not finished their questions.

While researching the inner meaning of Scripture we must not become so academic that we pass by the vibrant, larger than life, Personality of Jesus, the Messiah; that living relationship which bound the disciples to him, their Lord and God, must surge out of the pages of the Gospel as we research their hidden depths. He was at great pains to form them in the mysteries of the kingdom despite their slowness of intellect, asking frequently: "Have you understood all this?" (Matthew 13:51). "Do you not yet perceive?" (Mark 8:17). Finally "interpreting to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24: 27, 45-47).

This same task was eagerly accepted by the Church. We have only to think of Peter and Mark, John and Polycarp, Paul and Timothy. The great apostle to the nations can refer to the son of Eunice as "my true child in the faith" (1 Timothy 1:2) and "my son" (2 Timothy 2:1) so great is the bond between them. The Church dares to bare its very soul as a father would to his own flesh and blood "for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me" (1 Corinthians 4:15-16) "as I am of Christ" (Philippians 3:17).

The formation of a follower of Christ is a work of great depth and honesty. It dares to say "be imitators of me"; and can be compared to a new birth: "my little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!" (Galatians 4:19). No wonder that so many took refuge in legalism and now suggest open-plan training. There is less risk involved, much less to be both lived and dared.

If we grant the defects of the "Colditz era" of seminary training, we ought to realise that what often redeemed it was the deep commitment of certain members of the staff. It was not so much what they actually said but their whole attitude of care and involvement with our own lives which ultimately formed us.7 We could see in them the commitment in peace and joy which lay at the root of our own vocation, the fulfilment of those lines of Chaucer on the parish priest:

His business was to show a fair behaviour
And draw men thus to heaven and their Saviour.
Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their love
He taught; but followed it himself before.8

What has always been demanded is the showing of love, caught from the love of Christ for us and our response to him.

The essence of formation is not by itself the fulfilment of certain requirements: "Do this and you will live..." (Matthew 10:29) but the perfecting of the law in love, the acceptance of the demand "If you will be perfect..." which cannot be understood outside a personal and direct appeal from Jesus Christ: "and Jesus looking upon him loved him" (Mark 10:21). We must dare to restore that dimension to the work of priestly formation. Students for the priesthood must be inspired to follow Christ not simply as an ideal and as the great High Priest but as a response in love communicated to them by one who spends himself willingly for them out of love for Christ.

There must be "personality cult"

There is no room for the bureaucratic job orientated approach neither in the seminary, nor in the family; for the priest whoforms students is called to be a Father above all. This was the role, which God's providence gave to the Abbé Balley in the life of the Curé of Ars, whom he called "his beloved Vianney" and to Fr van Esch at a turning point in the affairs of St Peter Canisius. It must be true that every priest was inspired by another to think of the priesthood for himself, glimpsing what Father means. When an old man, Thomas Godwin recalled his days when he was a member of the Birmingham Oratory under Newman: "Little do the other world know how beautifully the family was managed—I think I can see the Father (Newman) sitting in his little room receiving first this one and then the other, directing, guiding, calling each by their names as if he was their very father."9 A father naturally gives his whole self for his children, he cannot do otherwise. Because a priest is called Father there is even more reason why we should not regard it merely as a courtesy title but exercise that fatherhood to which we are called by him from whom all Fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its title.

It has been said that the priest's "fatherhood" is the more real as it becomes a pure transparency for the unique Fatherhood of God and knows its dependence on the one Spirit who alone guides our hearts. The father who is worthy of that name in the natural order knows himself to be dependent in the exercise of his authority on an order greater than himself in which he is included. Even more is this true of the spiritual father. "...These images are not simply the external reproductions of a reality that we could never attain, but a sort of participation, thanks to which finite beings, in the activities that they are called by nature or by grace to exercise, are carried along in the movement of creative love and become the repositories of a power that is greater than themselves. In the disinterestedness with which a spiritual father undertakes, for no advantage except for love, to commit himself to the service of another in order to help him on his way to God, there is a dynamism which, if we could perceive its source, would seem to spring from the depths of divine compassion".10

It is strange that we ever thought otherwise. The whole seminary system did not emerge from some penitentiary blue-print discussion but arose out of a desire to further and temper the love which beckoned: "come and see". Thiscannot be accomplished by rules nor even by exhortation, it must be communicated by the personality. Christ is the Living Personality of the Word of God and in the formation of priests he uses the personality of others "since every priest in his own way assumes the Person of Christ".11 In theory we accept this in our expression "alter Christus" but have we given a real assent to the character being a sharing in the likeness of Christ the Priest in his relationship to the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and to mankind? Obviously this point exceeds the scope of the present article and can only be considered in so far as it affects the vocation of the priest to form disciples in wisdom and truth. It is mentioned here because there is a current of opinion which finds the notion of "character" difficult and therefore reduces it and allied terms to the realm of the cliché. Yet priestly formation is a specific work of the priest. His vocation should impel him to make disciples because he shares the priestly character of Christ who from the very beginning of his pastoral activity began to form those who would follow his way. It is a question of "having that mind which was in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5) with all that it implies. It is an awe-inspiring perspective because Christ is Priest for ever of the whole of creation until he delivers the Kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). He is also priest in and through us.

Forming of men in wisdom and love

It is pointless protesting that we are unworthy servants if we are then going to take refuge behind our wretched lack of spirituality and become neither worthy nor servants. We must allow His Personality to impact on us, drawing us out "to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Is this perhaps the deep meaning of those words "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16)? For Christ wishes to suffuse the whole personality in such a way as to draw our disciples to follow after that Light which enlightens all men.

If we are meant to form disciples by the impact of our personality on theirs we must reflect on the challenge this makes as well as the restraints it imposes. It is a challenge to allow oneself to be seen as one who loves God and strives to do his will in all things, finding joy in that above all. For, as the financier is committed to the rise and fall of the money market, waking or sleeping, so must we radiate a total fulfilment in the things that are of God and communicate it to others. There should be that spirit which animated Peter and John when they replied to the chief priests "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

We can glimpse in the apostles that warmth which spread to the whole communion of those who believed. If Christ does take hold of the whole personality, He must transmit that warmth which then spreads from us. We cannot expect disciples to be formed in the notion of the Way of wisdom and truth, pursued in love unless they are shown it in practice. The Word of God was made flesh, and the Christ-principle extends throughout the Church, down to the poor individual priest who is only too conscious of his own inadequacies but at the same time relies on the strength of Christ "for his power is made perfect in our weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The place of perfect honesty

Here is the solution to the problem of "personal attachments", if we heed the advice of the great spiritual writers. We must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, as we must inculcate honesty in our disciples. Such honesty requires it to be said that it is an Anglo-Saxon, Freudian misconception that friendship must topple over into a sexual relationship. It was born from a cold mind in a cold environment. We have, on the other hand, the witness of Scripture that David loved Jonathan "as he loved his own soul" (1 Samuel 20:17) and, after he had been slain in battle, could say: "your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). Is it not also true that St John was proud to call himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved" and that he reclined on the breast of Our Lord at the Last Supper? It is quite dishonest to drag in sex and, in fact, is bad psychology also. A priest-psychologist has written "from my experience I can affirm quite definitely that the greater part of the unconscious motivation that drives priests to question, or even to abandon celibacy is the lack of a living, fraternal charity".12

Not only is it possible not to drag sex into friendship but honesty demands that we make the effort to evaluate the spiritual feeling of joy and discriminate between it and the specifically sensual. Such is the impact of original sin that in any teacher-disciple relationship, there can be a triggering of sensual reactions but these should only serve to deepen our humility if we really do desire to serve God in the friendship and draw others towards the love of God, and are not looking for some secret gratification of the ego.13 It is perhaps the coy unwillingness to accept such humiliation and discipline that has led to the growth of charismatic groups involving priests and seminarians. These provide for an outlet to the "deep need for personal security and emotional expression"14 but because of their emphasis on emotions do not bring about that formation in wisdom which alone can centre the whole personality on God who alone is perfect joy.

Personal growth in Christ through contemplation

It is surely essential that a journey on the way to God of teacher and disciple must, if it is to avoid needless delays and false avenues, follow the writings of the contemplative Fathers and Saints of the Church. Every seminary possesses the great sermons of Basil, Chrysostom, Damascene, Augustine, Leo, and Hilary in translation. The works of the two great modern mystics and Doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are also now in paperback.15 Their teachings will burn-in the message of all formation for the priesthood, that "it is in silence of spirit, in discipline, in contemplative prayer that one must die that one may live with more abundance".16

The teacher must measure himself by the standards of the Saints, and in humility of heart apply the teachings to himself. At the same time he must gradually, like a builder laying his foundations, introduce his disciple to the total challenge asked of him. The rate or progress must be in proportion to each individual so that he does not become discouraged. But the personality must be inexorably led in the path of wisdom and reminded from time to time if he is holding back. In this way there is a real spiritual growth which can resist the ravages of spiritual decay, and the other pitfalls of a shallow personality.

We return again to those words of St Paul "be imitators of me, as I am of Christ". We must not think this implies any arrogance either on the part of the apostle or the teacher of future priests. We are asked to share with another all that Christ means to us, the sufferings and joys which make up the work of his priesthood. We must allow our personalities to speak for themselves as did Blessed Peter Favre, of whom we are told by a contemporary "in his dealings with others, there was a singularly charming sweetness and grace, such as, to speak truly, I never found in anybody else. By some means or other, he would win their friendship, gradually steal into their hearts and with his amiable manner and slow, pleasant words, kindle in them a mighty love of God".17

Just as the Spirit of God's love infused with life the dry bones of Ezekiel's vision, so can our love and dedication breathe into our present structures all that is needed18 to make the preparation for the priesthood that perpetually relevant enterprise. It is this love, guided by wisdom and deepened in humility, which urges not a way of expediency but an ever deeper commitment. May we strive together to build up that commitment until Christ is formed.


1) Letter to The London Times 5th January 1968.

2) Cf. Between The Unseen and Seen (a collection of his conferences) (All Hallows Dublin 1971).

3) Newman's Journey: Meriol Trevor (Fontana 1974) page 41.

4) Decree on Priestly Training: paragraph 19.

5) Decree iam cit. paragraph 16 and "The Role and Training of the Priest as Spiritual Director" Fr Curtis Hayward's working paper 1976.

6) Decree iam cit. paragraph 4.

7) Priestly Ministry and Life: paragraph 5.

8) Canterbury Tales: The Prologue (Coghill Translation page 30).

9) Newman's Journey page 165.

10) The Direction of Conscience: Jean Laplace (Chapman 1967) pp. 70 and 92.

11) Priestly Ministry and Life: paragraph 12.

12) Celibacy and Personality Problems: J. B. Torello (Catholic Position Papers: August 1972).

13) The Power and Meaning of Love: Thomas Merton (Sheldon Press 1976) p. 77 and The Way of Perfection: Teresa of Avila Chapter 5.

14) The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues: J.P. Kildahl (Hodder 1972) p. 30.

15) Complete Works of St Teresa of Avila (translated by E. Allison Peers) 3 volumes (Sheed and Ward). The Collected Works of St John of the Cross (translated by Kieran Kavanagh and Otilio Rodriguez) (I C S Publications Washington). The Interior Castle of St Teresa is published separately by Sheed and Ward, and The Dark Night of the Soul by St John, by Burns and Oates.

16) Catholicism: A New Synthesis: Edward Holloway (Faith Keyway 1976) page 131 and Christian Formation (Faith 1976) page 3.

17) Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesus: Epistolae (Madrid 1903) p. 453.

18) Cf . Pope Paul to Roman Clergy 20 February 1975: "Let us have the humility to sanctify the Body, even the prosaic, administrative, material things of the Church, to raise them in their significance".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 June 1978, page 4

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