Psychology is crucial in forming seminarians

This is the second in a two-part series focusing on how the formation of clergy has changed since the advent of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Just one night after returning from Washington, D.C., where they joined thousands of other abortion foes in the 41st Annual March for Life, 27 first-year seminarians at Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Providence, R.I., heard about the psychological services available to them during their formation as priests.

Father Christopher Mahar, the school’s rector, and Dr. Michael Hansen, a staff psychologist at the seminary, explained the program is a cold New England winter night where snow covers a hardened ground as unforgiving as the landscape scarred by the priest sex abuse scandal. Like other American Catholic seminaries, Our Lady of Providence is changing the way men are prepared for the ordained life by focusing on four core elements: faith, mission, service and self gift.

“So, you are asking yourself, why is a psychologist talking to us?” Hansen said. “Well, I am here with a bunch of men who wear black, don’t marry, live in a big house by themselves, work on Sundays and make no money. Why would anyone think that is crazy?”

Addressing issues early

The men come from the Providence Diocese — and other dioceses in the region — and look like any other group of guys their age, right down to their sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers. They break up in laughter at the all too real image Hansen has crafted. They are all average young men who have cleared the psychological tests and the battery of interviews administered by their home dioceses and the seminary over the course of several months or more. It takes a special kind of man to live that countercultural life Hansen has jokingly described. As a consequence, seminaries since the priest sex abuse scandal exploded in America in the early 2000s have ramped up efforts not only to select the best candidates for the priesthood, but to support their formation as full, self-actualized human beings.

“Once candidates are accepted into formation, the policy at St. John Vianney (seminary in Denver) is to provide psychological growth counseling to anyone who desires to come,” said Dr. Christina Lynch, director of psychological services at the seminary.

“SJV provides a trusting environment where counseling is not just available but encouraged as part of formation,” she said. “The result is that 95 percent of all seminarians at SJV self-refer at some point in their formation.”

Doubts will arise

The goal of psychological counseling at Catholic seminaries is to help a man know himself better, rectors and psychologists assert. Development of affective and psychosexual maturity is the foundation on which good priests stand.

Father Jeff Huard, director of spiritual formation at The St. Paul Seminary at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., said, “In the four years of graduate school there is a regular regimen for each class of men for human and spiritual formation. It covers the life of virtue, celibacy and many practical topics. We do work closely with a set of fine psychologists if counseling is needed. The students work with both their spiritual directors and formation directors if it seems counseling would be advisable.”

The seminary asks its students to see one of four Catholic counselors it has selected to work with seminarians “who fully embrace the teaching of the Catholic Church. ... You benefit from someone who is fully Catholic and embraces the faith. To see someone outside that fabric would not be helpful or could be problematic.”

Sometimes family of origin issues can arise during discernment, the kind of matters everyone suppresses or ignores to cope with. Sometimes a seminarian might be reconsidering the vow of celibacy or even whether his call is genuine.

“There is ongoing discernment,” Hansen said. “An 18-year-old guy cannot say in any definitive way that God is calling him to be a priest. Over eight years a call is strengthened or it continues to be a question for the young man. Usually that occurs in the area of celibacy, because ‘not only am I called to the priesthood but the celibate life.’ These questions will persist for some and they will leave. Some leave but others continue their discernment. What we are trying to emphasize is to normalize that for the young men. Be honest in the recognition of that; recognize it in an appropriate way. It is not healthy to bury one’s head in the sand. Each time that might happen, to question the call to celibacy, it is also a reminder that it is very good ... celibacy is rooted in one’s deep love for God. The love for God and Christ is ongoing.”

Support network

At Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, formation teams work with two counselors on staff to support seminarians.

“We push them to address their human-spiritual formation,” said Father James A. Wehner, rector and president of the school. “We have weekly formation conferences over the four to six years they are here that are based on the four pillars of priestly formation: human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual. We have structured out a weekly format that addresses celibacy, time management and human relations. These conferences are honest, open and specific.”

Father Wehner meets with each seminarian annually to review personal issues such as temperance, money and sexuality. “So there is accountability from year to year,” he said. “I do that one on one with 100 seminarians.”

Each seminarian has a spiritual director and a formation adviser. The spiritual director works with the seminarian in the internal forum dealing with issues related to sin, spiritual progress, their prayer life, relationship with God, the development of spiritual disciplines and so on.

The formation adviser functions in the external forum representing the faculty to the seminarian and the seminarian to the faculty. The external forum measures the seminarian’s progress. At the end of the year, the formation faculty then has to vote if the seminarian should advance to the next year.

‘Joy-filled, holy men’

That is not the way seminaries trained priests in the past, Father Wehner said.

“The difference is, No. 1, it allows seminarians to be able to discern every aspect of their human formation,” he said. “The seminary is an environment of trust. Maybe in the past a seminarian kept his mouth shut, what I call submarine formation. Then he emerges after he is ordained and the problems that weren’t dealt with in the formation system explode when they are on their own in a parish.

“The result is we are ordaining highly competent, effective, joy-filled, holy men. That is not to say that previous generations were not.”

Lynch at St. John Vianney seminary in Denver said the emphasis on psychological support for seminarians is “to discover what psychological blocks may be preventing his affective and psychosexual maturity. He can discover how these blocks can be holding him back in his spiritual growth in holiness.

“The hope is that future generations of clergy will learn skills to effectively and healthily deal with their emotions so that they don’t turn to inappropriate behaviors. In addition, this journey of healthy psychological growth can teach them to become better spiritual fathers who are available to their people and holy witnesses of joy and love.”

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.