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BUILDING BRIDGES: THE FORMATION OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS TRANSFIGURING THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION (Part 9)

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Fr Frank Marangos

Source: Oinos Educational Consulting

by Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP

“Seminarians should become accustomed to training their character. This will make them a living reflection of the humanity of Jesus, and a bridge that unites people with God.” ~ Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis

On December 8, 2016 the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Clergy published The Gift of the Priestly Formation (Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis) which examines the topic of the formation of future religious leaders. According to the document, the purpose of formation is to assist seminarians in becoming “a living reflection of the humanity of Jesus . . . individuals of integrity with the personality necessary for ministry in the Church.” The Congregation consequently urges seminaries and institutions of theological education to help “form” the nation’s future religious leaders “to be bridges for, not obstacles to, the spread of the Gospel.”

In his Preliminary Report of the Educational Models and Practices in Theological Education Project (2017), Stephen R. Graham, underscores the need for the Association of Theological Schools in America to do a better job at such bridge-building. “Seminaries,” insists Graham, “have never been able to do all that is needed to prepare persons for lifelong religious leadership.” He therefore underscores the need to more effectively addressed the formation of religious leaders in the Association’s Standards of Accreditation. His Preliminary Report also emphasizes the need for the nation’s seminaries and theological schools to appropriately train and equip faculty to effectively facilitate the formation methodology of their respective institutions. As ATS’ Senior Director of Programs and Services, Graham is in a position to encourage the Association’s member schools “to strive to define what formation means in their particular traditions and contexts, to find the most effective ways to form students, and to demonstrate effectiveness in formation.”

But what exactly entails the formation of future religious leaders? What are its epistemological underpinnings? Who should be responsible for its ongoing implementation? And, more importantly, what methods should be developed by the nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological learning to advance and evaluate if such “bridge-building” is actually occurring?

As symbols of passage and transition, bridges have often been the poetic focus of art, music, and historic legend. The Bridge of Arta, for example, that crosses the Arachthos River near the city of Arta in Epirus, Greece, is one such stone extension that has been memorialized in an eponymous Greek folk ballad that bears its name. Historical research indicates that the narrative may be based on an event that actually occurred during the Turkish war-time occupation of the area. According to the lyric poem, every day 45 craftsmen and 60 apprentices tried to build a bridge. Each evening, however, the outcome of their previous day’s effort would collapse. After months of delays, the 450′ long stone bridge with four arches was finally able to remain standing when the master mason was forced to sacrifice his wife’s life in the cement pilings.

Since ancient times, challenging projects were understood to require great sacrifice. Legends and epic poems, like that of The Bridge of Arta, frequently described the need for some form of personal reparation, the most intense being that of martyrdom, for an important project to be completed. A master builder being forced to sacrifice his wife is a recurring plot element in folk songs where grand aspirations are dogged by failures and repeated delays. In fact, the theme of the “walled-up wife,” is encountered throughout Eastern Europe where female skeletal remains have actually been found in the walls of old structures.

At its core, the formation of religious leaders, like the Bridge of Arta, is established on the masonry of personal sacrifice. Formation is an organic, life-long, holistic process of servanthood expressed in the context of community life. It is not simply a personal or individualistic project. Like the apostles, aspirants are invited to be “with Him” (Jesus) for a period of time (John 2:2), to acquire the dispositions that would make them selfless conduits – bridges to God. They were actually, invited by their Teacher “to take up their cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Becoming such a spiritual “bridge,” however requires fabricating the sacrificial scaffold of prayerfulness, obedience, humility, and servanthood. As such, while numerous dominance-driven definitions are proposed by secular management authors, religious leadership formation can be summarized as a process (1) of being conformed to the image of Christ, (2) on behalf of others, and (3) for the purpose of advancing the mission of the Church.

In his classic work, Essays in Seminary Education (1967), John Tracy Ellis has classified the history of religious leadership formation into eight primary periods, each with their respective model: (1) Gospel, (2) Early Christianity, (3) Patristic, (4) Monastic, (5) Middle-Ages, (6) Council of Trent, (7) Post-Reformation Europe, (8) Early American Experience, and (9) America Church Today. While it is not within the scope of this commentary to provide a comprehensive review of Ellis’ arrangements, a brief examination of the current status of formation in contemporary seminaries and theological schools of higher education would prove valuable.

In the spring of 2018, the Association of Theological Schools in America conducted a survey of formation among its member schools. The survey focused on if/how seminaries and institutions of theological higher education understood the terms “personal” and “spiritual formation” in ATS’ current Standards of Accreditations (2014-17). In her subsequent report, Five Things We’ve Learned About Assessing Personal and Spiritual Formation, Jo Ann Deasy, concludes that only 59% of responding schools have a formal definition of formation. As the ATS Director of Institutional Initiatives and Student Research, Deasy is able to authoritatively testify that formation among member schools ranges, “from a broad understanding that embraces the whole of theological education, to a narrow emphasis on spiritual disciplines or vocational discernment.” She further states that definitions of formation also range from “denominationally affiliated to interreligious, from evangelical to Roman Catholic, from ministry focused to academically focused, and combinations of all of the above.”

Long before Deasy’s report, Paul Pettit observed that, while religious leadership formation means different things to different groups, two guiding principles are consistent. In his book Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ, (2008), Pettit states that spiritual formation is: (1) “a holistic work of God in a believer’s life whereby systematic change renders the individual continually closer to the image and actions of Jesus Christ,” and (2) “the change or transformation that occurs happens best in the context of authentic, Christian community and is entirely oriented as service towards God and others.”

According to Stephen Graham, more than other forms of study, theological education must attend to the development of the person. In his Mid-point Reflections (2016) on ATS’ Educational Models Project, like Pettit, Graham insists that, in addition to intellectual and academic formation and the development of practical ministry skills, “theological students must be formed as persons of integrity and spiritually to give leadership to communities of faith and other contexts.” In order to do so, he suggests that member schools might consider utilizing the “four pillars of formation” (intellectual, ministry, human, and spiritual) that were first described by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992), to undergird the fundamentals of their respective formation programs. In fact, the four-pillar paradigm is currently being used by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in the fifth edition of their Program of Priestly Formation.

Pope John Paul II insists that, without priests, “the Church would not be able to live out the fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in the world.” Realizing that future religious leaders would face a myriad of novel challenges, the Pope emphasized the need for the Church “to propose to each new generation the vocational call, and give care to the formation of candidates for priesthood.” According to the Pontiff, Catholic priestly formation must consider four principal pillars: (1) human, (2) spiritual, (3) intellectual, and (4) pastoral.  Each foundational area, while distinct in itself, is naturally linked to the others providing a comprehensive structure of formation that guides the development of the candidate towards religious leadership. However, while the spiritual pillar is of great importance, Pope John Paul considered the human dimension of priestly formation as the basis of the other three. “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation,” insists the Pontiff, “if it lacked a suitable human formation.”

The purpose of the human dimension of formation, writes Pope Paul, is to assist students in the task of becoming individuals of integrity with the personality necessary for ministry in the Church. The spiritual domain of formation, on the other hand, seeks to develop the student’s relationship with Christ through prayer and contemplation. Intellectual formation strives to deepen faith through the study of philosophy and theology so that students may be able to authentically proclaim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life to the faith communities they will one day serve. Finally, pastoral formation is nurtured by requiring students to participate in supervised field education assignments that include parishes, schools, and social service agencies. Apart from formal seminary and/or theological school formation, Pasoral Dabo Vobis also emphasizes the need for ongoing formation for bishops, clergy, and lay leaders.

In December 2016, the Vatican published a set of guidelines for the formation of seminarians entitled The Gift of the Priestly Vocation. The parameters set forth in Pasoral Dabo Vobis were used by the Council of Bishops to develop its Program of Priestly Formation which, according to the Bishops, should be divided into two primary life-cycle periods: (1) initial, and (2) ongoing. While initial formation formally begins when a candidate enters a theological school or seminary, the ongoing period begins at graduation/ordination and continues throughout a religious leader’s entire life.

According to the design of the Bishops, initial formation entails four stages: (1) Propaedeutic (preparatory period), (2) Discipleship (period of philosophical studies), (3) Configuration (period of theological studies), and (4) Pastoral (period of vocational synthesis). During the initial propaedeutic stage, aspiring religious leaders are provided opportunities to familiarize themselves with Christian doctrine. Discipleship, on the other hand, is a stage during which special attention should be given to the human dimension of formation, emphasizing systematic work on the personality of the future religious leader.

Configuration is the third stage of formation characterized by a focus on helping students “enter profoundly into the contemplation of the person of Jesus Christ, making the relationship with Christ more intimate and personal.” During this time, aspirants are encouraged to “gradually mature into the likeness of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep, gives his life for them, and seeks out the ones that have wandered from the fold.” Finally, during the Pastoral Stage which begins with the ordination to the Diaconate, seminarians leave the seminary and begin their life of pastoral service. Normally experienced for a significant period of time outside of the seminary, during this stage, “the candidate is asked to declare freely, consciously and definitively his intention to be a priest, having received diaconal ordination.”

Ongoing formation, according to the Program of Priestly Formation, is intended to ensure fidelity to the priestly ministry in a “continuing journey of conversion, in order to rekindle the gift received at ordination.” While the priest himself is primarily responsible for his own ongoing formation, it is the bishop’s responsibility, however, to ensure that clergy are not immersed in excessively burdensome or delicate situations. As such, the document recommends that a “system of personal accompaniment for novice priests be established to promote and maintain the quality of their ministry and to help them meet their first pastoral challenges with joy and enthusiasm.”

The need to form religious leaders as bridge builders is not limited to Papal exemplars of the Catholic Church. According to Dr. John Silber, President Emeritus of Boston University, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is a contemporary “Bridge Builder.” Spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians throughout the globe, Bartholomew’s entire life has been characterized by a number of ecumenical bridge building efforts.

In his article, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – A Passion for Peace (2014), Silber describes the first of these bridges as “one that reaches out to the various Orthodox churches.” While the second bridge “is one which reaches out to Europe, a bridge which has been created from the Patriarch’s vigorous pleas for the extension of the European Union to the East and the Southeast of Europe,” the third bridge is “one that will facilitate the dialogue between all the Christian churches.” For his inspiring efforts on behalf of religious freedom and human rights, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was officially heralded as a “Bridge Builder and Peacemaker” and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the U.S. Congress in 1997.

In 1972 the Executive Committee of the American Association of Theological Schools published an important Task Force Report entitled Voyage-Vision-Venture. According to the Report’s opening sentence, “a priority issue of major dimensions is that of the spiritual development of persons preparing for ministry.” Not much has changed since ATS’ initial conviction. The formation of the nation’s future religious “bridge-builders” requires seminaries and institutions of higher theological education to more effectively focus their attention on more than merely the intellectual capacities of their students.  “There is a deep hunger for spirituality today,” insists Bartholomew, “a great need to demonstrate to anxious people all over the world the healing power of compassion and goodwill. There has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of the world.”  Such bridge-builders are, indeed, desperately needed today.

When the bridge across Niagara Falls was initially contemplated, engineers were faced with the daunting task of envisioning how to span the river with heavy suspension cables. The problem was solved when a young boy named Homan Walsh successfully flew a simple kite across the wide expanse. Increasingly larger ropes, small chains, and finally heavy cables strong enough to support a train, were all stretched across because of the kite’s initial small twine. When asked, 80 years later, to describe his life’s greatest exploit, Walsh confessed that it was the day he successfully flew a kite across Niagara Falls.

Like Arta and Niagara, bridges are images of strength, solidity, and tenacity. They convey a sense of structural durability. Religious leaders who are bridge-builders are, therefore, willing and able to unite various groups of people and their understandings in such a fashion. They understand the need to manage polarity and tension between people, issues, and factions.  They also see their role as being strong spiritual cables of faith that support systems and resources in ways that serve the marginalized and connect the isolated. They understand that they must mediate between tradition, the status quo, vision, and creative innovation. Finally, they accept the challenge of helping humanity humbly span the gaps between its fallen nature and its Creator Savior.

The nation desperately needs religious leaders who possess the knowledge, skills, and, above all, the spiritual maturity to sacrificially serve a society that, in the words of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “hungers for spirituality.” Seminaries and institutions of theological higher learning must therefore heed ATS’ recommendations and advance robust systems that can help aspirants successfully fly their respective kite-strings of initial formation across society’s ever-widening expanses. Under the proper leadership, these schools can provide the necessary education, training, and formation to adequately prepare such “bridge-builders” for the challenges they will inevitably encounter as religious leaders.

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