The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | February 11, 2010
Pastoral study and action direct one to an inner source, which the work of [priestly] formation will take care to guard and make good use of: This is the ever-deeper communion with the pastoral charity of Jesus, which...constitutes the principle and driving force of priestly ministry. It is a question of a type of formation meant not only to ensure scientific, pastoral competence and practical skill, but also and especially a way of being in communion with the very sentiments and behavior of Christ. How does the seminary guard this inner source of ever-deeper communion with the charity of Jesus? How does formation lead a seminarian to be in communion with the very sentiments and behavior of Christ? In this essay I will explore one way that such a communion may be established and guarded. It is a way of prayer and meditation that invites the seminarian to enter Nazareth and live there with the Holy Family. This way of being and praying is expressed well by Pope Paul VI.
Oh, how I would like to become a child once again and start my studies over in this humble and sublime school of Nazareth. How I would like with Mary, to receive once again the true knowledge of life and the superior wisdom of divine truths. Here the Pope reveals his deepest heart, his desire to live with the Holy Family. Such a desire can be satiated as time and space do not deny its fulfillment. At its core such a desire expresses a man's longing to live with God, to live where holiness defines all of reality. Incipiently many seminarians come to the seminary looking to have the same desire fulfilled: I want to live where Christ lives.
Vocation directors usually use John 1:38 to attract the attention of young men who are weary of aspects of our current culture and want to seek the "more." In this part of the Gospel of John we hear a question asked by any sincere seminarian, "Master, where do you live?"(v. 38). Jesus says in return, "Come and see." In John 1:43ff there is another version of this conversation that is more relevant to our present meditation on Nazareth, however. In this version Nathaniel asks if "anything good can come from Nazareth?" and Philip responds, "Come and see." What did Philip want Nathaniel to see—the town of Nazareth? No. He wanted Philip to see the kind of man that is formed in Nazareth, a formation that is taken up into the love between Mary and Joseph and their reception of the love of God the Father. Here the "come and see" invites the disciple to behold the kind of man formed in Nazareth, a man who can see very deeply, who gazes with love on the full truth of a man. He sees Nathaniel, knows him and then in response to Nathaniel's astonishment over this knowledge reveals even more: the source of this knowledge, which is Jesus' communion with all things divine. "You will see heaven open up." In other words, you will see what I see.
As the seminarian gets closer to the mystery of Christ's own identity and his communion with Mary, Joseph and the love of the Father, he gains a sure footing for entering priestly ministry. The kind of man Nazareth forms is one who ministers to other's needs from out of his own communion with the mystery of Divine and human love. The seminarian is called to let Christ tutor him in this mystery of ministry: the mission of priesthood can only be sustained throughout the life of a priest if he receives love and stays in communion with that love. Here is the core curriculum of the seminary; here is its "content":
The first task of intellectual formation [in the seminary] is to acquire a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness and completion of God's revelation and the one Teacher. This saving knowledge is acquired not only once, but it is continuously appropriated and deepened....Intellectual formation has a...missionary purpose and finality. There may be a number of seminarians who respond to the call to priesthood only to recognize that their "personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ" remains undeveloped. If such ignorance lingers while the seminarian is still in seminary his future priesthood may become burdensome because he does not know how to receive love and stay in love. His priesthood is secured and continues toward holiness when it flows from communion with Christ and all who He is. This reception of Christ's love as 'personal knowledge' reaches its apex in mission, for communion founds mission. Christ, Himself, did not remain in Nazareth but was sent forth from his family; even still He continues to spiritually receive their love and affection. Nazareth has not vanished; it is the love between Mary, Joseph and Christ in the presence of the Trinity. Not only can good come from Nazareth it is the very home of goodness and holiness.
A Spousal Love
The seminary, then, is foremost a transfiguring encounter with Trinitarian love, a love made known in and through a "personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ." If the priesthood Christ wishes to share with the seminarian is to be effectively received and personally internalized then he must allow Christ to become intimate with him. To enter into communion with the Trinity is a gift of grace, a grace each seminarian has been appropriating since his baptism. This spiritual sonship, given to each man by the Father through Christ and in the Spirit, founds the fullness of his vocation as one who lives to give himself away in love.  As a man's priestly vocation becomes clear and he enters seminary a new configuration of this grace of baptism is waiting: the grace of spousal love. This grace is activated and internalized when a seminarian acknowledges that his vocation is a way of spousal self-donation.
All spousal love has its origins in God ("Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her" [Hos 2:14])  who wishes to be close to His Bride (humanity, Church) through the ministry of Christ the Bridegroom who then, in turn, shares His own mission with priests. The Incarnation, therefore, is the gracious overflow of God's spousal love for creation; a love that culminates in the self-donation of the Bridegroom on the cross (Matt. 9:15; Eph. 5:25). Christ himself was formed by the spousal love of Mary and Joseph (Lk. 2:51-52), a love reflecting God's own for His creation. Mary received Jesus into her own love for Joseph and God the Father; Jesus in turn received their love and gave himself to them (Lk. 2:51), and eventually His own spouse, the Church.
The seminarian is invited to enter the grace of familial-nuptial love in the same way Christ knew such love on earth: through the reality of Nazareth, through the reality of Mary and Joseph's love for God, for one another, and for the Son, Jesus. In our current time when the spousal relationship is undergoing profound cultural attacks, and when married couples and priests alike struggle to be true to their vows we need to receive Nazareth in grace and invite it to enter the seminary as refining fire. Seminarians are called to be formed in a prophetic way as men espoused to the Church. That which is now being rejected—marriage—Nazareth will in the end purify, elevate, and rectify through the priesthood. By virtue of his prophetic character the priest is summoned to participate in the communion of love  that is Mary, Joseph and Jesus. "[The priest] proclaims the word in his capacity as "minister," as a sharer in the prophetic authority of Christ and the Church."  In his chaste spousal love the seminarian gives witness to the singular attention Christ gave to His own Bride, the Church.
Time and Grace
One rationale for the existence of a seminary is to form the seminarian so he will cherish time. This cherishing is not for its own sake. Time is cherished as sacred because of what the Spirit is doing to and for the seminarians. He is advancing them in age, wisdom and grace (Lk. 2:52). This is how it was in Nazareth. This focus on time and relationships is ordered toward the completion of a masculine identity that was given to the seminarian at birth. His manhood was then related to the mystery of salvation at baptism. Under the loving discipline of his parents he further appropriates his identity as a son and brother and now, in seminary, moves toward espousing the church and this vocation's inevitable paternal fulfillment.  The seminary, then, is primarily a relational process of formation in a priestly identity that can only be established upon a solid process of human and spiritual maturation. 
In order for this identity to be maturely appropriated by a priest he needs to receive and enter into the communion of love that is Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The reception of such love defines the formation of one who is to share in the original priesthood of Christ, a priesthood that had a significant portion of its character established by way of this same familial-nuptial love. The Holy House of Nazareth, then, is to be transported to each seminary. To have the seminary become the house of Nazareth is to acknowledge that Christ carried Nazareth within Him during his ministry. He was the"product" of the silence, the work, the prayer, and the mystery of masculine-feminine love that He received. When the disciples met Christ, they met Nazareth. Those thirty years of full silence are carried in Christ's Heart, carried there to be forever shared with His priests in their own amoris officium.  Nazareth is still germane to the formation of priests because Nazareth has never ended; Christ remains in unceasing unity with the Father, Mary and Joseph.
This domestic fellowship becomes the seminarian's entryway to deeper participation in Trinitarian love. It was the Incarnation itself that revealed the Trinity to man so that humanity might be purified and elevated to know and participate in God's love. As a result of his coming in the flesh we become capable of entering divine love and dwelling there with Him and his saints forever. "The basic principle of priestly spiritual formation is ...to live in intimate and unceasing union with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit" (Program of Priestly Formation [PPF], 107). To be drawn to the Trinity in and through the holiness of Joseph and Mary's marital love is the way of purification and renewal for all spouses, particularly for those who share in Christ's own chaste spousal love. By seeking communion with the first "domestic church", which is Nazareth, the seminarian remains in fellowship with Mary, Joseph and Jesus thus glimpsing the origin of nuptial love itself: the Trinity. 
By remaining in such fellowship Christ gives to His sons what was given to Him by Mary, Joseph and The Father. Christ assures the future priest; "I will not leave you orphan, I will come to you" (Jn. 14:18). Some translations express the word orphan as "desolate." In the intimacy of Nazareth the seminarian will find the truth of his spiritual life: desolation is not his inheritance. Seminary spiritual formation is ordered toward moving men out of desolation and toward the consolation that Christ carries for them within His own receptive Heart. Desolation ends when one receives the content of Christ's own heart, a heart defined by communion with the Father and bound in love (the Spirit) to Mary and Joseph. To live in such communion gives rise to priestly mission and a lifetime of self-donation for the welfare of the Church.
Nazareth in Practice
Succeeding the story of Nathaniel, as mentioned above, St. John moves us to the beginning of the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7ff; Jn. 2:1-12) where all things are made new (Rev. 21:5) because the Bridegroom has emerged from His formation (Jn. 2:1ff). This formation of Christ'swas nuptial-familial. It was a formation received through a marriage sourced in heaven, announced by an angel and sustained by mystical dreams (Matt. 1:20). From such communion Jesus emerged to reveal His ultimate identity as the One whoconstantly beholds the loving gaze of His Father.
Nazareth, as formational reality, protects interiority by promoting and esteeming the communion that is the Holy Family and introducing the seminarian to participate in this communion. The seminarian participates in Nazareth by living where the Holy Family lives, in truth and love. He has to remain with the Holy Family in such humility so they can relate to him, reach him and "see" him. The seminarian progressively learns that he has to inhabit the same reality as the Holy Family, to dwell in a freely offered "Yes" to the will of the Father. If he does so, the Holy Family will heal him, instruct him and send him.
Christ said yes and embraced Nazareth (Lk 2:51), Mary said yes to the approach of God (Lk. 1:38), and Joseph said yes to both God and Mary (Matt. 1:20). Joseph had to suffer a new idea about marriage, one not of his choosing but of God's. Hence Joseph had to trust and depend upon God and Mary in a radical way, since the newness came to him through her. The seminarian must do the same and stand before the Holy Family in all truth and humility. "Here are my wounds, my poverty; may I meet you in the place where our mutual poverty and dependency lead us to depend upon God?" 
The Gift of Nazareth
What should seminarians, who have received the grace of Nazareth, concentrate upon during their four years of formation? In answering this question recall that the Program of Priestly Formation saw spiritual formation as the heart and core of seminary.  Hence, I would invite seminarians to follow the example of Pope Paul VI and cry out in prayer for a new spiritual childhood. "Oh, how I would like to become a child once again and start my studies over in...the school of Nazareth." Formators can assist the seminarians to become spiritual children by encouraging them to live in trust, surrender and complete honesty. Paradoxically spiritual childhood is the way to affective and spiritual maturity. The more seminarians make their interior lives available to God the Father, and the communion of love that is the Holy Family, the more they will be on the way to full manhood in Christ (Eph. 4:13). Such growth in maturity is made possible because Nazareth is safe; it is held in love by He who is Truth, and by the One who measures growth in priestly formation not simply by academic years but by an eager receptivity to divine love. 
The fruit of having communion with the "residents" of Nazareth is not simply spiritual and affective maturity alone, it is also mission. Certainly, Nazareth, as the core (PPF, 115) of seminary life, deepens a life of interiority for mission. Christ did not stay "hidden" for thirty years for himself; he stayed in a bond of love with the Father, Mary and Joseph for the sake of his mission. The very nature of seminary invites seminary formators to intentionally order the contents of class, spiritual direction, human and pastoral formation toward interiority for mission. Out of such formation a priest will be able to lead the laity, those who transform culture, to the very source of their mission: the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Without a love of interiority a priest may not have the capacity to assist the laity in internalizing and securing their own mission. The more he appropriates his own call to holiness as the gift he gives to the laity the more the evangelical mission which marks the laity will be secured by them, as holiness diffuses itself. 
What Draws a Seminarian to Nazareth?
In prayer the seminarian draws close to the nuptial love of Joseph and Mary, learning from them what loving the Church means. Entering this love a seminarian comes "home"; he is taken up into the love between mother and father. Emotional safety is crucial for growth in affective maturity. As we direct a seminarian to enter the love between Joseph and Mary in his prayer we are entrusting him to the foundational love of all Christian marriages. We are beckoning him to surrender himself and learn from Joseph how to love the "woman" (Jn. 2:4; 19:26-7). Since this tutorial is accomplished in the imagination of the seminarian at prayer the fullness of his own life in relation to Mary and Joseph is opened to him in the Spirit, the source and giver of life. The Spirit protects the imagination from becoming fantasy and therefore disconnected from doctrinal and spiritual truth. At the heart of nuptial love is life, fecundity. Formators should be directing the seminarian to this heart as if the seminarian were a thirsty man needing water.  What should the seminarian pay attention to when he is in the heart of such prayer? He is to imagine the life at the core of Mary and Joseph's love!
Jesus is formed for mission out of this maternal-paternal love. He is ready for mission because He is formed in humility. This humility flows throughout the love between Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We see it in Christ doing the Father's will, the Fiat of Mary and the "Yes" of Joseph to care for Mary as his spouse. Priestly formation is time immersed in the Holy Family's love. During this time the seminarian experiences spiritual sonship in a new way. He shares his deepest affections with the Holy Family and the grace he receives from this love prepares him to become an emotionally and spiritually mature spouse and father. It is impossible for man to receive fatherhood as a vocation unless he has experienced being loved as a son. This love founds his capacity to make himself one who endures sacrifice for the love of his children. In the priest who bypasses spiritual childhood, spiritual and affective deformation occurs.  Tragically, this kind of man takes power and remains isolated and unrelated to the joy that is known in being loved. In this case one becomes authoritarian rather than fatherly, or he becomes a "taker" filled with delusions of entitlement.
The seminary is a place of personal vulnerability to the healing love of the primordial Christian family. In this way all facets of formation; academic,  human, pastoral and spiritual ought to invite the seminarian to "stay" within the loving relations of the Holy Family. Each person of the Holy Family will bring a particular facet of the mystery of his vocation to the seminarian. In reality the persons and the relationships between the persons in the Holy Family become crucial "content" in the process of formation.
Jesus, Joseph and Mary
We do not need to linger here on how the person of Christ relates to the seminarian since this relationship is covered so thoroughly in priestly documents and theology.  We can make one point here about Christ, however. There is no guarantee of or right to ordination once a man enters the seminary, but if he enters formation fully, there is a hope that he will meet Christ. Christ will then communicate to him a sense of self that is healthy and spiritually mature, since it was born in the interchange between the seminarian's own receptivity to host the truth and Christ's own desire to be that truth for him. Here the seminarian must come to awareness that Christ is his gift and that all facets of formation conspire to show him Christ.
In academic, pastoral and human formation seminary formators want each seminarian to host the truth about self, doctrine, or charity, but more so they want the seminarian to know that it is Christ himself who is the Truth. All seminary formation ends in the sharing of Christ's own priestly heart, a heart formed out of love for truth, His Father's will, and the love between Mary and Joseph. Let me close then with a meditation on a reality that is not as well trod as a seminarian's relationship with Christ: a seminarian's relationship with Joseph and Mary.
Read Part Two of "The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer"
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