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Part Two of "The Seminary as Nazareth: Formation in a School of Prayer" | Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. | Ignatius Insight | Part One

How Can the Seminarian Approach Joseph?

In a March 2009 homily, Pope Benedict XVI said:
Joseph agreed to be part of the great events God was beginning to bring about in the womb of his spouse. He took Mary into his home. He welcomed the mystery that was in Mary and the mystery that was Mary herself.... Joseph teaches us that it is possible to love without possessing.

In contemplating Joseph, [we] come to experience healing from emotional wounds, if only [we] embrace the plan that God has begun to bring about in those close to [us], just as Joseph entered into the work of redemption through Mary and as a result of what God had already done in her....
He then defined what this healing means later in the homily:
... Joseph was caught up at every moment by the mystery of the Incarnation. Not only physically, but in his heart as well, Joseph reveals to us the secret of a humanity which dwells in the presence of mystery and is open to that mystery at every moment of everyday life. In Joseph, faith is not separated from action. His faith had a decisive effect on his actions. Paradoxically, it was by acting, by carrying out his responsibilities, that he stepped aside and left God free to act, placing no obstacles in his way. [20]
If the seminarian can learn to "dwell" in the presence of Mystery and relate all that he is thinking, feeling and desiring to that loving mystery of God he will be healed of that which drags at his soul, and fetters his hope of holiness. Joseph stands close to the seminarian as one who knows the intimate call to spousal chastity in service to the mystery of Christ's own vocation. He intercedes for the future priest to trust in Mary, to let her guide him to all that is good about nuptial self-donation. Joseph is ready to ask Christ to gift the seminarian with the graces and virtues of Christ's own priesthood.

Joseph will also counsel the seminarian on his participation in the renewal of creation, his vocation as an eschatological sign. The seminarian should invite Joseph to pray for him to welcome within his own body the coming of the "new age", the age that orders all love through the lens of God's spousal love for his people. Joseph wants to tutor the seminarian in this truth, "God wants to renew everything from within the family." [21] As patriarch, Joseph passes on to the seminarian a love of authority, an authority that flows from and is sustained by, his love of Mary and God. [22] Joseph is for the seminarian an advocate for true fatherhood, a paternity that flows from his own love of his spouse. This paternal love is always fruitful as it shares in God's own love for all those He has created.

Here is what Joseph teaches the seminarian to:
• welcome the mystery that is Mary
• love your bride without possessing
• live in the presence of mystery and be open to this mystery at every moment. Seek to be docile to the truths inherent in the mystery of your own vocation
• not separate faith from everyday life. Place no obstacles in God's way, so God can act through your ministry.
These characteristics of Joseph, alone, are sufficient to ponder as content for seminary formation. But, of course there is more.

What Is the Gift that Mary Brings?

Every aspect of priestly formation can be referred to Mary, the human being who responded better than any other to God's call. Mary became both the servant and the disciple of the Word to the point of conceiving, in her heart and in her flesh, the Word made man, so as to give him to mankind. Mary was called to educate the one eternal priest, who became docile and subject to her motherly authority. [23]

And, Pope John Paul II adds,
It is [the priest's] task to proclaim Christ her Son. And who can better communicate to you the truth about him than his mother? It is your task to nourish men's hearts with Christ. And who can make you more aware of what you are doing than she who nourished Him? [24]
Mary communicates to the seminarian the truth about her Son. The most absolute truth she speaks is: "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn. 2:5). She knew Him so well that it was at her word that the public ministry began, "They have no more wine" (Jn. 2:3). She did not ask for wine; she simply informed Him of the truth: the human race is depleted and they need the joy and the healing of the Spirit. The seminarian seeks out Mary to converse about his own mission, his own appropriation of the truth of Jesus' identity and mission. Here her mystery looms large in the academic study and teaching of theology. She is the one who internalizes the Word, and then lets the intimacy the Word's presence compel her to mission (Lk. 1:39).

The seminarian also approaches her to receive the mystery of woman, to have her tutor him like she tutored Joseph in the ways of a startling and surprising nuptial life: spousal self donation to the church as a sign of Christ's own gift. As then Joseph Ratzinger noted, "Mary's motherhood becomes theologically significant as the ultimate personal concretization of Church. ...She is the Church in person and as a person. She is the personal concretization of the Church." [25] If this is so then the seminarian needs to receive from her the satisfaction of his deepest desire to be "for woman." She will instruct him to know, like Joseph, that God's Spirit is ready to console and elevate the affections and intellect in a way that "indicates another kind of closeness in marriage. The spiritual closeness arising from marital union and the interpersonal contact between man and woman have their definitive origin in the Spirit, the Giver of Life (cf. John 6:63).

Joseph, in obedience to the Spirit, found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love that he experienced as a man." [26] Joseph grew in his reception of his deepest identity: spouse of Mary, the New Eve, and the Church. Friendship with him, in contemplative prayer, will result in similar growth in the seminarian. Joseph consented to a life lived in virtuous continence but he "had to do so in dependence upon Mary." [27] In contemplative prayer the seminarian will learn from Joseph to depend upon "the woman" to teach him how to embrace her (Mary, the Church) in loving service rather than physical intercourse. This is analogous to a husband learning from his wife how best to love her within the patterns of marriage defined by natural family planning. In loving Mary in accord with God's will Joseph "found in the Spirit the source of love, the conjugal love that he experienced as a man." Can this truth about Joseph become the centerpiece of all priestly formation on chaste spousal love?

Here is what Mary teaches the seminarian:
Mary educates the seminarian in the processes of internalizing the Word
• Mary communicates to the seminarian the truth of who her Son is
Mary gifts the seminarian with the truth about woman, and his own spousal gift of self-donation to the Church.

The love of God, of Mary, and of Joseph is real. Their love is affecting the seminarian even now. The saints are living. We all note these statements as true discursively, but in the rush of pragmatism and productivity that is the hallmark of Western culture we can forget that Mary, Joseph and Jesus' love for one another is still pulsating dynamically between them.

Christ wants to gather his priests within this source of formation to prepare them for a life of hosting the truth about man and God, the mystery of mankind approached through the mystery of Christ. Such a host, such a victim priest needs to be communing with those who have this mystery at the heart of their being: The Holy Family. If the seminarian is courageous enough he can be drawn into their love for another and know this mystery himself. Receiving this nuptial- familial love he will be sent, like the Beloved Son, to change water into wine and wine into the very life of Christ. "Oh, how I would like to become a child once again and start my studies over in this humble and sublime school of Nazareth."


[1] Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, 57 (1992).

[2] Paul VI, Visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth (January 5, 1964).

[3] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Program of Priestly Formation (5th edition, 2006), n. 137

[4] Documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes: "... man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (n. 24).

[5] "And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, 'my husband', and no longer will you call me, 'my Baal'.... And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord" (Hos. 2:16, 19-20). "Yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant" (Ez. 16:60). "For your Maker is your husband.... For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer" (Isa. 54:5, 7-8). "You shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you" (Isa. 62:4-5).

[6] "In the words of the Council, the communion of persons is, in a certain sense, deduced from the mystery of the Trinitarian 'We', and therefore "conjugal communion' also refers to this mystery. Marc Cardinal Ouellet, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, (Mich: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 34

[7] Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 26

[8] See, Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline, 2006), 78:5.

[9] In the Institute for Priestly Formation we have come to see the priestly identity as encompassing four realities: good shepherd, spiritual father, chaste spouse, spiritual physician. See John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) where these identities are noted, especially n. 3 (shepherd and spouse), n. 60 (spiritual physician), and for spiritual father we go to Scripture, particularly the writings of St. Paul, "I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, you do not have many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel" (1 Cor 4:14-15).

See also PDV where John Paul II refers to the priest having spousal qualities: "The gift of self, which is the source and synthesis of pastoral charity, is directed toward the Church. This was true of Christ who 'loved the Church and gave himself up for her' (Eph. 5:25), and the same must be true for the priest. With pastoral charity, which distinguishes the exercise of the priestly ministry as an amoris officium,....[W]ith this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife." (Pastores Dabo Vobis n. 23).

[10] See, Program of Priestly Formation, n. 25

[11] Program of Priestly Formation, n. 15. See Also, Angelo Cardinal Scolo, The Nuptial Mystery (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 335-336.

[12] The formation staff seeks to teach seminarians what to do with their pain, their wounds, and their "poverty." Such poverty is to be related to the love held for them in the Holy Family. Pain cannot be run from or hidden it must be shared and entrusted to those who trust God, and have entrusted themselves to Him.

[13] Program of Priestly Formation, n.115

[14] See Karen Dwyer and Edward Hogan, "Assessment of Spiritual Formation for Diocesan Seminarians" Seminary Journal (Winter 2008, 37-41), for a method and discussion about measuring objective spiritual growth.

[15] See, Father John Cihak, "St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan" (Ignatius Insight, June 2009), for an insightful essay on the relationship between holiness and lay conversion and mission.

Also we note this from John Paul II: "An essential characteristic of missionary spirituality is intimate communion with Christ. ....The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission. ...The missionary must be a contemplative in action...the future of mission depends ...on contemplation. The missionary is a witness to the experience of God." (Redemptoris Missio, n 91).

And John Paul II again: "...it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today's world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but "Christians at risk". They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of "substitutes", accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions. It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 34).

[16] Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Divine Likeness p.35

[17] "Spiritual childhood...means that we acknowledge our nothingness; that we expect everything from the good Lord, as a child expects everything from its father; it means to worry about nothing...it means that we must not be discouraged by our faults, for children fall frequently." St. Therese of Lisieux as quoted in F. Jamart, The Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux (NY: Alba House, 2001), 15-16.

[18] The seminarian's theological imagination is not to be defined by academics, a course of studies to be completed in four years. His spiritual-theological imagination is ordered by his communion with Christ and the saints. The seminary is to promote and protect this imagination as its staff and structures of daily living (horarium) facilitate the knowledge necessary to receive love from the living God and His saints. Academics only deepen a man's love of such communion with the Trinity. Since a seminarian's identity is not exclusively "student" all studies are to be sublated into his emerging identity as a priest. No seminary reduces a seminarian's identity to "student" as a policy, this reduction happens as a result of a disproportionate weight given to academics in the minds of some students and faculty. Giving academics such weight is, as it were, a default mode of existence for most American seminarians. To study the mysteries of Christ on the way to possessing an intellectual competency in theology is a necessity of the highest order, but the mysteries themselves open the seminarian to want more than competency, they summon him to wisdom---the eventual triumph of love being integrated with knowing the truth. See, James Keating, Resting on the Heart of Christ: The Vocation and Spirituality of the Seminary Theologian (Omaha: IPF Publications, 2009).

[19] For example see especially chapters 1-4 in Pastores Dabo Vobis; Cardinal Avery Dulles, The Priestly Office (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1997); Jean Galot, Theology of the Priesthood (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).

[20] Homily of Pope Benedict XVI; First Vespers of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Basilica of Marie Reine Des Apotres Yaounde (March 2009).

[21] Marie Dominique-Philippe, OP, The Mystery of Joseph (Bethesda: Zaccheus Press, 2009), 80.

[22] Ibid, 81.

[23] PDV, 82.

[24] Pope John Paul II, Holy Thursday Letter to Priests (1979), n. 11.

[25] Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius 2005), 30.

[26] John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos (1989), no. 19.

[27] Marc Ouellet, Divine Likeness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 118.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

• Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars
• Surrendering to the Healing Power of Christ's Own Chastity | Dn. James Keating, Ph.D.
• St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
• Holy Christians Guarantee Holy Priests | Bishop Fulton J. Sheen
• Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest • Why Preaching | Peter John Cameron, O.P.
Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
• The Ingredient for Priestly Vocations | Rev. Jacek Stefanski
• Becoming a Man of God | An interview with Fr. Larry Richards
• The Year for Priests and Its Patron | Sandra Miesel

Rev. Mr. James Keating, Ph.D., is Director of Theological Formation at the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha. Before joining the staff of the IPF Deacon Keating taught moral and spiritual theology for 13 years in the School of Theology at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. He has given over 400 workshops, retreats and days of reflection on the Catholic spiritual/moral life. In the field of his professional research, the interpenetration of the spiritual and moral life, Deacon Keating has authored or edited ten books and dozens of essays for theological journals.

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