Bishop Accountability
  Seminary Visitation

By Donald W. Wuerl
America, Vol. 187 No. 9
September 30, 2002

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People endorsed by the bishops at the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas on June 13-15 includes a pledge of “complete cooperation with the Apostolic Visitation of our diocesan/eparchial seminaries and religious houses of formation recommended in the interdicasterial meeting with the cardinals of the United States and the conference officers in April 2002.”

Article 17 of the charter notes that “unlike the previous visitation, these new visits would focus on the question of human formation for celibate chastity based on the criteria found in Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992).” The charter recognizes and supports the possibility of a visitation of the seminaries in the United States and at the same time clarifies the focus of such an exercise.

Such an apostolic visitation of the seminaries is not without a successful precedent. In 1981 the Holy See appointed Bishop John A. Marshall of Burlington, Vt., to serve as apostolic visitator for all seminaries and houses of formation in the United States. It was a process that would take almost seven years from the official announcement of the visitation to its formal conclusion, with the final report to the pope on July 2, 1988.

The announcement of that visitation was greeted with alarm in some quarters and considerable anxiety on the part of some engaged in priestly formation, but once it became apparent that the visitation would have clear criteria for the study and that those engaged in it would be familiar with the process of priestly formation, some of the uneasiness began to recede. After a number of the visitations were successfully concluded, the word spread quickly that this was a useful and productive exercise that truly advanced the cause of priestly formation. By the end of the first year, disquiet and uncertainty had given way, for the most part, to appreciation and support.

In a letter dated March 25, 1990, Pope John Paul II congratulated Bishop Marshall and the bishops of the United States who worked with him on the successful conclusion of the papal seminary study. In both his opening charge to Bishop Marshall at the initiation of the visitation and his letter concluding it, the pope highlighted the fact that “authentic ecclesial renewal envisioned and set in motion by the Second Vatican Council depends in great part on a deepened awareness of the sacred character of the priesthood and of the priestly ministry.” The papal seminary study was meant to foster true renewal of the church through attention to proper priestly formation in the light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The impetus for the proposed apostolic visitation is the recent scandal involving the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and their subsequent reassignment to pastoral ministry. The focus of the visitation is therefore much more narrowly defined than the earlier one. Nonetheless the desired outcome would be a renewal described by the pope as one “rooted in a deepened awareness of the sacred character of the priesthood and of the priestly ministry.”

Since the church in the United States has already experienced a successful apostolic visitation of the seminaries and houses of priestly formation, it seems beneficial to look to that model as we approach any future visitation.

There are a number of elements that both visitations have in common. The first is its authority. An apostolic visitation enjoys the authorization of the pope. The bishops pledge “our complete cooperation” with it.

The visitation is at the same time an act of episcopal solidarity with the pope, since it falls to the conference of bishops to support and work with the apostolic visitator by their own participation in the process. In the initial apostolic visitation in the 1980’s, a substantial number of bishops worked with Bishop Marshall in forming the nucleus of individual teams that visited more than 200 institutions throughout the country. As many as 70 bishops actually participated in on-site visitations.

A hallmark of the new visitation should also be its collaborative nature. Again we can turn to the earlier model and recognize the seeds of its success in the decision early in the process to engage not only bishops but also major superiors of religious communities and people actually involved in priestly formation. To ensure a level of uniformity in the visits, the original visitation presented workshops to prepare the members of the visitation teams. The first program took place in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Jan. 20, 1983, and was followed by a second at what was then St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., (Chicago) on July 21, 1983. In this way a concerted effort was made to ensure that there would be evenness in the visitation process and awareness among all of the participants of the process, procedure and expectations.

Two pilot visitations were also conducted so that the preparation of the visitation team members and the materials by which the visitation would be guided would benefit from practical experience. One was held at St. John Seminary in Boston on March 7-11, 1983, and the second at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, Mundelein, on April 26-30, 1983.

If a visitation were to be conducted today, it would seem that the same practical plan that served the papal seminary study of the 1980’s so well would be equally applicable and successful. This is especially true since the initial hesitancy about the earlier visitation was soon dissipated as those involved recognized the integrity of the process.

One issue that immediately arose in the earlier visitation was the norm for judging the effectiveness of a priestly formation program. Here the discussion turned to what would be the standard by which a seminary, school of theology or house of formation would be measured in assessing its program. This question had all the potential for becoming the truly neuralgic issue of the visitation. In short, the question revolved around whose vision of priestly formation would be followed when a team arrived to conduct an evaluation.

In order to have an objective set of criteria for the formation review, it was determined that an instrument would be developed using the authoritative documents of the church that guide priestly formation. The instrument was developed from authentic sources that began with the Ratio Fundamentalis and included all the documents issued by various Roman dicasteries on priestly formation as well as our own N.C.C.B./U.S.C.C. Program of Priestly Formation.

Given the scope of the visitation, a number of instruments had to be developed, starting with one for theologates published in July 1983 and another for college-level priestly formation programs in October 1984. Two more were published in July 1985: one for houses of formation under the direction of both diocesan and religious communities and one for the visitation of schools of theology.

All of these instruments reflected the directives emanating from the Holy See and the conference of bishops and at the same time benefited from the input of people actively engaged in priestly formation. All of them underwent consultation and several revisions and were approved by the Apostolic See.

The Dallas charter already suggests that the proposed visitation base its study “on the criteria found in Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992).” Since the visit will focus “on the question of human formation for celibate chastity,” the norms for judging the effectiveness of any particular priestly formation program are already clearly spelled out and available to all.

This, however, brings us to the two areas where the previous apostolic visitation was different from the one currently proposed: the scope of the visitation and the precise focus of the study.

The visitation in the 1980’s was charged with the entire priestly formation program at every level: high school, college, theologate, schools of theology and houses of formation—both religious and diocesan. One reason the visitation took so many years to complete was the sheer number of facilities, institutions and programs to be visited. At that time there were over 200 programs, including seminaries for every level of priestly formation in anticipation of ordination as well as numerous houses of formation particularly for religious communities, where the concentration was on the spiritual and personal formation, while the academic and pastoral were left to a school of theology.

While there is no explicit indication in the charter that the visitation would be directed primarily to theologates and religious houses of formation at the theology level, a case could be made that this is the true focus of the study. Even if it were to include all levels of priestly formation, the number of such programs has greatly diminished since the 1980’s.

Another significant difference between the currently proposed visitation and its predecessor is the exact focus of the study. In the charter we read that “these new visits will focus on the question of human formation for celibate chastity based on the criteria found in Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992).” It is clear that the visitation will not encompass all the areas recognized in Pastores Dabo Vobis as points of development: intellectual, pastoral, spiritual and human formation. Rather this visitation will address human formation for celibate chastity.

In looking down the road at what the anticipated seminary study would look like, it seems reasonable to conclude that many of the elements of the successful papal seminary study of the 80’s would serve the conference of bishops well today. With the appointment of an apostolic visitator the process could begin.

The U.S.C.C.B.’s Office for Priestly Formation could provide support staff to the visitator and those bishops, religious superiors and formation personnel who would conduct the visitations. Since the other aspects of formation outlined in Pastores Dabo Vobis, intellectual, pastoral and spiritual, are not the direct focus of the study, but rather the human formation for celibate chastity, the local visitations would not require five days, as was typical during the 1980’s study.

A comprehensive presentation of the expectations of human formation for celibate chastity could be relatively quickly prepared, and the theologates and equivalent level houses of formation could, in anticipation of the team’s arrival, present a written exposition of how they carry out their task.

Given the number of bishops in the conference who have direct experience in priestly formation, finding enough bishops to serve as core members of visitation teams should not present a serious challenge.

The most important part of the whole process should be the actual on-site visitation. Enough time should be given to permit any and every student an opportunity to speak to a visitation team member. The most difficult part for the team is sifting through all the interviews and assessing in the light of all of the data presented what commendations and recommendations each seminary and priestly formation program merits.

At the conclusion of the process, a distillation of the findings could be developed, either by the appropriate Roman dicastery, as in the 80’s seminary study, or by the conference to offer the wisdom gained by the visitation to all the bishops, religious superiors and those involved in the formation of future priests. In this way the whole church in the United States would benefit from the effort.

In the end, if all involved commit themselves to making this a positive, constructive and fruitful effort at the service of the priesthood, there is every reason to believe that a visitation would not only be effective but would also be a great blessing for the church today and the priesthood tomorrow.

The Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, now bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, served on the staff of an apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries during the 1980’s.

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