Put on the New Man: Implementing the New ‘Propaedeutic Stage’ at SJV

Dining with fraternal groups. Trading in smart devices for the most basic of flip phones. Playing Frisbee with diocesan fraternities. Beginning each day with a 6:30 a.m. Holy Hour. Attending spiritual conferences and retreats to take the interior life to new depths. Checking in with the trainers assigned to support first-year seminarians. Pursuing an undergraduate degree in philosophy while participating in apostolic outreach. The life of a seminarian at SJV is markedly different from most of his 18-22-year-old contemporaries. How does the seminary help him acclimate to the nuances of university and seminary life while laying the groundwork to support his vocational discernment?

Enter the propaedeutic stage. Taken from the Greek “pro” (before) + “paideuein” (to teach), propaedeutic (prō-pi-‘dü-tik) refers to an introductory period of preparation. Implementation of a 1-2-year propaedeutic stage preceding priestly formation is integral in the latest guidance from the Program of Priestly Formation in the United States of America (PPF, 6th edition) and the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (“The Gift of Priestly Vocation,” newly published by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy in 2016).

The Propaedeutic Stage aims at nurturing excellence of character and growth in self-knowledge. This is where SJV’s robust fraternal life of deep friendship and authentic masculinity comes into play. The men challenge each other to not live on the surface of noise, distraction and games but to develop a deep life of interiority and faithfulness to God’s presence. Men who attain this self-knowledge learn to distinguish the voices vying for attention in their minds and hearts. The goal of this propaedeutic stage is not heightened attention on self but rather deeper focus on and communion with God.

The Propaedeutic Stage, according to Archbishop Patrón Wong who led the publication of the Ratio, supports men as they work to:
• Establish solid foundations in the spiritual life.
• Foster a greater self-awareness.
• Receive an initial and concise introduction to Christian doctrine.
• Gain a deeper understanding of the priesthood.
• Make an initial vocational discernment.

What does this look like practically? Each seminary must discern how to integrate and implement the PPF6 propaedeutic stage into its formation, effective August 2023.

Rector Fr. Jonathan Kelly and SJV’s priest formators have enthusiastically welcomed these directives, finding them to be harmonious with the formation men have come to trust in at SJV.

“We’re starting to see the fruits of the propaedeutic year in its seed form,” Kelly said. “And our bishops are noticing it too.” After the annual evaluations for his seminarians from the Diocese of Joliet, Bishop Ronald Hicks commented, “The new propaedeutic stage at SJV has been a gift for my men. I can tell they already have deeper self-awareness and are showing impressive growth in their first year.”

Thirty-six “new men” comprise SJV’s opening propaedeutic stage class, which commenced fall 2022. This stage is anticipated to encompass the first three semesters of formation, though the heart of this formative period will take place from January of the first year through January of the second year. The men partake in classes, human and spiritual conferences, and retreats in addition to several outings and pilgrimages. While integrating many aspects of formation alongside older seminarians, men in the propaedeutic stage form a distinct community of their own, sharing meals, prayer apart from the larger group and group
processing facilitated by Dr. Christopher Burke each week.

Burke, director of counseling services and assistant human formation coordinator, sees his role at SJV as helping Kelly implement the Church’s vision of forming solid, self-aware and confident men who are firmly grounded in the love of the Lord and can share it with people who are thirsty for a vibrant and living faith. He realizes the goal envisioned in the 1970s of developing a “professional, pastorally-present priest” has shifted now to a “healed-mystic-teacher priest” model as outlined in Ratio Fundamentalis and the PPF6.

“It used to be that Catholic culture would provide seminaries with men who were well-rounded in a Catholic anthropology; the primary role of the seminary was to make sure priests were well-schooled in theology,” Burke explained. “With our present culture encouraging a technology-induced isolation and lessened support for religious faith, Fr. Kelly desires our propaedeutic stage to help the men grow spiritually and in self-awareness without becoming overly self-involved like many of today’s youth.”

Referencing Deacon James Keating from a recent conference sponsored by the Institute for Priestly Formation, Burke realizes the transformation from pagan culture to Christian culture primarily occurs on an individual basis. His work at SJV impacts this transformation in a direct and profound way.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to work with Fr. Kelly and his staff in the human formation of these men by developing solidarity among the men and encouraging greater emotional awareness – the characteristics of likeable and admirable men that embody God’s love,” Burke said. “I am humbled by the honesty, clarity and courage of the men in the propaedeutic stage, and I consider it a blessing to be able to share my experience, strength and hope with these men in their quest for a priestly vocation.”

Samuel Ross, a first-year seminarian from the Diocese of Lansing, shared his gratitude for the opportunity to deepen his relationship with the Lord over the past semester. He sees the propaedeutic year as a two-fold growth in love of God and in fraternity with the men he’ll spend the next years of formation with at SJV.

Ross expressed appreciation for these “deep foundational friendships based in Christ, the best base there is for anything. You can’t get any better than that.”

Another seminary newcomer, Samir Bhatt from the Diocese of Lafayette, echoed his thanks for the deep fraternal bonds developed during the propaedeutic year: “I’m treating this time as a big retreat and focusing on building relationships with God and my seminary brothers that will be valuable for the rest of my life.”

Fr. Matthew Alexander serves as SJV’s dedicated priest coordinator for the propaedeutic stage. He views this as a time to get good at the basics before engaging in deeper discernment while in their second year at SJV.

The new men are given intentional space and unscheduled time to integrate all they are learning about the basics of human and spiritual formation, including friendship, relational prayer, virtue, recreation, emotional integration and time management. This supports the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations recommendation “that the academic work does not interfere with the overall tenor of this stage’s objectives, which is intensive vocational discernment, growth in relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church, and growth in self-knowledge.”

Father Kelly compares intensive vocational discernment to looking at the stars at night. What seems clear in peripheral vision becomes fuzzy when focused on intensely, much like the unhelpfulness of a “try harder” mentality in discernment. Focusing on Christ and becoming His disciple is the best context for discernment to become clear. The propaedeutic stage allows men at the “front end” of seminary formation not to spend time “trying harder” but learning to live more with God in their life and allowing Him to bring His plans for their life into focus and clarity.

SJV’s propaedeutic stage continues to harmonize with the existing program, allowing seminarians to graduate in four years with a philosophy degree (and usually double major in Catholic Studies). A lighter class load during the propaedeutic stage allows participants to partake in numerous spiritual conferences, human formation (including group processing sessions with Dr. Burke) and three retreats. The heart of the propaedeutic stage commences in January at a healing retreat with Sr. Miriam James, SOLT from the John Paul II Healing Center. An 8-day directed silent retreat is the culminating event of the propaedeutic stage; second-year men for nearly twenty years have noted this retreat as a significant turning point in their vocational discernment while at SJV.

Alexander sees these experiences as opportunities to “grow in fraternity, love of each other and love of the Lord together as a class,” he said. Watching the men become humanly and spiritually free has been one of his highlights this year.

“To see the amount of growth that’s happened since they first walked through the doors is amazing,” Alexander said. “Everything we’re doing is trying to achieve that end in one way or another, but it really just happens organically. Because of these different things that we do in community, it just naturally happens for the man who engages seriously in his own formation and prayer. The man who’s in love is open to conversion.

“That’s where beautiful stuff happens.”

After the men complete their second year and close the propaedeutic stage of formation, they will either begin to articulate evidence of God’s call… or not. If they do, they enter the discipleship stage as upperclassmen with renewed commitment to seminary formation. If not, SJV blesses them and encourages them to be faithful Catholic men who pursue God’s will by another path. PPF6’s new propaedeutic stage
requirements allow seminaries to put another checkpoint in their 4-year programs. Men are not moved along a conveyer belt from entering seminary to ordination; a propaedeutic stage allows the men opportunities to evidence the Lord’s invitation for them to take the next step.

Kelly shared his excitement for fully implementing the propaedeutic stage.

“Having a set-apart year to grow in prayer and fraternity is invaluable,” the rector said. “We hope our men will enter the discipleship stage ready for leadership roles as they take the next step in seminary formation. Sturdiness of character and relational prayer are the building blocks for them to move forward with confidence in God’s call.”

This article was first published in Vianney News Spring 2023.

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