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Catholic Understandings of Human Formation

Mar 29, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

We are embarking together on a new series of weekly reflections to lay the foundation and build the framework for an authentically Catholic understanding of human formation – and then broadening that foundation and framework to include ordinary Catholic laymen and laywomen – like you.

Importance of human formation to the Catholic Church

More than three decades ago on March 25, 1992, Pope St. John Paul II released an apostolic exhortation titled Pastores Dabo Vobes (translated “I will give you shepherds”) which was a seminal document that provided guidance for the formation of seminarians and priests.

Pastores Dabo Vobes identified four major areas of priestly formation:

  1. human formation
  2. spiritual formation
  3. intellectual formation
  4. pastoral formation

Note the order of these four “pillars of formation” – human formation comes first. Why? Because according to Pope St. John Paul II, “Human formation [is] the basis of all priestly formation.” [PDV, paragraph 43]. He quotes the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, emphasizing that “The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation.”

In 2016, the Congregation for the Clergy revised and updated Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (in English, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation). Paragraph 63 reads in part:

For priestly formation the importance of human formation cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Indeed, the holiness of a priest is built upon it and depends, in large part, upon the authenticity and maturity of his humanity. The lack of a well-structured and balanced personality is a serious and objective hindrance to the continuation of formation for the priesthood.

These are powerful words. The spiritual formation of priests and their sanctity first requires solid human formation. Human formation must come first; otherwise, one constructs a spiritual building on an uncertain and unstable foundation.

In our series of reflections on spiritual bypassing over the last five weeks, we illuminated examples of the spiritual distortions that happen when the solid foundation of human formation is lacking. (See especially the 23 specific examples of spiritual bypassing caused by poor human formation in the February 22, 2023 reflection Spiritual Bypassing: Catholic Style.)

Similarly, Fr. John Nepil writes in an excellent Homiletic and Pastoral Review article that “human formation — that pillar of seminary life [is] often affirmed and rarely understood. Certainly, we believe it to be the basis of all priestly formation…” Fr. Nepil brings in an underappreciated observation in the discussion of human formation, namely that human formation is rarely and poorly understood. How can we pursue human formation if we do not understand it accurately? This begs the question: What is human formation?

Definitions of human formation

Given the difficulties in understanding what human formation really is, it is not surprising that definitions have been scarce.

Since 1976, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes the Program for Priestly Formation, now in its sixth edition (2022). The USCCB website states that the PPF sets forth the nature and mission of the ministerial priesthood, norms for the admission and formation of candidates, and norms for the governance and administration of seminaries.

According to the USCCB, the:

Program of Priestly Formation, 6th edition (PPF), was developed by the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. It was promulgated on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on June 24, 2022. It is particular law in the Church in the United States and serves as a guide for seminaries and priestly vocation programs that form men for the ministerial priesthood. This document was released in accordance with the Holy See’s 2016 document, Ratio Fundamentalis Institutiones Sacerdotalis.

For 45 years, from 1976 to 2021, in the first five editions of that document, human formation was discussed, with whole chapters devoted to it, but human formation was never defined. I mentioned this remarkable omission in episode 63 of my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast titled Human Formation: The Critical Missing Element, released in April 2021.

Then in June 2022, the PPF 6th edition was published and for the first time, a definition of human formation was included. In the latter part of the chapter titled “Human Dimensions” the definition read as follows: Following St. Thomas Aquinas, human formation should be understood as education in the human virtues perfected by charity. [p. 204].

Initially, I reacted to this unelaborated definition with frustration and disappointment. The definition of human formation as “education” brought up school desks and chalkboards, memorization and problem-solving, lectures and book-learning, directed only to the head (and maybe the soul in a dry way), but never the heart.

And how does one get “educated” in human virtues anyway? The PPF6 gave no citation to St. Thomas’ work to follow up. I discarded this definition as small beer, quite a weak brew, especially as it was oddly tacked on to a paragraph on the goals of human formation, like a casual afterthought.

Fr. John Nepil, however, casts additional light on how this may have been a semantic misinterpretation and underappreciation on my part. In his article cited above, he describes how broadly the word “education” can be understood:

Priestly formation [including human formation] is first and foremost education. But it is education in its most expansive meaning — the art of being human. In this way, it defies any attempt to reduce it to formation to a kind of clerical job training. It is likened to the immersion of family life than to any kind of preparation for the ecclesial workforce. In this sense, the ecclesiological groundwork is already laid that is to say, the entire Christian life is precisely this kind of education.

So according to Fr. Nepil, human formation is a process that inculcates the “art of being human.” Now that resonates with me. The “art of being human” embraces the heart of a human being.

Cameron Thompson, in his Handbook of Human Formation: A Resource for the Cultivation of Character defined human formation as “the intentional cultivation and formation of character of the whole Human Person to his or her natural perfection.” [p. 1]. OK. That seems thin to me as well, as human formation encompasses much more than the perfection of character. But Thompson also adds that Human formation aims at perfecting the natural human qualities of the person as the “raw material” for sanctity. It is the process of attaining the highest and best of one’s human nature and fulfillment of that human nature as it is instantiated in this or that particular person. [pp. 1-2].

I like to think of human formation as providing the arithmetic needed to do the algebra of spiritual formation. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it.” Thus, grace needs the natural to perfect – the raw human material, as Thompson puts it.

Fr. Gerald Coleman’s Catholic Priesthood: Formation and Human Development lacks a definition of human formation, despite including a chapter on the topic. And you can visit dozens of Catholic seminary websites, each with a substantial discussion of their human formation program, but none that I could find that actually defines human formation.

My definition of human formation

In 2021, in episode 63 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast I offered my attempt at a definition of human formation, presented here:

Human formation is the lifelong process of natural development, aided by grace, by which a person integrates all aspects of his interior emotional, cognitive, relational, and bodily life, all his natural faculties in an ordered way, conformed with right reason and natural law so that he is freed from natural impediments to trust God as His beloved child and to embrace God’s love. Then, in return, because he knows and possesses himself, he can love God, neighbor, and himself with all his natural being in an ordered, intimate, personal, and mature way.

My definition is in harmony with the PPF6 (2022) statement that: In general, human formation happens in a threefold process of self-knowledge, self-possession, and self-gift – and all of this in faith. As this process unfolds, the human person becomes more perfectly conformed to the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. [p. 188].

This process has an order to it – first, self-knowledge – the awareness of who one is. Then, with that knowledge, being able to possess oneself, to set appropriate limits and boundaries, to accept the reality of oneself. That self-possession opens the door to being able to make a deliberate gift of oneself to others, as an act of love.

Broadening human formation resources to more Catholics

All of the Catholic resources discussed so far (with the notable exception of Thompson’s book) have been focused on Catholic seminarians and priests. And that makes sense, to start there, given the obvious importance of human formation for the clergy (and the terrible consequences we have seen when priests and bishops are deficient in their human formation).

But what about the 99.9% of Catholics who are not ordained to the priesthood? What about us? Grace perfects nature for us, too! Our human formation needs to be a solid foundation for our spiritual formation, too! Catholics spouses and parents need good human formation for their families as well. Religious communities need sound human formation to carry out their missions.

Every Catholic, without exception, needs human formation. We need to know who we are, as I discussed in the September 28, 2022 reflection titled Of Mirrors and Identity: The Hardest Question. We need the interior integration that good human formation provides, as I discussed in Why Is Interior Integration Crucial for Union with God?, the October 12, 2022 reflection. We need to be able to overcome the natural-level obstacles and hindrances to loving ourselves in an ordered way, as I discuss in the October 5, 2022 reflection St. Thomas Aquinas: You Must Love You. First.

The rest of us lay Catholics need human formation. I promise you that I will be bringing you much, much more on human formation in this weekly reflection.

The mission of Souls and Hearts – we are all about your human formation

Our outreach, Souls and Hearts, focuses on providing the best of human formation, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person — for Catholics in all walks of life. We bring the best of human formation resources offered by our Church and from other sources, and we adapt them to create programming, like these weekly reflections and the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast to help you on your lifelong pilgrimage of human formation. We particularly foster human formation in our communities, the Resilient Catholics Community and the Interior Therapist Community. Check out more of what we offer on our resources page.

Dr. Peter on the air…

Catholic therapists Jake Khym and Bob Schuchts of the Restore the Glory podcast hosted me as a guest for episode 79, titled The Three Essential Relationships (Part 2: Myself). That episode was one of the most enjoyable media appearances I have every made, as Jake and Bob were so gracious, interested, and engaged in the conversation.

We discussed how each of us has different parts — and the process of the interior integration of those parts, in a gentle, patient way to help us have the inner unity we need to love God and our neighbor more fully and deeply. I encourage you to check their other episodes out as well, as Jake and Bob are among the few who are working alongside Souls and Hearts in offering human formation resources to Catholics in all walks of life. And a big welcome to all the Restore the Glory podcast listeners who may be joining us for the first time.

Be With the Word for the Palm Sunday

Join Dr. Gerry and me for a psychological reflection on the Mass readings for Palm Sunday of in the episode, A Time for Spiritual and Psychological Growth In this episode, we discuss how the uncertainty and disruption of world events can reveal areas of needed growth in both the spiritual and natural realms, inviting us to a deeper trust and dependence on God. We also read the Mass readings out loud here.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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