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Diocese’s Priestly Formation Program Undergoes ‘Historic’ Changes

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — This summer marked the beginning of a major shift in how the Diocese of San Diego forms men for priestly ministry.

For the past 50 years, St. Francis de Sales House of Priestly Formation has been preparing local seminarians as they earn their bachelor’s degrees; then sending them out of the diocese for four years of graduate-level theology at such institutions as St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon and the North American College in Rome; and then welcoming them back to be ordained and to begin their ministry.

But this past summer, the Franciscan School of Theology relocated to the campus of the University of San Diego, placing a graduate-level theological school mere steps away from the house of formation, which is also located on the USD campus, and making it no longer necessary to send seminarians away to complete their studies.

Beginning next year, all local seminarians advancing to graduate-level theology will enroll at the Franciscan School of Theology. This year’s class was given the option to stay in San Diego or to attend one of the seminaries outside of the diocese; five out of six chose to remain.

“It’s kind of a historic moment,” said Father Matthew Spahr, rector of St. Francis de Sales House of Priestly Formation, who is overseeing the new theology program with the assistance of Father Lauro Minimo, vice rector; Father Michael Sinor, director of spiritual formation; Laura Martin-Spencer, director of pastoral formation; and Jesuit Father Gil Gentile, assistant director of spiritual formation. (Jesuit Father Joaquin “Boom” Martinez also assists with spiritual direction.)

Father Spahr, who has directed the diocese’s priestly formation program for more than 15 years, explained that this new approach means that the diocese’s newly ordained priests will have a better feel for the Local Church, including its parishes and ministries, because they will have gotten to know them through pastoral assignments as seminarians.

Under the previous arrangement, he said, some newly ordained priests probably felt more familiar with the dioceses in which they had attended seminary than with their home diocese, and they returned to San Diego knowing few of their brother priests.

For Father Sinor, the recent changes are not a case of “revamping” or updating.

“Actually, we are reclaiming what the Council of Trent instituted many centuries ago by asking each diocese to institute its own formation program/seminary for the training of priests. This is not a new concept, but certainly a traditional one,” said Father Sinor, who previously served from 1990-1995 as spiritual director at St. Francis Center and returned there two years ago.

He began his current assignment as director of spiritual formation on Sept. 1. In that capacity, he provides spiritual direction, meets individually with seminarians to reflect on how God is working in their lives, and schedules and presents days of reflection and retreats.

The Diocese of San Diego’s new graduate-level theology program consists of three academic years as well as one pastoral year. During the latter, the seminarians will take no classes but rather minister full-time at a diocesan parish. Each semester during the academic years, they will also have what Martin-Spencer describes as a “field placement” with a particular ministry. This first semester, three seminarians have been assigned to diocesan offices at the Pastoral Center, and two others are working at Catholic Charities; they will switch locations next semester.

“Four years is a long time to be away from the diocese, forming relationships elsewhere,” explained Martin-Spencer, whose job includes arranging these “field placements,” training the seminarians’ on-site mentors and supervisors, and meeting regularly with the seminarians themselves to ensure that they reaching their pastoral goals.

“The structure that we’ve set up is so grounded in what real families are going through, what parishioners are going through here in San Diego, that it keeps [the seminarians] in touch,” she said.

Once ordained, she said, they will “know people and know how things work  from the inside-out.”

“When they are ordained,” Father Spahr agreed, “they are going to know the diocese well.”

He added that another advantage of the new program is that the seminarians will not be isolated, studying exclusively among fellow seminarians at a “stand-alone” seminary separated from the broader community, but instead in “a university setting” alongside Franciscan seminarians as well as lay men and women who are preparing for ministry positions.

One summer during the program, the seminarians will complete a Clinical Pastoral Education program to qualify for service as hospital chaplains.

Though the re-structured seminary program emphasizes enculturation into the Diocese of San Diego, Father Spahr said, that doesn’t mean that current and future seminarians will be denied an experience of the universality of the Church prior to ordination.

Describing it as “one of the real hallmarks” of the new program, he said each seminarian will participate in one month-long module in Rome and another in the Holy Land during his seminary years.

Along with the restructuring of seminary education, Father Sinor will also be developing a new program for those in the first five years of priesthood, helping them to transition more smoothly into priestly life.

“In some ways, the first five years are similar to an internship for a doctor,” he said.

“Formation for priests doesn’t just end after a man is ordained,” he added, explaining that his duties include facilitating ongoing formation for recently ordained priests, including an annual one-week retreat, regular spiritual direction and monthly participation in a support group with fellow priests.

The U.S. bishops, he said, identify such offerings as a “basic minimum for formation.”

Seminarian Evan Bui, 22, had expected to be sent to Mount Angel Abbey this year to begin graduate-level theology. But he hadn’t been relishing the idea of leaving the diocese, and he was concerned that pursuing his studies so far from home might have a negative impact on his future priesthood.

“In my heart,” said Bui, “I feared that I would not be ready to serve the diocese because I would be away from San Diego for most of the year, and I wouldn’t truly understand the people I am serving.”

Being given the option to attend the Franciscan School of Theology seemed like the answer to his prayers.

Bui, who has been given a field placement with Catholic Charities this semester, is happy with the new theology program and especially with the prospect of a pastoral year in San Diego.

He said, “Being able to spend quality time with the parishioners of our diocese by getting to know their stories, strengths and weaknesses is an aspect of the new theology program that will help [me] grow as a child of God.”

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