From discernment to ordination, vetting of seminarians is an ongoing process.
From the very beginning of the long process a man goes through to become a Catholic priest in the United States, his life, personality, spirituality, actions and motives are the subject of scrutiny, counseling and continuing discernment.
Sam Alzheimer, who runs Vianney Vocations, an organization that promotes vocations to priesthood and religious life by providing services to diocesan vocations offices, quipped, “It’s easier to become a Secret Service agent than to become a priest.”
The procedures for the screening of candidates for the seminary and the vetting of students as they make their way through their formal training were upgraded in the wake of the nationwide sex abuse scandals of 2002. They are just as stringent, if not more so, in 2018, when more scandals have been uncovered.
“We have a lot more in place than we did 30 years ago,” said Fr. Michael Becker, rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. That includes resources like counseling or psychology, he said. “There’s a lot more assistance to a man today to get him wise and help him grow.”
“There are a number of different metrics we are now using, and the screening is far more in depth than it was in the past,” added Fr. Steven Borello, director of vocations for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. “Many men actually have two psychological evaluations—one when they enter and a second one approximately four years later. It’s been a huge help in discerning underlying issues that could otherwise be overlooked.”
Fr. Timothy F. Monahan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that in large dioceses like his, supervision of prospective priests is shared by the vocation director, the position he currently holds, and personnel at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the archdiocesan seminary, often referred to by its location, Mundelein. He said that when he initially meets a man who expresses interest in the priesthood, “the first thing is to get to know him and see what my own impressions are and if he has the basic freedom, the desire and the capacity to be a priest.”
“There are a number of guys who in the first interview I can say for any one of those [criteria], ‘You know what, this is not your call. You don’t have the capacity to be a priest, or you’re not free, you have student debt,’ or … a guy’s not matured in his sexuality. Or there’s no real clear desire to be a priest.”
For candidates he sees as serious, Fr. Monahan gets them involved in programs of discernment and continues meeting with them one-on-one.
“So if we get to a point where I think he’s ready and he thinks he’s ready, we’ll say ‘We want you to apply to the seminary.’ He’ll begin the application, which comes from Mundelein.”
The application includes questions about the aspirant’s background, the influence of his family, his understanding of what priesthood is and why he wants to be a priest, his educational and work background. Successful applicants then go through three rounds of interviews with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s vocation committee, which is made up of priests, permanent deacons, a religious sister and a lay woman. One interview concerns his sexual past and health and integration. Another concerns his career, schooling and decision-making. The third is about his theological and spiritual conversion story and his conception of priesthood.
Each committee member reports to Fr. Monahan after the interview, and then the committee votes, whether to recommend the candidate, to recommend with reservations (and what those reservations would be) or not to recommend. “We really try to look at what are the strengths and weaknesses of this candidate and would they be able to serve in Chicago,” Fr. Monahan said.
For candidates who go forward, the next step is a meeting with a psychologist. As vocation director, Fr. Monahan communicates to the psychologist what strengths and weaknesses he and the committee saw.
“I might tell him about a particular issue we want him to look at. Maybe we saw something in his family history,” he said, “or he was a little awkward around the lay woman” on the vocation committee.
Dr. Mark Glafke, a Catholic clinical psychologist in private practice in Lafayette, Indiana, has been evaluating seminarians since 2011 and has been working as a consultant for Mundelein Seminary since this spring. He explained that each applicant a seminary sends him will spend an entire day at his clinic, “and that includes a thorough clinical interview and history, including their family of origin, developmental history, psycho-sexual history, relationship history, academic, work history, you name it. Basically, it’s as much as you can have them provide what they consciously hold in their memories—all aspects of their lives. I usually spend two to three hours just covering that.”
Glafke also gives the candidate an IQ test and screening to identify at-risk sexual behaviors—primarily, evidence of attraction to children, same-sex attraction, inappropriate interactions with women, use of pornography, and masturbation.
He also administers two types of personality measures. One is “objective,” meaning that when a candidate responds to questions, he has a clear understanding of what he’s being asked, for example, “Have they had incidents of depression or anxiety? Have they ever had hallucinations or attraction to children?” One of the most widely used tests in this category is the MMPI-2, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, second edition, which assesses personality traits and psychopathology.
Glafke admits that with such tests, candidates can use “defensiveness and guardedness” to present themselves in a favorable light, so the candidate then undergoes tests such as the Rorschach test, meant to reveal how a person processes information. There are no wrong answers, but responses that are very unusual are thought to reflect possible psychological issues, according to the National Geographic.
“They have no idea what in the world that information is going to say about them or their personality style,” Glafke explained. “It’s valuable to the psychologist because the seminarian can’t engage consciously a lot of their psychological defenses to alter their responses, to guide and shape the information that’s coming out.”
Glafke pointed out that as important as psycho-sexual history is for evaluating candidates, psychological screening also looks at other facts of their life that correlate with that, such as how they’re able to experience and express emotions. “Do they have emotional maturity? What’s the emotional maturity? What’s their interpersonal style like? Can they comfortably interact with peers, with elders, with those they’re going to minister to—both genders—can they relate to them well? What’s their self-image like? Where are their insecurities? What’s their personality type?”
He said his evaluation is done not only with a view to screen out potential problems but also to help men later in their careers as priests.
“When you put these men in an environment where they’re under high pressure, you’ve got to turn over every stone and make sure we have happy, healthy and holy men that can be formed, number one, and can go on after they’re ordained when they experience an avalanche of pressures.” he said. “They have to be as healthy as possible, and if the ‘psych eval’ is used only to see if they’re a risk for sexual acting out, it’s a real low bar.”
Nevertheless, he said, the goal of attempting to identify candidates who may be at-risk for sexually acting out is of the utmost importance in the evaluation.
With reports from the psychologist and the vocation committee members, Fr. Monahan makes a determination whether the applicant is ready for seminary.
“One of the biggest things is to see If there’s any risk of this man being a threat to children or vulnerable adults,” he said. “And is this man able to live a joyful celibacy so that he can really thrive through seminary and especially as a priest.”
But, he stressed, it’s not only a matter of finding reasons to deny an applicant.
“Cardinal [Blase] Cupich [archbishop of Chicago] said that we aren’t looking at candidates not having any obstacles and therefore he can become a priest,” said Fr. Monahan. “He said that’s the wrong way of looking at it. We have to look at the gifts of that candidate and what he would bring to the presbyterate and to the people.”
He also noted that the psychologist’s report will have specific recommendations. Often there will be issues that a candidate might want to work on, Fr. Monahan said. Some might be issues that he should work on before going to the seminary, because the high demands of seminary life won’t allow the time and dedication that he needs to give them. “Or the psychologist will say ‘I cannot recommend this candidate.’ If at any point along the way, if anybody is saying this man is not a good candidate and here’s why, then he’s done with the Archdiocese of Chicago.”
If the applicant does get recommended, Fr. Monahan presents his application to Mundelein Seminary, whose admissions board will then interview the candidate.
The whole process can take several months.
When a candidate is accepted, he becomes the responsibility of the Director of Chicago Seminarians, Fr. Thomas J. Byrne. Fr. Byrne evaluates the seminarians throughout their time at Mundelein, and then he and the rector present them to Cardinal Cupich for the “Call to Orders.”
Fr. Byrne, who is in his third year as Director of Chicago Seminarians, said that life in the seminary is itself a “screening device.”
“I heard a priest psychologist say one time that psychological evaluation is a wonderful tool and it tells you a lot about a person and who he is and his background,” Fr. Byrne said. “But the best way to know that person is to live with them. All the screening that a seminary does for candidates for priesthood is as thorough as it can be, but I would say that that screening always continues once a man is in formation. That’s the value of seminary, where priest-formators are living in the same hallway and eating in the same dining room as the seminarian-candidates. So you really get to know them as a person. And I interact with them in the context of a classroom, seminary life, their pastors, the parishes to which they are assigned. So you see the man in the process of his life, and this screening continues all the way through to ordination.”
That can include something as simple as watching how someone responds to criticism or deals with a difficult situation when placed in a summer assignment helping out in a parish. “How does someone do when he’s not given exact instructions? Can he figure out what the next thing to do is?”
Mundelein is a major seminary, where candidates typically spend four years studying theology and are ordained deacons before they graduate and are ordained priests. But so-called “minor seminaries” or “college seminaries,” where aspirants major in philosophy in preparation for studying theology, are also an important part of the discernment process. St. John Vianney in Saint Paul is one such college seminary, and Fr. Becker said that many students there are recent high school graduates. Each is assigned a “formator,” a priest who meets with him once a month to help guide him in the “four pillars of formation:” human, spiritual, academic and pastoral.
“Our young men are 17-18 years old as they’re discerning coming to the seminary, so they’re very young and they lack self-knowledge,” he said. “So one of our first goals is to help them to grow in self-knowledge. ‘Why do I do the things I do in this way? What are my desires? How is my family formative in my life, or schooling and peers?'”
The seminary also has confidential small faith-sharing groups, where seminarians discuss their struggles in living a Christian life, and chastity groups, where they help each other grow in the virtue of chastity, with the help of a professional counselor.
“We also put into place a program on the computer called Covenant Eyes, and that is to help men deal with issues of pornography and other temptations and even wasting a lot of time on the computer,” Fr. Becker said. “We have certain policies about computer usage: for example, a man should only be on a computer one hour a day that’s not school work. … And they can be only one hour on the weekend on social media. We do that because we want them to become more detached from media so they live in reality and not in a virtual world. So many young people are playing video games three or four hours a day and they don’t relate to each other even though they might be sitting across from each other.”
As rector, Fr. Becker sees his role as creating “an environment of trust.”
“A man won’t necessarily open up unless you have trust,” he said. “If you’re only in an environment of evaluation, that’s not really a Christian community. First and foremost, a seminary should be a Christian community where charity is the supernatural element that will bring harmony to the people, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God poured out. So now that I have that vision of a Christian community, I’m going to create an atmosphere of trust where a young man knows he will have evaluations each spring, but he knows the priests are on his side, and the Church wants him to be successful, and if we create that kind of environment then a man will open up and share what he’s going through.”