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Six seminarians of the Diocese of Nashville advanced to Candidacy in a rite performed last April. With the Rite of Candidacy, the seminarians publicly expressed their intention to be ordained as a transitional deacon and later as a priest. The U.S. bishops have approved a new edition of the Program for Priestly Formation. The seminarians pictured are, from left, Anthony Romero, Patrick Held, Nonso Ohanaka, Oscar Romero and Brent Thayer. Not pictured is Augustine Mang.

BALTIMORE. The U.S. bishops Nov. 12 adopted the sixth edition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation for U.S. dioceses and religious orders.

The vote on the document, popularly known among the bishops as “the PPF,” was 226-4, with three abstentions. It needed two-thirds of the bishops, or 179 votes, to ensure passage. Before it can be implemented, it must first receive a “recognitio,” or approval, from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy.

“It is not an entirely new document,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, when introducing the document Nov. 11, the first day of the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore. “It retains and builds on those aspects of PPF 5 which have proven to be the most effective.”

In his introductory remarks about the document, Cardinal Tobin said it “allows latitude for individual dioceses, provinces and regions” so bishops can “adapt this to individual circumstances.”

One change is how a seminarian’s progress to ordination is tracked. What had been a seminary college or “pre-theology” followed by graduate studies – known as the theologate – is being replaced by new terms: the “propaedeutic stage” with preparatory and introductory teaching lasting one to two years, and a “discipleship stage,” which is to last at least two years.

“We’ve had stages, but not the structure they’re looking at now;” said Father Austin Gilstrap, director of vocations for the Diocese of Nashville. Under the new PPF, there would be four stages of formation: the propaedeutic stage, discipleship stage, configuration stage and pastoral synthesis stage.

A seminarian will move from one stage to the next after meeting designated benchmarks.

Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville joins his fellow bishops from around the United States during a session of the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held Nov. 11-13 in Baltimore. 

“The PPF’s focus is on benchmarks – the outcomes that must be achieved by the seminarian before advancing to the next stage in his formation, rather than on chronological times,” Cardinal Tobin said, adding that “new weight (is) given to stages rather than years.”

“This is a new way of thinking of formation,” Father Gilstrap said.

“We’ve laid out a six- to eight-year program. As a man is going through the program, we expect him to be at a certain place … yet at the same time, maybe he hasn’t hit every benchmark before moving to the next stage,” Father Gilstrap said. “This will potentially mean a man may move a little bit faster or a little bit slower” through the formation process.

“This is a positive thing,” Father Gilstrap said. “We are going to be preparing them in a more effective way to serve God in the future.”

The PPF takes into account developments in the Church and society in recent years.

“Weaknesses of ethical standards and a moral relativism have a corrosive effect on American public life as seen, for example, in marriage and family life, in business and in politics,” the PPF now says.

“Within the Church, clericalism and abuse of power have had a corrosive effect. The scandalous and criminal behavior of some clergy who have abused minors and engaged in sexual misconduct with adults, including seminarians, has caused great suffering for the victims and damaged the Church’s witness in society,” it says. “This has resulted in a loss of credibility for the Church and an overall lack of respect for religion. Both the nation and the Church are summoned to renewal and to a real integrity of life.”

It also contains strict instructions: “Any seminarian found to have pathological sexual attraction to minors is to be dismissed from the seminary with no possibility for readmission to the same or another seminary.”

Elsewhere in the document, which nears 300 pages in the version given the bishops, it says: “The widespread availability of pornography on the internet is a pervasive reality, and a pernicious threat to human and moral development,” and “Catholic institutions are not immune to the persistence of racism in our society. … The evil of racism continues to be a factor in the social fabric of the United States.”

 A bishop attends morning prayer with his fellow bishops. During the assembly, the bishops approved a new edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, which provides guidance to dioceses and seminaries about the formation of seminarians. 

Thanks to evidence showing the connection of Catholic schools in fostering vocations, new wording was added prior to the vote: “Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are supportive environments that foster intellectual curiosity and encourage the development of love of God and neighbor. Rooted in the teachings of the Catholic faith, schools and programs provide an invaluable setting in which vocations to marriage, priesthood and consecrated life can be nurtured.”

The Vatican’s “recognitio,” or approval, to the fifth edition of the PPF expired in 2015, according to Cardinal Tobin in a message to his fellow bishops. That year, though, the Vatican extended the recognitio for five-years, through 2020.

In 2016, a working group was selected by the committee to begin work on a sixth edition. In 2017, that group, run by Bishop Earl A. Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, began its deliberations. In 2018, input from bishops was sought given the Vatican’s issuance the year before of the new “Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis” (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation).

Now that the PPF has been approved by the U.S. bishops, it must be reviewed and approved by the Congregation of the Clergy in Rome before it can be implemented.

Seminaries and diocesan vocation directors are already discussing how to implement the new program, Father Gilstrap said.

Andy Telli of the Tennessee Register contributed to this report.

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