Before going any farther, if you haven't done so, check The Call series at Columbus Dispatch. Today concludes a weeklong series, which has been pretty good.
A reader asks:
Father, a number of us were discussing the time in the seminary. As I understand it the time in training is 6-7 years. Is that correct? Is it the same as it was time wise back in the 50's?
It seems like today we get so many who have college degrees and life experience when back in the 50's we had kids coming in from high school (ed's note: if not directly from 8th grade!). Is that not correct? If so, why can't we get this training done a lot faster? Seems like with the shortage, we could use some priests out here and a shorter training time might also encourage someone to become a priest who has interest. I can't imagine going through college and then taking on that many years of training to become a priest. However, I leave it to the church to decide as they certainly know far more than I do.
When asking questions of this type, I think the last line is certainly the most important: The Church does indeed know better than I do, even me as a priest, and we do not just submit to her authority, but seek to understand why she teaches or practices such a thing.
To answer the actual question, one must turn to The Program for Priestly Formation by the USCCB, 5th Edition. This is the document tha tguides seminary formation in this country, and implements the vision that was set out by Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis (I will give you shepherds). It was published in 2006, right as I was beginning in the office. This document sets out the requirements that all seminaries have to follow.
The actual time in 'Major Seminary' is the same today as it was in the 50's: four years. However, there is a new phenomenon that did not exist 'back in the day:' second career vocations to the priesthood. (They always did exist, just not in the numbers we see today.)
What the Church has found is that while these men do bring a treasure of experience from a working career (even some having been married and widowed), there is a great need to form them in the Christian environment. The fact is, we live in a post-Christian world, and whereas in the past, men being formed in seminary had eight to twelve years of formation, through high school and college to focus on Christian classics, a true Liberal Arts education, a strong foundation in philosophy and literature, these dimensions are missing when a man comes through with an engineering degree, or a finance/business degree; even with a teaching degree. Hence, seminaries have set up 'Pre-Theology' programs that address the needs to form these second career men in this Catholic world view before they begin their theological studies.
The PPF stipulates that in order to enter 1st Theology, one must have completed 2 years of formation to get a groundwork and set a basis to prepare that man to study theology, hence for a man that has a degree elsewhere, he must do 2 years 'remedial study' before completing the 4 years of theology. Some dioceses and/or seminaries also require a year of internship/pastoral year (we do), which adds another year to formation, hence the guys that enter Pre-Theology I for us this fall can expect a 7 year formation program. Yes, it is alot, yes it is daunting. But as I explain what is all involved in semianry formation (much more than just academics), the time seems to be not near enough for what a man has to do, personally, professional, spiritually, to take up the mantle of the priesthood.
The heart of your question, while I think well intentioned, also shows something deeper. Please do not take this the worng way, but it seems that you see the priesthood as a mere sacramental machine. (I know many others that, while good hearted, fall into this approach.) 'If the training were shorter, we would have more priests.'
To that I ask: 'Do you want more priests, or do you want holier priests, better priests, excellent priests?' To get the latter, even seven years is not enough, and bluntly, that's what we need. Not more, holier.