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I am very happy to be with you this morning, and I am certain that not a few of you will be engaged in formation – if you are not already thus engaged – either in being called to specific formation roles in your respective ecclesial realities, in the sphere of seminaries or novitiates, or in being called to concern yourselves with “permanent formation.”
After a brief reflection on the contemporary cultural situation, I will consider the relationship between “human formation and faith” and “human formation and educational crisis,” to try to draw some conclusions, which might, in a certain way, shed light on the great vocation that the Lord has bestowed upon us to “Educating Formators in a Time of Educational Crisis.”
1. The Current Situation
It is undeniable that in many places the crisis, indeed the deep crisis, in human formation is lamented, even to the point of repetition.
The phenomenon is so pervasive and troubling that the pontifical magisterium itself has indicated, on various occasions and in an authoritative manner, that responding to the so-called “educational crisis” is among the priorities of our time.
Obviously, the deficit in human formation does not regard only ecclesial realities: indeed, to be honest, compared with our situation, the crisis is much more entrenched and widespread in civil society, and its effects, visible to all, have and will continue to have grave anthropological, social, and finally, theological, consequences of great significance.
The historical and philosophical roots of this crisis in human formation are well-known; I do not intend, in this context, to go back over the path that has led to the present situation. I will limit to mentioning some basic stages, already seeing their consequences in them.
A first element, of substantial relevance, can be traced back to the post-Enlightenment crisis in knowledge. The Enlightenment, in fact, caused a hypertrophy of reason: man, with his capacity for knowledge, no longer contemplated, understood, and sung of reality but became its limited measure. A use of reason that would limit human knowledge to empirical (some would say “scientific”) data alone is the death of human intelligence and prohibits knowledge from relating to reality in all of its different aspects.
The recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine Alexis Carrel wrote: “Much observation and a little reasoning lead to truth; much reasoning and little observation lead to error,” meaning, with these remarks, to describe knowledge as that fundamental adherence to the real that has always characterized man.
Adherence to reality – and here we come to the second crucial development – is almost lost altogether when we move from the Enlightenment to idealism. If man no longer knows reality for what it is, but tries to measure it (rationalism) or only think it (idealism), he prevents himself from realizing the objective possibility of relating to the other as he is and such an attitude has evident anthropological consequences.
As if this were not enough, the crisis of 19th century positivism, brought on by the 2 world wars of the last century, has led to a kind of “surrender of reason,” forcing man beyond the baseless myth of the superman to the current circumstance, likewise baseless, of the most radical relativism.
There is no reason to be surprised if there followed in the wake of an erroneous view of reason of the rationalist type – which is smashed to pieces against the objective impossibility of man gaining total dominance of himself and the cosmos – a similarly erroneous and unjustified mistrust in the capacity of each person to know himself, the world and God.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI has several times directed the Church’s attention and that of all men of good will to the necessity of overcoming the relativism that characterizes our age and that, inevitably, affects us and our ecclesial environments.
It is not a mystery that the reigning subjectivism, which has caused a sentimentalism that is as unbearable as it is humiliating, has also penetrated the Christian mentality, our places of formation, often even shaping our “educational relationships.”
In a context in which the mere hypothesis of a possible education in freedom and of the will – an education that “corrects” and “goes against” the dictatorship of relativism and sentimentalism –seems totally foreign, the educational act, the very idea of an education, might appear almost impossible, if not entirely mistaken in themselves. This situation was facilitated by the ingenuous optimism about the world that too often characterized and characterizes a certain ecclesial mentality, according to which the Church was founded in 1965 with the closing of the Vatican Council, obviously interpreted according to the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, which the Holy Father, in his May 24 address to the Italian Bishops’ Conference called “unacceptable”!
Here I am not going to go into the moral consequences of these epistemological errors, but it is certain that, just as ethics derives from ontology, and must always refer back to it, so a sound morality cannot but be the fruit of a correct knowledge, respectful of all of the most noble human dimensions: intelligence, freedom and will, and not only sentiment and instinct!
The often disgusting spectacle, which we were forced to witness in past years, and which has been the source of so many wounds in the ecclesial body and in the faith of the People of God, has deep roots – let us acknowledge them – in the doctrinal errors of the 60s and 70s of the last century! Errors that have generated horrors!
What is there left for a man who is no longer capable of knowing reality?
The narrow and suffocating horizon of his own emotions, of his own instincts, ruled by his body!
From this derives the explosive hedonism, narcissism, pansexualism, in which the people of our time immerse themselves and from which it is necessary to help them free themselves with every means at our disposal.
Finally materialism, which was seen as the existential horizon by some ideological movements of the last century, has undergone a crisis and, on the one hand, caused a preoccupation with the satisfaction of desires and passions and, on the other hand, brought some to seek different “spiritualistic” or “new age” routes of escape, which have nothing to do with human spirituality and, much less, with Christian faith.
In such apparently intractable situations, what possibilities are there for picking up the thread of formation again, still more urgently, in view of the priesthood and the consecrated life?
2. Human Formation and Faith
There are 2 poles, protagonists or – if you will – “loci theologici” to the answer to this question: man as such and the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth.
2.1 Man as Such
We begin with the first “locus theologicus.”
In any historical, social or human situation we find, there is always the possibility of starting again, of undertaking an educational project and of working in the area of formation. Even in the contemporary epochal crisis, whose historical and and philosophical roots I just noted, there is a concrete possibility of educating man, the concrete man that each one of us and the concrete man who we see before us.
What is crucial in this regard, prior to any program of human formation, is the humble and concrete answer to the questions “Who am I?” “Who is man?”
And I do not intend thereby to speak of physio-psychological programs of formation much less to reopen the door to idealism which asks “What do I think of man?” rather than asking who man is.
Each man, whatever his condition and whatever be the age in which he lives, he perceives himself and is perceived by others as “need” as “question.”
And if the whole dominant culture conspires to suffocate the fundamental questions that constitute man, it is not because they are not ponderous with meaning and do not demand a response, but, simply because the dominant culture is incapable of offering humanly perceptible and satisfying answers, it has no other choice, it has no other way out than to suffocate these questions in man.
It is as if the Gospel parable of the father who, although he is bad, does not give stones to his children who ask for bread or snakes if they ask for eggs (cf. Matthew 7:9-10), were radically transformed to take on the philosophically and anthropologically absurd outlook of the dominant cultural forces that continue to repeat: “Do not be hungry!”
I hope that this comparison of the Gospel parable with the disconcerting cultural scene today manifests, at least in part, something of the drama of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Mass communication, ably utilized by the great powers of this world, contribute much to a kind of general anesthetization.
Nevertheless, man is and remains a “question”!
He is and remains irreducibly characterized by the evidence of his own being, and the being of the world, and by those fundamental questions that, too often, we call “values” without remembering that they are values because they are fundamental exigencies of the “I.”
Are justice, truth, beauty, reasonableness, freedom values? Of course, and none of us would dare to deny it; they are universal human values and not confessional values because they are, “first” – both from the ontological and the pedagogical perspective – fundamental exigencies of man.
I believe that any educational project is impossible that does not begin with the fundamental exigencies of man, that does not focus on what man is, what he deeply desires and the ultimate yearning of his heart.
And this fact must always be kept before us, even when it is a question of forming the formators!
The human religious sense itself – which no small number of historians of religion sees as only a more or less structured development of various cultures and civilizations – is in reality a universal and insuperable anthropological characteristic. We know this not just because there does not exist any civilization, including the most primitive and remote, that has not expressed some religious dimension, but also because, in the face of reality and himself as givens, that is, not as products of his own labors, man and his intelligence are forced to ask themselves: “What does it all mean?”
The true religious sense consists in this question, namely, the search for the ultimate meaning of the whole – and thus of ourselves and the real.
We must, as educators, remember that we can only point our brothers to the answer that we ourselves have found, beginning with our own question!
Otherwise the answer that is the most theologically and anthropologically correct (assuming that we know it) becomes a formula that is repeated but not lived.
The Church’s educational mission itself must continually be reinvigorated, reinforced and restarted from this authentic passion for man, a passion that, as the etymology of the term “passio” indicates, is first of all the shared participation in the same condition of “asking about meaning.”
2.2 The Man-God Jesus of Nazareth
Christ places himself before this reality of man, who is a question about meaning and who lives values not as an external imposition on his conscience but as the vigorous flourishing of his own fundamental questions (I live justice because I am a need for justice; I live truth because I am a need for truth, etc.).
Prior to any act of faith in Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ, we must stress that the Christ-Event has its own irreducible historical dimension.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI effectively recalled this at the beginning of this first encyclical “Deus caritas est” in which the being of the Christian is defined as “the encounter with an event, a person” (n. 1).
An encounter, then, presupposes something or someone “other” than me that meets me and which I can meet. The consequences of this clarification about the essence of Christianity and education and formation are immediately grasped by everyone: on the one hand, the fidelity to the historical datum excludes all subjective, private or self-projective self-referentiality in the relationship with Christ and, on the other hand, still more profoundly, the historical dimension is radically incompatible with every idealistic and relativistic conception, which denies man the possibility of knowing reality.
It is therefore possible to affirm – and this is essentially the evangelist John’s translation of it – that the answer to what man is, an answer that is not inside him, can encountered, it has come to meet us, it has revealed itself in what is closest to man: man himself.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life [...], we proclaim to you [...] that our joy may be made perfect” (1 John 1-4).
Such an encounter between humanity, as question, and the Event of Christ, as answer, constitutes the possibility of every authentic formation.
With 2 corollaries.
The first: it is possible to experience an intense religious sensibility, that is, a profound existential question, without yet having encountered the answer who is Christ. And it is necessary to recognize and affirm that an authentically lived religious sense represents and constitutes a fundamental factor of formation.
Nevertheless – this is the second corollary – in most cases it happens – and we can probably all testify to this – that precisely the encounter with Christ brings about a healing of an apposite religious sense, the reawakening of humanity; thus, with just as much realism, it is possible to say that: the Event of the Encounter with Christ is the first educational factor, just because it teaches us to remain in that state of grateful stupor, typical of the religious sense, which constitutes the essence of man before God.
What Christ lives by nature we can live by grace.
Perceiving himself in the Presence of the Mystery permits man to live according to the high Vocation to which the Creator has called him: to be the image and the likeness of God.
I do not think that anyone misses the fact that the “image and likeness” as such has in Jesus Christ its proper and unique model.
3. Some Practical Consequences for Educational Action
In the recent past we heard incessant talk of “self-formation” and “co-responsibility in formation.” Certainly there are aspects of formation that are, to some extent, shareable, which call for personal responsibility. In fact, often we are dealing with people, even adults, who turn toward the ecclesial world to ask for special formation.
It is nevertheless necessary to be very clear and critical in regard to an ingenuous optimism about self-formation! Everyone knows how much more tender and correctable a “young plant” is than an old tree. The same principle holds in education! The assumption that “adult” or “mature” vocations are more reliable than young ones is purely ideological and has not been demonstrated. For everyone, young people and adults, it is necessary to attentively evaluate what there existential situation is and what how their previous education has affected them.
“Co-responsibility” and “self-formation” are categories that I would reserve rather for permanent formation, in which, perhaps, it is possible to take some fundamental and founding elements of priestly identity for granted.
In the contemporary educational context we see the dramatic emergence of a particular figure of the priest that the sociologists call the “free rider” priest. The “free rider,” the person who does not pay for his ride, is the person who is part of an organization and tries to reap benefits from it without paying the costs. The person who gets on the bus without paying succeeds in traveling for free but only because the others end up paying for him.
The free rider strategy in societies and economies can work only if the number of such people is limited. If some do not pay, the bus will continue its rounds and at the most, the honest riders will be asked to pay more. But if almost no one buys a ticket, the bus line will be forced to shut down and not even the free rider will be able to travel for free.
Let us apply this to the Catholic Church.
It is possible to tolerate a certain number of free riders but if the number grows, we will find ourselves faced with problems that will be more and more difficult to solve and, in the end, there is the danger of “going out of business.” There are also free riders among priests, who for personal or doctrinal reasons do not play on the team and do not make a real contribution. The free rider priest is the one who does not see himself as a member of the presbyterate who works with the bishop in a spirit of collaboration. They are priests who do not see themselves as members of a larger “team” and do not look to the Pope and his magisterium to listen to it and study it but to criticize it. Maybe many years ago they liked the “bus” that they had boarded but now they are frustrated and let others pay for their ticket.
We must see – and the recent ‘ad limina’ visits of the US dioceses have confirmed this – that also among the faithful, seminarians and priests there is an openness to face “higher costs” if there are clear corresponding benefits.
What generates the number and quality of vocations and guarantees truly effective educational action is fidelity to the revealed truth, the magisterium and morals!
If we ask that norms be respected in areas such as sexual morality and the relationship with truth that create tension with majority of members of society in a culture that is dominated by relativism, barriers will be created that will reduce the possible numbers of potential free riders.
Priests become free riders but it could be that some are born such, that is, that they already are free riders when they complete seminary. Think of the arbitrary use of the internet and media or the subjective and imprudent way that some engage in personal relations, often in a way that is entirely the same as “the world” does.
An improper use of the internet creates free rider priests!
The internet’s crucial role is often studied – also in respect to the reform of canonical discipline having to do with the abuse of minors – for the dangers to which it exposes seminarians, and priests too, especially those who are the most isolated, because of the massive spread of pornography.
This is a very grave problem but there is more to the internet question than this.
The Holy Father Benedict XVI – although he has underscored the positive role of the internet can have for the apostolate when it is properly used – has often stressed the danger of that which, in his visit to the Carthusian monastery in Serra San Bruno in Calabria, he called the “virtuality that threatens to dominate reality.” It is the danger of “people who find themselves immersed in virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night ... a tendency that has always existed, especially among young people and in the context of more developed urban centers, but that today has reached such a level that we might speak of an anthropological mutation. Some persons are no longer capable of remaining in silence and solitude for very long” (Benedict XVI, address, October 10, 2011).
And this obviously also goes for seminarians and for many priests.
It is not only a matter of difficulty in prayer. Those who isolate themselves and spend too much time in the virtual world – even if they scrupulously keep away from pornographic sites – become habitual free riders, constitutionally incapable, then, of placing themselves at the service of others in the real world. Enforcing discipline in the use of the internet is notoriously a very difficult problem for educators but also for families. And nevertheless it is something that must be done.
The fact that young priests show themselves to be more loyal to the magisterium – at least in many countries – than their confrères in their 50s and 60s, is a sign of a cultural climate that is slowly changing. But there are many things that still do not work.
Young priests, while well-intentioned, seem to lack systematic formation in philosophical, theological, historical, canonical and liturgical fields, which often is an indication of a formation that excessively privileges courses on single subjects (corsi monografici) rather than institutional ones, and personal opinions of professors rather than the transmission of authentic doctrine.
These deficiencies have not escaped those with foresight but one often gets the impression that norms that are not backed up by sanctions – and thus that are not applied or not applied everywhere – have no real effect on that which must be – ever more urgently – the true reform of the clergy.
I would like to conclude by stressing that seminary formation and permanent formation must be a continuum.
The gap between the 2 destroys the very notion of formation. The doctrinal bridge between the 2 phases of formation cannot but be constituted by the magisterium, which guides the Church and systematically responds to the questions and needs of the times. No educator, in that sense, can arbitrarily presume to be above the magisterium, grasping first, better and more than it the real exigencies of the Church of Christ!
May the Virgin Mary, “Regina Apostolorum,” enlighten us in this important journey that, as in many times in the Church’s history, has one demanding name: it is called reform! We need to become aware of it!
[Translation by Joseph Trabbic]