“I never learned that in the seminary!” I have heard priests say that many times after confronting situations that faced them in parish work. Our seminary formation programs provide an excellent preparation in theology and Scripture – the “stuff” of pastoral ministry in parishes for evangelization and transmitting the Catholic faith. But leading the community of faith in our churches and parishes today requires much, much more than the seminary alone can provide: management of parish facilities and physical plants; interaction with and supervision of large staffs, both employees and volunteers; budget preparation, fiscal management and financial accountability.
Here in the Diocese of Trenton, we do provide some sessions for those preparing for the priesthood in these more practical elements of responsibility for working in and leading a parish community, but they are not able to be comprehensive, simply because of time constraints. Priests assume their responsibilities and “learn as they go.” We meet several times a year with priests ordained one to five years to hear about their experiences and what they feel they need to learn to aid them in priestly ministry. We gather new pastors together before they take over the helm to learn from the experience of successful pastors and diocesan officials.
Of course, experience is always the best teacher, but experience is sometimes only gained with some difficulty and discomfort. No program is going to acquaint the new priest with everything there is to learn and know to serve his parish effectively. He will gain practical knowledge from the faithful in a parish and from their needs. But, if we can equip new priests with a “little more” confidence in approaching all the many tasks at hand, the needs of our people might be more efficiently and effectively met.
These thoughts and conversations with priests, parish ministers and lay people in our parishes have prompted me to consider offering our seminarians more of what they do not have the time or opportunity to learn in the seminary. The Vicar for Clergy and Director of Seminarians, Msgr. Thomas Mullelly, and I have met with professors from Villanova University’s Institute for Church Management to plan a week-long seminar or “clerkship” for all our seminarians that will focus on the “practical side” of priests’ work in a parish.
It is my conviction that if we can help new priests become better suited for “running” a parish, they can devote more of their time and energy to the real purpose of a priest's ministry: sharing the Gospel and bringing people closer to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Currently, the curriculum is being planned with the staff of Villanova University Institute for Church Management. Our program will be hosted on the campus of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa., the week of June 8-12. The topics will be “progressive,” offered according to the seminarian's year/class. There will be classes, discussions, readings all conducted by faculty assigned by the Institute, and nightly panel presentations by a team of pastors. There will be an examination at the end of the week. Seminarians will then depart for summer assignments in parishes. At the end of three years, participating seminarians will be awarded a Certificate in Church Management from Villanova prior to ordination.
Reflecting on this initiative, Director of Seminarians Msgr. Mullelly observed, “... I am confident that the tremendous opportunities for our seminarians to develop effective communication, organizational and managerial skills through participation in the Clerkship program will enhance their preparedness for priestly ministry and complement the important intellectual and pastoral formation they receive in the seminary. The program will be of tremendous value to them and to the Church as they assume pastoral responsibilities.”
As the Director of Vocations charged with recruitment to the seminary for the Diocese, Father Dennis Apoldite, Pastor of both Sacred Heart Church and Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton, remarked, “When I meet with potential candidates for the seminary, one of the most frequently asked questions is, ‘What does a priest do all day?’ When the conversation lends itself to the business aspect of a given day, the candidate often reports that they have little or no knowledge of church management. With this new seminar in place, I believe it will give these men more confidence and an academic knowledge of management styles and techniques when they are ordained priests. Each priest, each parish certainly has their own style and characteristics, but through this clerkship the basic concepts of management will be presented, giving each seminarian stable roots from which they will cultivate their own administrative style.
“Those in our discernment group are excited about this process and look forward to broadening their understanding of priesthood in our day. It is assuring them that we are looking at every aspect of their formation and want them to be as ready as possible for the living out of their new vocation. It would have been a great asset to us ‘seasoned priests’ to have had such a program back in our day; we could have avoided some of our mistakes. But the great news now is that our priests of tomorrow will be more educated in this area than ever before.”
This effort will, of course, cost money to implement, more than my current budget will sustain. It is my hope, as Bishop, that I can find some generous benefactors who might be interested in sponsoring and supporting this program which will have an important, positive and enduring impact on parish life in the Diocese of Trenton.
It is my prayer that we can prepare priests who are holy, theologically well-educated, and capable of sustaining parish communities in the ever increasing demands that fall on their shoulders in the 21st century Catholic Church in our four counties. Perhaps some of you reading this can share in making this exciting initiative possible!
Most Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton