Explainer: A Seminary Primer, Part I – Dimensions of Formation

November 4, 2022

Photo above: Spokane seminarians participate in the Liturgy of the Word during Mass.

By Fr. Kyle Ratuiste

NOTE: This is the first of a series of articles on understanding seminary formation. Later articles unpack the four stages of formation and the concept of missionary discipleship.

What does it take for a man to become a priest? This series of articles will explore various aspects of seminary formation. In this article, I will share about one of the most important conceptual frameworks for understanding seminary – the four dimensions of formation.

The four dimensions help a seminarian develop in a wholistic way. We recognize that we can’t reduce a human person to a single attribute or quality. Human existence is far too complicated for that. These dimensions identify distinguishable, yet interconnected areas in which a seminarian is to grow and develop if he is to become a well-rounded priest. The four dimensions are human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral. Even though the language of the “four dimensions” finds its basis in seminary formation, you may find these categories useful for understanding how God may be inviting you to greater maturity and conversion regardless of your vocation.

Human Formation
The human dimension serves as the practical starting point and foundation to priestly formation. If we want a man to become a holy, effective priest, he needs to be a decent, functioning human first. For instance, maintaining hygiene, practicing self-discipline, and navigating social norms are all elements of human formation. Another aspect of this is developing appropriate self-care. We recognize the reality and goodness of being embodied creatures. Therefore, we insist on seminarians attending to their needs for sufficient sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and effective ways for managing stress.

At the core of human formation is a man’s capacity for relationship. There is an incarnational theology at play here. God the Son took on our flesh, and we came to know Him through the human personality of Jesus Christ. Likewise, God calls men to be priests so that their own human personalities can be elevated to be “bridges” between Christ and His people. The ability to enter and to foster healthy relationships is an essential part of being human and a crucial component for priestly formation.

Spiritual Formation
Christ says, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). This principle captures the essential nature of spiritual formation for any Christian, let alone a man considering a priestly call. The seminary helps the seminarian develop his prayer life for the foundational reason that discernment cannot take place without prayer. A seminarian can’t expect to hear God’s call if he isn’t listening! Additionally, it is important for a man to begin to take on the heart of Christ in prayer if he is to be made like Christ through priestly ordination.

Breviaries detail

Volumes of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is an official prayer of the Church said at various points throughout the day. Learning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is an element of spiritual formation.

Practically, the seminary supports a man’s spiritual formation in various ways. The seminary has a structured schedule of communal prayer – called an horarium – that acts like a scaffold for developing a consistent life of personal and liturgical prayer. This includes daily Mass, designated times of meditation, and participation in a set of official prayers of the Church called the Liturgy of the Hours. Also, each man has a spiritual director, a priest with whom he meets regularly to guide him in his deepening relationship with God.

Intellectual Formation
Catholics often speak of seminarians as “studying to become priests,” and academics are certainly an important element of priestly formation. By the time a man becomes a priest, he will have completed coursework in philosophy and earned at least one masters-level degree in theology. However, school is not the end all and be all of intellectual formation. St. Paul exhorted the Romans, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Part of intellectual formation is helping the seminarian build up an authentic Christian worldview grounded in the Gospel so that he can better understand and love himself and others the way Christ does.

Father Tomson teaching

Seminarians at Bishop White Seminary participate in a class taught by Spokane priest Fr. Lucas Tomson.

Pastoral Formation
Pastoral formation serves as the fruit and capstone of priestly formation. This dimension of formation focuses on a man’s ability to follow the example of Christ in making a gift of himself in love for others in pastoral charity. If we take seriously the linguistic connection between “pastor” and “shepherd” (the Latin noun pastor means “shepherd”), then we can say that seminarians are being formed to embody the “shepherding” love of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as priests.

Seminarians engage in pastoral formation through pastoral and liturgical assignments. They serve the poor, and they assist in various other ministries of the Church, such as catechesis, visitation to the homebound, serving at Mass. As seminarians approach ordination, they receive formation in preaching and in celebrating the sacraments.

In practicing pastoral charity, seminarians and priests are called to bring all their other dimensions of formation to bear. Strong human formation enables a man to establish human relationships and connections that set the stage for effective ministry. Spiritual formation animates his heart with God’s love for His people. Intellectual formation equips the man to be a credible teacher and guide.


Clearly, becoming a priest requires more than just knowing how to put on priestly clothes and perform religious ceremonies. Seminary involves the formation of the whole person, and we understand this through the lenses of the four dimensions of human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. The goal is to form priests who are fully alive in all these areas and who are therefore worthy and effective ministers of Christ. At the same time, this formation can be of benefit to any man — even when God calls him out of seminary to pursue another vocation.