EXPLAINER: A Seminary Primer, Part II – The Stages of Formation

April 3, 2023

Above: Seminarians and discerners stand at the conclusion of Spokane’s Chrism Mass on March 28, 2023.

By: Fr. Kyle Ratuiste

NOTE: This is the second of a series of articles on understanding seminary formation. Previously, I wrote about the four dimensions of formation. The next article in this series unpacks the concept of missionary discipleship.

Seminary is a years-long process. Based on the educational background and maturity of a man and the particulars of his formation program, seminary can last anywhere between seven and ten years! This can sound excessively long, but this is not at all dissimilar from the time commitment of aspiring medical doctors – and in seminary, men are preparing to become “physicians of the soul.” Also, just as those pursuing medicine must go through college, medical school, and residency, seminarians must pass through several distinct stages in their formation to become priests. In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the four stages of seminary formation and address some related questions – namely why the Diocese of Spokane uses multiple seminaries and what a seminary timeline can look like for a Spokane seminarian.

The four stages of formation are 1) Propaedeutic (pronounced “pro-pa-DOO-tick”), 2) Discipleship, 3) Configuration, and 4) Vocational Synthesis. Each of the stages build on each other and have their own distinct emphasis in the overarching process of seminary formation.

One thing to clarify is that the stages of formation do not correspond with the dimensions of formation in one-to-one fashion; as if the Propaedeutic Stage is for human formation, the Discipleship Stage for spiritual formation, etc. Instead, each sequential stage (the process) contains all four dimensions of formation (the content).

Also, you should be aware that the four-stage framework I am outlining here is quite new. It originates from updated, globally applicable directives for priestly formation released by the Vatican in 2016. Incorporating these Vatican directives, the USCCB promulgated a new edition of the guiding document for priestly formation in the United States just last year. In other words, changes have been afoot in the world of seminary formation. The launch of Cor Christi (Latin for “heart of Christ”) as a spin-off first-year program from Bishop White Seminary is a local example of responding to these changes.


Snapshots of the Stages

Every new seminarian will go through a one- to three-year Propaedeutic Stage, which sets the foundation for his discernment and formation in the later stages of seminary. The focus of this stage is one of initial healing and integration as the new seminarian is initiated into a more intensive life of prayer, develops trusting relationships with brother seminarians and his formators, and allows his heart to be expanded through pastoral care for others. Intellectual formation is also present in the Propaedeutic Stage, but in a manner meant to deemphasize the “grind” so often associated with academics. Instead, intellectual formation in the Propaedeutic Stage is geared toward fostering a more holistic life of the mind imbued with the Christian worldview. The Propaedeutic Stage is a new element to seminary formation that was mandated by the recently promulgated documents from the Vatican and USCCB.

Blessing Before Miserando

Fr. Daniel Barnett, Rector of Cor Christi, (right) blesses Cor Christi seminarians before they minister to the poor in downtown Spokane. Weekly service to the poor is an integral part of the Propaedeutic Stage program at Cor Christi. Spokane seminarians Patrick Arkoosh and Nick Sund are photographed second from right and third from right, respectively.

The heart of priestly discernment takes place during the Discipleship Stage, which is also the stage associated with full-time academic study of Philosophy. Men without a college degree work toward a B.A. in Philosophy; whereas men already with college degrees study to fulfill the prerequisites required for the study of Theology in the next stage. All the while, Discipleship Stage seminarians continue to advance in human and pastoral formation as they grow in their identity and response as disciples of Jesus Christ. This stage lasts between two and four years, and the Church envisions that the man and his (arch)diocese will be able to determine whether he is called to be a priest in service of his (arch)diocese by the end of this stage.

Having determined that a man is in fact called to priesthood for his (arch)diocese, the tenor of seminary formation switches from that of vocational discernment to priestly preparation. This takes place in the Configuration Stage, which typically lasts at least four years. Seminarians in this stage study graduate-level Theology, so they are colloquially referred to as “Theologians.” The emphasis of their formation is one of being increasing configured to Jesus Christ who is Head, Shepherd, Servant, and Spouse to the Church. They continue to grow in their capacity to make a gift of themselves to others after the pattern of Jesus and begin to hone the skills they will eventually use in ministry – such as preaching, celebration of the sacraments, and pastoral counseling. Configuration Stage seminarians also customarily wear the clerical collar and attire worn by priests.

After the completion of the Configuration Stage, the man is ordained a transitional deacon. This then inaugurates the Vocational Synthesis Stage, which consists of a six-month period of the newly ordained man living and serving in a parish of his (arch)diocese prior to being ordained to the priesthood. Like the Propaedeutic Stage, the Vocational Synthesis Stage is something new to the American experience of seminary formation. It is so new in fact that it won’t start to impact seminarians until several years from now. We anticipate that this will be a time for the transitional deacon to solidify his identity as one uniquely configured to Christ through ordination and to integrate himself as a cleric within the fraternity and pastoral context present within his own (arch)diocese. He will also continue to rehearse the skills he will use in priestly ministry. After the Vocational Synthesis Stage, the man is ordained a priest!

Fr. O'Leary is ordained

Bishop Thomas Daly lays his hands on Fr. Andrew O’Leary as part of ritual for ordination to the priesthood on May 21, 2022.

Why Different Seminaries?

The Diocese of Spokane has been blessed to have Bishop White Seminary since the mid-1950s, but our local seminary, while instrumental in the first stages of formation, does not fulfill all the formation needs of our seminarians. The easiest way to explain why is to say that Bishop White and the Cor Christi program spinning off from it occupy specific niches in the realm of seminary formation. Cor Christi serves as a one-year Propaedeutic Stage program for young men, including those coming fresh out of high school, who typically don’t have a four-year college degree yet. Cor Christi is being developed to flow seamlessly into the three-year Discipleship Stage program offered through Bishop White Seminary. Graduates from Bishop White then go on to a Configuration Stage program at another seminary since we do not have the local resources for an adequate theology curriculum.

For more experienced men with college degrees and for those needing Configuration Stage formation, we turn to other seminaries. The two other seminaries we use currently are St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, CA, and Mount Angel Seminary, just south of Portland, OR. St. Patrick’s has a Propaedeutic Stage program to which the diocese sends its first-year seminarians who already have a college degree. We also use St. Patrick’s for its Discipleship Stage and Configuration Stage programs. The diocese recently resumed using Mount Angel Seminary as another option for Configuration Stage formation.

Spokane contingent at St. Patrick's Seminary Gala

Bishop Daly and Director of Vocations Fr. Ratuiste with the six Spokane seminarians in formation at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University for the 2022-2023 year at a seminary fundraising event. From left to right: Colby Richards (Propaedeutic), Nicholas Magarelli (Discipleship), Christopher Appel (Propaedeutic), Bishop Daly, Andrew Kelley (Configuration), Josh Haxton (Discipleship), Mitch Carey (Propaedeutic), and Fr. Ratuiste.


Example Timelines

Putting all this information together, we can sketch out two typical timelines for a Spokane seminarian, depending on whether he joins the diocese with or without a college degree.

A Spokane seminarian with a college degree can expect his formation to last eight years. An example timeline would be:

  • One year in the Propaedeutic Stage program at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.
  • Two years in the Discipleship Stage program at St. Patrick’s.
  • Four and a half years in a Configuration Stage program at either St. Patrick’s or Mount Angel Seminary.
  • Diaconate ordination after the Configuration Stage.
  • Six months in the Vocational Synthesis Stage at a parish in the diocese.
  • Ordination to the priesthood.


Notably, the four and a half-year Configuration Stage incorporates a “pastoral half-year” during which the seminarian spends one semester in parish ministry in his diocese rather than in classroom studies at the seminary. This is one solution, adopted by both St. Patrick’s and Mount Angel, to the timing challenges posed by having a Vocational Synthesis Stage of no less than six months. This solution allows men to be ordained deacons in December so that they can be ordained priests in June – just in time for the customary start of priest assignments at the start of the fiscal year in July.


A Spokane seminarian without a college degree can expect his formation to last nine years. An example timeline would be:

  • One year in the Propaedeutic Stage program at Cor Christi.
  • Three years in the Discipleship Stage program at Bishop White Seminary, where he will earn his B.A. in Philosophy through Gonzaga University.
  • Four and a half years in a Configuration Stage program at either St. Patrick’s or Mount Angel Seminary.
  • Diaconate ordination after the Configuration Stage.
  • Six months in the Vocational Synthesis Stage at a parish in the diocese.
  • Ordination to the priesthood.