EXPLAINER: A Seminary Primer, Part III – Missionary Discipleship and Priestly Formation

May 3, 2023

Above: Seminarians Christopher Appel (L) and Andrew Kelley with Director of Vocations, Fr. Kyle Ratuiste (R) at the SEEK23 conference by FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) attended by over 17,000 participants in January 2023. While collegiate outreach organizations like FOCUS use the terminology of “missionary discipleship” to describe their activities, the Church proposes this concept not just to college students but to all the faithful.

By: Fr. Kyle Ratuiste

Seeking to understand priestly formation can be overwhelming. Already in this brief series of articles, we have introduced the concepts of the four dimensions of formation and the four stages of formation. Amidst all the details and ideas, we can find ourselves saying, “Please remind me, what is the point of all this again?”

The Program for Priestly Formation (the guiding document for forming future priests in the United States, hereafter abbreviated PPF) provides this succinct answer:

The goal of priestly formation is to form missionary disciples so that they are ready for consecration as shepherds for God’s People, sharing in the authority of Christ the Redeemer, who sent the Apostles to preach and heal. (n.14)

I would like to unpack this sentence, paying special attention to the concept of missionary disciples.

“Missionary disciples” is a term that the Church has used in recent teaching to succinctly describe the two-part vocation of being a Christian: living the faith from an encounter with Jesus Christ (i.e., being a disciple) and sharing the faith (i.e., being a missionary). In his encyclical letter Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis writes,

In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). . . Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”. (n. 120)

Notably, the call to be missionary disciples is applicable to all the baptized, not just to priests, religious, or professional “church workers.” To be a missionary disciple is simply to bear witness to what you have received from Jesus because you could not help but share the goodness you experienced. This is not so much a matter of education and credentials but rather of encounter. Pope Francis mentions the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4-42) as an example: because of her encounter with Jesus at the well, she immediately went and told her village about what he did for her.

If missionary discipleship is more a matter of personal encounter with Jesus rather than formal education about Jesus, this has significant implications on seminary formation: A well-educated seminarian may not necessarily be a missionary disciple! Therefore, the initial stages of seminary, namely the Propaedeutic and (properly called) Discipleship Stages, place a special emphasis on helping the seminarian experience and deepen his foundational encounter with Jesus. The seminary fosters this experience most obviously through prayer and the sacraments. At the same time, Christo-centric relationships with formators and fellow seminarians are an avenue of encounter. Lastly, seminary seeks to recast intellectual formation as another way to encounter Christ who has revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).

Missionary discipleship is a universal call for all Christians, and it is foundational to priestly formation. As the PPF states, “The goal of priestly formation is to form missionary disciples so that they are ready for consecration . . .” In a sense, seminary – especially at the beginning – is a focused opportunity for Catholic men to be formed simply as faithful Catholic men with a capacity for being set apart by the “consecration” of priestly ordination. Seminary does not presume to form missionary disciples from scratch. Rather, it is a continuation of the basic Christian formation we would desire all men to receive, but with a particular intensity and direction toward priesthood.

While growing in missionary discipleship, seminarians discern God’s will and prepare to become priests who are themselves missionary disciples and who form and lead of other missionary disciples. As the PPF states, our future priests are to be “shepherds for God’s People, sharing in the authority of Christ the Redeemer, who sent the Apostles to preach and heal.” Just as Christ called, taught, and sent his first disciples, so too are his priests to do for subsequent generations of missionary disciples.