In the wake of media reports and amid current, scandalous news headlines on clergy sexual abuse, heartbroken Catholics cry once more, “Why is this happening?” A definitive understanding of why offenders do what they do may not be easy as the world grapples with the complexities of the human psyche, but solace can be found in the extensive work carried out to find and form good candidates for the priesthood.
Catholic Herald magazine spoke with a transitional deacon, the Diocese of Sacramento’s vocation director, and seminary rectors for their perspective on the application process, formation and evaluation of men pursuing a priestly vocation.
Discerning God’s will is not an isolated process
“You are discerning God’s will for your life and the church is discerning as well,” says Dean Marshall, a transitional deacon for the diocese. Deacon Marshall spoke candidly about his own positive experience at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore. and his own clear understanding that throughout the journey there is a serious, mutual and lengthy process that either leads to ordination, or the realization that the priesthood may not be one’s calling.
“You must be vulnerable, and allow yourself to be open to the process,” Deacon Marshall explains, commending Mount Angel for its “superb job in guiding people through discernment, what it means to be a seminarian, and what it means to be a priest.” He suggests an incumbent responsibility rests with the seminarian to attentively work to know himself well enough so that he can answer God’s call honestly or exit as a better man who recognizes his calling may be elsewhere.
“At its core, we move to more fully conform ourselves to the heart of Jesus Christ; that’s what the ‘human formation’ process is all about,” Deacon Marshall adds, pointing to the fact that there is “always work to do.” He stresses that upon entering the process and using the tools provided, a trust develops that “we can become better men of God and better priests.”
His final annual evaluation took place in February. Mount Angel formators invite the “sending” bishop and vocations director to participate.
“It can be daunting and everyone gets nervous,” Deacon Marshall admits, “but I’ve come to look forward to evaluations because it helps me to learn about myself.” He values Bishop Jaime Soto’s presence and says “it’s clear that he is personally invested and interested in my progress.”
In his last year of theology, Deacon Marshall, 33, anticipates ordination in June 2019. A native of Sacramento and a parishioner of St. Mel Parish in Fair Oaks, he openly shares how he chose to enter the Catholic Church in 2005 and that he was baptized at age 20. Now, 13 years later, he is about to become a priest.
“The value of the entire process is to discern God’s will. Our Lord – his grace – works through people and processes to form happy, healthy and holy priests,” Deacon Marshall insists.
Frontline steps to screen and select seminarians
Due diligence in vetting prospective seminarians requires the thorough and exacting work of the diocesan vocation director and his team. Father Jovito Rata, pastor of St. Peter-All Hallows Parish in Sacramento, concluded his term as the diocese’s vocation director in January but spoke of his three-and-a-half years as a commitment to “promote vocations and plant the seed,” offering spiritual nourishment while walking with prospective seminarians on their journey of faith.
Father Rata described six steps that occur before a young man can be recommended to apply to seminary. Critical interviews ascertain important background information about a candidate’s family, loved ones, faith life, and the beginnings of his desire to pursue the priesthood. They also examine the candidate’s academic and work background, social skills and maturity. The candidate also agrees to a psychological assessment.
With great respect and sensitivity, the vocation committee reviews the information and discusses the candidate’s suitability for seminary. If red flags signal concern, the committee thoroughly discusses and weighs the significance of the concern. As appropriate, the committee makes their recommendation to Bishop Soto.
“God willing, the candidate will proceed to the seminary’s screening process,” Father Rata says. The diocesan process can take three to six months. During this time, the committee encourages the candidate to share his discernment story with his family and pastor, emphasizing that the journey to the priesthood is not to be traveled alone.
“I give them materials to read, send them on retreats, and encourage them to pray during this time,” Father Rata explains.
Sometimes a candidate will not proceed. He may be encouraged to work on a problem, resolve issues, or even seek therapy. “We’re trying to be sure a candidate is a good fit, good for this work and ministry,” Father Rata says.
He also shares that the diocese invests in specialized training for individuals who accept the role of interviewing prospects. They learn how to conduct assessment interviews and how to spot ambiguities and challenges.
Yet, Father Rata acknowledges that despite their careful work, it is not always foolproof. “We all can be surprised,” he says, and indicates that while the vocation team may know a person well, an unknown or hidden nature can, although rarely, elude the process or manifest years later.
Since 2002, the diocese requires FBI background checks, more psychological assessments, availability of therapy in seminary, biweekly appointments with formation directors and spiritual directors, and special workshops. “We do everything possible to emphasize this is a serious matter,” Father Rata notes.
Admissions include further screening, ongoing evaluation
Once the diocese accepts and recommends a candidate for seminary, he then engages in the seminary’s admission process. Both St. Patrick’s and Mount Angel have their own extensive proceedings which, in effect, duplicate diocesan measures, but with the seminary’s own staff and external professionals. The “double-check” demonstrates the seriousness of finding men suitable for the priesthood and with an authentic calling from God.
“In addition to the sponsorship by the diocese or religious community recommending the candidate to the seminary, we also require a medical examination and health report, which includes drug screening, a complete psychological evaluation, letters of recommendation from people who know the candidate, including one from his pastor or other priest, and copies of his sacramental certificates and previous transcripts,” says Msgr. Joseph Betschart, president-rector of Mount Angel Seminary since 2012.
He explains further that a candidate submits a 32-page application detailing biographic information, and family, employment, legal and educational history. The candidate also shares his canonical status, religious practice and involvement in the church, and his understanding of the priestly vocation.
“We also conduct a background check for each candidate through Praesidium, Inc., an outside agency specializing in child protection and abuse prevention,” he adds.
An admissions board, comprised of priests, religious and laity, interviews and discusses each candidate and decides on their acceptance to the seminary.
Msgr. Betschart stresses, “Throughout this process, we seek to work collaboratively with the sponsoring diocese or religious community both in evaluating the candidate and the information provided.” He indicates this collaboration continues throughout the seminarian’s formation and ongoing evaluations.
St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, likewise, exercises great diligence in its admissions process, and in subsequent formation and evaluations. Immediate past president-rector, Jesuit Father George Schultze, who concluded his term in January, says “we all have a common language.” He refers to the documents and norms which guide seminaries, namely the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation, St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Shall Give You Shepherds”), and the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy document, “The Gift of Priestly Formation” (Ratio Fundamentalis Instituionist Sacredotalis).
The extent and detail of the documents and processes employed by both seminaries signal a systematic yet profoundly personal approach that must look at a range of human dimensions as well as academic abilities.
“There are documents, interviews, reflections, discussions and screenings,” Father George makes clear, conveying great value when something prompts formators to take a closer look. He offers an analogy shared to him by a seminarian.
“Like TSA (Transportation Security Administration) with its air travel security measures you pass through, sometimes you have to open your bags for a closer look,” Father George says, impressed with the seminarian’s wise parallel.
Seminarians spend up to nine years in formation, aware of the ongoing evaluation and analysis.
“Throughout their time in the seminary, the seminarians are not only being educated and formed for future priestly life and ministry, but they are also constantly being evaluated to help them in their growth and development, and to ensure they are suitable and ready to live the demands of priestly life and ministry in healthy and life-giving ways if ordained, both for themselves and for the people they will serve,” Msgr. Betschart says.
In the current climate, Father Schultze believes that seminarians “recognize that they have a responsibility to witness to what the church is – in your behavior, speech and thinking.”
“I don’t think anyone comes to seminary with devious purpose,” Father Schultze says, confident that such a person “would not pass through our screening processes.” He contends that men come with good will, but also with frailties and weaknesses to grow through. If that does not occur, the church owns a responsibility to counsel and exit the seminarian.
About vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Sacramento at https://www.scd.org/vocations
About Mount Angel Seminary at
About St. Patrick’s Seminary & University at
In photo above, Father Jovito Rata, left, and Deacon Dean Marshall.