FORMATION FOR MISSION: A Psychological Point of View

By Kanjirathamkunnel Shijo, CM
[Paper presented in Mysore, February 2006]


In the context of religious life, the word ‘formation’ would mean preparation to be a religious. Religious life being a way of life, formation has necessarily to deal with the entire person and his personality. The expression of what we are and the quality of our relationships and work would thus depend on the quality and the depth of our being.

In the olden times religious formation was too much structured especially in the novitiate. The novitiate was often influenced by a tendency toward a king of “spiritual behaviorism”. Novices were reinforced positively to follow certain rules and were given negative inforcement when they broke these rules. They learned to manifest behavior that the novice master wanted to see; but manifesting and truly experiencing that behavior were not always synonymous. Consequently, too many novices learned to be more or less caricatures of themselves. They learned the spiritual rules, motions, and gestures, but they did not always experience spiritual living as well as they could have.

Psychology today can contribute a greater part in the continuing education and formation of religious men into persons being made whole in the image and likeness of God (Gen 2.27). It is an invitation to everyone, especially formators and instructors entrusted with the task of forming and of being formed into the religious men with a proper degree of human maturity. It helps to educate human being into a perfect human, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4.3). In order to prepare the formees to meet the challenges of the present time effectively, they must be involved in the study of a post modern approach to human spirituality which amply uses psychological principles.


Holistic Approach


A holistic view of formation seems to be the right approach in the present context to understand formation for mission from the psychological point of view. A balanced notion of change shows us that the person is a complex reality of several levels: the sociological, physiological, ethical, psychological and spiritual. Each of these levels defines who we are and how we interact with the world. A logical follow-up of an integral approach to the formation of religious is a dispassionate acceptance of the recent deductions of psychology and our humble dependence on others life time of psychological research. And this means effective adjustments are to be made during all periods of formation.

Man alone, among all creatures has the privilege and problem of being turned into the being he ought to be. In the case of other living organisms, a combination of the right genes and the appropriate environment are enough to ensure the realization of their goals. The genes represent the possibility of responses evoked by the environment and the latter represents the activation and satisfaction of the demands within the genetic structure.

In the case of man, he has to create the environment first and then teach the appropriate demands before they can be activated, much less satisfied. There is no automatic growth in his case towards his important goals. He must set these for himself and later choose the means of attaining them. True, he possesses many possible goals and means. Goals vary in their worthwhileness and means vary in their efficacy. But choose he must. Viewed in this way, education, formation, personality development and the processes of humanization and socialization, all are as necessary as are our genetic inheritance in the lifelong task of becoming man. Other creatures grow passively, inexorably into what they are destined to be, but man can and must choose his own humanization. The “self realization” of the modern psychologist requires society and the means it provides for this, just as surely as it needs an appropriate, genetic inheritance.

Formation needs to be directed towards the fulfillment of the persons whole being, the development of the individual’s total personality, and the actualization of all his potentialities. Wholeness of personality is possible only when the individual is fully aware and present to the self.

Human Formations


Human formation is a process which results in a mature, well integrated person, able to actualize his own potentialities and simultaneously contribute to the welfare of the society. Human formation is especially necessary since candidates to the seminary often come wounded in need of healing at various stages of their life. It is a gradual and life long process. The seminary community should provide the proper atmosphere for growth with the formators acting as facilitators.


In general human formation aims at


  • An awareness of one’s own inner dynamisms and the integration of needs, feelings, motivation, attitudes, values etc.,
  • A psychological formation
  • Assuring the establishment of an integrated personality and affective maturity
  • The integration of sexuality: preparation for a life of celibacy, a sense of personal discipline
  • Formation in simplicity of life
  • Formation to be in contact with reality
  • Formation to openness to the Holy Spirit and the awareness that one does not have all the answers
  • The willingness to search with others


An authentic personality is not a static but dynamic state: for the religious candidate, it implies selfless service to others, a congruency between actions and words and a belief in the providence of God. The salient features in such a personality include;


  • The capacity to face reality
  • The capacity to face tensions and still function normally
  • An inclination towards unselfishness which transcends personalism
  • Being free in giving and receiving
  • Relationship with superiors and peers which are not characterized by over-dependency or independence but by interdependence.


Here I would like to put down the points pointed out by the Asian formators meeting held in Manila in 1999 for the human and psychological formation.

  1. Discipline has a place in human formation. It might be seen, not in terms of adherence to rigid rules but in reference to human growth.
  2. Atmosphere of freedom. Growth takes place only in an atmosphere of freedom. Freedom of course must be balanced with responsibility
  3. Big numbers in our seminaries are not conducive to personality growth and formation. Hence where big numbers exist the seminary community should be divided into small groups
  4. Structures should be devised to allow students to make decisions and to accept responsibility for them and to learn from their mistakes. Through exposure programs and academic courses seminarians should be helped to confront problems of affectivity and to develop the affective dimension of his personality, becoming more human with human qualities and skills.


Besides there are many aspects that are to be taken care for an integrated formation.


Development of Personality


Development of the personality leads to the realization of self. It is in the measure that ones potentialities are realized that one truly becomes an Adult personality. The human person is a complex composite with many requirements for growth and development. The body and soul have several needs to be satisfied in order to be integrated and to advance in perfection towards what nature has destined for him. He passes through ordinary states of developments in becoming an adult. During the process of development he finds himself with hidden innate dislike of self because of the inability to measure up to an idealized self image.

The formator can very often make the mistake of taking external behavior pattern for a good personality. However any person can wear masks and can masquerade to be what the person is not. In many of the cases formators are helpless because it is not easy to understand the true nature of the person within a short period of time or rather a long time. The fact is that a person will not be able to proceed on the long run by masquerading all the time. Sooner or later it will be out of the book.

Taking care of the psychological aspects of formation the young religious acquire a healthy sense of self worth. Through the self the person becomes aware of his uniqueness, identity and worth. The self enables the person to perceive reality in a certain manner. Self formulates the persons values and shapes his attitude toward life.


Self Awareness


For the first time when the young one is living in a group he will begin to become aware of himself in relation to others. He needs to be helped in this self awareness. It is through the experiences of the self that we discover both the riches and the poverty of our human state. Unless we are present to the self we could never be truly present to others. Unless we accept the reality that the self is the pivotal point of all communication our relationship with God and with our fellow being remains hollow, empty, devoid of meaning and joy.

The wholeness of personality is possible only when the individual is fully aware and present to the self. Search into oneself is often a strenuous and a painful task. Strenuous task because it is a life long struggle to understand oneself fully and secondly it is painful because the more one become aware of ones self it is painful understanding that this is the way I am. This feeling can overcome only when one learns to accept what one is. He must see the positive and negative aspects and help him to accept both. Thus a good community life experience can help the candidate to become aware of ones own self during the time of formation for a greater part of self awareness comes to us in relationship with others.


Right Motivation


The vocations we receive today are from the world where there is a paradigm shift. They may not have the strong faith. There are also boys from dysfunctional families, who suffer from wounds caused by inadequate parenting. It is, therefore necessary to scrutinize the role of values and attitudes in an individual’s dynamics, as in some cases personal ideals are camouflaged by unconscious personal attitudes. Administering the psychological tests with deep respect for the individual dignity as a person will increase his capacity to internalize vocational values.

Motivation is generated by the person’s hierarchy of values or life orientation which in turn is influenced by his heredity and a variety of environmental forces including parents and significant adults. Hence there is a need for psychological formation. However, complex the human motivation may be it is possible to study the principle factors involved in the development and choice of vocation and relate them to expect spirituality oriented motivation that from the basis for a deep rooted and genuine piety. In the light of psychology, motivation of the individual can be purified. In examining the motivation of a candidate, attention should be paid to the psychodynamics of his personality, for what appears as a virtue may actually be a neurosis, a function of a personality disorder or even a psychiatric manifestation.


Emotional Stability


Today when the whole world is talking about emotional intelligence it seems to me that one of the important aspects of psychological formation is emotional stability.

Psychological maturity can be dated fairly accurately from the point at which certain processes can be recognized in the individual. The first of these is the point where emotional control has been established. This does not occur suddenly but is along an arduous process. The second characteristic of maturity is the acceptance of responsibility for one’s own acts to the limits of their foreseeable consequences. The third is the realization by the individual of his autonomy, of his uniqueness as a person.

The notion of control is the point where one can experience an appropriate emotion in appropriate degree such that one’s behavior determines one’s emotions and not the other way around. As long as emotion determines our behavior we are behaving in a very immature way. The adolescent tries to handle emotion by repression or by suppression. Neither of these is the same as control. Control of emotion is a very high level activity indeed.

The appropriate expression of emotion is an important aspect of psychological formation. The mature adult understands and accepts his emotions and learns to express them in ways that are at once socially acceptable and personally satisfying. His broader and more realistic perspective makes him less subject to the unpleasant emotions of fear, anger, hostility, than a child is. But when emotional tensions do arise, he knows how to recognize them to deal with them constructively by channeling their expression, rather than by suppressing them.

To understand ones emotions and express them in an appropriate way certain points we have to remember.

  1. The formator who is in charge of the candidate should have a very good emotional control and appropriate expression. Only a person who is of the above said quality can be a good formator who can teach the candidates who are under his care.
  2. Persons should be taught to accept responsibility for one’s acts to the uttermost limit of their foreseeable consequences. This is a very mature process. I did it not because the group did it or everyone did it but because of certain reasons that I understand as best.

Emotions play a vital role in the life and activities of a person. Emotional stability is one of the most basic requirements for religious life. Religious life makes extraordinary emotional demands and requires that the individual have strong emotional recourses to endure the stresses of this life. Thus the candidate should be mature, well integrated, capable of maintaining good control over his feelings and desires, and be able to face conflicts of opposition that comes his way.

Psycho-sexual aspects of formation


Today there is a real need to foster psychological maturity in the lives of priests as well as a need to witness to others that the life of a priest can be happy, healthy one. We all know that on the sacramental level priesthood is permanent. However, if the choice for priesthood does not foster life and growth in the individual, it is not psychologically permanent. Life as applied to the life of a priest, suggests a need for emphasis on personal development.

Psychologists, though it is disputable, who have done extensive studies on the psychological problems of the priests, observes that many priests have not achieved an integrated psychosexual identity. (Eugene Kennedy, Richard Sipe, Donald Cozzens etc.,)

Celibate life presupposes psychosexual maturity. This implies a proper awareness about one’s own sexuality. According to Dr. Philip Christantiello who was a consultant psychologist to the Archdiocese of New York “Psychosexual maturity is evidenced in the fuller, accrued development and harmonious interplay of the individual’s psychological and sexual capacities within an ordered and ethical value system” Development toward psychosexual maturity rests upon the individual’s ability to evolve an internalized value system. The individual making such progress will not only recognize the personal reality of hi sexuality, but will seek to identify, question, refine and incorporate a sexual ethic. Thus the maturing individual discovers not only the validity of his biological capacities but also seeks to appreciate their value, understand their meaning and assume personal responsibility for their use.

Psychosexual integration involves a dynamic growth along a wide continuation of behaviors and characteristics. It will be reflected and expressed in all aspects of our lives, including the creativity with which we approach our vocation and ministry, the quality of prayer and interpersonal relationships.

The following points are suggested for a healthy psychosexual integration in the life and ministry of priests.


  • Deepening personal awareness and good self knowledge
  • Developing healthy and intimate relationship among priests
  • Being comfortable within one’s own body and sexual feelings
  • Adequate knowledge of sexual anatomy and physiology as well as a current information on sexual issues and concerns
  • Growing integration between the human and the holy, between the sexual energy and our spirituality.

Since celibacy impinges on sexuality, and sexuality permeates the whole person it may be influenced by many different aspects or limitations of a person. Even, non-sexual needs or conflicts such as a feeling of inferiority or a problem of aggression may use psychosexual behavior as an avenue of expression. Hence psychosexual problems are often only symptom of a deeper problem and may represent a compensatory response to overwork, emotional exhaustion, a breakdown in a seminarian’s prayer life and so on.

From an immediate tendency of infatuation in which the complementary sex is deemed merely as an object to express one’s feeling passions, one has to rise up to the mature levels of sublime love. The celibate must relate to the woman as to a person deserving all the respect due to a person , as to someone who feels needs, who thinks, who is self directed, who accomplishes, who lives, who loves, who fears, in her own right. She is not merely an object that the young religious had denied himself in terms of sexual satisfaction. In other words a religious has to learn a mature interpersonal skill for mature interpersonal relationships with women. They are members of the human race. They are people. It means that the young men


· Have to interact with women without inhibition, learn to interchange ideas with women, have discussion with women, and learn not to be afraid of them.

· The seminary environment should challenge the candidate to grow in celibacy to become more loving and service oriented. Hence healthy relationships should be fostered.

· Celibacy is linked to the other evangelical virtues of poverty and obedience. Hence formation in celibacy must go hand in hand with training towards simplicity of life and responsible obedience.

· Finally let us not forget that only with a solid spiritual life we will be able to lead a celibate life. A seminarian’s spiritual life should be centered on a deep, personal, intimate, relationship with Christ.


Priestly spirituality is service oriented. It is thus a pastoral spirituality to which prayer has an important place.


The Psychological Role of Formators


Formators are to be men of exemplary life endowed with knowledge and virtue. The formator must be a person of conviction and with a profound faith that is revealed through his words and actions. And to ensure a realistic formation, the formator needs to have had pastoral experience.

Above all a formator should be a person of psychological maturity. In order to guide the candidate, the formator should have sufficient psychological awareness and maturity. He needs to be aware of his own personal gifts, as well as the positive and negative aspects of his personality, such psychological maturity implies a mature control of the emotions, a realistic self-concept, an ability to form interpersonal relations, and a mature self-confidence. A matured formator is open to criticism, observations from others and willing to correct himself and able to make balanced decision with a sense of responsibility. The formator should have a mature affective life, with the capacity to love and allow himself to be loved in an appropriate and selfless way.

Here I would like to take Carl Rogers approach, a psychologist from the humanistic school of thought, for every formator to be effective formators.

The basic assumption of this part is that the fundamental goal of formation is to help candidates to grow and enable them through a helping relationship to actualize their complete potential to achieve wholeness thus they become true Disciples of Christ based on the spirit of the congregation.


Carl Rogers and Helping Relationship


Carl Rogers (1902-1987) born in Illinois and was fortunate enough to grow in a family atmosphere of warm relationships embedded in strict Christian principles. During his theological studies at Union Theological Seminary he seriously thought about his religious commitment later he deepened his learning in educational psychology at Colombia University. His twelve years of practice in child guidance clinics helped him to develop a counseling method of his own, known as Client-Centered Therapy. An understanding of the same will be of immense benefit to formators.


Basic Concepts


The basic principle is that if the therapist can create a basic trust in the client, the client can move forward in a constructive manner. Therefore, appropriate conditions are to be provided to foster the growth. When the therapist is able to communicate this feelings to the client, changes in the client is most likely to occur. This positive view of human person has significant implications because the responsibility is of the client.

The goal of the Client-Centered Therapy is to assist clients in their growth process so that they can better cope with problems they are facing and with future problems. The underlying aim of therapy is to provide a climate conducive to helping the individuals to become a fully functioning person. Rogers gives three basic qualities that a therapist should have; Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathetic Understanding.

People experience growth in and through a relationship with another person who is caring, understanding, and real. Therefore, a formator who is congruent, accepting and empathetic can facilitate healthy changes in the formee. The purpose of formation must be in Rogerian terms, emergence of people as fully functioning persons. The four basic aspects of a person who is on the process of becoming fully functioning person are,


  1. Openness to experience
  2. Trust in one’s organism
  3. An internal locus of evaluation
  4. Willingness to be a process


And I feel that a formators role also includes encouraging these characteristics in the formees. These lead a person to be a self actualized person by becoming an authentic personality which means


  1. Interacting with others directly without any mask or acting
  2. Living according to one’s own life principles rather than according to the expectations of others.


Life is a process of becoming and there is always a positive direction in human beings towards growth and maturity. When the individual is more understood ad accepted the more he is tend to move forward. There is an organic tendency toward ongoing growth and development. This natural capacity for growth and development is the most important characteristic in a human person that a formator should concentrate. For, a formator’s foremost aim is to enable the formee to be an authentic person after the image of Jesus whose authenticity is unquestionable. In making fisher men into fishers of men Jesus was focusing on man’s capacity for self actualization together with the senses Rogers used.


Ingredients of Helping Relationship


Rogers from his own rich experiences as a psychologist has derived three important ingredients that stand vital for a helping relationship. It is worth noting them.




Congruence implies that in a helping relationship a therapist has to be real, genuine, integrated, authentic and true to his self. He has to express in an acceptable way his feelings and attitudes that result in a helping relationship. Thus in his struggling to be real, the therapist becomes a model.

Today in formator-formees relationship all those qualities are expected. A formator in his true self has to be a model for the formees. A formators life speaks so loudly that formees may not hear what he speaks. Formators congruence is counted much more than anything. If the formator is congruent the helping relationship will be much more easy and efficient.

The formator should be transparent in his exchange with the candidate that is there should not be any discrepancy between what he says and what he does. Relationship presupposes relationship. The formator as far as possible should be aware of his feelings and avoid any pretence.


Unconditional Positive Regard


Here the therapist values and accepts the client without any condition. There is a need to communicate to the other in a deep caring and genuine manner. This caring is in view of a helping relationship. We have to relate to the other person for whom we have positive feelings.

The basic need of every person is to experience attitudes of acceptance, respect, sympathy, warmth and love from others. If a formator is able to give a feeling to the formees irrespective his behavior that he is accepted, a positive growth is the outcome is the result that we can expect. Here the candidate becomes free from the threat of external evaluation. Once formee is free from the threat of external evaluation it will enable the formee for an open sharing. And the formee is on the process of becoming.

In a formation program the formator should be ready to accept the candidate with his own personal experience and to allow him to work through those experiences. The young person joining a religious order comes from a particular culture or background. The new lifestyle that he finds in the religious order, the languages, the people, and the way of life are different. A margin must be allowed for adjustment and the time given to adjust oneself and to the group. It is a struggle. So the person needs acceptance and love. The formator should very prudently deal with each person encouraging with positive affirmation.


Empathetic Understanding


One of the main tasks of the formator is to understand the feelings of the formees, being sensitive to what is going on in the formees. It emphasizes that the formator will sense the formees feelings as if they were his own without getting lost in that feelings. When the formator is able to sense the feelings and meanings which the formee is experiencing in each moment and when the formator is able to communicate something of that understanding to the candidate it is leading to a good formation.

It is important to be aware of ones own feelings and emotions while getting into the shoes of the candidate. When the formator is getting into the world of the formee, his inner feelings and meaning, the formator should be careful not to loose oneself. To be precise the formator has to learn to separate from the formees in an honest way while sympathetically understanding the formee. A formator must place himself in the frame of reference of the candidate, perceiving the world as he perceives it and sharing his world with him.

Such principles have their place in any formation program. In religious formation, the formator seeks to accompany the candidate in his formation journey, so he needs to create a supportive environment, accepting and recognizing the value of each candidate.

Common factors that are obstacles which confront a candidate for the religious life:


1. A common experience is that the candidate is not able to be open with the formator or the formative community. This usually results form a lack of maturity in the candidate which may reveal itself as

2. A lack of self-confidence and a feeling of insecurity in the community.

3. A looking for acceptance from others and a search for attention

4. A lack of affective maturity where the candidate is reluctant to discuss emotional or sexual matters

5. Unhappy family background, poor relationship with parents, insecurity in the family, low social status of the family, peer group pressure etc., can also be obstacles in a religious formation.


Rogers approach to human person would be the best methods I feel to form candidates to religious life when confronted with these situations.




We have been trying to understand formation for mission from a psychological view points. To be an effective missionary a person should be an integrated person who had directed his self towards wholeness thus attaining a minimum level of emotional stability, right motivation, self awareness and psycho-sexual maturity. And for the formators to be effective in guiding the candidates given under their care approach of Karl Rogers is very useful and suitable. Helping the candidate towards fullness by accompanying in his journey by being genuine in the relationship, being empathetic and accepting the candidate as he is, is a good psychological formation method that we can adopt to our own formation programs. Thus formation for mission from the psychological point of view must be oriented towards the wholeness of the person and an integrated personality.


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