FORMATION FOR MISSION: From Philosophical and Cultural Perspectives

By Mathew Kallamackal , CM
[Paper presented in Mysore, February 2006]


It was after the 19th Ecumenical Council of Trent, held on 13 December 1563, that the organized seminary system for the formation of priests was introduced. Seminaries, as we have them today, trace their origin to the legislation of the Council of Trent. The Council in its XXIII session, resulting in chapter XVIII of its decree, discussed various aspects of Holy Orders and especially priestly formation. Since then the Seminary system has undergone many changes and reforms, partly by way of improving the deficiencies which have come to light over time by experience and partly because of the emerging scientific development and societal changes. Significant changes have taken place in the post Vatican II period, both in the content of the curriculum and in the approaches to formation.

In speaking of the formation of priests, Vatican Council II makes provision for each nation and for each rite to have its own program of priestly training. The document states

Since only regulations of a general nature can be made, owing to the wide diversity of peoples and countries, each nation or rite should have its own Program of Priestly Training. …. In every such program, the general regulations will be adapted to the circumstances of time and place, so that priestly training will always answer the pastoral requirements of the particular area in which the ministry is to be exercised. [1]

In order to answer the pastoral requirement of the particular place, situations and circumstances many changes have been introduced in the seminary system of formation and the changes in the system of formation have produced great impact in our missionary endeavor. Though we have introduced many changes in the seminary system for the formation of priests we have not given a serious thought to use the energy and talent of the women religious and lay women in the process of formation of the clergy. The domineering, patriarchal mind set of the clergy which often is an obstacle for collaborative missionary effort can not be changed without the presence of women in the formation process. The point I would like to make in my presentation is that the philosophical concept on which the present day seminary system for the formation of the clergy is based , scriptures and early Christian tradition give foundations for collaborating with women in a meaningful way in the formation process. The creation of a new society requires the collaboration of both men and women, and it can not be accomplished by one group. Our missionary effort to establish the kingdom on earth can not be effectively accomplished without the collaborative effort of both men and women. The clergy which is not learned this in the formation period is an obstacle for meaningful collaborative effort.

Platonic Idea of the formation of Guardians

The formal seminary system of the Catholic Church for the formation of priests is based on the Platonic idea of the formation of the Guardians or the Philosopher King. The following explanation indicates the similarity between the platonic system and the present system of our seminary formation. Though one can notice a close similarity between the Platonic concept of the formation of the Guardians and the present day seminary system for the formation of priests, there is a significant difference with regard to the role of women in the process of formation. Plato gives an important place for women in the formation process.

· Present day seminary system of formation is borrowed from Platonic concept of the formation of the Guardians.

· Similarity in the Selection Process

· Similarity in the training

· Similarity in Life

Platonic System of training

Seminary system

1. Selection

· The selection to be trained for the Guardian class is open to all classes including women.

· Throughout the Republic in the early years of child development all children must be kept under constant observation and testing in order to identify those children who are to be trained for the guardian class.

· We do not consider women in the selection process. Women have very little role in the entire system of formation.

· The concept of apostolic seminary to identify those children who are to be admitted into the minor seminary to begin the seminary formation: Vocation camps for selection.

2. Training

A) First stage

Their training is by education and by service to the state

· Education begins with study of the literature for the mind and gymnastics for the strength and health of the body.

· Those who are found not fit are asked to discontinue the training.

Operative principle: A mere desire to become a Guardian class is not enough, the trainee have to prove his or her ability to be a Guardian.

B) Second Stage

· They will then ascend on the divided line of knowledge to be trained in mathematics and astronomy and other sciences.

Operative principle: trainees are helped to think about the eternal truths of the intelligible world. It is also a preparation for the deeper study of the dialectic.

C) Third Stage

· Study of Dialectic, the highest form of knowledge

· By reason alone he or she come to know the eternal truth

D) Fourth Stage

· After the completion of theoretical studies the candidate is “sent back to the cave.” He will spend 15 years in the world in this probationary period.

· During this probationary period they are not supported by any institution.

Operative principle; It is not enough to prove the ability through theoretical leaning but also through practice, by facing real life situations the candidate should prove that he or she is worthy to be a Guardian.

First stage: Minor Seminary

· Language course, study of literature for the mind

· Yoga for the body

· Those who are found not fit are asked to discontinue the training.

Operative principle: A mere desire to become a priest is not enough; the seminarian has to prove his ability to be a priest.

Second Stage: Philosophy

· Philosophical studies

Operative principle: Seminarians are helped to think about the eternal truths. It is also a preparation for studying theology.

Third Stage: Theology

· Study of theology

· Knowing God the eternal truth

Fourth Stage: Regency, Diaconate ministry

· Difference in number of years

· During regency we are supported by the institutions. So we do not get the real experience of the life situations of the people. (e.g. when you are sick during the regency we know that a big institution is behind us to take care of us. Ordinary people do no have that sense of security. )

3. Life

· Forbidden to posses any private property or any money

· They must live, men and women, like soldiers in barracks with common meals and sleeping quarters

· The food, Clothing, and equipment will be provided by the producer class.

· Their food is simple and moderate quantities.

· They are to have no family life in order to avoid any conflict between family loyalties and their loyalties to the state.

Life of a priest

· Money question

· They live in presbytery

· Everything is provided, either by parish or agencies, or province

· Simple food

· No family life

The selection to be trained for the guardian class is from all classes including women. Women as well as men possess the natural capacity of intelligence to become members of the ruling class. Plato stands out in the history of western philosophy as the first supporter (along with Socrates) of the intellectual equality of the sexes. Book V of the Republic has been hailed by the contemporary women’s movement for its defense of the equality of the sexes. There is only one deference between men and women, Plato argues, and that is that males beget and women bear children. But this deference has no more to do with functioning in the political life of the city than the difference between being bald-headed or having hair. So we see that in the very idea on which the present day seminary system is built up there is strong foundation for partnership between men and women in the process of formation of the priests. However in the present day system of formation this collaboration is minimal.

Role of women in Jesus’ Mission

A. Women as missionaries

Jn 4: The dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan woman was not a kind of ‘docile’ woman who would accept whatever is told by a man.

She is a critical women, with views of her own, and therefore was able to put questions to Jesus. Nor was the Samaritan woman who shies away, but someone who could enter into a dialogue of partnership. Dialogue look place in the mode of a partnership.

The dialogue leads also to a greater awareness also for the woman, and it finally leads her to becoming a missionary who goes to the Gentiles. She changes the course of history. Christianity goes out to the Gentile world. She believes and then proclaims without hesitation, and the whole community believes. So in the mission of Jesus women take an important place.

Women leadership in the beginning of Christianity

Acts 12: 12ff: Peter is released; he goes to the house of Mary the mother of John. Tabitah (Acts 9: 36ff) – it is a group of widows who have the courage to go to Peter and bring her back to life. The initiative they look – Example of women leadership in early Christian house-churches. Significant is the fact that it was a time of crisis. It is striking that women were leaders in time of crisis. – whether at the death of Jesus or at the persecution of early Christianity.

Women were traveling missionaries and leaders of the house-churches

Lyddia. Acts 16: 14ff. The understanding is that it is from here that Paul establishes the Church at Philippi. Lyddia was the leader. Lyddia opened her house and transformed it into house-church. Letter to the Philippi expresses a lot of joy, sign that Paul was very happy about a Church where women like Lyddia were the leaders.

Women as equal partners in the missionary endeavor of the early church

Phil. 4: 2-3. Paul refers to Euodia and Syntche as those who struggled hard with him for the Gospel. They are referred to as equal partners. They are not referred to as helpers or assistants. Women work on an equal basis with men in the missionary activities of the early church.

We see in tradition and scripture that there are very strong foundations for healthy partnership and collaboration between men and women. We see in the Gospels Jesus empowering the Samaritan woman and restoring the dignity of her womanhood enabling her to participate in His mission. We also have many other examples of women as collaborators of Jesus such as Mary Magdalene – the first witness and an apostle of Jesus’ Resurrection. We also see women like Lyddia, Eodia and Syntche who collaborated with Paul on an equal basis to build up the church in the early Christian period. However when the church began to get institutionalized, women and her agency lost their rightful place. Clericalism has come to control the religious life. Clericalism is centralization of the church and its functioning around the ordained ministers. Medieval anthropology considered man as the center of the universe creating lack of space for a healthy collaboration between men and women. Women’s presence and participation in Jesus’ movement and in the missionary activities of the early church is sidelined and forgotten. Today we need to bring them alive and recover their memories.

Why Collaboration

  • The creation of a new society requires the collaboration of both men and women, and it can not be accomplished by one group.
  • We find today increasing cooperation among men and women in various secular sectors of life. Examples: corporate life, researches, Non-governmental organizations. Experience further shows that in the secular world where there is healthy collaboration of men and women, the productivity and efficiency become better.
  • In the cooperate world the collaboration is fostered for the pragmatic purpose of greater production and efficiency. We need to offer another value-based model of collaboration between men and women. This is based on our faith conviction that men and women are created equal and that they were equal partners in the missionary effort of the early Christianity.
  • The collaborative effort of today fosters a dependency and paternalistic model which would eclipses the leadership potentialities of women religious in the missionary effort. The implication of this model is that only man makes the decision, and women compliment it by fulfilling. Here the male is the norm and standard. As a result the emergent quality of our missionary effort is lost.

Scientist would speak about two types of qualities; natural quality and emergent quality. Natural quality is the quality which each element would manifest. Emergent quality is the quality which is produced when tow elements join together. For example: Hydrogen has its own natural quality and Oxygen also has its own natural quality. But when Hydrogen and Oxygen join together in a proportionate way what we get is water. Water can quench our thirst. We feel very refreshed when we take a shower in the water. This refreshing quality is known as emergent quality. Hydrogen left to itself or Oxygen left to itself do not have such refreshing qualities. Missionary effort becomes vibrant when there is a collaborative model of partnership. Changes should happen first in the seminaries and that would reflect in the mission work.

Present day scenario

  • For formation of women religious, priests give a lot of classes
  • Sure changes are coming. We note for example a few sisters teaching in the seminaries, but only a handful.

The platonic concept of formation of Guardians based on which the present day seminary system is built provides the foundation for the partnership model of collaboration between men and women. Scriptures, Jesus’ movement and the early Christianity provides the foundation for the partnership model of collaboration. Without a partnership model of collaboration we lose the emergent quality in our missionary effort.

Formation for mission

The aim of formation is to discover and respond to God’s unique call to each one of us to follow Christ and continue his mission according to our specific congregational charism. Formation needs formators. The principal formator is, of course, the Spirit at work in our hearts, forming us into the image and likeness of Christ the Lord. Next comes the person being formed, the primary human agent of formation, for all formation is ultimately self-formation. But then there are those we call formation directors. The task of the formation director is to mediate the relationships of the formandi with God, the Church, and the Congregation. It is unnecessary to list the qualities of a successful formation director. Suffice it to say that the formation director forms most effectively through the witness of a life that is humanly, spiritually and apostolically integrated. People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience, than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories.

We should not identify formation with training. Training pertains to imparting skills, making people competent to handle certain responsibilities. So we train our members as teachers, social workers, pastors, retreat preachers etc. Formation is something different. Formation has to do with transformation, with inculcating attitudes, with imparting a vision and a spirit. Formation is about imparting a basic existential attitude that enable us to live and respond to concrete situations in life in accord with the dictates of the Spirit. Hence we ask, What is the Spirit saying to the Vincentians of Asia Pacific region as we form our members for mission? What concrete dimensions of life must we respond to? How will formation prepare us for such a response?

Our mission

We would need to begin by asking what our mission is. Our mission is to participate in the mission of Jesus. There are different ways of articulating the mission of Jesus. Some may favor the social orientation of the Lord’s mission announced in Lk . Chapter 4. Others may find enthused by the Lord saying. “I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.” Still others may cherish the forgiving, reconciling mission of Jesus the healer, the Good Shepherd. Our specific congregational charism is to participate in Jesus’ mission to evangelize and serve the poor. Encounters with most abandoned in places like Folleville and Chatillon changed St. Vincent’s understanding of the gospels and led him to an ever deepening relationship with Christ the Missionary of the Father. With the help of his friends St. Vincent discerned where the Sprit was leading him in life and gradually he discovered that his vocation was to follow Christ, the evangelizer of the Poor. Vincent de Paul was convinced that Christ is present in the poor. He tried to prepare his missionaries to discover Christ among the poor and walk in Christ’s footsteps in the mission. Vincentian spirituality is a spirituality for mission. The five characteristic virtues of the congregation should be seen as means to be freer for mission. St. Vincent frequently spoke about them as virtues for mission, helping us to be better evangelizers of the poor.

Though the specific Congregational charism was very clear from the first days of its foundation, the ministries and structures which flowed from Vincent’s original inspiration developed slowly. Responding to the pressing needs of the time the first missionaries expressed the charism by preaching popular missions in the countryside. Gradually events, situations and requests prompted them to assume the work of forming the clergy. Within a few years missionaries went out beyond the borders of France to support the local Churches in Italy, Ireland, Madagascar etc. First missionaries always, keeping in mind the specific Congregational charism, responded to the situations they encountered.

In the light of our mission, what existential attitude is the Spirit asking us by way of response. In other words what sort of spirituality of formation must we seek. Clearly it must not be an “otherworldly” spirituality but an “another world” spirituality – one that commits us to help create that other world, a world of justice and love, a world in which the dignity of the poor is respected and cared for. We are called to evangelize in the present society with its own specific needs, values and disvalues. There are so many issues we need to respond to. I would like to highlight here three concrete dimensions of present day Indian society we must respond to. These are Religious Pluralism, Cultural Pluralism and Subaltern Movements.

Religious pluralism

  • Hunger and search for the Absolute continues to be manifest in diverse ways in the rich and varied religious traditions of India. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and some of the tribal religions.
  • Religious Pluralism has to be appreciated and given a positive value. In his ‘treaties on creation’ St. Thomas Aquinas designates diversity as a perfection of the universe. The universe as a whole is made of diversely created realities related to each other, to the whole and to God.
  • Pluralism offers an element of choice by providing an alternate vision of reality alternate ways of life. There is also an emphasis on the “mystery” aspect of God, namely that God or Truth is too profound to be exhausted by any particular dimension of reality and life, and that God, as an Absolute Being is beyond the comprehension of humans.

Our mission in pluralistic India is to join hands with our neighbors of other faiths and participate in God’s continuing mission in the world – to mend the brokenness of creation, to overcome fragmentation of humanity and to heal the rift between humanity, nature and God. Our mission has to take place in the context of pluralism of different types. Each religion is a response to the divine self-communication, the divine self-disclosure, though different religion may name this reality of the divine, differently.

Our missionary activities take place in the context of the religious revival. Although postmodernism, secularism and individualism have had an impact on the religiosity of the many, it is also evident that in many countries a religious awakening has taken place. The contemplative prayer in Asia, Basic Ecclesial Communities, the movement to promote the liberation of the poor in Latin America are evidence of this in the Catholic church. The resurgence of Islam, the expansion of Buddhism and renewed interest in Hinduism are also signs of a new religious interest. Frequently, religious revival has taken the form of religious fundamentalism. In some instances it has provoked tensions and divisions. But it has also been an opportunity for reflection and growth. It has made possible deeper reflection on the values present in other religions, and it has highlighted the increased need for inter-religious dialogue. It has also given rise to the questions about the nature of missionary activities.

Formation Imperative

  1. Fostering an attitudinal change in mindset as preparation for interreligious dialogue especially among those we work with and work for. Interreligious dialogue not only respects individuals, but also their religious traditions, cultures, history of their struggles, religiosity, economic and political realities.
  2. Offering a theological basis for dialogue. Fostering a universal vision of God’s abiding presence and saving love offered to the entire human family. The Lord that Asia needs is the Lord Jesus of self-emptying compassion who was open to all that is authentically human.

Cultural Pluralism

The modern world has become more aware of cultural diversity. Cultures are not static, isolated entities. They change and develop. All cultures have values and disvalues. Cultures constantly come in contact with each other. These encounters can be mutually enriching, but can also be confrontational. For Jesus, as human being, his culture was natural to him. What is of particular importance is that Jesus transformed the Jewish culture by being counter-cultural to whatever was inconsistent with his relation to God. Each of us is born into a particular culture which we value. All the same, we transcend this culture for a Christic culture. This means that we must avoid any romanticism in inculturation. Our critical sense must identify and, in a prudent way, confront elements in culture and religion that perpetuate injustice and denigrate the human person. Culture and religion can sometimes be the strongest sanction for dehumanizing structures and practices.

Formation imperative

  1. God created all countries and all cultures, each with its own beauty and wealth of wisdom. It is the formators’ task to bring this out in intellectual exchanges, in liturgy, in recreation for the sake of enriching each other.
  2. As an essential part of vincentian life, while we value our culture and the cultures of those we live with and work for, we transcend a particular culture for the sake of the gospel.
  3. Courses offered during initial formation should also treat inculturation and should reflect on the human adjustments needed for entering other cultures. Courses should also explore the ways of doing theology in different cultures.
  4. Attitude of flexibility and openness need to be developed, as well as a mobility that is not just geographical, but also cultural and social. Readiness to go to any part of the world according to the example of the first missionaries of the Congregation has to be fostered.
  5. Fostering an attitude which goes beyond ethnocentrism and its temptation to compare cultures with one’s own with the implication that ‘ours’ is better.

Subaltern Movements

When a weaker section or a more disadvantageously placed group is discriminated purposely and set aside unjustly at the periphery, they are marginalized people. These would include the Dalits, the tribal people, and the backward casts. The poverty of the Dalits has many faces: they are landless, homeless and powerless and are confined to certain type of jobs. For tribals the land is their life. Strangely enough, they experience painful struggles due to displacement at different levels. Large river valley and mining projects are causing untold misery to the tribal people. Their land has been taken away, with little or no compensation given. Hurting memories of the unsavory past associated with domination and even persecution burn within the hearts of the marginalized groups. All such groups are fully aware of the injustice meted out to them and how they are robbed of their human dignity and condemned to a life of poverty and powerlessness. The dalits comprise about 16.33 % of Indian population and Tribal 8 %.

  • Subaltern movements, such as the Dalit and tribal movements, struggle to define or preserve their cultural identities and survival systems against the caste and other oppressive forces.
  • Even among the poor there are sections which are being subjected to social inequalities for reasons beyond their control. Some suffer because they were born in a particular caste.

Formation Imperative

  1. Providing opportunity for an experiential knowledge of the heartthrobs of people in distress.
  2. Gaining strength by association with like minded group to solve people’s problems. Left to ourselves we can have only the smallest impact on the problems of the marginalized. If we are to be part of our people’s march towards the promised Kingdom, it must be through associating ourselves with forces and groups who share our vision and our principles. If we review our Vincentian formation patterns we must acknowledge the concerns of the nation impinge very little on formation processes. The major preoccupations of the truly committed secular groups like Amnesty International, Peace group, rarely find an echo in our conversations and the way we spend our day. Unless we learn – already in formation – to make common cause with all people of good will in areas like concern for communal harmony, concern for erosion of human rights, it is hard to see how real difference we will be making to solve the problems of the marginalized.
  3. human rights education which also includes rights of women, Dalits and tribal.
  4. Promoting civilizational values not merely of tolerance, but forgiveness, compassion and kinship based on humanity of people , hospitality and kindness. In short heart values should prevail over head values.
  5. The temporal and physical welfare of the marginalized segment of the society must not be seen as a means to an eschatological end, but that it is an end in itself because all children of the God have the right to live a human, dignified existence.


Formators are good at setting an example of and teaching our charism and our spirituality within the precincts of our houses of formation. Formators are good at leading the formandi towards a personal experience of God. Perhaps what needs more emphasis is the fact that this personal experience of God must also lead to mission. It is not enough that we produce Vincentians who live in the presence of God. The poor, the marginalized, the tortured and persecuted all cry out for justice. They cry out for our hand in various places in the Asia Pacific region. Formators need to form their formandi to be true prophets who do not stop at praying for the world, but who extend their hand and their voice to those calling for help. Transformation of society requires conversion on three levels i.e. personal, inter-personal and structural. Vincentians should take these areas of conversion seriously, so that we will promote an empowering church and society.

[1] Optatam Totius, Vatican II Decree on the Training of Priests, no. 1

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