Pandemic brings new challenges to Philippine seminary formation

Seminaries in the Philippines have about a month left to screen all those who wanted to undergo formation for the priesthood before the school year starts.

The screening process has slowed down since March when the government declared a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The process takes some time because applicants have to undergo a series of tests, including psychological evaluation, before the final interview,” said Father Kristoffer Habal of the San Carlos Seminary in Manila.

The priest, who heads the vocation ministry of the archdiocese in the Philippine capital, said applicants still have to undergo online screening.

It is not, however, much of a challenge for San Carlos, said Father Habal, who serves as one of the seminary formators.

He said the seminary has already an existing online platform for the recruitment of young men who wanted to become priests.

The priest said the real challenge is “how to choose the most qualified” among this year’s 120 young applicants who completed and submitted their applications for the school year.

Out of the 120 applicants, only 20 percent will be chosen to enter the seminary either as first year students or as candidates for formation.

Those who just finished senior high school have to undergo an introductory formation course while those who studied in the seminary during high school go straight to “discipleship” for philosophical studies.

Two seminarians in the Diocese of Cubao are ordained to the priesthood amid the coronavirus pandemic on June 13. (Photo by Arah Jodelle Jamandra/CubaoMedia)

According to Father Habal, only 20 percent of the total number of applicants every year come from minor seminaries while more than half are senior high school graduates.

San Carlos Seminary was established in 1702 in the Archdiocese of Manila by decree of King Philip V of Spain.

The institution houses seminarians belonging to various dioceses in the northern part of the country.

Vocation promotion in the midst of the pandemic

Unlike at San Carlos Seminary where there’s an “abundance” of vocations, the Jesuits are facing a different situation.

Father Eric Escandor, SJ, vocations director of the Society of Jesus in the Philippines, said they have to delay the start of their formation this year “because we have no candidates.”

He said that in “normal times,” applicants should have already submitted all necessary documents for a ten-month discernment period by mid-year.

But when the pandemic hit the country in March, the Jesuits stopped the process of selecting applicants.

Father Escandor said it is impossible to do everything online because activities are mostly designed with “face-to-face interaction.”

The recruitment process of the Jesuits starts with a seminar, which requires physical presence.

During the Holy Week, the religious order usually conducts a week-long retreat for those who express their desire to join the formation as novices.

“But this year it was canceled due to the pandemic,” said Father Escandor.

The priest explained that young men who wanted to become Jesuits must first enter the “candidacy house” from where candidates are screened at the end of the program.

“If you pass the exams and the interviews, you have ten months to discern with us,” said Father Escandor. “Not all candidates are selected or choose to continue as novices,” he said.

Novices of the Claretian congregation pose for a souvenir picture after taking their first vows in the congregation in June amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Father Lorenzo Larry, CMF)

The Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, known as the CICM, has turned to a “referral system” to recruit new seminarians this year.

Father Rene Cabag said the coronavirus pandemic hindered the usual visits in schools and colleges for “vocation promotion.”

“Instead, we pursued those candidates who were referred to us or applicants who were already familiar with the vocation,” he said.

The priest said the congregation has already accepted eight new first year students and four “returnees.”

Father Nelson Bisco, vocation director of the Congregation of the Mission, said they had “to shift into digital recruitment” because of the prevailing quarantine protocols.

He said he has already three approved applicants for postulancy and expects three more to confirm before the school year begins.

The formal start of the school year for college freshmen, however, “is still uncertain” due to the changing policies of the government on the start of the school year.

Father Bisco said the congregation’s St. Vincent Seminary is set to initiate a “parish exposure program” this year for seminarians until they can go back to school.

Novices of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary make their first profession of vows with face masks on in June. (Photo courtesy of Father Lorenzo Larry, CMF)

New guidelines for seminary formation

On May 15, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen Dagupan, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Seminaries, issued new guidelines for seminary formation during the pandemic.

The guidelines state that online classes are not applicable all the time for seminary formation because the “other pillars of priestly formation” require “personal accompaniment in the context of community.”

Archbishop Villegas, however, said academic deans “may study prudently” which minor subjects can be taught online, “in extreme conditions.”

The prelate said major subjects “are best taught with physical presence of the teacher and with interaction among the seminarians.”

“Seminarians need to be accompanied in their pastoral, spiritual, and human formation. It is an integrated formation that takes place in the context of community accompaniment,” he said.

Father Escandor of the Jesuits admitted that the delay in the recruitment process “adds to the challenges” that the Church is facing in terms of vocation.

In July last year, there were 11 candidates who qualified to enter the Jesuit’s formation process but only four were accepted to the Novitiate when the discernment period ended in May 2020.

Since Father Escandor assumed as vocation director in 2016, “six was the highest number of candidates who were accepted and entered as novices.”

In 2014, eight out of 11 seminarians were ordained as priests. It was already considered as “one of the biggest batches” for the religious order.

The ideal ratio of priests to Catholics is one to 2,000, but in the Philippines, one priest is shepherding up to 8,000 people.

The Vatican has recorded a decline in the number of priests, both diocesan and those belonging to religious congregations, from 414,969 in 2016 to 414,582 in 2017.

Seminarians attend a prayer rally in the Philippine capital. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

There was also a global decline in the number of candidates for the priesthood from 116,160 in 2016 to 115,328 in 2017.

In 2017, there were only 5,815 candidates who were ordained priests around the world.

Slow but steady growth

The numbers are different in San Carlos Seminary, which for the past five years recorded an average of 120 applicants per year.

Father Habal said vocation in many dioceses is “growing slowly but steadily.”

“While it is true that there is a global decline in the number of men entering the priestly vocation, many of our dioceses do not experience it,” said the priest.

He admitted, however, that the number of priests in the country remains small compared to the total population and to the scale of Church ministries and apostolate.

“The need for priests will never really stop because the Catholic Church in the Philippines and Asia is also continuously growing,” he said.

The St. John Mary Vianney Seminary in the Diocese of San Carlos in the central island of Negros accepts a maximum of 20 candidates to the introductory stage every year.

“Each year, for the past several years, we receive more than 20 applications,” said Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos.

“We are forced to deny a lot of applicants because we can only admit 20 new students,” he said.

The prelate said vocation is “growing” especially in rural areas “where there are no many distractions” and “where young people are closer to their priests.”

Father Escandor of the Jesuits admitted that they use a social media platform “to boost our promotion” of the priestly vocation and to reach out to young people online.

He said, however, that the “best and effective vocation promotion is through witnessing.”

Father Cabag of the CICM said the coronavirus pandemic is a call for church people to “plant the seed of vocation for the young.”

“Through witnessing, we introduce the real meaning of vocation to young people. The capacity to sacrifice, to give yourself to others,” he said.

The priest said vocation is not only about becoming a priest but “the willingness to deny our own personal interest for the sake of those who are in need and the most abandoned.”

“If we, church people, continue what we do, continue to accompany the poor, then time will come that we will harvest the fruits of vocation that we are planting now,” he said.

Father Habal reminded young people wanting to enter the priesthood that the seminary is not just an academic institution but a place “where you come to know Christ, yourself, and humanity.”

“Genuine vocation thrives when there is heroism,” he said. “Seminary life is all about self-giving and life-giving.”

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