A Guide to Seminary Formation

Update recently spoke with Permanent Deacon Ed McCormack (Archdiocese of Washington), formation faculty member and Coordinator of Intellectual Formation at Theological College, The National Seminary of The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, to learn more about the publication of his recent two-volume work: A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminary Faculty and A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminarians. We wanted to get behind “The Introduction” to better appreciate Deacon McCormack’s musings and motivation as he constructed this essential guide for seminary formators in the Catholic Church. This conversation occurred on the campus of Theological College (TC).

Deacon Ed McCormack, Ph.D. has served for the past 8 years on the formation faculty of Theological College and served 4 years on the formation faculty of St. Mary’s Seminary and University. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from The Catholic University of America.

Update (UD): Deacon Ed, it is a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for agreeing to meet in person to discuss your recent books. Please describe for us why you wrote this two-volume guide?

Deacon McCormack (DMc): Thank you for this opportunity. I wrote them for two reasons: 1) I wanted to provide a resource for seminary formators from the documents that I had been creating and collecting to help me serve better as a formation advisor. 2) I was frustrated by some seminarians coming to formation advising without fully understanding the relationship and how they should prepare for it. When seminarians do not prepare for formation advising, the conversation can be a dull check list of tasks accomplished and tasks to be competed. But so much more is going on within these formative events, experiences to be reflected upon and integrated. So, I designed a document that better prepared my advisees for advising sessions. These early documents were the forerunner of my two-volume guide.

(UD): So, your project served a dual purpose: both to benefit you as a new formator and to benefit new seminarians by orienting them to the process of formation and the purpose and content of your sessions.

(DMc): Exactly. As I began to use these documents in working with the seminarians, our conversations became very fruitful. I then began gathering material for other parts of the formation advising process. When new formators joined the faculty, I found them to have some of the same initial questions about formation that I had. So, I began sharing these documents with them, and they found them very helpful. One May, as the semester ended, I thought: “This summer I’ll write up more of this information for new faculty coming in.” Then I proposed to Fr. Gerry McBrearity, P.S.S. (Rector of Theological College) that I put this material together as a small pamphlet. Initially, this project was to be in-house, for new formation faculty at TC.

(UD): Sounds like Fr. Gerry was very supportive of that idea.

(DMc): Yes, he was very supportive of my project especially as it emanated within a Sulpician context. Later, when speaking to Suzanne Tanzi (Current Media and Promotions Manager at TC), she mentioned that she knew the publisher at CUA Press and suggested that I discuss the project with him. I realized that this could turn into a book instead of an in-house pamphlet. With a book in mind, I began to examine more closely things I had taken for granted in formation for the past several years, especially my assumptions about formation advising.

(UD): You mentioned that there was a lot of reading that you were doing from many different sources that would have an influence on formation advising.

(DMc): Exactly. I read in the areas of executive coaching, neuroscience, leadership, cognitive psychology, emotional intelligence, diet, nutrition, and pastoral counseling. I entertained the idea of producing an annotated bibliography on the topic of formation advising.

(UD): As you sifted through the many resources that you were engaging in your reading, were there any surprises for you?

(DMc): Yes. Previously, I was invited to participate in a Sulpician Biennial Institute for Seminary Formators sponsored by the U.S. Province for new and current formators. The sessions on Formation Advising & Spiritual Direction were presented by Fr. McBrearity. His approach was very good – he used a several appropriate, anonymous case studies and formation examples to demonstrate his point. Most of his material was similar to that found in a pastoral counseling course. His bibliography was predominantly literature on spiritual direction. I asked him if there were any books on formation advising. Off hand, he didn’t know of any. I did a literature search and couldn’t find any either.

(UD): At this stage you knew that there was a need for someone to produce a contemporary resource on seminary formation advising. Were you surprised by a lack of current literature on this topic?

(DMc): Yes. I started the writing project around the time the Vatican published The Gift of the Priestly Vocation-Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (2016). As I read through the Ratio, I found a lot of very helpful information. I found the Ratio to provide not only useful theoretical material but also a practical structure for my project. So, that’s how it all came together.

(UD): Apart from the Sulpician collegial and proactive approach to adult priestly formation, there was no clear, practical blueprint for the formation advising sessions.

(DMc): Correct. The Ratio confirmed for me the necessity of the project. I had to reconsider what transpires in formation advising and then use those experiences for the content of my chapters. For example, I needed a chapter on evaluations, one on listening skills, and another on benchmarks for formation, etc. I wanted to demonstrate how one moves the formation conversation beyond simply focusing on the tasks the seminarian must complete to the level where significant human formation occurs, i.e., internally.

(UD): Were there any specific disciplines or traditions that informed your approach in these books?

(DMc): I have a good friend who has a doctorate in Pastoral Counseling. We meet regularly to talk about related topics in psychology and theology. He has often shared resources for me to read in neuroscience, cognitive science, and executive coaching. In addition to those disciplines, I have many years of experience directing people in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, not to mention benefiting from eight years of experience and formation within a Sulpician context at TC.

(UD): How does the experience of directing others in the Exercises inform your books?

(DMc): In two fundamental ways. First, the posture of the advisor is one of listening. By listening, we give priority to the seminarian’s experience. Second, the Exercises tell me that the Spirit who guides, in this case, formation, is the real formator. As one adapts the Exercises to the advisement process, a greater depth of reflection may emerge. I am convinced that through these conversations one can connect appropriately with a seminarian earnestly engaged in advisement.

(UD): Was there anything that stands out in formulating chapter topics that was off your radar screen?

(DMc): [laughing] Almost everything was off my radar screen! The constant surprising element was me hitting my head and saying, “Duh, how could you not have thought to put this in?” For instance, after reading the Ratio, I realized that I needed a chapter that simply describes what formation advising is, that lays out the overall human formation process, and that situates formation advising within a much larger context. In addition, there is a set of basic listening skills that a formator must develop. So, I realized I needed a chapter on that. As I teased out basic skills, I had to add a section on how to apply those skills in formation advising.

(UD): Would these skills be implemented the same way in all advising relationships?

(DMc): Yes and no. The basic skills would be the same, but the content that you are addressing would vary depending on the seminarian and his context or experience. In every seminary, you have a convergence of different calendars. As trusted formation advisors, we are accompanying individuals, and each seminarian is unique. I’m mapping those basic skills against the complicated set of varying calendars while considering the uniqueness of each seminarian.

(UD): How did this project not just become a reflection of TC’s formation process?

(DMc): Initially this was just going to be a pamphlet for the TC formation faculty. So, when I expanded my project from a pamphlet to a book for seminary formators in general, I broadened its scope. I also made two decisions in terms of the writing: 1) My assumption is that formators are busy people. Therefore, I wanted to make this book as readable as possible with limited seminary jargon. 2) I also wanted this information to be applicable to any seminary, so I pulled out specific TC references in the material.

(UD): Do you have any sense what impact your books have made?

(DMc): I have received a few nice confirmations. I got a note from CUA Press that said many reviewers for the press are using their stipend for reviewing the book to buy my book. I also received an encouraging note from a priest in Australia who is the rector of a seminary for a religious order. He wrote CUA Press a nice letter saying that “even though he is in a religious order, its content applies. There’s no book just like it; it’s readable, applicable, etc.” That’s what I was aiming for when I wrote this work, and it was a bonus that a formator in a religious order found it applicable, too.

(UD): Great to know that what you set out to do is being accomplished.

(DMc): It does say what I wanted to convey. My overall hope was to elevate the role of the formation advisor to a place where formative conversations with some depth could occur with a seminarian. I also wanted to contribute towards making the evaluations more accurately convey the substance of the seminarian—who he is, demonstrating his growth, and where he’s growing.

(UD): Are you aware of any adverse critique of your work?

(DMc): Yes. There was one critique from a pre-publishing reviewer who thought there was a little too much psychology in it.

(UD): What was your reaction to that?

(DMc): I thought there was an appropriate amount of psychological material, especially since the Ratio privileges human formation. I drew on psychology, on neuroscience, and on the executive coaching literature. I stand by my use of that material. However, I did agree with the reviewer who pointed out a need for a larger section on celibacy. I deliberately didn’t have a large section on celibacy because, in my mind, spiritual direction was the more suitable forum. But, after talking with the publisher, I expanded the material on celibacy as a topic in advisement making the book more pragmatic. One of the first things an advisor, having established a relationship of trust, must do is review, appropriately, the seminarian’s life story. This includes his experience of his family of origin, his life story, and his vocation story. The expanded section on celibacy fit nicely in this context.

(UD): What happens in the case of a seminarian who has different advisors through the course of his time in the seminary? Is this seminarian rehashing his story every time he changes formators or is there a role for reviewing past evaluations?

(DMc): In fact, that’s one of the points I emphasize—getting to know appropriately each seminarian you accompany. When you are assigned an advisee, you are given his file. It’s all under the umbrella of the homework you need to do to appreciate the uniqueness of the individual. To help with that, you review his past evaluations. I remember learning about an advisee’s family relationships that gave me insight into his current behavior. That was when I began to appreciate better the importance of being aware of a person’s history. The book for formators lays out the formation process, the skills you need, and what should be standard in formation advising.

(UD): Deacon Ed, thank you sharing with us the backstory on your two-volume guide, rooted as it is in your experience of our Sulpician tradition. May you continue to find your ministry in seminary formation a blessing and a call within the call.

(DMc): You’re welcome. Thank you for providing me the opportunity.