What is a “propaedeutic” course?
In short, “propaedeutic” is a technical word in the Church for “preparatory”. However, the word “Preparatory” might suggest that such a course is not really part of formation for priesthood, or is somehow not that important. Instead, the Church wants to underline that those who are undertaking this course while, certainly, “preparing” for the full seminary course of philosophy and theology studies which lies ahead, are at the same time already engaged in formation for priesthood. It is the first stage in seminary life and training for priesthood, although it might also have an element of preparation for the full formation programme which begins afterwards.
Pope Saint John Paul II, writing after the Synod of Bishops in 1990, asked in Pastores Dabo Vobis that “there be a sufficient period of preparation prior to Seminary formation” (PDV, 1991, #62). Many countries around the began to make provision for such a period of initial preparation for students for the priesthood before they enter the full rigours of philosophical and theological studies in the major seminary. From 2010, under the auspices of “Priests for Scotland”, the Bishops of Scotland provided a brief period of between three and five weeks in late August and early September for students who were about to head off to seminary here at the College in Salamanca. From January 2016, then, the College began hosting the longer, six-month course as the first part of seminary formation for all Scots seminarians. In 2017, the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican issued a new set of basic principles for priestly formation (the “Ratio Fundamentalis”) which made a Propaedeutic Stage mandatory for all priestly formation across the Church.
So what does such a “Propaedeutic Course” involve?
A propaedeutic course is intended to provide candidates for the Priesthood with aspects of spiritual and human formation for priesthood within a community setting. It is intended to help them explore their faith, deepen their relationship with Christ and reflect on what a vocation to be a priest means for them, so that they can be all the better prepared to enter into the academic and formational programme provided by the major seminary. It offers an Initial Formation, aimed at equipping them with a deeper understanding of priesthood, of the Church they seek to serve, of prayer, and of the various dimensions and themes which unite in the seminary formation which lies ahead of them. As a programme of formation, what is offered aims to provide as broadly-based and comprehensive a catechetical curriculum as possible, looking at the major aspects of any Christian formation (see the Directory for Catechesis, #79-88):
- Knowledge of the Faith,
- Formation in prayer,
- Preparation for and reflection on sacramental life
- Formation in moral life
- Formation for community living
The opportunity offered to seminarians through a propaedeutic period, to deepen their faith and develop a more intimate relationship with the Lord, only makes sense in a community context. This is, in part due to what Pastores Dabo Vobis notes as the essential feature of discipleship as we find it in the Gospels: “To be with him”. That is: to join with others in company with the Lord, in order to learn from Him and become more like Him. It is also due to the fact that diocesan priesthood, which is the ultimate goal of this formation, is characterised above all by a life of service to the Christian community, and is rooted in a spirituality of service to that community. To help develop that spirituality and to express it most fully, Pastores Dabo Vobis (#31) says that all priestly formation should be placed in the context of – and be inspired by – an “essential and undeniable ecclesial dimension” of priesthood. Even if our priests might work in “one-man-parishes”, it is essential that they have developed a strong sense that they are not “lone workers”, but rather servants of a community, either the local parish or parishes where they work, or the wider Church itself of which they are representatives, witnesses and servants.
“It is a good thing that there be a period of human, Christian, intellectual and spiritual preparation for the candidates to the Major Seminary. These candidates should, however, have certain qualities: right intention, a sufficient degree of human maturity, a sufficiently broad knowledge of the doctrine of the faith, some introduction into the methods of prayer, and behaviour in conformity with Christian tradition.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 62)
In practice, the “Propaedeutic Stage” aims to support the development of the student’s personal life of faith through:
- opportunities to deepen their personal life of prayer;
- an introduction to Sacred Scripture as the Living Word of God;
- an introduction to the Liturgy and the Paschal Mystery;
- reflection on the person of Christ and the mystery of the Church;
- regular spiritual direction and opportunities such as days of recollection;
- lived experience of the communitarian dimension of the Christian (and priestly) vocation.
As Pastores Dabo Vobis suggests, spiritual formation also requires an authentic and balanced human formation: “It is important that the priest should mould his personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ” (PDV, #43).
In this regard, seminarians who are engaged in this initial stage of formation will be encouraged to:
- take responsibility for aspects of the shared life of the community;
- participate fully in the community’s life, spiritually, liturgically, socially and materially;
- generously place his talents and experience at the service of others;
- conscientiously follow the Rule of Life laid out by College staff on behalf of the Bishops;
- humbly and prudently reflect on his experiences, his relationships and his vocational sense as the period unfolds, so as to share a self-evaluation of his progress.
And all this happens in Salamanca for those training to be priests in Scotland?
From January 2016, seminarians beginning their training for priesthood in the dioceses of Scotland have been heading to Salamanca, as the College takes on the role of beginning this process for all Scotland’s seminarians.
Courses undertaken include:
- Spirituality – exploring prayer, traditions of prayer, prayer practices and the devotional life;
- Liturgy (both the Mass and the Prayer of the Church, or “Divine Office”) and the Sacraments;
- Introductions to Scripture – the Gospels, the Old Testament and in particular the Psalms;
- the person of Jesus: how we understand what the Scriptures and the Church says about him, what we believe about him and how we form a relationship with Him;
- the Church and how we understand it, sense our belonging to it, and recognise its “marks” as one, holy, catholic and apostolic;
- Church history, especially the story of the Church in Scotland;
- the nature of faith, the Creed and how we express and understand our faith;
- Evangelisation, Mission and the call to witness to our faith;
- aspects of our lived faith: Catholic Social Doctrine and moral thinking
In addition, there are courses and reflections on human development, our human capacities, relationships and personal growth as well as a variety of pastoral themes and opportunities to meet and hear from priests engaged in ministry in a variety of contexts, or with various responsibilities, to give insights into what diocesan priesthood can look like.
As well as all this, however, there are many valuable opportunities offered by living for these months in Spain, and especially in that part of the country which has been home to saints and scholars over the centuries: St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius Loyola, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (the Dominican “Father of Human Rights”), Miguel de Cervantes (author of “Don Quixote”) and many others. Included in the course, therefore, are excursions to places of interest both in the spiritual life and in cultural life more widely. Indeed, students are encouraged to make use of their free time, particularly at the weekend, to explore something of the culture and history of Salamanca and the surrounding area.
Click here for a sense of the programme and daily timetable our students follow…