Fr. Stephen Hero says priests need eight years of post-secondary education in order to teach the faith effectively to highly educated Catholics in the pews.


Fr. Stephen Hero says priests need eight years of post-secondary education in order to teach the faith effectively to highly educated Catholics in the pews.

February 20, 2012

Becoming a priest is a lengthy process that requires a sense of a divine call, deep reflection, prayer and rigorous education.

Seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary need about eight years of higher education, including degrees in philosophy and theology, plus a year internship in a parish before they can be ordained.

Academic formation is just one aspect. The Church has a holistic vision of the formation of seminarians and St. Joseph Seminary strives to prepare competent priests with a comprehensive pastoral outlook, enabling them to assume the pastoral duties that their service to God's people requires, said Father Stephen Hero, vice-rector of the seminary.

Preparation for the priesthood at St. Joseph, he said, is accomplished in four mutually supportive programs: human formation, spiritual formation, academic formation and pastoral formation.

The integration of these programs nourishes the seminarian and assists him in discerning his call as well as preparing him to effectively fulfill the duties and tasks required of today's priest.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has had universal norms for the formation of priests, Hero said. "That hasn't changed really very much in the last 50 years or so."

Normally in North America a seminarian would have a bachelor of arts degree focusing on philosophy, which takes four years to complete. Then at the seminary he would do a four-year master of divinity degree. "So that can be eight years of study."


But seminarians come to St. Joseph from different situations. "They discern the call of God at different points in their lives so they may have taken bachelors degrees in something else, like physical education, or history or sociology or simply they have a bachelor degree and no philosophy," Hero said.

"So then we do not want them to do another bachelor degree but we just ask them to make up the basic requirements in philosophy."

Those who come to the seminary with no philosophy are sent to St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta to complete the philosophy requirements, which takes about two years.

"The advantage to doing a bachelor degree with philosophy is that it grounds the students in the wider vision or experience of various disciplines rather than just philosophy," Hero said.

Seminarians must have a lot of education because today's priests need to know and be conversant in the sources of the tradition, he said. A critical knowledge of Catholic teaching and tradition is the foundation upon which all theological study and pastoral ministry is based.


Priests must also be able to relate the intellectual heritage of Catholic teaching and tradition to the concrete situations of the people they are serving.

Deacon Miguel Irizar says seminary education is just the beginning of a life delving into the mystery of God.


Deacon Miguel Irizar says seminary education is just the beginning of a life delving into the mystery of God.

"We have a highly educated society. You have doctors and lawyers and all kinds of professional people in our parishes and I think the priest doesn't have to be an academic or an amazing theologian but has to be able to speak and articulate the faith in a meaningful way for people with little education or lots of education," Hero said.

"It's not about impressing people but being able to communicate in a way that would be helpful to people," he continued. "People expect their pastors to have that kind of preparation. I think we expect competency."


The high level of education required to become a priest rarely eliminates men who might be good pastors but who cannot handle the academic work. Hero said men who apply and have a high school diploma and some basic qualifications usually do well.

"Once in while we find that the student finds it very difficult and is maybe not able to grasp certain things or to articulate them well. That can be a very serious obstacle but it's a rare thing."

St. Joseph's currently has 36 seminarians plus four who are in internship in various parishes.

Miguel Irizar, 24, is at the end of his seminary years. He was recently ordained a deacon and expects to be ordained a priest July 2 at St. Joseph's Basilica.

Irizar said three or four years of solid formation in philosophy in addition to four years of theology are essential to exploring the mysteries of God.


"The advantage of having so much education, of having a degree in philosophy or a concentration in philosophy and then a concentration in theology is essentially to help us understand the basics of the mystery of God and the basic teaching of the Church," he said in an interview.

"Those years that we spend here, which are about seven or eight, is just the beginning of what we would be learning for the rest of our lives because here we are dealing with the mystery of God.

"Throughout our lives we would be building on whatever we learn here at the seminary."

Is it necessary to have so much education to be a parish priest?

"I think so. The wisdom of the Church says that it is necessary to have so much education," Irizar says.

"We, as priests, will be teaching the faith; that's one of the main roles of a priest. He is a teacher of the faith. He teaches the parishioners about the faith so I think it's necessary (to have such a well-rounded education).

"The Church has been saying this for years. There is wisdom behind it."