Mostly what priests encounter in our flocks is what existential or humanistic psychologists call problems in living. Life just becomes flat. Relationships that once were easy and life giving just aren’t anymore. Saddest of all, what was once a source of joy in life is now merely “blah” if not something much worse.
The first step in responding to those moments when life becomes a problem is the accurate apprehension that this is the case. This is the step of affective intuition—I need to have at least a sense of the contours and content of what is wrong. In the human sciences we use a technical term—verstehen—or the “interpretive or participatory examination” of the situation.
For Orthodox Christians, the idea of participation is a rich one. According to St Peter’s Second Catholic Epistle (1:4) we are sharers in the divine nature. We participate in God’s becoming by grace what God is by nature—holy—while remaining human. We do this in a manner analogous to how iron comes to share in the nature of fire. Iron in the fire becomes hot and it gives off light like fire but all the while remaining still iron.
The goal of this first step is for me come to a deep, personal understanding, of human sinfulness (whether mine or yours) without at the same time falling into sin. Given this we shouldn’t be surprised that neither we nor our pastors are necessarily all that willing to look at the consequences of the rupture of our communion with God. Like Jesus Christ, the pastor must “be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that he can “sympathize with our weaknesses” being “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (see Hebrews 4:15, NKJV). This is no easy task and to fail at it is court spiritual disaster and even damnation.
What makes human formation so important is that it is the dimension of virtue and of a conscience formed according to the Tradition of the Church. Apart from a life of virtue and a rightly formed conscience the pastor’s affective intuition will be skewed. Further he will not have the strength of character needed to look directly at human sinfulness in an understanding fashion while at the same time being able to avoid falling into sin himself. Or, as John Paul has it in Pastores Dabo Vobis (#43):
It is necessary that, following the example of Jesus who “knew what was in humanity” (Jn. 2:25; cf. 8:3-11), the priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments.
…should therefore cultivate a series of human qualities, not only out of proper and due growth and realization of self, but also with a view to the ministry. These qualities are needed for them to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior.
Given how common it is today for people to find themselves “trapped in situations of standardization and loneliness, especially in large urban centers” in which “the value of communion” is felt more in its absence then its presence, “one of the most eloquent signs and one of the most effective ways of transmitting the Gospel message” is in and through the priest’s “capacity to relate to others.”
This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a “man of communion.” This demands that the priest not be arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in others, and quick to understand, forgive and console (cf. 1 Tm. 3:1-5; Ti. 1:7-9).
Human formation essential then not only to what I’ve called here affective intuition but also to an evangelical witness that is consonant with the Eucharist and the Eucharistic vision the Church.
We can’t neglect the human formation of priests and expect them to have ministries that are fruitful for those they serve and also a source of personal satisfaction for the priest. Much less can we expect that the priest grow in holiness and lead others to do so as well.
As important as human formation is, it is however not sufficient. A necessary foundation or first step to be sure, but not sufficient since it is after all only a first step. Next up, spiritual formation.