101.jpgA good head, a good heart, and good health are pre-requisites for those whishing to join the seminary, says Father William Goh, rector of St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary, in an interview with Daniel Tay of CatholicNews, to clarify the entry requirements for candidates to the seminary. 

Discernment process and entry requirements

The discernment of whether or not a person is called to the priestly vocation takes about one and a half years, said Father William. During this time, spiritual directors aid the aspirant in examining their real motives for wanting to join the priesthood.

Those with a calling undergo a purification of their real motives, and are encouraged to work in parish ministry to better understand parish life. The discernment process also includes a psychological test, and an eight-day silent retreat which helps aspirants to be more certain of their calling.

To help in the discernment process, it is useful to look for external signs. The person must have a deep relationship with the Lord, a love for prayer, and a love for the Lord. He should also have had a personal (conversion) experience with the Lord. These are manifested in his desire to develop his spiritual life, with zeal to bring Christ to others, that is, an apostolic missionary calling.

When asked about the pre-requisites for entry into the seminary, Father William explained about the three H's: "A priest must have a good head, a good heart, and good health. Good health [is a pre-requisite] because he cannot be a liability to the church.

"A good heart is seen in generosity in service, and humility in service. Later on [in the formation process], it is seen as an ability to be a unifying person. The priest must be able to live in communion with God, with the world, and with the church, otherwise he will be counterproductive."

A good head refers to the level of intellect the priest must have, which Father William equates it to a minimum 'A' Level certification or equivalent. "We cannot compare with the days of old [when priests were not highly educated]," he explained. "In the past, people were deprived of opportunities to receive education."

"A good will alone is not enough to be a priest," he clarified. "A priest is called to be a leader. As a servant leader, God will supply you with the skills needed to be a leader, but there must be the intellectual capacity [to learn the skills]. Most people with average intelligence can finish his 'A' Levels."

This certification is also required because this intellectual capacity is needed to learn Philosophy and Theology, which all seminarians spend two years and four years respectively obtaining a degree in each of them. "A priest is also called to be a teacher. You can't teach unless you have the intellectual capacity," he added.

"[Being able to finish his 'A' Levels] also shows that a person is disciplined and mature," said Father William.

In short, priests are called to be not only a minister, but also a leader and a teacher. Hence, they require the intellectual capabilities to meet those expectations. A minimum of 'A' Levels or equivalent shows that they have the necessary intellectual capacity and discipline to meet the expectations of the priesthood.


Seminary formation

There are four aspects in seminary formation: human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral. Currently, the seminary places greater emphasis on human formation, because of the inability of priests to cope with relationships and to work as a team member.

"Human formation is a prerequisite for the other three," explained Father William. "We aim for a holistic formation that will empower our future priests to … unify and animate parishioners, [and to work together] with fellow priests and laity." The seminary aims to form priests not only for parish work, but priests that have a missionary outlook and have a developed apostolic zeal and pastoral charity.

The process of discernment towards priesthood in the seminary is long not only because of studies but because "the person needs to go through that long period of reflection to discern his real motivation" of wanting to be a priest, he explained.

The first one to four years of seminary life is about discerning the real motivation of the person being there. The later years of discernment is about purifying those motivations.

Based on the past six years, the attrition rate in the seminary is "not very high", with only about one in five seminarians leaving. "Sometimes they leave us on their own, unable to meet the high expectations of the priesthood," said Father William. "Some cannot relate to people well. We call them 'one-man-operation '. Some cannot live a life of celibacy.

"Sometimes we ask them to leave because they lack the ability to live out the priesthood in all these qualities," he said, adding that it could be due to a lack of maturity or having sustained too many emotional wounds in the past. "We might be short of vocations, but we are not hard- up for them. We are interested in quality priests, not quantity.

"The seminary is not a reformation centre. It forms people who are well-balanced and have a certain affective maturity. These problems are supposed to be solved before joining the seminary. Joining the seminary is not about finding meaning of life, or filling emptiness in life," Father William stressed.



Young boys and men (standing) spent a weekend at the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary to learn more about tools for discerning a possible call to the priesthood.

Advice to young people

For young people considering joining the priesthood, Father William advises them to be involved in church activities, to deepen their faith while serving the church, and to experience the joy of serving God and the church.

They should also come to know one or two priests or religious who can be their mentor. They need to cultivate their prayer life and when they are of age, they can attend the vocation camp or retreat.

Another minimum requirement for aspirants is that they first finish their National Service (NS). "NS is good because it helps them to be more mature," said Father William, who also encourages aspirants to work in the world for about a year or so before joining the seminary.

"The priesthood can't be disconnected from the world. A priest needs to be aware of the challenges lay people face in the world because he is called to be a minister to them. [Working in the world] also develops maturity and empathy, and helps him to be more focused, because he has seen one side of the world.

"Young people may not understand the reality of the world. They have never made a clear choice, which requires knowledge. Some have even lost their priesthood because they were unable to meet the challenges they faced," he said.

In response to those who feel it unwise for a young person to explore the working world lest he loses his vocation, Father William responded, "God will preserve the vocation. [The person] will lose his vocation only if he does not pray and does not keep involved in church work."

How parents can help The rector also noted that parents do exercise some influence over their children's vocation and faith. "Parents have to understand that vocation [to the priesthood] is a unique calling from God and encourage children to be open to a calling," he said. Parents can do this by helping their children to develop their prayer life, service in the church, and communion with God. Beyond that, "the Lord will lead the way".

The rector cautioned parents against overdoing it (encouraging a priestly vocation), as all vocations are important, not just priestly ones. However, he noted that parents are important persons to help their children to discern whether the Lord could be calling, because they know their children well.

"The best way is to be exemplary, loving parents," he concluded. "Children can be more loving if they are brought up in a loving family. If a priest does not recognize the sacredness of marriage, he can't see the beauty of celibacy."

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