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Priestly formation: From ordaining priests to making apostles

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IMAGE: CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Tomorrow’s priests and bishops must be good pastors and not just good scholars, said the secretary of seminaries at the Congregation for Clergy.

“The vocation is meant to be lived, not to be argued about, hypothesized over or talked about, because love is meant to be lived,” Mexican Archbishop Jorge Patron Wong told Catholic News Service. “Young priests all the way up to bishops, we need to experience Christ’s call every day and answer it every day.”

The role of the Vatican secretary of seminaries is to help ensure those preparing for priesthood and those assisting them have that experience. It’s part of an emphasis Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have had on not just educating priests, but forming apostles, the archbishop said.

Pope Benedict, in one of his final official acts as pope, transferred responsibility for seminary education from the Congregation for Catholic Education to the Congregation for Clergy. It was not simply an administrative decision, Archbishop Patron said.

“This is a new perspective,” the archbishop said. The Congregation for Clergy now follows priests from their seminary days and can ensure a more holistic approach, “meaning that it’s not just about intellectual formation but also spiritual, human as well as pastoral formation.”

Archbishop Patron is not your typical prelate, or typical Mexican for that matter. Born in Yucatan, the archbishop’s maternal grandfather was one of thousands of Chinese immigrants who made their way to Mexico.

“My grandfather was like all the Chinese who emigrated and whom I admire: They learned Spanish, became Mexican citizens, they became Catholics, and they did not wait for the next generation to live as Mexicans,” he told CNS.

Although he doesn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, Archbishop Patron said that his ancestry is a gift from God because it brings him closer to seminarians, priests and bishops who come to Rome from the Far East.

“Some tell me that with my Chinese features and Chinese blood, that I belong to half of the world,” he said jokingly.

The easy connection he makes with seminarians and clergy from around the world is noticeable on his social media accounts. With more than 12,000 followers on Twitter, Archbishop Patron posts photos of events and his countless visits to seminaries and formation houses across the globe. Only on very rare occasions are the posts missing the words “thank you” and a mention of “friendship and priestly brotherhood.”

When asked how many seminaries and houses of formation he visited in 2015, he replies with a slight grin, “I honestly don’t know.” Aside from normal duties at his office across the street from St. Peter’s Square, he meets “with people every day from 7 in the morning until 11 at night.” He also teaches a course every Thursday on priestly formation with 120 priests.

The rigorous schedule, he said, keeps him living many of the struggles and challenges facing seminarians and priests in giving priority to their ongoing formation and their prayer lives. The greatest concern, he said, is “how to live their vocation.”

A priest doesn’t just exercise his ministry in the church, the archbishop explained. A priest is the same 24 hours a day, “when he rests, when he eats, when he sleeps, when he is walking on the street, when he’s on the bus, when he’s getting an ice cream or coffee; he is a presence of Christ and today’s world needs Christ’s presence.”

On a regular basis, Pope Francis talks about how seminarians and priests should live their vocations, about how often they should pray, where they should live and even about what kind of car they should drive — used, preferably. For Archbishop Patron, the pope’s words are for him as well as for seminarians and priests.

“The pope is inviting me to be a good priest, he’s inviting me to live an ordinary and concrete spirituality and theology. And he’s inviting me to be close to God and to the people,” the archbishop said. “He’s inviting me to be sincere and live the Gospel joyfully, and I can only live it joyfully if I live out my vocation faithfully.”

Soft-spoken and often smiling, Archbishop Patron takes to heart the pope’s call for priests who have “the smell of the sheep and the smile of a father.”

“There can’t be sad preachers of the Gospel. In order to be happy, to be joyful, it’s important to live one’s vocation freely and not as something imposed,” the archbishop said.

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