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VATICAN-VISITATION Dec-13-2004 (820 words) xxxi

Vatican firms up plans for U.S. seminary visitation in 2005

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican is consolidating plans for the much-anticipated apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries, viewed by church officials as a crucial part of the response to the priestly sex abuse scandal.

Officials now expect the visitation to begin in the fall of 2005 with the start of the school year, sources in Rome said in December.

The Vatican is expected to publish soon an "instrumentum laboris" or working questionnaire that is about three pages long. It will act as an outline for the visits to more than 100 seminaries and other institutes of formation, which are expected to take several days each.

Already, the names of approximately 75 bishops and 100 priests who will carry out the visitations have been submitted and discussed by U.S. and Vatican officials. A facilitator to coordinate U.S.-Vatican contacts also will be chosen.

Sometime before the process begins next fall, the Vatican expects to publish a long-awaited and potentially controversial document on whether candidates with homosexual inclinations should be admitted to the priesthood.

The document on homosexuality has been in the works for more than five years. An early draft of the document took the position that homosexuals should not be admitted to the priesthood; in its current form, the document takes a more nuanced approach to the whole issue, sources said.

The seminary visitation is expected to focus particularly on formation for celibate chastity and on admissions criteria. It was first announced in April 2002, after U.S. bishops and Vatican officials held an urgent meeting to map out a response to the sex abuse crisis.

Bishop John C. Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Priestly Formation, said in an interview in Rome that there were several possible reasons why it has taken more than two and a half years to prepare the seminary visitation.

He cited changes in the Congregation for Catholic Education, which is overseeing the visitation; the involvement of several other Vatican agencies; and the fact that "they wanted to do it right," with a clearer and deeper focus on formation programs and the spiritual dimension of seminary life.

A key element of the visitation is that any faculty member or student will be allowed to speak with the visitation team about the condition of the seminary, he said.

"I personally think (the visitation) is going to be very helpful. I believe the seminaries today are not the seminaries they were 30 years ago. And I think that we have advanced tremendously in terms of teaching methodology, in terms of formation programs, in terms of our spiritual direction," Bishop Nienstedt said.

"So I think it's going to be very helpful for us, because I think the results are going to be positive. I also think there are things we can be doing better, and that will become clearer," he said.

Bishop Nienstedt said Vatican officials told him to expect the document on homosexuality and priesthood candidates "soon."

The document is being prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education in consultation with several other Vatican agencies, including the doctrinal congregation. In a report earlier this year, the education congregation described it as an "instruction on the criteria and norms for the discernment in questions regarding homosexuality in view of the admission of candidates to the seminary and to sacred orders."

The expectation is that the education congregation's plenary assembly in late January would aim to discuss and approve the text.

"I think they intend to have it out by the time the visitation begins," said Bishop Nienstedt, who spoke during his "ad limina" visit to the Vatican, which heads of dioceses are required to make every five years.

"I think it's going to be a balanced document, because the whole question of homosexuality not only has psychological dimensions but also has varying degrees of a person acting out or not acting out," he said.

"So the whole question has to be nuanced considerably: 'What is homosexuality?' 'What are the homosexual attractions?' and that sort of thing. I think this document will be helpful because it is going to address those questions," he said.

Bishop Nienstedt said he expects the issue of homosexuality to be part of the visitation, since human sexuality is so important in terms of personal identity.

In a wider sense, he said, the visitation will take up the question of "how seminaries approach celibacy and chastity -- either in relationship to heterosexuality or homosexuality -- or the temptations or inclinations people have."

But Bishop Nienstedt indicated the visitation would not isolate the question of homosexuality.

"I think the concern is to prepare someone as a good solid human being, as a son of God who is striving for holiness," he said.

The last apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries took places in the 1980s and covered every aspect of priestly formation programs.


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