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VISITATION Aug-22-2005 (760 words) xxxn

Apostolic visitation of all U.S. seminaries to start this fall

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Vatican-run apostolic visitation of U.S. Catholic seminaries and houses of priestly formation will begin late this September.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, who will coordinate the visits, announced details of the plan Aug. 19.

Sparked by the sexual abuse crisis that hit the U.S. church in 2002, the visitations will pay special attention to areas such as the quality of the seminarians' human and spiritual formation for living chastely and of their intellectual formation for faithfulness to church teachings, especially in the area of moral theology.

The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, which oversees seminary formation around the world, has appointed 117 bishops and seminary personnel as visitors. They are to visit each college- or theology-level institution, working in teams of three for smaller programs or four for the larger ones.

The education congregation developed the visitation program in collaboration with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. About one-third of U.S. seminarians in graduate studies are preparing to be priests in religious orders.

In selecting the visitors the congregation consulted with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Committee on Priestly Formation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop O'Brien is to appoint resource people, including deacons, religious and lay people, to assist in the visitation process and participate in visits to the larger institutions.

The visitation teams are to review documentation of an institution beforehand and may interview students, faculty, staff and recent alumni during the on-site visit.

Last year there were 229 U.S. seminaries or formation houses at the college or theology level. They had a total of 4,556 students: 3,308 at the theology level and 1,248 in college. A seminary covers all aspects of formation including the academic. For students in a house of formation, the academic program is run by a neighboring college, university or theological consortium.

Archbishop O'Brien said he was confident that the visitations "will assist us in promoting the highest standards of formation necessary to bring forth qualified men for priestly ordination."

The plan to hold apostolic visitations to assess the quality of formation in seminaries arose at a special meeting of the U.S. cardinals and USCCB officers with top Vatican officials in Rome in April 2002. In January the church crisis stemming from long-hidden clergy sexual abuse of minors began making daily headlines in Boston and by April it had burgeoned into a national crisis.

In June 2002, at a national meeting in Dallas that focused on responding to the crisis, the U.S. bishops adopted a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." In the charter the bishops pledged "complete cooperation with the apostolic visitation of our diocesan/eparchial seminaries and religious houses of formation." "Eparchial" refers to eparchies, the equivalent of dioceses in the Eastern Catholic churches.

While most of the seminaries and formation houses are to be visited in the 2005-06 academic year, the announcement said that some institutions with very small student populations may not be visited until the following year.

The announcement said the visitation objectives designated by the education congregation are:

-- "To examine the criteria for admission of candidates and the programs of human formation and spiritual formation aimed at ensuring that they can faithfully live chastely for the kingdom."

-- "To examine other aspects of priestly formation in the United States. Particular attention will be reserved for the intellectual formation of seminarians, to examine fidelity to the magisterium, especially in the field of moral theology, in the light of 'Veritatis Splendor,'" Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical on Catholic moral teaching.

The visitation teams are to file their reports directly to the education congregation, which will give confidential evaluations to the appropriate bishops and religious superiors. When all the reports are completed, the Vatican will be in a position to make an overall evaluation of seminary formation in the United States.

Archbishop O'Brien was named coordinator of the visitations last year. He was rector of the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, from 1990 to 1994. For five years before that and two years after, he headed the New York archdiocesan seminary, St. Joseph's in Dunwoodie. A New York archdiocesan priest, he was ordained a bishop there in 1996 and became head of the military archdiocese the following year.

The Vatican conducted a complete visitation of U.S. seminaries in the mid-1980s. Since then some seminaries have had update visitations on a voluntary basis.


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