Although rare circumstances periodically enable married men such as Deacon Scott Caton to be ordained (see related story), being a celibate male is one of the best-known requirements for priesthood in the Latin Rite. Possessing a strong spiritual life and a call to serve also are obvious essentials.
Yet those factors alone don’t automatically put a man on the path toward priesthood in the Diocese of Rochester.
Numerous other standards — in areas related to age, education, physical and mental capacity, and personal history — also must be met before one can enter Becket Hall, the diocesan program for priestly discernment.
Some of the chief criteria, based on information provided by the diocesan Office of Vocations Awareness and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are:
- Age: There is no specified minimum age to begin at Becket Hall. However, a bachelor’s degree must have been attained or nearly completed, so formal pursuit of the priesthood essentially can’t begin until at least one’s early 20s.
Father Tim Horan, diocesan director of priesthood vocation awareness, acknowledged that this constitutes a much later start than was required in previous generations, when boys would enter minor seminary at high-school age. He said such early admission was the norm during an "era of a much simpler culture," when career options were more limited, as opposed to the present day when "options and choices abound."
"That’s not to say we oughtn’t be thinking about young people (who might pursue the priesthood) as early as grade school," Father Horan added, stressing that the vocations-awareness office maintains close contact with teens who express a desire to eventually enter Becket.
On the older end, priests of this diocese must be ordained by age 55, although Bishop Matthew H. Clark allows rare exceptions. Carol Dady, diocesan coordinator of priesthood vocations awareness, said an upper age limit is necessary, in part, to ensure that a man will spend enough years in active ministry to justify the considerable cost of seminary training.
- Testing and background checks: Men wishing to enter Becket Hall must submit to a thorough psychological assessment and full physical examination, including HIV testing. Results are weighed along with such autobiographical information as family history, background in the Catholic faith and academic history.
"We look for people healthy in mind, body and spirit to handle the rigors of priestly ministry," Dady said. She added that this requirement doesn’t necessarily rule out men with disabilities, however; a determination of their eligibility would depend on the nature and severity of the disabilities, she said.
Father James Schwartz, diocesan director of seminarians, explained that "the leadership of a priest needs to be characterized by service, collaboration and the capacity to love in a Christlike fashion." Thus, he said, psychological screening and the entire formation process are sensitive to candidates who have potential impediments — "control freaks, ‘my way or the highway’ (attitudes), a sense of entitlement to priestly privilege, men who cannot collaborate effectively with men and women," he said. "Candidates with these negative characteristics need to be open to critical growth and formation."
Father Schwartz added that the psychological evaluation and formation process also weigh a candidate’s sexual history. He said some of the questions considered are: "Has the candidate ever been a victim of sexual abuse? Is the candidate in touch with his own sexuality? Does he have the sexual maturity to commit to a life of celibacy?"
In addition, a criminal background check is performed for all candidates, as is done for all parish and diocesan employees. Section No. 55 of the norms for the Admission of Candidates of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Program of Priestly Formation states: "Any evidence of criminal sexual activity with a minor or an inclination toward such activity disqualifies the applicant from admission."
- Celibacy: As noted previously, the Latin Rite priesthood is generally restricted to celibate males. However, men who are widowed or divorced can be eligible, provided they commit to celibacy going forward. Dady said Becket Hall and seminary are poor fits for an individual if a commitment to sexual abstinence is "not a lifestyle you’re outwardly promoting."
Whereas some criteria for entering formal priesthood discernment are fairly straightforward, other matters may require considerable discussion and reflection. For instance, "Sometimes I’m asked, ‘How holy do you have to be — I’m not perfect, does that disqualify me?’" Father Horan said. "Of course not. Look at St. Peter. All of the saints abandoned the Lord at some point and they still became saints."
He emphasized that qualifying for Becket Hall is "just the launch, the beginning of what might be a vocation to the priesthood — it’s talked about over the next six years. We don’t expect finished products at the beginning."
EDITOR’S NOTE: A list of "Frequently Asked Questions" about vocations is available on the diocesan website at www.dor.org/index.cfm/vocations/faqs/.