Through my time in seminary most people had no idea what I studied. It was not that they were dumb but they just took theology as a general answer without knowing exactly what that meant. They thought I read the bible(which I didn’t actually read cover to cover) and learned about “church” stuff.
So for this blog post I am going to break down exactly what a seminarian studies in school. So if you ever see one you can can ask him about his ecclesiology exam. Don’t ask him if he just prays all day, prayer is an aspect but he is studying to be a priest not a monk.
All of my “insider” information come from when I was in one seminary from 2005 - 2008 like many other colleges and universities they are always updating and tweaking the program. But with the topic of theology there is not a tremendous amount of new subjects coming out every year so a lot of it stays the same. Other may have had different variations of courses but most seminaries are try to stay within a certain framework.
Pillars of Formation
First I need to address the pillars of formation in the seminary. There are four aspects (pillars) of life the seminary is trying to form and develop on every man that comes through the door.
Human - This is basic human formation to make sure the person is equipped to deal with others in the real world. Human formation involves getting rid of and adding certain character traits that will allow a person to represent Christ to all people. This would include developing shy students into ones that can carry on a conversation with someone they just met. On the other end of the spectrum would be the teaching a person with a dominant personality to be able to listen quietly.
Spiritual - the spiritual life of a priest is where he gets his strength to live out his calling. Praying daily through the Mass and the liturgy of the hours as well as adoration is nourishing to everyone soul but the priest is called to live it out in a special way. Developing good pray habits and practices will keep the priest fulfilled in life. But many of these habits are learned thought practice and trying different things that work.
Pastoral - the priest needs to learn to be pastoral. We have all had contact with a priest who we thought was very pastoral. They have a way about them that even if they disagree with you they will tell you in such a way that you don’t feel judged or hurt by the observation. They also excel at the cardinal virtue of prudence which is the greatest of the 4 cardinal virtues.
Intellectual - Lastly the priest must be knowledgeable about 2000 years of teaching of the doctrines of the church, not that he is going to get into a heated discussion about the causes of the Crusades everyday but if he is sought as a wise counselor he has to know what he believes in order to practice what he preaches. He has to be able to open up the scripture in the homily every week to try and reach as many people as he can on any given Sunday. There has to be an intellectual foundation to that knowledge. Passion without understanding in foolishness.
It is the intellectual pillar that the seminary focuses on academically, though they touch on the others as well in course work and cover them all in the formation process. They do this through a standard fifteen credit college semester type schedule.
Before we even get to theology every student of the priesthood must have a foundation in philosophy. This will help in the understanding of the theology to come. This is just not a course but 2 years of courses that range from ancient philosophy to philosophy of God and philosophy of nature. Only after these two years(or four years if in minor seminary) can the seminarian proceed to the next level. So if you see a newer seminarian he might be still in the years of philosophy and hoping to move on to theology.
There are 5 branches to the the Intellectual pillar some of them overlap so I will categorize them as follows:
Scripture - This is more than just reading the bible. The beginning scripture classes actually teach more about how to read scripture (different methodologies for interpretation) than about scripture itself. Later classes are divided into sections of scripture rather than scripture as a whole. For instance there will be a semester of synoptic gospels or a semester on prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) . The semester will take you through the history of the books being studied such as when they were written, who the intended audience of the time and the circumstances of the location at that time. The books are also picked apart to show significant passages and their understanding by biblical scholars. Papers written about scriptures are called exegesis which is a critical explanation of interpretation of the text. This involved research into biblical commentaries and different sources.
Church History/Canon Law - This is one of the instances where the topics could overlap the Council of Trent gave us a lot of doctrine documents which would be covered in systematics but the council would be covered in church history. Church history takes us on a multi semester journey from Jesus to modern day and everything in between. Most church history teacher I have met were storytellers so they kept is interesting rather than solely times and dates, though times and dates were involved. Finding out how the early church went from an early small community to a power force to the place it is today as a moral authority in the world is interesting. This is not to say that all of the history is good but it still must be examined and learned from.
I put Canon Law with church history though it could have been its own category. Normally in the seminary there are only two semesters of Canon Law to get an understanding of what it is and how it is used by the priest. Most priest are not going to be Canon Lawyers and if they are they go on for advanced degrees in that.
Morality - The Church is a moral authority in the world and has a large foundation to achieve that position. This must be taught in subjects such as ethics, morality, and sexuality. These courses can overlap with pastoral as well on dealing how to deal with sinful people and what constitutes a sin.
Pastoral/liturgy/Spirituality - I lumped this group together because while there is course work on them, a lot of this is done through action. Some of these fall under the other pillars as well so are addressed outside the traditional classroom. But courses on liturgy and practice of the sacraments is important to the life one is undertaking. Understanding the pastoral side of administration and ministry is also important. Incorporating all of those things with your own spiritual life is critical.
Systematic - This is the subject where the big words come in, your Soteriology Christology and your Ecclesiology. These are foundational doctrines that we believe but takes a deeper understand. During the semester of Christology you face the question of how we came to the conclusion that Jesus was both God and man and why that distinction is important to our eternal salvation. The doctrines of what authority the church has and what a bishop can teach and how binding is it on the people. Papal infallibility and what are the limitations of this power. These are all aspect of systematic and they can be heavy questions with big words that the church has wrestled with over the last 2000 years.
I hope this give you a deeper understanding of what a seminarian is learning in his academics as he is being formed and being challenged in all aspects of this life. Seminary can be stressful because it is not just another college it is formation. It’s not graduate level Sunday school it is a academic gamut of theological understanding.
For those looking for more specifics on the academic courses here are links to the academic programs of the two seminaries in the Archdiocese of Baltimore (the first and second oldest seminaries in the United States)