The Vatican II Institute, established as a program for the spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual renewal of priests, is now itself experiencing an exciting period of renewal. Long acclaimed for its sabbatical program, the Institute is now expanding its mission towards becoming a Center for Ongoing Formation. In this article, I will first recount the history and status of the sabbatical program. I will then highlight several recent developments and our vision for the years ahead.
A Ministry Continued
Envisioned initially to have a duration of no more than two to four sessions, the Vatican II Institute is now in its 33rd year. The original purpose having been well served, the program easily evolved into a sabbatical program for priests, both diocesan and religious. The sabbatical program, now in its 64th session, has welcomed over 2,000 priests (and a few bishops) from all parts of the United States and the English-speaking world. The Fall 2006 session has 25 participants, including priests from Ghana (2), Zambia, Tonga, the Philippines, New Zealand, Canada (2), and England. Sulpician priests have served as director of the program since 1975 (Father Gene Konkel, 1975-2001, Father Mel Blanchette, 2002-2004, and Father Jim Myers, 2004 to present).
The Vatican II Institute derives its name from its original purpose. The Institute was envisioned and designed in the early 1970s by its founder, Father Dan Danielson (Diocese of Oakland), in conversation with other pastors in the Bay Area and with bishops of the region. The Vatican II Institute began in 1973 as a three-month renewal program to assist priests of Region XI (dioceses of California, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii) to appropriate and integrate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council into their self-understanding and ministry as priests. From its inception, the program has carried out this renewal within a holistic framework, seeking to support and encourage the human, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual renewal of its participants.
Similar to the situation faced by other sabbatical programs, the Vatican II Institute has experienced a decline in enrollment in recent years. The decline is due to several factors, including the decreasing number of priests, the difficulty in finding priests to cover parishes while a participant is away, and financial constraints in many dioceses and religious communities. As a result, as of this year, the Vatican II Institute no longer offers a sabbatical session during the spring semester. The Institute remains committed to offering is distinctive sabbatical program during the Fall.
A Vision Renewed
The decision to no longer offer a sabbatical session during the Spring semester arose not only from declining enrollment, but also in response to a surge of interest in other areas of ongoing formation among the dioceses of our region. Just as the sabbatical program took shape in response to the immediate needs of the region in the early 1970s, so, too, we are now in the process of developing new programs in response to the needs our dioceses presently face.
In May 2005, with the endorsement of the bishops of the San Francisco Province, and with funding from the Board of Regents of St. Patrick’s Seminary, the Vatican II Institute convened a meeting of a Province Task Force for Ongoing Formation. The participants in this meeting, representing all 10 dioceses of the Province, identified three areas of immediate and common need: recently ordained priests, newly appointed pastors, and international priests. Participants also identified “mentoring” as a strategy that could address all three areas. These priorities were later echoed by dioceses of the Los Angeles Province at a regional meeting, organized by the Vatican II Institute, in October 2005.
In response to these needs, and in collaboration with the dioceses of the Region, the Vatican II Institute now offers two other programs of ongoing formation of priests and is in the process of exploring other areas of development.
Continuing Formation from the Beginning is a five-day workshop for recently ordained priests offered each May. Inaugurated in 2002 by Father Mel Blanchette, Continuing Formation from the Beginning brings together priests in their first or second assignment from several dioceses around important topics of priestly identity, ministry, and spirituality. The May 2006 workshop drew 36 participants from 9 dioceses. The topic was “Pastoral Leadership in a Multicultural Parish.” The theme for the 2007 workshop, to be held May 20-24, will be “The Priest as Person, The Priest as Public Person.” The topics for presentation and reflection are determined in consultation with the ongoing formation personnel of the dioceses we serve.
The Vatican II Institute inaugurates this year a program to train priests to serve as mentors for other priests at important moments of transition in their lives (recently ordained, new pastors, international priests). In conjunction with the highly successful Mantle of Elijah seminar offered at the Center for Continuing Formation at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, the Vatican II Institute will be offering Mantle of Elijah – West on November 13 - 17 and February 5 - 9. Mantle of Elijah – West, designed for a maximum of thirty participants, has filled up quickly, with 10 dioceses participating.
The strong support we have received from the dioceses of Region XI (and beyond) bodes well for the expansion of our mission and the development of other programs of ongoing formation. So, too, do recent initiatives at both the seminary and at the Institute to strengthen the link between initial and ongoing formation. Meanwhile, the Fall sabbatical session continues to attract, renew, and enliven priests from throughout the United States and around the world.
With the threefold focus on maintaining our signature sabbatical program, responding to the needs of the region, and strengthening the link between initial and ongoing formation, the Vatican II Institute is well-poised for the years ahead, both continuing its distinctive ministry and renewing its originating vision.