Theology of the Body and Human Formation of Seminarians


Using Pastores Dabo Vobis (PDV) and the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) as the guideline for this reflection on how St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body would supplement the formation of men who are candidates for the priesthood, I intend to highlight – not exhaust – some areas of particular importance where TOB expounds upon what the Church asks for in the human formation of seminarians.

Human formation for the priesthood must begin with a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of what it means to be human.  In other words, being created uniquely in the image and likeness of God, what are the attitudes, thoughts, actions, etc., that are in accord with one’s dignity as a human person?  In response, we look to the source of perfection, the one who in his divinity perfects humanity: Jesus Christ.  “The foundation and center of all human formation is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. In his fully developed humanity, he was truly free and with complete freedom gave himself totally for the salvation of the world” (PDV, 5).  Because Jesus Christ exemplifies humanity lived as God intended, the man in formation for the priesthood must pursue an ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the humanity of Christ, with a particular focus on how Christ lived his masculinity through his priesthood.  Understanding the true meaning of the body and sexuality ‘concerns the whole Bible’ (TOB 69:8).  It plunges us into ‘the perspective of the whole gospel, of the whole teaching, even more, of the whole mission of Christ’” (TOB 49:3).

The need for human formation arises out of the fallen condition of humanity, and only in light of understanding what humanity is intended to be (the humanity of Christ) can the seminarian clearly identify, with the help of his formators, the areas of his personality that need to be conformed to Christ. The primary documents of the Church (PDV and PPF) regarding the human formation of seminarians call for their “education,” or their catechesis (from the Greek, katekhein, meaning resound or echo) in an adequate anthropology.  By reflecting deeply on the whole of Scripture, St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body offers such an anthropology. “The TOB affords ‘the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, of the meaning of life’ (TOB 46:6).  Therefore, ‘this theology of the body is the basis of the most appropriate method of man’s…self-education’” (TOB 59:3).

“In general, human formation happens in a three fold process of self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-gift – and all of this in faith.” (PPF 80).   Correspondingly, St. John Paull II proposes an adequate anthropology in the Theology of the Body that he presents in three frames: Original Man, Historical Man, and Eschatological Man.

Original Man 

Original Man unfolds the original design of the Creator for the human person by reflecting on the three original states experienced by Adam and Eve before the fall: Original Solitude, Original Unity, and Original Nakedness.  For the seminarian in formation for the priesthood, this section would awaken within him the echo, the primordial design of God for humanity.  In order to understand who God intended us to be as human persons, we must follow Christ in his teaching and return to our beginnings, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female [first creation account], and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ [second creation account]?…‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’” (Mt 19:8; italics and bold added).  Learning the original design and state and humanity lays a foundation for the seminarian to begin to know himself subjectively and the gift of his humanity objectively (self-knowledge).


Historical Man

Historical Man begins the drama of humanity’s fall in Eden and concludes with the death and resurrection of Christ.  “There is ‘an essential continuity in man and a link between these two different states or dimensions of the human being.’  In ‘every man without exception… the ‘historical’ state plunges its roots deeply into his theological ‘prehistory,’ which is the state of original innocence’” (TOB 4:1).  Following St. John Paul II’s lead into the dynamics surrounding the fall, “by casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning of the gift, that is, on love as the specific motive of the creation and of the original covenant, man turns his back on God-Love, on ‘the Father.’  He in some sense casts him from his heart.  At the same time, therefore, he detaches his heart… from that which ‘comes from the Father’ [and] what is left in him is what comes from the world’” (TOB 26:4).  Examining in greater detail the effects of original sin on humanity provides the seminarian the context to begin understanding the limitations of fallen humanity, his own weaknesses and struggles with sin and where they come from theologically and personally.  As men being formed for the priesthood, navigating their interior experiences of conscience, guilt, sin, grace, healing, shame, and desire is a difficult task.  A crucial element in being able to do so is having a vocabulary with which one can articulate these experiences with one’s spiritual director and other formators.   This frame of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body maintains the foundation of self-knowledge, but proposes the historical context of sin in which the seminarian can begin to appropriate his own sinfulness and with compassion, accept his own limitations and weaknesses (and that of his brothers and sisters in the human family) against the backdrop of hope in the redemption of the body (self-acceptance).

Eschatological Man

Eschatological Man is the conclusion of St. John Paul II’s adequate anthropology.  In this final frame the focus is on man’s destiny: “The truth about man’s destiny ‘cannot be understood as a state of the soul alone, separated (according to Plato, liberated) from the body, but must be understood as the definitively and perfectly ‘integrated’ state of man brought about by a [perfect] union of the soul with the body’” (TOB 66:6).  What will we be in heaven?  What does scripture mean by a ‘new heavens and a new earth?’  The seminarian will come to see how historical and original man are drawn up through, with, and in the humanity of Christ to reach his destiny.  Eschatological Man fills out the meaning of celibacy in that “in heaven, man is neither married nor given in marriage” (Mt 22:30).  All in heaven will enter into the wedding banquet of the Lamb, and “this will be a completely new experience, and yet, at the same time, it will not be alienated in any way from the experience man shared ‘from the beginning’ nor from that which, in the historical dimension of his existence, constituted in him the source of the tension between the spirit and the body… with reference to the procreative meaning of the body and of [its] sex. The man of the ‘future world’ will find in this new experience of his own body the fulfillment of what he carried in himself perennially and historically” (TOB 69:5).   As a seminarian enters the formation process, if he is called to the priesthood then he is called to imitate Christ the High Priest, who gave himself freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully on the cross; thus the most important words he will ever say are, “This is my body, given for you” (self-gift).

To Download a PDF Version of this reflection, Click Here: TOB & Human Formation of Seminarians

Father Jon Schnobrich was ordained a priest for the diocese of Burlington, Vermont in 2007 and serves as the Director of Vocations. He has attended numerous courses with the Institute as a student and chaplain. He contributed to the TOBI In the Person of Christ: TOB & Priestly Prayer curriculum.


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