The number of major seminarians has increased in Spain by 9 % this academic year 2017-2018, according to data published on the occasion of Seminary Day. There are 1,263 aspirants to the priesthood, and 189 of them are in Madrid. We spoke with the rector of the Madrid Seminary, and since February 17 auxiliary bishop of Madrid.
TEXT - Alfonso Riobó
Jesús Vidal, a native of the Ciudad Lineal neighborhood of Madrid, has a degree in Economics and Business Administration, and is fond of reading and mountain walks. His episcopal ordination took place in February, but he is still rector of the Madrid Seminary. This conversation focuses, above all, on the question of priestly vocations and their promotion and formation.
First of all, congratulations on your episcopal ordination. What does this responsibility mean to you?
-For me it means a call within the call, as I told the seminarians when I told them that the Pope had appointed me auxiliary bishop for Madrid. And also a deepening in the love story that is the vocational story that God is making with me. This is how I would define it, in substance: a call within the call, to continue giving myself and unfolding the work that God is doing with me.
In this "vocational history", was there a specific moment when you became aware of your Christian vocation? And when did you discover the call to the priesthood?
-The awareness of the Christian call came especially in the process of formation for Confirmation, as I began to enter the Christian life. The Confirmation itself was a very beautiful moment, which helped me a lot; I was confirmed by the now Bishop of Granada. Then I continued collaborating in the parish as a catechist, participating in the Caritas groups... As it was a small parish, with few young people, it allowed me to collaborate in various places and from different areas. It was there, in the communion of the daily life of the Church, where the relationship with Jesus Christ became more alive. It was precisely at that moment that the first signs of a vocation began to appear in my heart. It took me a while to recognize it, and it was not until I was 21 years old that I surrendered to this call with which the Lord was insisting on me.
¿Did you have the help of a priest to accompany you?
-For me, precisely because of my own resistance, I was afraid to talk about these signs and the hints of God that I heard. That is why I must speak more of the presence of a priest than of accompaniment; or, at least, of an accompaniment that was very respectful of my freedom, of a distant following. I am sure that the priest saw in me traits of a vocation and was accompanying me from a distance: he invited me to accompany him somewhere, I was becoming close to him. But, apart from that, for me the accompaniment of lay people in the discovery of the priestly vocation was very important. They were lay people who lived a very deep faith, and they encouraged me to live my relationship with Jesus Christ with that depth, and then I discovered that the Lord was calling me to something else.
Shortly before your episcopal ordination, the Pope received you together with the other two new auxiliary bishops of Madrid. Did he give them any indication?
-What he did was to thank us for accepting this mission that he was entrusting to us, and he added the indication that we should help the Archbishop, Don Carlos Osoro: that we should be united to him and make communion with him alive; that is why he appointed us, to help the Cardinal in the evangelization of Madrid.
The Pope focuses on the peripheries, not only material, the call to evangelize. In Madrid, where is this priority need?
-The need of Madrid today is for the Church to be present everywhere. Madrid is such a big and anonymous city that it can happen that a person has no real contact with the Church, or with a priest. He could have it with Christians who are around him, at the university or at work, but who often live their faith in a somewhat hidden way: they go to Sunday Eucharist or have some relationship with the parish, but it is not made visible.
On the other hand, the presence of the bishop is a visible presence of the Church. Don Carlos rightly said in the homily of our ordination that he hopes that the episcopal ministry will spread throughout the diocese as visibility, together with the whole body of the Church: priests, consecrated and lay people. In this way it can become a capillary visibility of the Church in Madrid.
His two years as rector of the Seminary are undoubtedly a useful experience....
-I think it is an experience of all of us: as each one reads his vocation story, he sees how God has been spinning it. I truly believe that yes, it has been a grace to have spent these two years in the Seminary. It has helped me to deepen my understanding of the mystery of the Christian vocation and, in particular, of the priestly vocation, as well as to return to the roots of my vocation as a service. By forming seminarians in this service to the people of God, I have revitalized this call.
¿What is the current status of the Madrid Seminary?
-Thanks be to God, the Seminary of Madrid has lived a great vitality during the last 30 years. There have been no abrupt changes, but a beautiful evolution, with the signs of the times.
It is in a very good moment. There is a good atmosphere; there is confidence and a desire for holiness, to give one's life, to be holy priests for today's world, and at the same time priests who are close and simple, in line with what the recent Popes have asked of us.
It is a place where a good formation is given, where the relationship between the seminarians and the formators is cordial and positive, and where many young men approach, accompanied by the priests, to discern if what they are perceiving is a call to the priesthood.
How is the number of seminarians evolving?
-It is important to remember that the figures for a given year can be misleading. It is normal that in a Seminary there are ups and downs. The years in which many priests are ordained, the numbers of the Seminary go down, and the years in which few priests are ordained, the numbers go up; besides, the courses are very different from each other and not very homogeneous.
In Madrid there are currently 125 seminarians, counting all the stages, which is the same average of the last years. Thanks to God, in the last few years we have had many priests ordained. Last year there were 13, and this year 15.
The social background is very varied, and as far as age is concerned, there are three clear groups, each of which makes up approximately one third of the total: a large group of seminarians who come directly from high school; a second group who have studied at the University and have entered the Seminary in the last years of their career or after some years of professional experience; and, finally, a somewhat smaller but also significant group of people who have more work experience.
In light of these experiences, what aspect of seminarian formation should be given special attention?
-Today, human formation is of great importance, as the latest report on human development points out. Ratio Institutionis of the Holy See. Today it is necessary that the priest be a capable man, a free man, who can grasp grace and collaborate with it, so that God can form him.
Together with this human dimension, "integrality" is important, that is, that all the dimensions of formation-intellectual, spiritual, pastoral-are integrated in the person, in such a way that he or she becomes a balanced person, capable of entering into living relationships, relationships of communion, through which God reaches people.
In the process of implementing the Ratio in Spain, what should be highlighted?
-A first observation is that we are on the right track. When reading the Ratio similarities are found with what we already experience in the Seminars; moreover, I believe that most of the elements are already very well integrated in our Seminars.
One element that should perhaps be highlighted from the Ratio, and in which we must continue to deepen, is the preparation prior to the Seminary. The document encourages us to make a real preparation and not to be in a hurry to ordain priests. The age of maturity itself is greater, as is confirmed by the fact that young people, in general, face marriage and working life a few years later.
One should not be in a hurry, but neither should one delay ordination unnecessarily. What should be done is to lay the foundations well before entering the Seminary, so that the formation given in the Seminary can be well integrated in all the dimensions of the person.
Another feature that I think should be further deepened is the communitarian dimension of formation. Seminaries must be places sufficiently disposed for an intense community life among seminarians, and sufficiently wide so that the community experience is a good one. The priests will then have to be in the parishes men generators of communion. Therefore, I consider that these two traits, integrality and communion, are important.
The priest's responsibilities are very varied, and his formation must cover many aspects. Does the priest have to be able and know everything?
-No. It is not necessary for the priest to be a "Superman". He is a man called by Jesus Christ to be the father of a family, the ecclesial family.
You don't have to know everything. You can't learn everything at the Seminary, and you don't get out of it. The same way one does not leave the seminary knowing everything one needs to know to work, and it is very important to continue with ongoing formation. Then, in the different missions in which the Church entrusts them, priests can discover the necessary skills, taking care of them, fostering them, making them grow.
In addition, the co-responsibility of the laity is very important. There are many places in the parish, in the Church, in the diocesan life in which the laity have a fundamental role, because they are called for that. And the mission of the priest will be to be the presence of Christ and a place of communion so that the body of the Church is generated, in which the laity can develop all their capacities.
Even before the explicit question of vocation, there are the families....
-The work done in the family and in the school is very important. It is necessary that the young men have an experience of Christian life when they enter the Seminary, an experience of following Jesus Christ, so that this can be integrated with all the configuration for the priestly ministry. It is very important that all this can take place in the family and in the school.
What advice would you give to anyone who discovered in a son or grandson a sign of a priestly vocation?
-I would tell you three things. First of all, the first thing for vocations to arise in families is for families to bring their children to Jesus Christ. That they truly place them before Jesus Christ, in the confidence that what he wants for them will be the best. Secondly, that they try to be close to priests: that they invite priests to their homes for meals, that they have a normal relationship with them and that their children perceive the figure of the priest as close and accessible.
And, thirdly, they can approach the places in the diocese that are prepared to accompany these vocations: the minor seminary, the school for altar servers... There are different moments foreseen so that the young people can approach and discover that it is not something strange that they are perceiving, but that other young people also perceive it.
And your advice to a priest who saw signs of a priestly vocation?
-I would tell him that a lot of patience is needed, even though priests already know this. Patience is necessary for the young person to advance, to accompany him in the dialogue with his own vocation. We have to keep in mind that it is a somewhat countercultural vocation and, therefore, the young person who lives in a school or university context has to accept what this change will mean for him.
Perhaps I can recall that events such as World Youth Days are very important, because they tend to catalyze all the experience that the young person has accumulated. At the same time, however, they are not enough, because what has been experienced in that event must take root in the Christian life, enter deeply and fill the whole life. Otherwise, it could be a house built on sand, on a punctual experience, but then collapse in moments of difficulty.
With patience, I recommend trust in the Church, so that the seed of vocation that Jesus Christ has planted from within will take hold and embrace the whole life of the young person. In this way, vocation will not be like a suit that one puts on from the outside but where one does not feel comfortable, but like a seed that is planted inside and that grows from within like the tree in the Gospel parable, so that in the future many can nest in it.
Therefore, lay people and priests share a responsibility.
-The laity are not simply a support for the priest, but have their own place in the life of the Church. When St. John Paul II wrote the Christifideles laici, refers to the parable of the vineyard and the workers. We are all called to work in the same vineyard, in different ways proper to the priest, the consecrated and the lay person. But they all have their own value, which is the value of baptism.
Therefore, the laity have to participate, in the first place, in the reality of this world. It is they, as the salt of the earth, who have to make present the taste of the Gospel in companies, in education, in public schools, in politics, in the economy... Many times I say to the laity who, for example, are working in a company and do not know what they can do there, that they are the light that the Lord has placed and they have to enlighten all those around them. Along with this, they must also collaborate in the evangelizing mission of the visible body of the Church.
To combine and coordinate these two elements is fundamental so that in the life of the laity, through the vocation to work and the vocation to the family, the true secular vocation that they have is developed.
The presence of consecrated life is relevant in Madrid. What is its space today?
-The space of consecrated life is fundamental. After the Second Vatican Council, religious life is on a path of reflection and renewal. Its place is to make Christ's life present to men and women through the profession of the evangelical counsels and with an eschatological gaze, directed to the end of time, showing us what man truly is.
Therefore, rather than speaking of actions, we should speak of essences: what is consecrated life? And I believe that its role is fundamental. We need this form of Christ's life to be visible in the midst of mankind. All consecrated persons, whether they are in the cloister and in the contemplative life or in the midst of the world caring for the poor, make this form of Christ's life present in the different spheres of reality.
The Synod on Youth will soon take place, what do you expect and how are you preparing for the Synod?
-I am preparing myself by praying that it will bear fruit, because I believe it is important that we listen to young people, not just to see what they want, but to listen to their deepest longings. The Pope is insisting on the importance of listening to young people, not with the intention of finding practical solutions, but to listen to the longing for Truth, for Beauty, for fullness that is in the hearts of young people. In this way, we will be able to respond together with them, and they will find the promise of fullness that is in the following of Christ.
The new auxiliary bishops of Madrid will seek to be close to the priests, as they have said. What does this desire mean?
-It is concretized in a fundamental line that the Cardinal Archbishop has marked for us: the pastoral visits. We are designing a project to begin as soon as possible, which will allow us to approach the Christian community through them, especially the priest, our collaborator in this ministry, who are the ones who are there, serving the Christian community on the border. We want to encourage them to rekindle the spirit of dedication, of following and configuration to Jesus Christ.
And it also takes the form of absolute availability of our schedule. We must be clear that, if a priest calls us, responding must be the first thing on our agenda. n