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Human Formation: Becoming the Best Human Being We Can Be

Sep 08

The key element in family upbringing or religious formation—what makes it a success or a failure—is human formation. It is, unfortunately and frequently, the weakest part of the formation experience. What can we do about it?

Moved by the way people from different religions and castes helped each other during the recent floods in Kerala, a man wrote on WhatsApp: “You were not saved by someone of your religion. You were not saved by someone from your political party. When you grow up, and people ask you what you want to become, do not say, ‘I want to become a doctor, engineer, etc.’ Say, ‘I want to become a human being.’”

What a lovely thing to say!

Has your joining religious life helped you to become a mature and inspiring human being?

This may or may not happen—depending on those who guided your formation process, and your own personal search.

Of the different aspects of religious and priestly formation—intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human—the weak link is often human formation. Why?

Because it is easier to make sure the formees know the dates of the founder’s life or pass exams in religious subjects, or keep the time table, than help them mature as human beings.

What is Human Formation?

To begin with, what does human formation mean? Which areas of my life should I cultivate, to become a mature adult?

There are six areas:

Physical fitness and capacity for work; emotional balance; relationships; psycho-sexual integration; responsible use of freedom and contact with reality.

Let me explain each of them briefly.

  1. Physical Fitness and Capacity for Work

Religious and priests need not be body builders or champion athletes, but we need to have enough health to do our work and adjust to the ordinary difficulties of life.

We, religious, do not, by any means, spend the whole day in prayer. Most of the day is devoted to work. To work well, we need to keep physically fit. This means eating right—neither depriving oneself of sufficient food, nor overeating—exercising, such as, playing with the students, taking care of one’s personal hygiene, getting enough sleep and using medicine when needed. We should neither neglect our health and become a burden to ourselves and others, nor become hypochondriacs seeking medication and attention for the slightest illness or discomfort.

Manual work should be a part of our formation. This has great formative value. It reaches us the dignity of all types of work, and the hardships of those whose whole life is spent in manual labour. No work should be seen as beneath us, or too hard to try. One of the reasons why Catholic institutions are generally clean, from the chapel and class rooms right down to the compound and the toilets, is that we were trained to keep the premises clean through our own work.

So, too, we learn not to be fussy about food. We have to eat whatever is set before us without complaining or making a face.

If a candidate is overly fussy about food, or seeks too many exceptions from the normal duties that members of the religious congregation do, he/she may not be suitable for this way of life.

So, too, there is a spiritual vision behind this. All of us need to do penance, which is a “must” in our Christian life. The best and most meaningful penance is to be make the sacrifices that my state of life and my duties require. Thus, for a married man or woman, the main form of penance is the daily adjustment to each other, getting up each time a child cries, cooking for a guest without complaining, or helping to clean the house when one would rather watch TV. Similarly, for me, as a Salesian, my best penance is to be with the young for recreation or manual work when I may find it easier to read or watch TV—and to do this cheerfully.  

  1. Emotional Balance

A more important aspect of human formation is emotional balance.

Whether we work in a school or hospital or social services, what matters to the people more than the life of the founder or our particular religious practices is what kind of persons we are. It does matter to them whether I am calm or angry, cheerful or gloomy, generous or jealous. Whatever post I may hold, whatever my academic qualifications, my emotional balance matters much more than my degrees

Emotional balance supposes that I have a positive self-image—positive, not boastful or arrogant—and can handle the ups and downs of life with a certain equanimity. We will not be gloomy for days if something unpleasant happens, nor unduly elated if someone praises us.

Emotional balance does not mean becoming unfeeling, like pieces of furniture. No! It means that we cultivate the so-called positive emotions—optimism, joy, courage, sense of humour—and learn to handle the so-called “negative” emotions—especially anger, fear, jealousy, depression and sexual attraction.

Such emotions are called “negative,” not because they are bad in themselves, but because, when handled badly or neglected, they lead to unhappiness and broken relationships.

Thus, both I and my community members will suffer if I am often moody. Younger people in my care will get hurt and or be afraid to approach me if I flare up easily. If I am a jealous person who cannot accept someone else’s success or popularity, I may do stupid things, like speaking ill of that person or ill-treating him/her, and thus win the contempt of people.

You may have heard the expression, “EQ matters more than IQ.” There is much wisdom in this statement. It means this: Suppose you want to choose a new superior, it is better to choose a person of average intelligence who is pleasant and emotionally balanced, rather than a brilliant person who is hot-tempered, gloomy or given to jealousy.


You have also have heard of a concept called “emotional intelligence.” It means four things:

  • Being aware of what I am feeling, e.g., when the provincial praised another person rather than me, I felt jealous and hurt.
  • Understanding why I feel this way: In our example, I may realize that I expect to be praised when I do something good; or else I will be disappointed.
  • Learning how to handle this: Can I learn to be happy, whether the provincial praises me or not?
  • Understand how others feel, and why: E.g., the way I teased So-and-so hurt him. When I, as superior, do not affirm people for good they do, they tend to feel discouraged.

Some studies (e.g., that of Fr Paul Parathazham on formees), show that seminarians and young religious show less maturity than their age group outside. Why?

The reasons vary.

One reason is the sheltered life they lead, without having to take responsibility or earn a living.

Another reason is that the superiors training the formees may act more like professors than like formators—that is, they may be teaching a subject in which they have a degree, but not helping the formees in their emotional development. They may not know how to do it. When I am struggling with anger or depression, jealousy or sexual confusion, what I need is not a theology class nor a conference on the life of the founder, but individual listening and counselling. Formators do not always provide this. When this happens, a person may acquire an advanced degree, or make the final vows, or get ordained, but be emotionally immature. Degrees and theoretical knowledge do not, by themselves, heal our emotional wounds, nor make us emotionally stable.

  1. Good Human Relations

Most of what we call ministry consists of relationships.

Most of our happy memories are tied to the people in our lives.

Most of our difficult experiences stem from relationships going wrong.

The well-known seventy-year-long longitudinal study by Harvard University on what makes people happy as they grow older gave this clear result: The main element in our happiness—as well as in our physical health—as we grow older is having close relationships. When the study started with Harvard undergraduates and young people of their age from poorer families, the youngsters said they wanted three things: money, fame and achievement. They believed these three things would make them happy. Did that work? No! As the research group followed this group of men from age eighteen to their 80s and 90s, they found that it is not their blood count and cholesterol levels at forty years that indicated how healthy they would be in their 70s and 80s. Their close relationships were what mattered most—for their happiness and their physical health.

I would encourage all to watch Robert Waldinger’s twelve-minute TED talk on this study.

How we relate to others matters very much—both in marriage and in celibate life. (I believe, in fact, that only a woman who would have made a good wife and mother would be a good nun, and only a man who would have been a good husband and father will make a good priest or religious. The same qualities are needed in both walks of life—especially the ability to relate lovingly and pleasantly.)


How can we cultivate good relationships? How do we make friends?

Simple. Do the first four things listed below and avoid the last three. You will have friends wherever you go.

  • Help: Whether it is reaching out to flood victims physically, or helping a stranger with a heavy suitcase, or paying a poor student’s fees, there are many opportunities for helping others. When we help, our own joy increases—and we make friends. Reach out. Give a helping hand. During formation, see who is ready to help, and who is reluctant. Celibacy is not simply a choice to give up marriage and parenthood; that would be a meaningless decision. What makes it celibacy is making a life-decision in response to God’s love, and the eagerness to share that Love with others.
  • Listen: Many [i]people look for someone who will listen to them. Am I willing to listen? When someone speaks, do give them my full attention, or do I interrupt much of the time, wanting to talk about myself and my interests? If you are a good listener, you will have friends.
  • Speak well: Speak lovingly to people and speak well of them in their absence. Your friends will multiply.
  • Enlarge your circle of friends: We all start life as a frog in a well—knowing only our family, our village or town, and the ethnic group we are born into. This is a small world. Our lives can be incredibly richer and more beautiful if we overcome our mental and cultural narrowness and build bridges across linguistic, ethnic and other barriers. This is especially important for those who choose celibacy, since it involves the readiness to accept any one from anywhere as my sister or brother and form community with them.
  • Do not gossip: This is an evil we cannot go back and erase. (For a fuller discussion, see MAGNET, October 2016, cover story.) Not only does it do enormous harm to the other; it poisons the speaker’s mind and life. Gossips end up lonely, since people who know them do not trust them.
  • Do not betray confidences: When people confide in us and share personal secrets, they must feel certain that we will not betray their confidence.
  • Do not tell lies: If I tell one lie, I need to tell ten lies to cover it, and a hundred lies to cover the ten. No one will trust my word.

A note to formators: If a young man or woman is a problem in communities repeatedly, and does not improve, but just keeps blaming others, that formee should be asked to leave. Someone who is incorrigible at twenty-two, will be much harder to handle at forty-two or fifty. Religious life or the priesthood is not for those who cannot live with others. The ability to relate to people with warmth, respect and dignity is essential to anyone choosing these special paths.

  1. Psycho-sexual Integration

This big word simply means this: As an adult, do I function well as a woman or as a woman? Do I relate in appropriate ways with men and women? Am I ready for gender-specific roles (e.g., marriage, motherhood, fatherhood)? If I choose celibacy, am I a happy and loving man or woman, who has “integrated” (brought in harmoniously) into the choice I made the kind of warmth, generosity and dedication that I have seen in my parents and married siblings and friends?

Whether married or celibate, we are not angels; we are human. We have all the potential and all the weakness of normal men and women.

Hence the need to learn from others, the need to get help, the need to go to God in humble prayer.

Sexuality—the mutual attraction between men and women, the power of maternal and paternal instinct, the tenderness we have seen and experienced in close relationships, the million variations on this theme that we have seen in novels and movies—is a very central and powerful force. Integrated well, it makes us warm, energetic, caring, creative and tender-hearted human beings. When misused, it can be extremely destructive, as when women and children are trafficked for sex, or minors are abused, or hapless victims are raped and killed.

This power should not be denied or avoided. It needs to be accepted gratefully as one of God’s most beautiful gifts. After all, without our sexual nature, I would not have a mother or father; I would not belong to a family. There would be no parents or grandparents swooning over little children or children running to their parents with smiles or tears. The most touching experiences of human life would be missing.

So, we neither despise nor worship sexuality. We accept our sexual nature gratefully, and seek to integrate it with the rest of life honestly, humbly and under wise guidance.

If, after reflection and wise discernment, a young person finds that celibacy is not what his/her heart is made for, we must help such young people to opt out—gracefully and with our loving support. We should never say that someone “lost his/her vocation.” We should treat those who leave as lovingly as before, and make it plain to them that the religious house which was once their home will always welcome their visits. If we stop loving a person when they make a different choice, it means we never loved them in the first place.

  1. Responsible Use of Freedom

Formators have had almost endless discussions on the question: How do we train our formees to personal responsibility?

There is no one answer to this question. Even a husband and wife will differ on how far to be strict and how far to be lenient with their children.

If we control the formees (or children in a family) too much, they will long to come out of this “jail.” As soon as they are free, they will tend to do all the things we forbade them to do.

If we are too lenient, they may become lazy and easy-going, do poorly in studies and professional life.

The question is harder to answer in the case of diocesan seminaries. A seminarian is not going to live in a structured community after his ordination. Once he is ordained, there will be no bells and no community making sure he prays regularly, or does his work, or lives his priestly life well.

For religious, there is more continuity between the formation house and the so-called regular or normal house. But even in this case, a religious after final vows enjoys much more freedom than during the initial formation.

So, how do we train people to use their freedom responsibly?

How do we avoid the two extremes of excessive control and inappropriate freedom?

After twenty-one years of formation ministry, I am convinced that a loving setting marked by joy and mutual openness yields far better results than a fear-filled and overly controlling setting. When people feel loved, and can see the genuineness of the formators, they open their hearts, accept corrections, admit mistakes, and tend to do the right things even later, when they are on their own.

In a formation house, a young person needs to see formators who are loving and happy, and learn that a genuine and loving life is a happy one.

We need to tell them, and give opportunities for formees to learn, that each of them must take responsibility for the following key areas, which others cannot take charge of:

  • Happiness: Others can do things for me; they can help or hurt me; they cannot give me happiness. I am responsible for my happiness.
  • Goodness: My religious order or seminary gives me opportunities. It cannot make me good. I can remain in religious life or the priesthood and become a saint or a crook.
  • Key decisions: The main decisions of my life are for me to take. Others cannot take them for me.
  • Use of time, money and opportunities: How I use these three gifts shows much about my maturity.
  1. Contact with Reality

A Hindu doctor who had studied in a Catholic school and had also sent his son to the same school, told me: “There are many good things in your church. But one thing is not good: To take young people and provide them everything free. This will make them irresponsible. They will not grow up well.”

What do you say to this?

Since, as the good doctor said, everything is provided to me free,  I can lose touch with the hardships of people and become irresponsible and unreasonably demanding. I may not know how to spend money when it is entrusted to me. I may not know the struggles of lay persons and hence not show them compassion.

Here comes the need of adequate exposure to “real life” during formation. These weeks, for instance, many young religious and seminarians are helping out in the refugee camps in Kerala. I remember the same thing happening in refugee camps in West Bengal during the Bangladesh War in 1971 or during droughts or after the Tsunami. Such experiences not only help us to help others; they deepen our awareness and our compassion. Some of the best memories for any young person are memories of helping others, especially if it involves sacrifice.

Contact with reality also means relating to persons different from us in background—whether by religion, mother tongue, place, caste or tribe. When young people grow up among and with others who differ from them, they tend to develop a more open mind, and be less bigoted and afraid of others when they grow up.

How to Promote Human Formation

How do we help formees in these six areas?

Both the formators and the formee need to do their part. Here are their roles, in a nutshell:

  1. The Formator’s Role

The formator’s main role is to create a healthy atmosphere marked by love and joy. Only in happy and loving settings will young people be themselves, learn with inner freedom and internalize what is being taught. In fear-filled settings, people are busy hiding and pretending. They are waiting to get out of the “spiritual jail” and be themselves. Whether in a family or in a religious formation house, the young have the right to make mistakes, be treated with love and respect and have role models to look up to.

Parents and formators can promote human formation in the following seven ways;

  • Be genuine: Genuineness breeds genuineness, just as hypocrisy will breed hypocrisy and anger. Part of being genuine is to admit our mistakes and apologize when we blunder or hurt someone.
  • Love those in your care: Fr Paul Albera SDB, who had been a boy in Don Bosco’s care, said this about his experience: “We were caught up in a current of love. We felt loved in a way we had never been loved before.” The young can easily make out whether we love them or not. Whether they stay or leave, their memories of a formation house (as of a good family) should be joyful memories of a loving home.
  • Accept criticism: The young will accept our corrections if they see that we are open to suggestions and criticism. If we are touchy, how can we expect younger people to be more mature? Fr Andrew, rector of a major seminary, once told me, “The students pointed out to me some of my limitations. I need to change.” This honesty made him a good formator.
  • Affirm and encourage: A word of appreciation from you will mean much to a young person, whether the achievement is something small (e.g., reading well in public) or big (e.g., looking after sick members).
  • Kindness in small things touches hearts: In a large seminary where I worked for years, the deacons would meet with the staff at the end of the course to thank us. One year, a deacon said, “My best memory is this: When I came to the seminary eight years ago, Fr Rector carried my suitcase to the dormitory.”
  • Give opportunities and demand: We must give the young opportunities for learning, and demand that they perform well. Not to make that demand, or to let them do shabby work, is damaging.
  • Provide counselling and spiritual direction: Most people have personal issues to be sorted out. Many carry unhealed wounds. Individual, confidential help is a must. Once the person speaks, he/she must be absolutely certain that what was shared will be kept confidential.
  1. The Formee’s Role
    You have a right to be imperfect and immature when you start. If you want to mature into a good human being, here is what you need to do:
  • Be honest: Do not pretend or hide. Talk things over with someone in confidence. Even in normal community settings, admit your mistakes and accept correction. Speak up.
  • Tackle your fears: You can become free of your fears. A shy young person can become a confident leader. One help is to talk over your fears and worries with someone in confidence. Another way is to try doing things you were scared of doing, e.g., public speaking.
  • Get healed: You may have unhealed inner wounds going back to your childhood or adolescence. Many do. No need to feel ashamed of it. If your father was a drunkard or if you were sexually abused, or you have been deeply hurt in relationships, get help, get healed and move on! Otherwise, you will waste much of your adult life on licking your wounds in silence.
  • Live meaningfully, not mechanically: Ask questions. Find out the reasons for community practices (e.g., regular prayer or silence). There is a great difference between doing something mechanically and doing it meaningfully.
  • Take responsibility for your life, especially for your happiness and for the person you become: Others can help you or hurt you; they cannot give you happiness, nor make you a good person. That responsibility is yours.
  • Face your sexuality: Becoming a mature man or woman is not a day’s work. It takes years. It means learning from inspiring women and men, learning to relate in healthy ways, channelling our sexual feelings in the proper way, moving from a world of fantasy (e.g., as in pornography) to a world of real human beings.
  • Be fully known to someone: This is very freeing. Most people do not know us, nor understand us, nor care deeply about us. But we need to have at least one person whose love we are sure of, whose judgements we trust, to whom we feel free to share everything within us. This is one of the best helps for growth.

*              *             *

As I conclude this article, I remember with tremendous admiration a Catholic layman I knew very well, who was a model of integrity and concern for others. A brilliant defense officer who never took a bribe nor indulged in anything dishonest, who reached out to others with deep care and compassion, who would spend hours coaching poorer students free of charge, he was much esteemed by close friends. One of them, a Sikh customs officer in New Delhi, who had seen people of all kinds, told this Catholic officer: “Whenever I praised you highly for something, you usually gave the credit to someone else. What if I tell you that you are the finest human being I have ever come across?”

Any of us will feel blessed if we can say that about our parents or superiors or formators. Our real task as parents or formators is precisely this: To be persons about whom, at the end of their formation journey, they can look back and say, “You are the finest human being (or one of the finest human beings) I have ever met.” If that is true, real human formation takes place—every day, everywhere.

Are our formators persons of this calibre? Some are, some are not. May we at least try.

Let me point to someone in whom the young saw this type of quality. She was a Sister in her 30s. She accompanied a group of Japanese college students (hardly any of them Christian) for two weeks during their travels. At the end, a good number of them wrote to her saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a woman like you.”

Good human formation—whether in a family or a seminary or a novitiate—takes place when there are such persons in charge.

For we cannot “produce” a good human being, nor create maturity through some short cuts. God can, of course (as Jesus said), create human beings out of the very stones. But, normally speaking, we become mature and more fully human when we are blessed to live with, and under the care of, other human beings whose very humanity shines forth and captures us. May we provide the young in our formation houses that kind of a healing and energizing presence.


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