The "Whys" of Human Formation

Apr 19, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

May the Risen Lord continue to grant Easter blessings to you in this holy season.

A look back at previous reflections on human formation…

In today’s reflection, the fourth in our series, we deepen our understanding of human formation, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person by delving into the question of the why. Why is human formation important for Catholics? Why do you need to pursue human formation deliberately in your life?

Revisiting the definition of human formation

In 2021, in Episode 63 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, I offered my definition of human formation:

Human formation is the lifelong process of natural development, aided by grace, by which a person integrates all aspects of his interior emotional, cognitive, relational, and bodily life, all his natural faculties in an ordered way, conformed with right reason and natural law so that he is freed from natural impediments to trust God as His beloved child and to embrace God's love. Then, in return, because he knows and possesses himself, he can love God, neighbor, and himself with all his natural being in an ordered, intimate, personal, and mature way.

Human formation is a means, not an end

Notice “so that” is bolded in the definition. Solid human formation is a natural good in itself, but its purpose is to enable you to reach beyond yourself in love with God and for the love of God and neighbor. Good human formation orients you toward God and toward drawing others to God. Mark Hellinger, in his article in Today’s Catholic titled Human formation and becoming a bridge explains:

…human formation is not an end in itself. It is the foundation of a well-formed priest and a well-formed Christian. Jesus did not become human to keep us in our sin; rather, he became human to bring us out of sin. Therefore, for the priest and for the Christian, we must become human so as to draw ourselves and others toward God. Without this understanding, human formation really has no clear point. There would be no movement toward God, and that would not make any sense.

If not oriented toward God, human formation would be a futile exercise in alienated and distorted self-perfection. Our Lord tells us in Matthew 16:26: For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation titled Pastores Dabo Vobes describes the purpose of human formation in paragraph 43:

In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.

In this document, the pope is addressing the formation of priests specifically, but the standard holds for every Catholic. The goal of your human formation is union with our Lord – both your own union with Him and the union of others with God. Your human formation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for that union.

Spiritual formation and human formation depend on each other to help us toward that end of contemplative union with God. Both are necessary. Fr. Gerald D. Coleman, S.S., in his 2006 book Catholic Priesthood: Formation and Human Development minces no words on this point: Authentic human formation and development will only occur in a deep spiritual context, rooted in silence in a personal relationship with God. [p. 44].

Your process of human formation

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 2022 Program for Priestly Formation, 6th Edition (PPF6) describes how human formation is a process, a progression:

In general, human formation happens in a threefold process of self-knowledge, self-possession, and self-gift – and all of this in faith. As this process unfolds, the human person becomes more perfectly conformed to the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. [p. 188].

Although the PPF6 does not explicitly say it in this section, your human formation process leads you to charity, to love, as its end – the giving of yourself as a gift, in love. There is an order to the progression, and it starts with self-knowledge.


The wise Athenian philosopher Socrates is said to have coined a famous two-word phrase: Know thyself. Aristotle expanded on this, writing, To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom. Whole treatises have been written on this (including by St. Thomas Aquinas). As a psychologist, I see knowing yourself as essential to loving because it makes clearer what is yours and what the other person is bringing to the relationship.

People who lack self-awareness cannot readily perceive the inner experience of another person. They are particularly prone to misunderstandings because they make misattributions about the origins of what happens in a relationship. They lack the capacity for empathetic attunement. It is very difficult to really understand another if one is clueless about oneself.

Interior integration is crucial for self-knowledge. If we are fragmented, if we are disconnected inside from our own inner experience, that inner experience will take on a life of its own.

In the September 28, 2022 reflection Of Mirrors and Identity: The Hardest Question, I covered this theme at length, discussing how so many people (including applicants for seminary) don’t know themselves and the consequences of that lack of self-knowledge.

Threatening impulses, desires, beliefs, emotions, memories, attitudes, and other inner experiences that we deny, repress, or suppress into the unconscious are very likely to fuel sinful behavior through enactment, sometimes referred to as the “revenge of the repressed” by psychodynamic clinicians. It is far better to accept the reality of those inner experiences and work through them, provided one is not overwhelmed by their intensity – as long as one can stay grounded and self-possessed in the process.


Individuals who are highly defended, using coping mechanisms that keep threatening emotions, beliefs, assumptions, intentions, desires, and impulses suppressed in the unconscious, cannot readily accept those internal experiences in other people, for fear of their own activation – they are too easily triggered. They are not well-grounded or stable. They lack “affective maturity” the PPF6 says happens when:

…a life of feelings is in balance and integrated into thought and value; in other words, a man of feelings who is not driven by them but who freely lives his life enriched by them. This might be especially evident in his ability to live well with authority, in his ability to take direction from another, and in his ability to exercise authority well among his peers, as well as an ability to deal productively with conflict and stress. [p. 183].

Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis writes …affective maturity, which is the result of an education in true and responsible love, is a significant and decisive factor in the formation of candidates for the priesthood and that …affective maturity presupposes an awareness that love has a central role in human life. [p. 43].

Fr. Gerald D. Coleman, S.S in his 2006 book Catholic Priesthood: Formation and Human Development writes that:

The primary task of human formation of seminarians lies within and without. That is, seminarians must continually monitor and shape themselves from within, striving for physical and psychological maturity. At the same time, however, the seminarian must accept formation from without: the influence of their formation team, peers, and their experience of prayer….Complete formation from within and without requires seminarians and priests to live integrated lives. [p. 41]

We see the emphasis on “integrated lives” – the importance of unity within and one’s own responsibility for forming oneself, which we discussed last week in the reflection Who Forms your Clay?

The PPF6 describes the fruits or the signs of healthy human formation reflecting that interior integration: The qualities to be fostered in a human formation program are freedom, openness, honesty, flexibility, empathy, joy and inner peace, generosity and justice, chastity, personal maturity, interpersonal skills, common sense, aptitude for ministry, and growth “in moral integrity and public witness.” [p. 58].

These qualities allow you not only to give of yourself, but to give your self.


A maxim in Latin dating back centuries states Nemo dat quod not habet which means You can’t give what you don’t have. This is a legal principle, but it also applies to self-gift. If you do not possess yourself, you are not free to give yourself in love.

In self-giving, we follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Mother, Mary. The PPF6 makes this clear: The foundation and center of all human formation is the Word made flesh. In his fully developed humanity, he was truly free and with complete freedom to give himself totally for the salvation of the world. [p. 181].

Deficits in your human formation will compromise your beneficence – your capacity to make acts of charity, mercy, kindness, and generosity. Deficits in your human formation will also compromise your benevolence – your ability to will the good for another person because of the inner fragmentation and distortions negatively impact the freedom of will. The better your human formation, the more completely you can muster your faculties and abilities and give yourself as a gift to another.

Thus, working on your own human formation is not like going to some navel-gazing, self-indulgent, psychological day spa where you light aromatherapy candles, get a massage and listen to other tell you about how wonderful you are in an attempt to feel better about yourself without having to do any heavy lifting. Working on your human formation prepares you to follow in the steps of Christ, to be better able to give all of your being in love as we are called to do in the great commandments in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

The virtue of obedience

Fr. Brian Mullady: The Four Pillars of Religious Formation: Human Formation (downloadable PDF) emphasizes the importance of good human formation as a prerequisite for living the virtue of obedience in religious life.

The final foundation in human formation takes the form of the necessary preparation which again should have come primarily from the family in respect and obedience to authority. This includes a proper formation in the psychological aspects of obedience which is much more than just doing what one is told. Those who have been ill-formed by their parents cannot understand the true freedom involved in obedience….

Mistaken human formation can lead one to view authority from fear of the superior’s reaction, a childish desire to renounce responsibility, an exaggerated dependence on the personality of a given authority or even a desire to hold others in contempt by outdoing them in living the rule. Passive aggression often attends those who practice the opposite problem of resistance to authority. Much of this stems from not experiencing the benevolent but firm direction of parents.

Obedience does not apply only to consecrated religious – we are all called to obey God, whatever our state in life. And that is hard. Matthew 16: 24-25 reads: Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Our support

We continue this journey of human formation together, and our Heavenly Father and our Mother Mary remain present for each one of us and very interested both in our success and in our baby steps along the way. We are not required to be “straight A” students in human formation, in fact God will be quite pleased with our C+ work in this area. Sound surprising? Stay tuned for a future weekly reflection on this topic.

Wrapping up the what, when, who and why’s of human formation with a reminder that all of the information and resources I share in these reflections are given on a ‘take what is useful for you’ basis, and with my prayers that you will have peace and confidence in this ongoing process of growing ever more self-aware, self-possessed, and learning to love like Christ.

Conversation Hours

Just a reminder that conversation hours, which are generally every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time are canceled this Thursday, April 20 and Tuesday April 25 as I will be presenting at the Catholic Psychotherapy Association conference in San Diego and traveling afterward. You still have time to register for the conference, and there is a virtual attendance option as well. Jody Garneau and I are presenting a workshop titled The Integrated Catholic Therapist: A Compassionate Approach to Sexual Concerns using IFS.

The Interior Integration for Catholics Podcast

Last Monday, April 17 we released episode 111 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, the sixth and final one in our series of live experiential exercises. It’s titled Approaching My Anger from the Other Side. I lead the audience through an experiential exercise that explores why anger might feel important, necessary, and even indispensable for parts. We look at how anger can develop from parts feeling forced to choose between attachment needs and integrity needs being met. The audience and I then share a lively, personal debriefing and discussion of their experiences of the exercise. Check that out!

In episode 113, Resilient Catholic Community Lead Navigator Marion Moreland and I will answer questions from a live audience – any questions you have about anger from the recent IIC series on anger. That will be recorded on Tuesday, May 9 from 7:00 PM to 8:15 PM Eastern Time -- register to join us for free with this link. You can also email me questions beforehand at [email protected]; be sure to put “IIC 113 Question” in the subject line.

Be With the Word for the Third Sunday of Easter

Join Dr. Gerry and me as we reflect on the Mass readings for the Third Sunday of Easter through a psychological lens in the episode, Developing a Firm Confidence in God. We discuss how to grow in our trust of God. I also offer an experiential exercise to help foster greater confidence in God. We also read the Mass readings aloud here.

The Restore the Glory Podcast with Jake Khym and Bob Schuchts -- Redux

Catholic therapists Jake Khym and Bob Schuchts of the Restore the Glory podcast hosted me as a guest for episode 79, titled The Three Essential Relationships (Part 2: Myself). I’ve received so much positive feedback on the lively and collegial exchange with two colleagues who are also working in this corner of the vineyard of human formation grounded in a Catholic anthropology.

I was surprised and honored to find out that Jake and Bob continued the discussion and offered additional commentary in Episode 80: The Three Essential Relationships (Part 3: Myself) Reflections & Comments on Episode 79. Don't miss this follow up episode.

I highly recommend the Restore the Glory podcast, one of very few podcasts that grabs my attention. Bob and Jake host a stellar lineup of guests discussing the intersection of the natural and the spiritual realms with knowledge, clarity, relationality, and fidelity to the Truths of our Faith.

Virtual masterclass and online retreat for single Catholic women over 35 from April 24-28, 2023

Do you feel like you, your faith-life, and your love-life could use a little work? Maybe you’re wondering:

  • How can I live a full life as a single person, even when I worry about the future?

  • How to be a light in today’s world, even when I may feel old and undesirable?

  • How to heal my childhood (or more recent) wounds, when I think there is no hope?

  • Am I the only person who has these opposing thoughts in my head?

Being a single woman in today’s culture can feel like a constant battle. But… it doesn’t have to be!

I want to introduce you to my friend Anne-Marie Klobe. Ann Marie is a member of Souls and Hearts and really supportive of our work. And I support hers as well. She is a real ally in this whole area of human formation, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person, especially for single Catholic women.

Starting April 24-28th, more than 20 speakers, including myself, will be presenting at the Ready for Love: An on-line retreat for single Catholic women over 35 who are ready to connect deeper with their Faith, the Saints, and find a Godly relationship! Get your complimentary pass here.

Do you want in? Register here for a complimentary pass!

Please spread the word about Souls and Hearts

Our most effective marketing pro is you, along with all of our other readers, listeners and members. Word of mouth, person-to-person, friend-to-friend – that’s how we’ve grown. We rely on you to help get the word out about our offerings. Please share this reflection with those whom you think might benefit.

Prayers, please…

And finally, please pray for us at Souls and Hearts. Any good we do is supported by prayer. And I am praying for you as well, together in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Warm regards in the Risen Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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