‘Moulding his human personality’: Personality Change and Formation to Priesthood in the Catholic Church


The post-synodal document, Pastores Dabo Vobis (John Paul II, 1992) is one of the main sources that provide guidelines for priestly formation in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.  This document states, “In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mould his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ” (no.43, italics added). The theology of priesthood in the Catholic tradition considers the priest not merely as an elder or a guide on the road to Christ, but he is expected to “act in the person of Christ” (CCC, 1999, no.1548; see also, Goergan & Garrido, 2000). This prompts a particular urgency in considering issues of personality.  What does ‘mould his human personality’ mean? Does it mean a personality change?  And is personality change possible?

Candidates to priesthood in the Catholic Church not only study philosophy and theology (Code of Canon Law #250) but, at the same time, go through a residential formation process for a minimum of 6 years.  This could go up to 12 or more years for a candidate in a religious order. What could be the impact of the formation process on the personality of the future priest?[1]  This essay discusses this question, and others raised above, in the light of contemporary psychological theories of personality.

‘Personality change’ can have at least three meanings: first, it can denote adjustment, whereby the change consists in exterior modifications and is temporary in nature. An individual may adopt a particular behaviour forced by certain situation, which is not congruent with his general pattern of behaviour.  This is not what is meant by personality change in this essay.  Second, it can indicate a ‘quantum change’.  This is marked by a sudden and significant change where the individual’s traits are totally transformed.  This type of change, as we will discuss later, is not likely.  The third meaning of personality change, which we adopt in this essay, could be referred to as ‘plasticity’.  This is a gradual change without the loss of the core material, presupposing some form of continuity. In this sense, personality change can also be understood as personality integration (Mischel, Shoda, & Smith, 2003). This resonates well with the idea of ‘moulding’ as used in the document of the church (John Paul II, 1992).

 The use of personality theories and models in seminary formation

As psychology began to emerge as a science, the Catholic Church recognised its relevance in the formation of its priests.  The Second Vatican Council duly acknowledged this, and it was soon followed by several scholarly works (Rulla, 1979; Rulla, Imoda, & Ridick, 1986/1989; Cencini & Manenti, 1992).  The Council’s document on priestly formation affirms, “Under the fatherly direction of the superiors, and with the proper cooperation of the parents, [seminarians’] daily routine should be in accord with the age, the character and the stage of development of adolescence and fully adapted to the norms of a healthy psychology” (Paul VI, 1965, no.3).  At least on two other occasions this document acknowledges the importance of psychology as a tool for formation and as a subject of study (nos. 11 & 20).

Pastores Dabo Vobis (John Paul II, 1992) goes even further.  In referring to the personality of the candidate it has a very dynamic understanding of human personality.  It speaks of, “joyous growth in personality” (no.8), “development of personality” (no.67), and “building a priestly personality” (no.71).  However, the understanding of ‘personality’ in church documents should not be taken to be univocal with the types or traits model of personality. This is elucidated in a later document, “The specific understanding of ‘personality’ in this document refers to affective maturity and absence of mental disorder” (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2008, no.2). This simplistic understanding of the concept of personality notwithstanding, this latter document refers to the “candidate’s personality” at least four other times.  It recommends the use of “interviews and tests” in the “correct evaluation of the candidate’s personality,” and always with the “previous, explicit, informed and free consent of the candidate” (No. 5). The results are to be used in the evaluation of the candidate (no.11), in his growth process (no.15) and in the discernment of his vocation (no.13).

Even prior to this official notice of 2008, various types of psychology tests have been used in the selection of candidates to priesthood (see, for instance, Vaughan, 1970).  During priestly formation itself, exposure to workshops on personality is also in vogue, though sometimes using models without a critical approach.  Here, I briefly review some of the common models of personality types and traits that are used in the context of training for priesthood. [2] This list lays also a phenomenological foundation for further discussion in this essay.


The Greek physician Hippocrates (c.400 BCE) assigned persons to one of the four types of temperament: choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic.  This model, that was popularised by Galen (2nd Cent CE), later theorised by Kant, and further structuralized by Wundt, has had its persisting influence on theories of personality.  Though rudimentary in its form it has been the forerunner of a structured way of talking about personality (Eysenck, 1967/2006).


It is claimed that this psycho-spiritual system of personality types possibly originated around 2500 BC (Riso & Hudson, 1999a, p.19).  The modern version of Enneagram is attributed to the Greek-Russian mystic, Gurdjieff.  However, it took two Chilean psychiatrists (Oscar Ichazo & Claudio Naranjo) to popularize the Enneagram in the contemporary usage. Enneagram, which in Greek means, ‘nine pointed diagram’, has nine types of personality laid out at each point of the diagram.  These types are grouped in sets of three centres of intelligence – head, heart and body, corresponding to three core emotions – fear, grief and anger.  Every type has its set of descriptions that include primary virtue and vice. Further relationship between the types is developed by the concept of wings and directions (Palmer, 1991).  These concepts make the types more dynamic.  The Enneagram types-model has been operationalised for measurement in the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator (Riso & Hudson, 1999b).  This scale is shown to have an adequate degree of internal consistency, some support for validity, and a strong support for heuristic value (Newgen, Parr, Newman, & Higgins, 2004).  It is this latter value – the ability to help people use Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery – that makes it popular in the contexts of spirituality and formation.  However, the Enneagram lacks psychological theoretical framework, and it hardly gets mentioned in works that discuss psychology of personality (For instance, Mischel, Shoda, & Smith, 2004; McCrae & Costa, 1990; McAdams, 2006; Ashton, 2007).

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

It is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure preferences in how individuals perceive the world – including the self and others – and interact with them.  Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers (1962) developed the MBTI basing themselves on the typological theory of Jung (1923).  The description of the types revolves around four independent axes: Extraversion – Introversion, Sensing – iNtuition, Thinking – Feeling, and Judgement – Perception.  The combinations of these 4 pairs of characteristics give rise to 16 different personality types (ESTJ, INFP, etc).  The MBTI has a strong plaster model of personality types. It enjoys great popularity in management training contexts (Huifang & Shuming, 2004); and is gaining regard in training of priests (Hirsh & Kise, 2007). Though there is some evidence for construct validity and reliability, it is said to be inconsistent in results.  Participants often (up to 50% of times) reject the results yielded by tests.  Repeat tests within six months produce different type for the same person (McCrae & Costa, 1989; Capraro & Capraro, 2002; Ashton, 2007, pp.42-43).

The Big-Five Personality Inventory

This model consists of five broad dimensions of personality evolved from lexical analysis, originally proposed by Allport (1937).  The Five Factor Model (FMM), as it is often referred to, is summarised in five sets of continua, each with an adjective and its opposite (OCEAN): Openness (referring to one’s intellect or imagination); Conscientiousness (related to organisation and discipline); Extraversion (being outgoing or passive); Agreeableness (contrasts traits such as kindness with rudeness); Neuroticism (contrasted with emotional stability). The scores are marked in a percentile in a continuum; that is, individual scores are considered relative to the general population.  Repeated research work has demonstrated internal validity and reliability of the inventory.  This model is claimed by several researchers as being comprehensive and empirically supported (Costa & McCrae, 1992; McCrae & Costa 1995). Evidence also supports the ability of this model to explain heritability of personality, yielding relatively stable results among adults, and is able to predict relevant outcomes in wellbeing and coping.

Given its strong psychometric accent, the scope that FFM offers in the context of priestly formation in terms of evaluation of the candidates is high (Kosek, 2000), while in terms of suggestion for growth and transformation could be wanting. However, this lack can be made up by the addition of the sixth factor: transcendence.  The components thatPiedmont(1999, p.989) suggests could be very relevant to understand and predict the dynamics of the behaviour of those who make option for priesthood.  These include, a sense of connectedness, universality, prayer fulfilment, tolerance of paradoxes, nonjudgementality, existentiality, and gratefulness (see also, Emmons, 1999; Kosek, 1999).

There are other personality inventories that are used in assessment of candidates  rather than in training (for a review see, Ashton, 2007, pp.41-45).  Several studies have used the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI- 2) and the 16 Personality Factors Questionnaires (16PF) in assessing and predicting the personality and the psychological health of priests and religious (Vaughan, 1963; Plante, Aldridge, & Louie, 2005; Banks, Mooney, Mucowski, & Williams, 1984; Plante, Manuel, & Tandez, 1996).

In general, the issue of psychology of personality in the context of formation to priesthood, as envisaged by the church documents and as seen in the prevailing scenario, raises the following questions: (a) what is personality? (b) what is the possible degree of dynamism or change in the personality of human beings?  (c) what models of personality best suit the interpretation of the behaviour of candidate to priesthood, which can also be beneficial in a journey of ‘moulding his human personality’ ?

What is Personality – Characters, Types, Traits?

Defining personality

There are different ways of defining personality (Mischel et al, 2004, pp.3-4; Ashton, 2007, pp.27-29; Costa & McCrae, 1994). I shall list some of them and point out their implication for the formation to priesthood and for our discussion on personality change.

In popular usage, personality may refer to social skills and effectiveness in relationships (Hall, Gardner, & Campbell, 1998, p.7), as is seen in expressions like, ‘Princess Diana had an enchanting personality; Mother Teresa had an inspiring personality.’ Skills are taught and learnt. Therefore, undoubtedly growth of the candidates in this aspect of personality is an essential part of seminary formation. Our discussion on personality change includes this element, but goes beyond social skills.

William James (1890/1981) claimed that “by the age of thirty, the character is set like plaster, and will not soften again” (p.121). He was talking about ‘character’ as comprising of habits (Costa & McCrae, 1994, p.22).  Other psychologists define personality in terms of characteristics, as Allport did: “the dynamic organization within the individual of those psychophysical systems that determine his characteristic behaviour and thought” (Allport, 1961, p.28).  More recently Colman (2006) sees personality as “the sum total of the behavioural and mental characteristics that are distinctive of an individual.”   If personality is defined in terms of ‘characteristics’ then this allows a greater possibility for personality change, as Allport’s definition presupposes. However, ‘characteristics’ alone do not quite capture the core elements of personality.

Therefore, contemporary personality psychologists react in varied ways to the above definitions, and always wanting to see more constructs added to the definition. Let us sample two such definitions:   Costa & McCrae (1994) pick up three elements from the definition of Allport: (a) a ‘dynamic organization’ that integrates the flow of experience and behaviour; (b) ‘psychophysical systems’ that represent tendencies and capacities; (c) ‘characteristic behaviour and thought’ that includes habits, attitudes, and relationships.  To these, they add three more elements: (d) external influences that include the larger social, cultural, and historical environment, and the immediate situation; (e) objective biography of the individual; (f) the individual’s self-concept (p.23). To Mischel et al (2004), personality shows continuity, stability and coherence; it is expressed in many ways through thoughts and feelings; it is organized (disorganisation would imply a sign of disturbance); it is a determinant that influences how the individual relates to the social world; it is also linked to the physical, biological characteristics of the person (p.4).  The biological aspects of personality include, besides genetics and anatomical structure of the brain, also the influence of neurotransmitters and hormones (Eysenck, 1967/2006).

Types and/or traits?

Underlying these discussions is a subtle distinction between the terms, types and traits.  Personality models that adopt a pure type-approach tend to sort individuals into discrete categories and allow very little possibility for dynamism. Jung (1923) used the extrovert-introvert categories as typologies.  MBTI model, as we said earlier, maintains this stand.  On the other hand, Allport (1937) was a pioneer in proposing personality traits, which he referred to as dispositions. Eysenck (1945/1991) attempted to integrate the two constructs.  He used ‘type’ to refer to a higher level category that is expressed in ‘traits’: “Types are supraordinate concepts built up on the observed intercorrelations between traits.” Further, ‘habitual responses’, or what we have referred to as ‘characteristics’, are expressions of traits (p.36). Mischel et al (2004) summarise traits as “basic qualities of the person that express themselves in many contexts” (p.44).

In any case, traits are continuous dimensions that differentiate an individual from another, and can be quantitatively represented in terms of the degree of quality. For instance, extroversion-introversion can be considered as a psychological continuum, and individual differences can be indicated in a scale tending towards one or another of the extremes.  Most people would show intermediate amounts, and only a few would lie at the extremes (Mischel, Shoda & Smith, 2004, pp. 45-46). Traits become helpful in describing individual differences and to explain possible variation in behavioural reactions of individuals to the same stimulus. Thus, traits are psychometric concepts resting heavily on factor analytical procedures for the sake of measurement. They are clustered into groups as in FFM.

Personality Change: Plaster or Plasticity?

The clarification about types and traits take us to the next step in our discussion. Is personality, a plaster or does it allow certain plasticity?

In general, empirical findings show very mixed results. Costa & McCrae (1994) having examined the data available on continuity of personality traits concluded that they undergo development through adolescence and early adulthood, but begin to stabilize between ages 25 to 30. This supports the position of James (1890/1981), quoted earlier in this essay.  However, Costa & McCrae (1999) later revised their position to include certain adaptability in personality traits. Srivastava et al (2003), call this position, ‘soft plaster model’, and the former as ‘the hard plaster model’.  Drawing their conclusion from a large sample (N = 132,515) of adults aged 21-60, they assert, “On no Big Five dimension did we find support for the hard plaster hypothesis among both men and women…” (p.1049). On the other hand, consistent change in adult population is not supported in every one of the five factors equally.  Given the inconclusiveness of the findings of these researches, we can only attempt to understand personality change by considering some of the factors that could play some determinant role.

First, the additive nature of traits can be argued from its heritability.  “Virtually all personality traits that can be reliably measured are at least moderately heritable” (McAdams, 2006, p.220). Researches, including twin studies, show the influence of genes on personality to be around 50%, suggesting that approximately half of the variation in trait scores can be attributed to genetic differences between people (Ashton, 2007, p.117). While this supports a certain degree of stability, it also shows that we do not die with the same personality traits that we are born with. Another 30% of personality variation is attributed to environment and 20% to error in measurements (Mischel et al, 2004, pp.323-343).

So, the second important determinant in personality is environment. Its influence on personality is more noticeable at early age (Ashton, 2007). There are also specific situations, for instance those that demand flight/fight/freeze reactions, which can override the influence of traits in the behaviour of the individual (Mischel et al, 2004, p.72). Thirdly, flowing from the influence of environment we can also consider at least some behavioural aspects of personality as learnt.  Learning implies conditioning – classical and operant.  In human beings this conditioning is also coloured by their personal decisions and motivation.  For instance, when people believe that there is nothing that they can do about negative outcomes, they may begin to encode themselves in helpless terms. In this way they may develop a generalised and persistent state of, what Seligman (1975) called, ‘learned helplessness’.  Fourthly, the interaction between emotion and traits is also worth considering. It is commonly agreed that personality traits, particularly extraversion and neuroticism, influence the frequency and intensity of experienced affective states (Gross, Sutton, & Ketelaar, 1998; Larsen & Ketelaar, 1991). Conversely, major mood states such as depression can also override certain traits of personality (Griens, Jonker, Spinhoven, & Blom, 2002).

Finally, the age factor seems crucial to the degree of personality change.  Erikson (1950/1963) did argue that even adults mature and change as they go through life’s stages. However, as mentioned above, there is a general agreement on the stability of traits beginning in early adulthood. This is very crucial to the discussion on personality change in the context of formation to priesthood.  The documents of the Catholic Church on recruitment to formation recommend early age (John Paul II, nos. 39, 63). In most countries normally candidates enter formation in their 20’s or early 30’s. This allows a great possibility for personality change during formation.

Personality Change in the light of the ‘Whole Person’: Plaster and Plasticity

The possibility for personality change can be best understood in an integrative model of personality. Mischel, Shoda, & Smith (2004), in the 7th edition of their textbook,  aim “to study the person – and personality – as a coherent and unique whole. The hope was for personality psychology to be the hub where all the levels of analysis become integrated with the functioning person” (p.iii). Thus they integrate the whole endeavour of psychology under the umbrella of personality.  McAdams (2006), on the other hand, proposes a three-level model of personality that sets the foundation for a ‘whole person model’ of personality.  Table 1 presents a summary of the models proposed by the above quoted authors:


Table 1


McAdams, 2006

Mischel, Shoda, & Smith, 2004

Level 1:The aspects that determine the ‘given-ness’ of the personality Dispositional traits Trait Dispositional levelBiological level
Level 2:The aspects of the personality that are expressed in one’s functioning. Characteristic adaptations Social Cognitive LevelBehavioural Conditioning LevelMotivational level
Level 3:The aspects that are internalised and provide a direction Life narratives(memories and interpretation of past, present and future) Psychodynamic Level



McAdams’ (2006) whole person model presupposes three levels of personality (p.12):

Level I: Dispositional traits consist of “broad dimensions of personality that describe assumedly internal, global, and stable individual differences in behaviour, thought and feeling.” These are referred to as traits that underpin consistency in an individual’s functioning across different situations and over time. Traits alone are insufficient in understanding the person, “they are a preliminary attempt at describing a person” (Emmons, 1999b, p.19).

Level II: Characteristic adaptations are “more particular facets of personality that describe personal adaptations to motivational, cognitive, and developmental challenges and tasks.”  In other words, at this level of personality is personal functioning that refers to particular ways that a person expresses their traits, adapting them to diverse situations.  These account for one’s ability to function appropriately in a particular context of time, place, situation or social role.

Level III: Life narratives are “the internalized and evolving narratives of the self that people construct to integrate the past, present, and future and provide life with some sense of unity, purpose, and meaning.”  These address the ongoing issues of identity and integration in personality.

This model of personality integrates whatever light that has been shed on the human person by the entire pursuit of psychology, right from the psychoanalytical approach to positive psychology. It also allows for a ‘plaster and plasticity’ approach in understanding personality change: the dispositional traits in Level I refer to the more stable aspects of one’s personality; while the Level II accounts for possible variations in one’s functioning in relation to one’s roles and situations; and Level III explains the personality that is under construction – a challenge and task ahead for the individual in terms of integrating one’s life events, memories and their interpretations, and even the units of Level I and II.

In the context of training for priesthood we can say that the formation task consists, first of all, in understanding where do the different aspects of one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour fall in relation to the three levels.  It is important to understand what falls under the circle of control with a possibility to change and what falls under the circle of no-control which needs to be only accepted.  In summary, the formation process itself consists in the acceptance of those that lie in Level I,  understanding and acting on the dynamics and possibilities of Level II, and integrating those that lie in Level III.

Possibility of ‘moulding the personality’ in the context of religious experience

Emmons (1999a) has argued for “incorporating religious and spiritual constructs and processes” in the psychology of personality. As said earlier, alsoPiedmont(1999) has suggested the inclusion of transcendence as the sixth factor in personality.  However, it is in studies of psychology of religious conversion and personality change that we want to seek relevant insight for priestly formation (Paloutzian, Richardson, & Rambo, 1999; Johnsen, 1986; Paloutzian, Swenson, McNamara, 2006).

Some of the classical stories of religious conversion, like those ofSt PaulandSt Augustine, which are proposed as prototype of conversion, suggest a quantum change in personality.  This may be farfetched on the basis of the above clarifications that we have attempted to make.  Using the whole person model of McAdams we can say that Sts Paul and Augustine even after their conversion maintained most traits of their earlier personality (Level I). But changes were seen in Level II and III.  This we know from their autobiographical narratives.

Religion or spirituality plays a major role in the shaping of people’s motivation and striving, in what is grouped as Level II of personality. Emmons (1999b) points out that a religious perspective can illuminate the origins of some of the most profound human strivings. Religions, as authoritative faith traditions, are systems of information that provide individuals with knowledge and resources for living a life of purpose and direction.”  These strivings become powerful and convincing after a religious experience (Paloutzian, Richardson, & Rambo, 1999).  Given this theoretical framework, we can consider that one of the main goals of formation to priesthood is to mediate a religious experience in such a way that motivational aspects of the personality become focussed. The motivational aspects can then “mould the human personality” of the candidate.  Further, based on possible evidence from neurological researches, Paloutzian et al (2006) suggest that religious experience and consequent transformation may be related to the meaning-making system.  This adds support to the possibility of personality integration of life history through religious experience at Level III of the McAdams’ model of personality.

Recently, positive psychology has described human strengths in terms of virtues that contribute to wellbeing and happiness (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). They list virtues that have been traditionally emphasised in seminary formation: wisdom & knowledge (creativity, open-mindedness, love for learning), courage (perseverance, integrity, vitality), humanity (love, generosity, compassion, care, social intelligence), justice (social responsibility, teamwork, leadership), temperance (forgiveness, humility, modesty, prudence, self-control), and transcendence (awe, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality).  These virtues are also referred to as character traits, and related to personality theories (pp. 58-81).  Extending the suggestion of Emmons (1999a), we can say that this emphasis on virtues as human strengths within the positive psychology movement provides one potential bridge between personality psychology, religious experience and priestly formation.


There have been several empirical research projects that have studied personality in the context of seminary formation (Nauss, 1972; Vaughan, 1970; Pino, 1980; Kosek, 2000; Plante, Manuel, & Tandez, 1996).  In a study carried out in a Lutheran seminary, using MBTI as the measure, Nauss (1972) even claimed that personality change is measurable.  However, there is no known empirical study on personality change in the context of Catholic formation to priesthood.

Hypothesizing on the theoretical discussion of this essay, it would be worthwhile to test the following hypotheses using empirical approach through longitudinal studies: (a) candidates who started their formation during their 20’s show significant level of change in personality traits; (b) in candidates who started their formation in their 30’s significant stability is observed throughout formation to priesthood; (c) in all age groups, there is a correlation between self-reported religious experiences and personality change at Levels II and III of McAdams’ whole person model of personality. In testing the hypotheses it would be interesting to administer suitable instrument of measure, at the point of entry to formation and at the time of ordination, to three groups of people: the candidates themselves, a formation personnel and a family acquaintance, identified by the candidate.

As for formation to priesthood, based on our discussion in this essay, we can suppose that “moulding his human personality” is possible at some levels. At the level of traits, awareness and acceptance seem meaningful.  At the level of functioning, the candidate needs to strive towards a congruency with his vocation, building virtues commensurate to the teachings of Jesus. With the help of Christian traditions, the future priest has to weave all this into a life narrative, in such way that his personality becomes a bridge for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ.


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[1] In this essay, I intend to discuss the concept of personality change in the context of formation to priesthood in the Catholic Church.  This can be as well applied to formation in religious orders; and by extension also to training to priesthood in other churches.

[2] The selection of these models and theories are based on the exposure of this author and his cohort during their formation to priesthood (from 1984 to 1996).