VATICAN CITY, NOV. 15, 2005 ( Given the present challenges, Benedict XVI stressed the urgency of an adequate formation of candidates to the priesthood.

The Pope's concern is reflected in a message sent to the Italian bishops, gathered in general assembly in Assisi this week.

The assembly -- opened Monday with an address by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference -- is reflecting especially on priestly formation.

The prelates will vote on a document entitled "Guidelines and Norms for Seminaries."

In his message the Holy Father encourages a pastoral response to address the "diminution of the clergy" in Italy, and notes "the progressive increase in the average age of priests."

The Pope then urges bishops "to define ever better the formative proposal so that it ensures a human, intellectual and spiritual preparation that is up to the measure of the new challenges that the priestly ministry is called to address."

Responsibility of all

"The Church today needs priests who are fully conscious of the gift of grace that they receive with the presbyterial ordination and with the mission that has been entrusted to them in times of rapid and profound changes," states the text.

Benedict XVI says that this formation must take place in a "community context" so that it is a reflection of the "communion of life that Jesus had with his disciples."

"Given that the task of priests is central and irreplaceable, all possible attention must be given to their formation, beginning with the quality of the formators," adds the message.

However, according to the Pope, it is not only a responsibility of the bishops, or even of the priests themselves: Every baptized person has a responsibility.

"All the faithful, praying to the Lord of the harvest," he affirms, "can contribute to the flowering of vocations and to the formation of the presbyters."