Catholics see signs of more priests

Seminary enrollment increased 7% last year after 3-decade decline

7 to be ordained locally

April 16, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The number of men studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood in the United States increased by 7 percent last year, the largest jump in years, giving church officials hope the three-decade free fall in priestly vocations has ended.

Reflecting the growth, the Archdiocese of Baltimore will ordain seven men as priests this year, its biggest class in a decade, and will welcome 12 new seminarians this fall.

"I've seen in the last few years a number of young people who have shown they're not satisfied anymore with the purely material," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore.

"What's made a difference is the leadership and obvious joy of so many of our priests and our seminarians, who are offering the opportunity for interaction so people can see them up close," he said.

In the past three decades, beginning with the tumultuous late 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church went through a vocations crisis in which the number of graduate-level seminarians nationally dipped from 8,325 in 1965 to a low of 3,158 in 1997.

That, combined with the numbers who have left the priesthood or have retired, has left some dioceses without enough pastors for their parishes.

But there are several signs the trend is reversing.

Nationally, 228 more men were in graduate-level seminaries last year than in 1997, a 7 percent increase that is the largest jump in 16 years, according to an annual survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington.

There are 40 more men studying in college seminaries, a more modest increase of about 3 percent. But this marks the first time since the 1983-1984 academic year that the number of both graduate and college seminarians has gone up.

Even more significant, researchers say, are the numbers in pre-theology programs, where men who wish to enter the seminary take philosophy courses in preparation for theological study, which showed an increase of nearly 100 students. Pre-theology programs are a key source for vocations, because of the sharp decline over the years in the number of college and high school seminaries.

The combination of steady increases in college seminary enrollment and the sharp rise in pre-theology programs -- both feeders for graduate-level seminaries -- "suggests that the long-term prospects for sustained, continuing increases in [theological] enrollments are quite good," said Bryan T. Froehle, CARA executive director.

These numbers have recruiters of prospective priests hopeful that the increase is not just a blip on the statistical screen.

"I don't have a crystal ball, nor do most people," said the Rev. Timothy T. Reker, director of the U.S. Bishop's Office for Priestly Formation and Vocations. "But the way I look at it, there have been a number of years where the numbers have stabilized and sometimes slightly increased or decreased.

"I'm hopeful about it, based on the numbers and based on anecdotal information from bishops and vocation directors who seem to indicate that next year the number of incoming students is continuing to rise," he said.

The chief reason for the increase in vocations: Church officials worked at it, they say.

"For the last decade or so, bishops and dioceses have been much more intentional about the need to work for vocations and have invested personnel and resources to try and do that more effectively," Reker said. The bishops' conference recently completed a three-year strategic plan that aimed at involving Catholics at all levels in working to increase vocations by doing things like holding retreats and informal gatherings with priests, teaching about vocations and praying for vocations in church and at home.

For example, four times a year, Keeler throws a pasta dinner in which he invites priests to bring in potential candidates for the seminary, and they talk about the priesthood.

In December, when schools were on Christmas break, Keeler for the first time led a vocations retreat, attended by a dozen potential priests. "We shared of our own vocations and let them ask questions," said the Rev. James Barker, the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "Out of that dozen people who were there, six are coming on board with us. I think having the cardinal there, taking that kind of personal initiative meant an awful lot to the men."

In addition to the seven priests who will be ordained for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Jesuit Order will ordain seven men in June for the Maryland Province.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has 12 students starting the seminary this fall. Last year, it had four new students. "They range in age from 19 to about 37," Barker said. "We have a lawyer in the group, we have a guy who works at Legg Mason, we have an engineer, a guy with some counseling background, a landscaper. It's a wide variety."

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