ing to the Center For Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington, D.C., enrollment in the post-baccalaureate level of priestly formation in the 2010-11 academic year totaled 3,608.
That’s a net increase of 125 from the previous year.
Of those, 76 percent were diocesan candidates and 24 percent were from religious orders. That is, diocesan enrollment increased by 86 seminarians, or up 3 percent from the previous year. Religious order enrollment increased by 39, up 5 percent.
For that same period, CARA’s Ministry Formation Directory showed that priesthood candidates in the theologate-level studies increased by 4 percent, or a total of 125 seminarians.
In other words, many seminaries across the country have seen a bumper crop of seminarians at all levels.
“We have 140 seminarians and we are full,” said Benedictine Father Brendan Moss, director of enrollment at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind. “It’s an increase that started five years ago and has been almost an exponential growth. This past year, we had to set our cap. As a formation team, we had to ask, ‘How many men can we form well at any given time?’”
Enrollment is up, too, at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
“Last year we had 92 total and that was up eight from the year before,” Nancy Utoft, director of community relations, said. “We have 100 seminarians this year, and we have not seen that many since 1980.”
This year, the largest group of seminarians — a total of 36 — entered either St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La., or Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans for graduate work, up from 27 last year and 20 the year before.
In July, Conventual Franciscan Father Kerry Abbott became the new vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, where this year there are 31 co-sponsored and military-affiliated seminarians. That’s an increase from 23, 12 and three in the previous three years.
And in August, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., opened the Blessed John Paul II Seminary to accommodate 67 men who are studying for the priesthood, including 29 in college and pre-theology classes.
Sharing the truth
Why are so many men entering the seminary now, when in recent years the Church was experiencing a shortage of priests?
“Jesus promised that he would never leave his flock untended,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans told Our Sunday Visitor. “When you hear people talking about the shortage of vocations, I think you have to acknowledge that God is still calling people. What we are doing to awaken that call is praying.”
The archdiocese is running a number of vibrant programs. Father Steven Bruno, the fulltime vocations director, oversees outreaches to students in Catholic schools and to young adults in secular careers. He also personally visits Catholic high schools and asks help from parents, relatives, parishioners and fellow priests in helping men to discover an awareness to a calling.
“We not only pray for young men from parishes, but we also pray for their parents because sometimes you are dealing with someone whose family would discourage him,” Archbishop Aymond said.
St. Meinrad’s educates men at graduate levels for both diocesan priesthood and also for their own Benedictine community and other monastic communities.
Father Moss attributes an increase in seminary enrollment in general to more men opening themselves to the possibility of priesthood through having a strong prayer life.
“Many men are searching for a sense of direction, a sense of truth and are finding it in their relationship with God,” he said. “Out of a desire to share that truth with others, I believe, they are really hearing a call to priesthood.”
As for why St. Meinrad in particular is thriving, he added, “We are well known for our homiletics, for our teaching, our preparation in liturgy, and our leadership.”
Because of increased enrollment, St. Paul Seminary in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis partnered with a local parish to convert an unused convent into seminary housing.
“We plan to do that for a couple of years while we monitor the enrollment trends,” Utoft said.
She attributes their full house to not only the overall increase in vocations, but also to the deepened relationships the seminary has with Midwest dioceses.
“The bishops have confidence in sending men to our program,” she told OSV. “One thing we have that’s very strong is our teaching parish program where a man is assigned to a parish and goes there weekly and one weekend a month. That way, they will live the experiences that they learn about in classrooms.”
St. Paul’s additionally made a commitment to attract international students and currently has six men from Africa and two from Peru.
Meanwhile, Utoft noted, the nearby St. John Vianney College Seminary has capped its enrollment to 135 men because they are at peak and don’t have space for more.
Springtime of the Church
Father Carter Griffin, vocations director and vice rector for Blessed John Paul II Seminary in Washington, credits a sometimes “disordered and disoriented culture” for the growing vocations.
“I think an increasing number of young people are looking for answers, and thank God, many are finding it in their faith,” he said. “I think the emphasis on Eucharistic adoration, on fidelity to the Church and on a vibrant Catholic identity has been very attractive to these men. We also have many younger priests who have inspired young men to consider vocations.”
As a result, the age of candidates is dropping as some enter right out of high school. So for the past five or seven years, he added, there has been more of a need for a college program.
The new seminary, located near The Catholic University of America, allows men from the Archdiocese of Washington to remain in the area.
“Now, the men will begin their formation here and be an integral part of the local Catholic community,” Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said.
Father Griffin pointed out something else about the new seminary, and about the increase in vocations across the country.
“Blessed John Paul II is the patron of our seminary, and I think that the fruits of his pontificate, and also the fruits of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, are just starting to unfold,” he said. “That springtime of the Church that John Paul II predicted — I think that season has broken.”
Commitment to serve
Father Abbott said that he never expected to see such an interest in military chaplaincy.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I thought I would have to go out and beat the bushes for people.”
The military archdiocese covers the whole United States, plus places of U.S. military presence worldwide. The men who enter formation are co-sponsored by their diocese and the Archdiocese for Military Services. After ordination, their bishop or religious superior releases them for a minimum of three years of service that includes nearly one year of officer training, deployment training and combat awareness.
Many men are able to stay longer. Father Abbott, a former Air Force chaplain, attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and retired in January with 24 years service (see story, Page 11B).
The increase in military chaplaincy comes at a time when the armed forces are experiencing a steady decline in Catholic military chaplains, mainly because in the past 10 years many have been reaching the military retirement age of 62. Ten years ago, there were more than 400 active Catholic chaplains, and this year there are 247.
“The increase now in vocations to the military chaplaincy is a blessing born out of the burden of these wars,” Father Abbott said. “I think that these last 10 years of conflict have shown a lot of people a clarity of what really matters in life, what’s really important.”
And it “makes complete sense” to him and “is no surprise” that a large pool of new candidates to the priesthood in general have military backgrounds. According to CARA, nearly 10 percent of men ordained overall in the past two years previously had served in the military and another 10 percent came from military families.
“Both the military and the priesthood rely on a largely common set of foundation values, including a commitment to service, self-discipline and a higher calling,” Father Abbot said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.