- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - David LaPointe remembers feeling nervous the first time he said the words out loud, confiding in the counselor at his Roman Catholic high school in Texas.

“I think God might be calling me to be a priest,” he told her.

LaPointe, now 23, is a senior at St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict near Covington, entering his last year of undergraduate study as he continues the process of determining whether he will ultimately become a parish priest.

His journey is one that has become ever rarer, with decades of declining enrollment in Catholic seminaries and dwindling numbers of priests.

LaPointe was the first student at his high school to take steps toward the priesthood in 25 years, he said. But he’s not the last. One more has come from his high school and another from his home parish.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he’s also part of the largest group of seminarians that St. Joseph has ever seen, according to the Rev. Gregory Boquet, O.S.B., president and rector of the college at the Benedictine abbey.

The school has 150 young men enrolled, studying liberal arts and philosophy and giving serious consideration to a priestly calling. The freshman class that entered in August was also historically large, comprising 65 students.

Boquet believes a few things are behind the spike in enrollment, which now is more than double what the seminary college had just six years ago. Today’s young people are more service-oriented than the group that preceded them, he said, which might make them more inclined to consider the priesthood.

Boquet believes that the church has hit its low point in the number of vocations and is beginning to see an increase.

But national statistics don’t exactly show a stampede to the seminary. According to the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, total enrollment for both post-graduate and college seminaries showed a slight decrease in 2015 from the previous year. The 1,353 seminarians enrolled that year were 4 percent fewer than in 2014.

But the center notes that numbers are higher than they were in the 1990s or early 2000s.

Seminarians don’t choose where they will go. That decision is made by their diocese or archdiocese. LaPointe, for example, had been ready to begin his studies at a college seminary in Dallas when officials at his diocese sent him to Louisiana.

Boquet said St. Joseph is gaining students because the school has earned a good reputation in the region. The Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Baton Rouge and Lafayette dioceses all send students to St. Joseph, as do 19 other dioceses in seven states. Two of those are new this year: Brownsville, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee.

Boquet also points to a trend for dioceses to send all their seminarians to the same school instead of splitting them up; that way, they can serve as a support for one another in the future.

The first years after ordination can be tough for young priests, Boquet said, and that’s a time when many men leave the priesthood because they are struggling with feelings of isolation.

“It’s not a ‘Lone Ranger’ thing,” he said. At “St. Ben’s,” as the seminary is affectionately nicknamed, “They know that they are not alone.”

The school makes an effort to build those relationships through activities like the St. Ben’s Olympics, an event with games and physical contests, and through an equestrian program at the Highlands Riding Center in Folsom that helps them develop skills in leadership and caring for others by working with horses. On campus, older students act as big brothers to new arrivals, offering advice and support.

“It’s not just an institution. It’s a brotherhood,” Boquet said.

Seminarians face some of the same challenges as any other college students. Boquet said they need to polish their writing skills and learn to adhere to a schedule. He compares the discipline to entering the military.

Besides devoting themselves to study, the students also spend time in prayer and what Boquet called soul-searching, much of it concerning whether they are ready to embrace a celibate life.

Young men of 18 sometimes romanticize the idea of being a priest, or else they are being influenced by their family, he said. They must reflect on their calling. The abbey, with its peaceful setting and space for prayer, is a good place for that, Boquet said.

LaPointe and David Mannino, a junior from Houston, said they don’t feel they are missing out on the college experience in the secular world. But their experience is different.

“We watch movies, TV, sports, golf,” LaPointe said. They enjoy what others enjoy. But, he added, “I don’t go dancing anymore; I don’t have a girlfriend anymore.” With a glance at Mannino, he joked, “I hope David doesn’t.”

Mannino, who attended public high school, said he was part of a tightly knit youth group at his home parish. He was invited to join it by a friend, who had an obvious sense of joy. Mannino told himself, “I want what he has.”

LaPointe gave up a full scholarship at a Texas college on the verge of high school graduation because he was feeling a strong pull toward the priesthood. He took time to reflect, got a job and was making good money. A Fort Worth native, he went two-stepping every weekend. But he felt a sense of discontent.

He said his friends respect what he calls the “joy of discerning that God might be calling you.” That’s the case whether they are religious or not, he said.

Mannino said it takes a lot to make others understand: “Sacrifice is painful; it doesn’t make sense. But with a goal in mind it does make sense. … I don’t think I’m missing anything.”

They see the possibility of more young men taking that hard path and of possibly serving as examples for them. “How does anybody do anything? They meet people on the same path,” Mannino said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know any seminarians.”

St. Joseph’s tranquility was disrupted last spring when heavy rainfall pushed the Bogue Falaya River over its banks and flooded the campus, forcing the school to delay plans to build a new library and convert the current library to a residence hall, a project planned in response to the growing enrollment.

The school turned to modular buildings to accommodate students this year. LaPointe and Mannino described the flood as surreal, but the fact that students had to double up in some cases increased their esprit de corps. Boquet said it also prepared seminarians for the challenges of someday leading a parish.

Going to a seminary college does not necessarily lead to such a role, however. Some seminarians reach a different conclusion.

“Guys come here because they want to try to fall in love with Jesus,” LaPointe said.

He was one of eight seminarians from his diocese, but only two are still pursuing that path.

“It’s a discerning process - emulating Jesus,” he said. “Keep hanging out with the guy, get to know him better, where he might be leading you to serve.”

___

Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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