- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

Part four of five

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. — Hebrews 12:14

MUNDELEIN, Ill. — A story of the priesthood lines the walls of the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the United States, a campus of red stone buildings set by a 150-acre lake in the woods.
"You see the drama," says the Rev. Thomas Baima, provost of University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. "Right in the 1980s, we make a shift."
The provost is walking a visitor past portraits of classes dating to 1931. Fifty-six young men smile in that first graduating class. But by 1982, the faces of graduates are older and far fewer. The next year, the seminary opened its doors to dioceses beyond Chicago, and today it has reached a record enrollment: 218 seminarians.
"We're having to expand to house the students," Father Baima says. "It's one of those happy problems."
If the growth at one of the nation's 51 Catholic seminaries represents hope for a dwindling priesthood, so does the annual ordination profile issued by the U.S. bishops' headquarters here.
"It's exciting to see who the Lord is calling," says the Rev. Edward J. Burns, who guides the church's national effort to promote vocations. "It's a whole new picture every year."
This valuing of every new priest is more urgent then ever in the U.S. Catholic Church, which is on the cusp of a critical shortage despite a priest-to-parishioner ratio that is the highest in the world.
On one level, numbers are less important than the enduring image of priests, Father Burns says. He recalls the horrific day in September 1994 when a plane crashed in his diocese of Pittsburgh, killing all 132 aboard.
"The radio news said, 'Four priests are on the scene,'" he says. "It gave me a clear indication of the powerful presence of the priest, an image of Christ in this world. That's a gift of hope in a world that is sometimes shattered by despair."
Perhaps more than others among the nation's 325,000 active ministers in all Christian denominations, the roughly 48,000 Catholic priests typically stand out as "the clergy." They are known by their black collars and single state, mirroring the image of Christ.
"Jesus lived a celibate life in single-minded dedication to the kingdom which he preached," says the Program for Priestly Formation, the church's official handbook for training priests in the United States. "The role [of priest] is utterly irreplaceable, because without the priest there can be no eucharistic offering."
"It's a point of no return," says Nathaniel Brewster, 29, a student at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., who took his vows of celibacy and obedience in April as a deacon in the Diocese of Wichita in Kansas. He will be ordained as a priest next May.
"I'm a demolition engineer turned Catholic priest," says Mr. Brewster, who already knew something about sacrifice as a West Point graduate, Army Ranger and paratrooper with the 82nd Airbourne.
"Mostly, it was just recognizing how much God loved me," the Pittsburgh-born Mr. Brewster says of his decision to join the priesthood and become an Army chaplain. "There is no truer man than Jesus Christ, and the priest is called to act in His person."
Despite such sterling examples of recruits, the struggle to provide enough to fill the priest's mission reached such a pitch by last summer that Catholic bishops, for the first time, openly discussed a somber new report titled "The Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry."
"In the next 10 years," the report said, "87 percent of the dioceses anticipate assigning more deacons and lay ministers to assist in parish management."
The report showed that 12 percent of the nation's 19,179 Catholic parishes did not have a resident priest. With an average age of 57 for diocesan priests and 63 for priests in religious orders, mass retirement looms on the horizon.
The nation's priests, the report said, "express a desire for a national-level conversation among bishops" to find "more creative long-term solutions."
Despite such appeals, some loyal Catholics call the church's response "business as usual" when it comes to the priesthood and the "sacramental, parish-based" system, says John Farina, a Catholic scholar at the Faith & Reason Institute in the District.
Mr. Farina argues that church fathers allow Catholicism to read "the signs of the times" and respond dynamically, much as General Motors met the fuel crisis of the 1970s. But the church mainly thinks how to operate "smaller or slower," he says.
"This would be like GM saying in the 1970s, 'Let's just continue to build big gas-guzzlers, but let's build fewer and charge more and sell less cars. God will send more oil sooner or later.'"

Generational issues
The downsizing of America's priestly ranks unfolds as an enthusiastic new generation of 3,474 candidates for Catholic ordination fill the seminary pipeline.
The class of 2000 had a median age of 36, older than usual. These future priests are far more likely than the typical Catholic to have attended Catholic schools — fully half of them did.
All have been shaped by the 23-year reign of Pope John Paul II.
"He's a hero for me," says Thomas Fallone, 31, a New Jersey lawyer training to be a priest at Mundelein.
"To see him in prayer is just remarkable," Mr. Fallone says. "There is something that is just not quantifiable there. An 80-year-old guy that draws millions of kids every couple of years. He's walking the walk."
Father Baima, the provost at Mundelein, says older priests in Chicago and elsewhere sometimes puzzle over the new generation.
"The question comes, 'Why are the seminarians so conservative? We used to be so liberal.' My answer to them is, 'The seminarian today is no different than any other time. We bring to the seminary the issues that the culture, at our age, struggles with.'"
Conservative cultural critics today decry record numbers of abortions, sexually transmitted diseases and the breakdown of the family; in the 1950s, the moral issue of the day was the rights of working-class Catholics.
That was the generation of his call, the Rev. Patrick O'Malley says in his homily at Mundelein's morning Mass, for which casually clad seminarians fill a chapel.
"All our parents were from the working class," Father O'Malley says, and St. Joseph — the topic of his homily — was a workman who prayed for the laborers.
For the 21st century, Father O'Malley says, Joseph is the father of Jesus.
"He taught him how to be a man. He taught him how to be mature. … We could ask for no better model for priesthood."
Father Baima says the crucible for training priests is the likeness of Christ, so seminarians are presented constantly with such images — from Father O'Malley's sermon to theology on Christ as high priest.

The drain begins
In modern times, the defining event for the Catholic priesthood was the "updating" of the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, which said the church is the "people of God" and encouraged laymen to teach and make parish decisions alongside clergy.
"After the council, there was a period of great upheaval," says Monsignor Paul J. Langsfield, vice rector at Mount St. Mary's Seminary.
He was ordained in Washington in 1977, a decade that opened with continued disappointment for liberals who wanted more change at the council and conservatives who bemoaned its reforms.
The result: Of Catholic clergy active in 1970, around 13 percent of priests ordained in dioceses ("diocesan priests") and 16 percent of priests ordained in religious orders ("religious priests") had left by decade's end — a total of nearly 8,400 ministers. Most were younger men, studies found.
The Vatican Council greatly expanded the role of lay leaders. But 35 years later, the church has not supplied adequate reinforcements to help the lone priest carry out parish duties and the church's mission.
"Now, the picture of the priest is him surrounded by laity at a committee meeting, while it used to be a priest sitting at his desk or talking with other priests," says Sister Katarina Schuth, a sociology professor at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minneapolis.
"The old role of the priest doing everything is still there," Sister Schuth says, "but the number of priests is not there."
It still is hard for priests to delegate, she says, and for good reason. "They have the ultimate responsibility. The way canon law is written, it comes back to the pastor."
Sister Schuth's research concluded that the challenge for the modern priest is balancing activity and contemplation, for a life of depth and holiness defines his role. "There are things only a priest can do," she says.
New priests are learning that balance, the seminaries say, but Sister Schuth's data describe older priests as more intellectually inquisitive and, from much experience, better at celebrating the Mass before throngs than are more recent colleagues.
"And there's some data we don't know," she says, especially why young priests leave. Is it overwork? Difficulty with laymen? Boredom with sacramental duties?

Two windfalls
A forthcoming study for the National Federation of Priests' Councils, a group based in Chicago, found celibacy and loneliness were the main reasons why a sample of 72 priests, most of them younger, had left the church since 1992. Many also felt a lack of appreciation.
Catholics, meanwhile, have not noticed the effect of the priest shortage: Young people are least mindful of it, and only 23 percent of all Catholics recognize the pinch.
To adapt, half of all U.S. Catholics "support merging parishes as a way to meet needs," according to the bishops' report, "The Impact of Fewer Priests." It adds, though: "Catholics most favor an increasing use of deacons and lay ministers."
This was a reform of Vatican II, which "recovered" the ancient office of permanent deacons. Today, they number 13,000 in the U.S. Church, with 2,500 more in formation. These are married men who are ordained and, on a part-time basis, can stand in for a priest in everything except consecrating the bread and wine, hearing confession and administering last rites.
The deacons tell the bishops, however, of their "anxiety" over having to help so often with Mass when their traditional tasks are to do charity and visit those in need.
The other Vatican II windfall was a boom in "ecclesiastical ministers," full-time paid staff with graduate degrees or certificates in Catholic faith and practice. Some 30,000 of them help lead parishes; 30,000 more are in the pipelines. Seminary courses for such ministers flourish.
One of the more dramatic proposals to ease the priesthood crunch — short of allowing Catholic priests to marry — is to increase the number of married Anglican and Episcopal priests who would like to come over to Rome.
"In my judgment, the flow is too small," says Dean Hoge, a professor at the Catholic University of America who researches such trends. "It's a great idea, but of course the Vatican is against it."
Given the growing conservative-liberal split in Anglicanism (called the Episcopal Church in the United States), Mr. Hoge predicts, "If the Catholics opened the door, it should double that [crossover] immediately" of conservative Anglicans. His surveys of Catholic priests show that, in an ecumenical age, the majority would not mind.

'A new juncture'
As a Protestant, Mr. Hoge says the Catholic priest "really is special" in a congregation's life. "When there is no priest available, the members feel, 'Something's really wrong here; maybe we don't count anymore.' The transition to not having a priest is not so easy."
But that transition is being made everywhere. The Archdiocese of Washington has appointed its first chancellor who is not a priest, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore is among the first to take action on the "Fewer Priests" report.
In March, the Baltimore archdiocese held regional meetings for its 162 parishes to lay out frank statistics on the priest shortage, discuss options and spread a prayer card asking God "to send laborers to the harvest."
"We're at a completely new juncture in history," Monsignor Michael Schleupner, a leader in the effort, tells 60 representatives from parishes one Saturday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Fullerton, Md.
Besides making sure there is one priest per parish, he warns, "There will have to be other remedies to promote quality pastoral care."
By 2015, the rolls of Baltimore's archdiocesan priests will drop from 196 to 143, calculations based on retirements at age 70 and five new priests ordained each year. In 2011, the average age of archdiocesan priests will be 60.
The difference already is showing up in parishes overseen by religious sisters or lay administrators, and in mergers.
"They say to me, 'When are we going to get our own priest?'" recounts one Baltimore sister who leads a parish. "I tell them, 'You have to get used to it. You can't have your own priest.'"<
In Baltimore, lay member Mary Halpin attends part of a tri-parish — three parishes that share two priests.
She agrees with others at the Fullerton session that priests must be honored and their strengths emphasized, but that recruits need the promise of some earthly reward for their sacrifice.
"When you can't retire until you're 70, you can't get married and you have to work 90 hours a week, I wouldn't buy it," she says.
That may be true, says Monsignor Nicholas Amato of Our Lady of Grace parish, but he takes the "grass is always greener" attitude toward a priest's duties.
"I love the world, too, but it doesn't deliver what it promises," says the monsignor, who entered the priesthood at midcareer as a D.C. schoolteacher.

The celibacy factor
Monsignor Schleupner, 54, says "multiple reasons" deter young men today. In his day, the priesthood was viewed as "an upwardly mobile thing to do," a perception that is fading.
Catholic families once were larger; nuns as well as mothers were the engines of encouragement to young boys. But the number of nuns has dropped and mothers no longer seem to play that role.
"One issue that all of us here would name is celibacy," Monsignor Schleupner says.
It is a topic that seminarians in Mundelein and in Emmitsburg are ready to discuss.
At Mount St. Mary's, Robert Villa-Candellaria, 29, just took his vows of celibacy as a deacon, which means priesthood is still a year away. The theological vision of the priest is what brings him through, he says.
"We give witness to the afterlife," he says. "People see celibacy as something very strange. Of course, it's something many people cannot conceive: 'How can you, a man in a seminary, not want to have a woman and children and a future?'
He pauses to reflect. "The world that we live in now will pass away. Our lives, at the spiritual level, have eternity as the main focus."
Like other seminarians, Mr. Villa-Candellaria is outraged by the media generalization of priests as homosexuals, AIDS carriers and pedophiles, such as the "horrible coverage" he saw in ABC-TV's "20/20" report in January called "Sins of the Fathers."
"If I had been a guy thinking of the priesthood and seen that program, I would have been turned off," he says.
Clergy, in muted tones, speak of how the moral failings and even crimes of a few priests — including cover-ups by some bishops — put a tremendous burden on the entire calling.
"I think the image of the priest has suffered in recent years," says the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, rector of Mount St. Mary's.
"The scandals have been made very public in the media. But I think a certain purification has taken place. Human formation is much stronger," he says.

Lack of commitment
More than ever, seminaries focus on "human formation" — emotional and physical health — alongside spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities.
"Priestly life should also include a healthy balance of physical exercise, study and leisure" and priests should "develop discerning habits" with regard to entertainment, according to the Program for Priestly Formation.
Father Rhoades says the media have applied too broad a brush.
"Yes, they are men," he says. "There are struggles. But I think the good, faithful, hard-working priests who live holy lives are the great majority. That's the really good news."
At Mundelein Seminary, Gary Pennings, 45, has taken his vows as a deacon.
The former emergency room specialist says society's awkwardness about celibacy reflects a general problem with keeping vows.
"If there's a crisis, it's a lack of commitment to commitment," he says. "The biggest vocations crisis we have in the Catholic Church is marriage."
The divorce rate among Catholics is on par with the generally high rate across the United States. Mr. Pennings says commitments to marriage and celibacy are mutually reinforcing.
"Priests are a witness to commitment, just as couples with a lifelong Christian commitment strengthen priests," he says.
Still, the church handbook on the calling acknowledges that abstinence may seem "unintelligible" amid America's "widespread tolerance of sexual behavior contrary to Catholic teaching."
Father Rhoades rejects the idea of priests as recluses, or even "countercultural," as a major profile in the New York Times described them.
"We want to engage the culture," he says.

Posing the question
The culture, meanwhile, may have been what persuaded Catholics even in the past few decades that they could not ask their young men to become priests, says Father Baima, 49.
In the 1970s, the Mundelein Seminary provost was completing studies to be a pharmacist and unhappy at the prospects. A campus priest asked whether he'd ever mulled the question that "every red-blooded Catholic boy" used to ask.
"I initially told him no, but he knew me better than that," Father Baima recalls.
The asking is on an upswing.
In Chicago, billboard ads depict a clerical collar against a black background and urge: "If you're looking for a sign from God, this is it. Consider the priesthood."
In Pittsburgh, the church runs TV ads during weekend sports; in Rhode Island, the priesthood is touted on MTV.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore ran TV spots during the "March Madness" college basketball tournament. Since Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick arrived to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, all its parishes mention new priests in Sunday's petitionary prayers.
More important, clergy say, is for everyone who loves the church to keep an eye out for religiously inclined young men. And then, someone should ask.
"It is imperative that an invitation be verbalized," Father Burns says.
Many men, he says, are caught between feeling unworthy and the trepidation of so dramatic a step.
"I always say, 'Hold on to your seat, because you're going to go for a ride.' You're never quite sure where the Lord's going to lead you, and it's exciting."

Feeling at peace
Getting in is hardly easy, either. Candidates are screened for past habits, even for police records, and this becomes more important with older men having midlife conversions.
"Even though we have a serious need for priests, we would never lessen our standards," Father Burns says.
Since each diocese is independent, there is no central source of data on how many U.S. men have gone through the "discernment process" but were turned away.
For those who only think they want the priesthood, Father Burns says, the common denominator usually is "men who are on the rebound" after losing a job or girlfriend. "He is saying, 'Oh, woe is me.'"
Vocations directors — the priests whose job is to recruit more priests in each diocese — care for these men. But, Father Burns adds, "You don't become a priest by default."
When all is said and done, the final sign of priestly commitment must be "peace" — about the vows of celibacy, obedience to the bishop and a lifetime commitment.
"Peace is a fruit, a byproduct of knowing God's will," Father Burns says. "If you have a sense of fulfillment, peace and joy, you listen to that."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide