- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

The number of priests in the United States has been plunging for nearly a generation, but Catholic dioceses nationwide hope the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI to America will reverse that trend.

Officials are hoping young men react the same as then-29-year-old Dave Dwyer, who attended World Youth Day in Denver on Aug. 15, 1993, to hear Pope John Paul II speak.

“For some reason, the words I heard that day were specifically, ‘Dave I need you to be a priest,’ ” said Father Dwyer, now a Paulist cleric in New York City and publisher of BustedHalo.com, an online magazine for spiritual seekers in their 20s and 30s.

“It’s just like the apostles who dropped everything to follow Christ.”

At the time, he was a director and producer for MTV and Comedy Central. Less than a year later, Father Dwyer left the entertainment industry and entered the Paulists, where he runs the BustedHalo Radio show on Sirius Satellite radio’s Catholic Channel, in addition to a Web site, www.bustedhalo.com.

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He will be covering almost all of the papal events in both New York and Washington for the Catholic Channel, except for the Mass at Yankee Stadium, where he will be concelebrating.

“When 60,000 people gather at Yankee Stadium, it’s going to be hard to ignore the Spirit,” he said. “God is more significantly present when we gather together.”

The American church badly needs to rejuvenate its priesthood. In 1978, there were 9,021 American diocesan and religious seminarians in college and seminary. By 2005, that number was 4,603.

Dioceses nationwide are scrambling for more. In 2005, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis created an edgy poster showing a somber priest in full black cassock and sunglasses posed like “The Matrix” star Keanu Reeves. It was rated R for “restricted to those radically in love with Jesus Christ.” Running time is “all eternity,” and its title reads, “The Catholic Priesthood: The answer is out there … and it’s calling you.”

The Archdiocese of Baltimore created a similar “Men in Black” recruiting poster featuring dark-clad, rosary-and-prayer-book-toting priests.

“For young men considering a vocation to the priesthood, an event like the visit of the Holy Father helps focus his attention on that particular question,” said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, where the pope will spend three days.

Kathy Dempsey, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said a papal visit “just puts a bug in people’s ears.”

“His visit is just the perfect opportunity for those people who have always had that longing and ignored it,” she said.

It’s difficult to know how many vocations will flow from Benedict, a more introverted individual than John Paul. Whereas John Paul trained to be an actor, Benedict’s stage has always been in a classroom as a college professor.

“The pope is an introvert. Unlike John Paul II, he does not gain energy from a crowd. On the contrary, they can sometimes drain him,” said Delia Gallagher, a former CNN faith and values correspondent.

“A good comparison is that people turned out to see John Paul II, while people show up to hear Pope Benedict,” Father Dwyer says.

Despite the personality differences, the new pope has shown a knack for drawing young people to the church, as evidenced in Rome where his weekly appearances draw record crowds to St. Peter’s Square.

Northeastern dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of New York, are particularly hopeful that the papal visit will result in a vocations spike. Its St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie will graduate just five diocesan priests this year, many fewer than in 1960, when the graduating class was 20 strong. They will serve an archdiocese that includes more than 2.5 million Catholics in 405 parishes spread over 10 counties, but served by only 669 priests.

The Archdiocese of Washington has seen an increase in students studying to become priests in the past 10 years; from 28 in 1998 to 75 studying this year in eight seminaries.

The average age of the seminarians is 28, with a range from 19 to 62 years. Washington’s seminarians are diverse, hailing all the way from Latin America and Europe and with unique backgrounds, including a retired World Bank executive and a magician.

“We’re doing pretty well, but we’d always like more,” Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey said.

As one of the top five fastest-growing dioceses in the United States, the Diocese of Arlington has similar expectations. The diocese’s director and promoter of vocations, the Rev. Brian Bashista, said Pope Benedict is the model of a young adult who said “yes to the Lord” and entered the priesthood at age 24.

“To have him gathered with the faithful — that connection is very real for them,” he said. “And not to mention, he’s such a great model for future priests and religious.”


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