- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) The crowd of 25,000 Roman Catholics burst into cheers when Pope Benedict XVI took the stage for a youth rally during his U.S. visit last week. Chanting “Viva Papa!” they pressed against security barriers and reached out to touch him.

Many Catholics and church leaders were happily surprised by the outpouring of enthusiasm. Now, they hope the experience will draw some of the young revelers into the priesthood.

Ever since ecstatic throngs began greeting the globe-trotting Pope John Paul II, analysts have been looking for any direct link between a papal visit and seminary enrollment.

The Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of “The Changing Face of the Priesthood,” said there’s no way to know the exact effects of a papal pilgrimage. But he said Benedict’s warmth and grandfatherly presence could inspire many to at least consider ordination.

“There’s a certain mystery to a call to ministry in the priesthood,” said Father Cozzens, who teaches at John Carroll University in Ohio. “Some people know they are destined to be a priest from their childhood, and other people discover this call much later in life. Sometimes, it’s awakened by a papal visit.”

Younger priests today tend to have more traditional views of the church than older clergy, and many attribute that trend to John Paul’s defense of orthodoxy. Others who study the priesthood say that new clergy candidates now tend to come from the most committed parts of the church, and would likely fill seminaries with conservatives no matter who was elected pope.

The Rev. Michael Morris, director of pastoral formation at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., where the youth rally was held, credits John Paul’s 1979 trip to the U.S. with moving him toward enrolling in the seminary. But he said the pope’s presence was not the only reason he joined.

“There were a lot of guys from my generation, who entered the seminary in the early ‘80s. We entered on the heels of the pope’s first visit,” said Father Morris, who teaches church history at the seminary. “I can’t say that it was just a visit that inspired us to become priests, but sometimes you need a nudge.”

He plans to talk about the pope’s visit, the priesthood and religious life in the local parish where he helps celebrate Mass, to encourage anyone considering the vocation.

The U.S. priesthood has been shrinking for decades. More than 3,200 of the 18,600 U.S. parishes don’t have resident priests, according to the Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. More lay people than clergy work full-time in the churches.

Dioceses have been hiring recruiters to travel overseas to find clergy candidates. The number of priests from other countries has grown so steadily that some seminaries are adding English classes, hiring accent-reduction tutors and providing courses on American culture.

International recruitment is motivated partly by the exploding demand for Spanish speakers for the Hispanic immigrants filling the pews. About 30 percent of the men ordained in America last year were from another country, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops conference has created a recruitment campaign called “Fishers of Men,” that encourages priests to invite young men to consider entering the priesthood.

George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and John Paul II biographer, said Benedict was a vibrant example to them of how fulfilling life can be in service to the church.

“It’s impossible to tell, today, what numerical impact the pope’s visit will have on young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood,” Mr. Weigel said. “But that some men will have been moved to think of that life of self-sacrifice as a great adventure, no one should doubt.”

Benedict addressed the state of the priesthood in several speeches.

He urged American bishops to be a “father, brother and friend” to their priests.

He said clergy have suffered enormously from the clergy sex-abuse scandal. The shame was so intense that some priests wouldn’t wear their collars in public when the scandal erupted in 2002, even though most of the thousands of new claims stemmed from wrongdoing decades ago.

The priest shortage, meanwhile, has also put enormous demands on clergy, some of whom are responsible for several parishes.

However, seminary administrators say morale improved as the scandal eased.

And there are signs that the situation in some seminaries is improving.

In San Antonio, Assumption Seminary, a bilingual school, is flourishing, with 94 seminarians from 16 dioceses and a 300 percent growth in vocations in the past four years.

Benedict’s visit “will definitely make a difference,” in attracting new priests, said the Rev. Arturo Cepeda, who teaches at Assumption. He downloaded Benedict’s comments to U.S. bishops about the priesthood and discussed them with his classes at the school the next morning.

“He provided a very positive, a very vibrant and very realistic view of the priesthood,” said Father Cepeda, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “Most of the men here want to make a difference in the church, in the world and in society, and that takes sacrifice.


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