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Number of seminarians grows as archbishop focuses on finding more priests

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2012 - If Catholic seminaries hung signs indicating vacancies, the signs at many U.S. seminaries this Easter would read “full.”

In St. Louis on Pentecost Eve, May 26, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson will ordain five deacons as priests for the archdiocese at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. In addition, 10 other graduates of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary will be ordained diocesan priests by their own bishops for their own home dioceses.

Practically speaking, it means that, after these men work as assistants to pastors or as school chaplains and teachers, they will become pastors. Eventually, that’s five parishes that will continue with full-time pastors, five St. Louis parishes that won’t be closed.

Carlson, who marks his third anniversary in St. Louis this month, is determined to find more young leaders to serve as priests.

“I want to create a stronger culture of vocations; to foster, encourage and pray for vocations,” the archbishop said in an interview at his offices at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. He’s implementing teams of priests and laity and backing them up with programs.

In the 2010-11 school year, enrollment in the Catholic post-baccalaureate seminarian level nationally was up 4 percent to 3,608, a net increase of 125 seminarians above the previous school year, according to a survey of Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, better known as CARA.

The current statistics, due in May, will sustain the upward trend, CARA director Mary Bendyna said. These figures do not include Catholic laity and ordained permanent deacons who study theology, scripture and pastoral care sometimes side by side with candidates for priestly ordination.

To study for the priesthood, college graduates take two more years of undergraduate philosophy, followed by four years of graduate-level theology. High-school graduates major in philosophy during four years of college, then they take four years of graduate-level theology. The Jesuits and some other religious orders require additional education. Today's seminarians undergo batteries of psychological tests, evaluations, police checks and spiritual discernments to confirm that they are fit to serve children and adults. Applicants may be rejected for a variety of reasons.

Nationally, of all Catholic seminarians last year, 76 percent were on track to become diocesan priests and 24 percent to become priests in religious orders, such as Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines and Vincentians, according to CARA.

For the St. Louis archdiocese, this is a remarkable turnaround. This century started glumly with few ordinations and empty desks at Kenrick-Glennon. In 2001, for the first time in more than 15 decades, no man was ordained a priest.

But over the past six years, the archdiocese has ordained 29 new priests and had 74 seminarians in the pipeline, said the Rev. Christopher Martin, the archdiocesan vocations director. He himself was ordained in 2006.

Within our region, but independent of the archdiocese's seminary, several communities of Catholic religious men -- Jesuits, Benedictines and Dominicans -- also are seeing an increase in young men studying for the priesthood.

“Numbers are definitely up; it’s a blessing,” said the Rev. Richard A. Peddicord, a Dominican priest and president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology.

The Jesuit Missouri Province and its Louisiana Province will ordain four men as priests in a joint ceremony this spring.

Applicants are up at the Benedictine’s Abbey of St. Louis and St. Mary in Creve Coeur, too. “We are pleased to have so many seminarians in the pipeline though none will be ordained this year,” said the Rev. Ralph Wright, the Abbey's vocation director. “We’ve had a big increase in monks for a few years.”

The uptick in ordinations still is not strong enough to replace those priests dying and retiring, said the Rev. Shane McKnight, director of the National Catholic Bishops Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. Steady recruitment must continue.

Ask and you shall receive

“I’ve come to realize that a lot of Catholic young men out there have never thought about the priesthood simply because no one has ever asked them about it,” said Deacon Don Anstoetter, who will be ordained by Carlson in May. He emailed his answers from Rome where he is finishing his theological graduate studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

“Growing up, it never seemed that any of my peers was thinking about the priesthood, but then it wasn’t something that came up in conversation much in grade school or high school,” said Anstoetter, a John F. Kennedy High School alum. “The first time I talked to somebody else my age who was thinking about a vocation to the priesthood was in high school when I went on a discernment retreat at Kenrick-Glennon seminary. It was refreshing to meet so many other guys who were in the same boat as me, who were struggling with the idea of entering the seminary.”

Carlson, a priest for 42 years, makes his approach very clear. “I ask,” the archbishop said. He smiled widely and his eyes twinkled.

He says he asks young people to consider a vocation everywhere he goes. He asks thousands of 12- and 13-year-old youth as he confirms them between Easter and Pentecost.

He asks high school and college students on school visits, youth ministry service projects, graduations, parish anniversaries, saint’s days visits, and fish fries. He starts in kindergarten but does not stop with college. He’s seeks young professionals, too. They can bring wonderful adult experiences, he said.

At the annual Fleur de Lis Ball last December, Carlson addressed 39 college  women in their billowing white gowns and asked them to consider becoming nuns. He looked beyond them to twice as many college men, the escorts and stags, and asked them to pray about serving as a priest.

He knows how to talk to young people, said Martin, the vocations director.

“The archbishop is a father to us in every respect,” said Deacon Fadi Thomas Auro, 30, one of the five men to be ordained in May. “He is warm, kind, with wonderful wit, and I have every confidence in him as a father rather than a boss. It’s very important to always to regard your bishop as a father in the family of God. Archbishop Carlson makes that a joy.”

Auro, whose family is from Iraq, was born in the Arab Emirates. He was a fourth grader on vacation in California with his family when the Gulf War broke out, stranding the Auros family. The boy picked up American-accented English, learned four more languages and got a couple of advanced degrees. Auro attended seminary in St. Louis because his spiritual director told him the city had a “very Catholic culture, roots and rich cultural attractions. It's true," he said. "And I love St. Louis.”

Talent for recruitment

Enrollment figures have increased because parish priests and bishops are improving at being “fishers of young men” for the priesthood, Martin said. Carlson now regularly gathers about 25 pastors to work together to encourage the best young Catholic men to consider the priesthood.

Carlson and Martin have organized many events where young men can meet groups of other men considering the priesthood and gain a sense of solidarity that Anstoetter lacked until his first discernment retreat.

Carlson also has invited high school students indicating interest in religious life to join Project Andrew for boys or Project Miriam for girls. They are helped to find a spiritual director and invited to all major archdiocesan events such as the Chrism Mass this Thursday at the cathedral.

The evening before being interviewed, Carlson said that he’d had 15 young women and six nuns for a spring break dinner to talk about becoming nuns. He does the same with Project Andrew members. A highlight of visits to the residence is a few minutes in the small chapel where Pope John Paul II prayed during his visit in 1999.

“Many of them call themselves the John Paul II generation,” Carlson said.

In 2010, U.S. bishops acknowledged Carlson’s success in recruiting and developing spiritual leadership in priests and elected him chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on clergy, consecrated life and vocations. Under his leadership, its Washington staff develops resources for recruitment and educational and spiritual growth for priests, nuns and religious brothers.

Carlson’s reputation also reached Vatican diplomats. The Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S. assigned Carlson a young Chinese man, Joseph Jiang, who was passionate about studying for the priesthood.

“They told me wherever they moved me, he’d go with me,” Carlson said. A decade later, the young man is a St. Louis Archdiocese priest.

Diversity of backgrounds

In Carlson’s early March visit to the Vatican for the every-five year review of the archdiocese, called an ad lumina, Vatican officials noted the backgrounds of St. Louis' seminarians.

"They asked how come your archdiocese has architects, engineers and medical men in the seminary," Carlson said. Over the years, Carlson has fostered vocations of men with advanced degrees, he said. Men who’ve worked outside the church can bring gifts to the church, at the very least to relational sermons.

“The 10 years in the working world have been and will continue to be invaluable in ministering to the people of God,” one of the five men to be ordained, Deacon Daniel G. Shaughnessy, 41, an architect, said. “They give me a familiarity with the struggles of having a job, making a house payment and dealing with how to live one's faith in the working world. God's timing is amazing.”

Shaughnessy has had a love of prayer since he was a pre-schooler tagging along with his mother for prayer at the Carmelite Monastery in Ladue. If anyone had asked if he were happy practicing architecture, he said he would have emphatically answered yes.

“But deep down, I felt pretty empty,” he said. “There was a gnawing sense of emptiness that nothing could fill, except God, of course. It just took 10 years of self-created obstacles and a relentless interrogation by my brother, Jim, one day to figure that out.”

Jim Shaughnessy stopped by his younger brother’s HOK architecture office nearly seven years ago and asked, "What are you doing with your life?”

“I rattled off all sort of answers,” the younger Shaughnessy replied. “He asked me again; and I gave fewer answers. He asked again. By this time, I was annoyed and dismissive but he, of course, was right."

So, at 35, he sold his house, most material stuff and applied to Kenrick Seminary.

Recipe for vocations

Shaughnessy will become one of 12 recent new priests for the archdiocese who graduated from St. Louis University High School; seven have come from DeSmet Jesuit High school; and one from Kansas City’s Regis Jesuit High School.

“The Jesuit high schools are our best feeder schools,” Martin, the vocations office director and a Chaminade alum, said. “I tell the Jesuit scholastics that whatever they are doing keep on doing.”

Nationally, over the past five years, of men ordained Catholic priests, 47 percent attended a Catholic elementary school, 39 percent a Catholic high school, and 39 percent Catholic college, CARA found.

Jesuits already have “a culture supporting vocations” that Carlson aims for, Martin said. Each Jesuit high school has a vocation discernment group for young men considering the priesthood. It meets once a month to talk about the priesthood.

“Our high schools foster faith and vocations,” said the Rev. Louis McCabe, the Provincial (leader) of the Missouri Jesuits. Jesuit students promise -- and their motto is --  to be “Men for Others.” Living out that motto as a priest is held out as one ideal in the schools.

High school encouragement is important, but it's just one of three basics needed, McCabe said, starting with "good religious training and practice in the family.”

As a little boy, Auro, used to pretend to be a priest saying Mass. Women in the family made little colorful liturgical vestments for him to wear at his pretend altar. His grandmother made videos of him.

“A good parish life with pastors and associate pastors that they admire is the second most important point,” McCabe said.

A chapter of the national Catholic group called Lifeteen helped organize Sunday evening Masses with contemporary music, service projects and Bible studies at Incarnate World Parish in Chesterfield. That helped draw Martin into parish life and heighten his interest in the priesthood, he said.

The parish’s then pastor, now Bishop Robert Hermann, was strongly supportive of the youth outreach, Martin said.

Msgr. James Pieper, pastor of St. Clement of Rome parish in Des Peres for 22 years, introduced a youth ministry eight years ago. He’s convinced it will foster vocations. The archdiocese says Pieper has excelled at inviting men to become priests for years. St. Clement’s has provided four priests to the archdiocese. The vocations office gave Pieper its first Fisher of Men award this year for fostering “a culture of vocations.”

Still many parents are hesitant that their son or daughter will be happy as a priest or a nun. It happens to the best of candidates -- even to St. Philippine Duchesne, the archdiocesan patroness and the only canonized saint from the area. Her father disapproved of her becoming a nun. After months of pleading with the esteemed French lawyer, Philippine “eloped” to a convent and made her vows.

“I know quite a few seminarians (in Rome) who are studying for the priesthood despite the disapproval of their parents,” Anstoetter, one of the five to be ordained, said. “I have immense respect for these men because it takes a lot of courage to pursue God’s calling when the people you love most do not understand what you are doing and so don’t support you. It also makes me appreciate all the more the encouragement and love I have received from my family throughout my years in the seminary.”

Carlson supports a loosely organized one-on-one program where parents of priests reach out to parents of seminarian or new priests. Veteran parents have helped alleviate many worries, Martin said. 

Better educated Catholic parents are more likely to encourage their children to pursue a religious vocation. Forty-six percent of Catholics with a post-graduate degree would encourage their own child to pursue a religious vocation, a CARA study showed. That compares to 38 percent of parents with bachelor’s degrees, and 27 percent of those with a high school diploma or less.

The day before the interview Carlson and a young priest made a sick call at a hospital. An older woman looked at the young priest and said, “I bet your mom was disappointed when you decided to become a priest,” the archbishop recalled.

The young priest said, on the contrary his mother sees more of him than she does of his brothers who are married, Carlson said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.