ORANGE, Calif. — While in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Martin Vu heard the startling words of Jesus: “Martin — I want you to be my priest. And one day, you can raise up the Eucharist.”
At this time, as an upperclassman studying business administration at the University of California-Irvine, Vu had renewed his practice of the Catholic faith after an evangelical friend challenged him to explain it. Vu realized he “didn’t know any of the answers to the questions he had been asking,” but “his questioning awoke something in me that made me want to search for the answers to his questions.”
Those questions brought him to decide that if his Catholic faith in Jesus Christ were true, he wanted to live it out.
He started going to confession, 6am daily Mass on campus and retreats, as well as making new friends. He struggled with the Eucharist — thinking at times, “Jesus, is that really you?” — until, suddenly, becoming “overwhelmed with a sense of how much I was loved by God.”
Now, after seven years of seminary at St. John’s in Camarillo, California, Deacon Martin Vu is going to be ordained a priest July 27. According to the data published in a new survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 481 men are being ordained priests this year, the first ordination class since the Church’s scandal of clerical sex abuse and episcopal cover-up exploded last summer.
Deacon Vu said he feels the sadness and anger of what the crisis has done to the Church. But for him and the other young men responding to the call, the present crisis is a call to arms for holy priests, to work with the lay faithful for the “renewal and revival” of the Church.
“My vocation is rooted in Christ,” he said. “If God has called me to this vocation, who am I to say No?”
The 2019 CARA study on priestly ordinands reveals details about what formed this year’s class of priests. The average age of a newly ordained priest is 33 years old — down from 36 years old in 1999. And about 50 more priests are being ordained this year than in 2018.
CARA found that the top three regular devotional practices nourishing the vocations of this year’s new priests were Eucharistic adoration (75%), the Rosary (72%) and prayer group/Bible study (47%).
Significant numbers also participated in high-school retreats (38%); attended lectio divina, a prayerful reading of Scripture (36%); and college retreats (30%).
Measuring Impact of the Crisis
Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt, the executive director of CARA, told the Register the full impact of the sex-abuse scandal will not be measurable for at least several years. How effective the Vatican’s policies are and what the bishops do next may also play a critical role in how the crisis affects a young man’s decision to enter seminary, he said.
Father Gaunt said Bishop Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis-St. Paul, were two examples of bishops whose strong leadership in establishing accountability and transparency mechanisms in their dioceses have “evoked a lot more confidence.”
Father Gaunt said that one thing that distinguishes the young men being ordained to the priesthood today is they have responded to the call with a “minimal experience of the Church triumphal.” They are not like the generation of men ordained in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, who joined a Church that was powerful and respected.
“They’ve experienced a lot of the negative sides,” he said. The challenge for the Church today is encouraging young men to think about this vocation in the first place and sustain that path of discernment to ordination.
CARA found that friends played an integral role in priestly discernment. While 61% said a parish priest encouraged them, 43% said they were encouraged by friends to discern the call.
On the flipside, of those who experienced discouragement to pursue a vocation, 23% had a family member other than their parents try to discourage them, and 21% had a close friend or classmate try to discourage them.
Deacon Vu said first his mother and then his father became supportive of his vocation. It was one of his best friends in college, back in 2013, who had a hard time with Vu’s choice.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Are you going to be a child molester now?’” Deacon Vu recalled, adding that, eventually, his friend came to support him in his vocation.
“We still remain friends, actually,” Deacon Vu said, adding that his friend’s initial response changed. “Overall, he’s supportive of me, and he sees how far I’ve come in my formation, and he knows me to be someone who’s authentic and a good guy with a good moral compass.”
Inspiring New Faithful Priests
The vast majority of today’s Catholic priests grew up in Catholic families from childhood. Nearly nine out of 10 were baptized as infants, and 77% grew up in households where both parents were Catholic.
CARA’s survey found that, on average, the first serious consideration of the priesthood takes place around 16 years old.
Transitional Deacon Christopher Ford of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, told the Register that his first thought about priesthood came as early as second grade. A cradle Catholic from Naugatuck, when his grammar-school classmates decided to do a pretend baptism, he recalled that “I was the only one who volunteered to be the priest.”
Deacon Ford, who will be ordained a priest June 1, nearly entered seminary right out of high school, but, instead, laying aside his desire for the priesthood, he went to college and then earned his master’s degree. He was at a friend’s house-warming party when a seminarian for the Diocese of Bridgeport challenged him to get serious about his discernment.
“He asked, ‘What happened?’ And I really didn’t have a good answer for him.”
Deacon Ford took his discernment seriously again, and he contacted the vocations director for the Bridgeport Diocese. One day, filled with peace before the Eucharist, “I made the decision to go forward and enter seminary.”
Deacon Ford said he was still in middle school when the sex-abuse crisis erupted in 2002. And with the scandal today, he said, “The Church is hurting.”
But the deacon has kept in mind two things in preparing to be “a holy priest”: The Church has never been free of corrupt people who betrayed Christ and the Church, and “[t]here has never been an age of the Church that has failed to produce saints.”
He said most people are “incredibly supportive,” and they realize the men responding to the call today are aspiring to be holy, faithful priests.
“People get a lot of hope from that,” he said.
“I want to be a priest that, when people interact with me, they get a real sense that God is present in their lives, that he loves them.”
Involved in Parish Life
Many of the ordinands come to seminary already versed in parish life and service: According to the CARA survey, 78% of ordinands said they had served at the altar before entering the seminary. Another 53% served as lectors, with 44% serving as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and 38% as catechists.
More than half of the new priests in CARA’s survey participated in a parish youth group, and about three in 10 participated in their campus Catholic ministry or Newman Center during college. One-third served in campus or youth ministry.
Beyond the parish, Father Gaunt said it was important to have “opportunities of schooling and social life to be engaged in one’s faith.” He pointed out that Catholic colleges, Theology on Tap events, youth-ministry gatherings such as the Steubenville Youth Conferences, World Youth Day, and Catholic service opportunities such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps have outsized impacts in getting people to consider a vocation.
“These are very important in how to engage young adults with their faith.”
Deacon Cassidy Stinson of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, who will be ordained a priest June 1, told the Register that his family came from a Baptist seminary background and joined the Catholic Church when he was in middle school. While he had been an altar server at their parish, it was at the College of William and Mary in Virginia that he really had “to choose and make time for God.” He was trying to figure out where God wanted him to go in life until one day, while on a student retreat, he remembered a pre-college visit to Rome, when he passed by the Pontifical North American College.
“I had these ideas, and, when I asked God, the response I got was: ‘You should be a seminarian.’”
He had a powerful sense of peace and then “actually freaked out three seconds later.” He wrestled with the decision, until finally telling his girlfriend at the time that he needed to discern this vocation.
Deacon Stinson said he and other seminarians were “shocked and discouraged” when the abuse crisis exploded on the U.S. scene shortly after their ordination to the diaconate. The crisis hit home with the realization of the depth of the scandal and the stories of the devastated victims. But after a while of processing, Deacon Stinson said he and his fellow seminarians looked for positive action.
“On some level, I think it’s turned into a desire to do more,” he said, to help rebuild the image of the priesthood by showing their “deep desire to bring Christ to people” in action. He is deeply excited to become a priest and draw people to Jesus through the Mass and sacraments.
“Beyond that, speaking for myself, I want to hand on the gift my family and I discovered.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.