DENVER - This year, 481 men in the United States will kneel in cathedral churches and be ordained as Catholic priests for Jesus Christ.
The average man entering the priesthood this year looks something like this: he’s about 33 years old, which is slightly younger than the previous two classes of incoming priests. He was born in the U.S, he got his college degree and worked full time before entering seminary, and he was baptized Catholic as an infant, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) from 379 transitional deacons.
Deacon Ambrose Dombrozsi is one of those incoming priests. A 28 year-old transitional deacon with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Dombrozsi said he first had the thought to become a priest while having a “vision” during Mass in second grade.
“This one day, during Mass, I was in second grade, I decided that I was going to have a vision, and so I did, as one does,” he told CNA. “And I decided - it was entirely make-believe, it was pretend - but it was St. Francis telling me to be a priest.” Dombrozsi wrote about the vision in his diary before, shortly thereafter, deciding that “diaries were for girls.” Although he eschewed his journaling practices, the idea of priesthood stuck with him. He told his family, who were supportive of the idea. Dombrozsi was homeschooled, and he said the saint stories that his mom taught him were also influential in his decision.
Then high school came and two things happened: he went on a retreat at the seminary, and he discovered girls.
According to CARA, 52% of respondents said that retreats at the seminary were influential in their decision to become a priest.
“I don’t remember very much except for thinking seminarians were cool, which may be the only time anyone has ever thought that,” Dombrozsi said.
Dombrozsi started dating and set his priestly aspirations aside - for a time. After dating a girl in college for three years, he proposed because, he said, that’s what you do.
“It was a small Catholic college, and the way small Catholic college campuses work is that you find someone (to marry) and then re-evangelize the culture by having like a million babies,” he said.
Ultimately it wasn’t meant to be, and the engagement broke off. It was around this time that Dombrozsi, feeling a bit lost, was invited back to the seminary for another retreat. It was there that he had an experience of God in adoration, and felt the call to enter the seminary.
“I knew I needed to go,” he said.
According to CARA, most transitional deacons entering the priesthood report having three of four people in their lives who were very influential in their discernment. For Dombrozsi, both of his parents, as well as a priest who was his spiritual director, played a key role, he said.
“I would definitely say my parents, both mom and dad had a very big influence on us. We were homeschooled so we were with them a lot of the time, and they were both holy people who prayed a lot and have given me fantastic advice,” he said.
“And Fr. Sean Landin, he definitely had a big impact,” he added. “He was my spiritual director at that time...he’s a very good priest, and an excellent preacher.”
Deacon Cassidy Stinson is another transitional deacon who will be ordained this spring, for the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. Stinson differs from 89% of the CARA survey respondents in that he was not baptized a Catholic as an infant. Although he came from a “strong faith background”, he converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 12, along with the rest of his family, who had previously been Protestant.
The idea of the priesthood first came to Stinson while he was transitioning from community college to the College of William and Mary, he said. It was during that time that he experienced a renewal of his faith, and he committed to living as a Catholic in the secular environment of his college.
He decided to sign up for a retreat at the beginning of the school year, where he planned to pray over the experiences he had had that summer in Rome and throughout Europe, where he had traveled with his dad. A classics major, Stinson was tossing around the idea of becoming an archeologist and studying ancient ruins.
“As I was praying, I had no sense of peace about it. Then I remembered we’d passed the Pontifical North American College (the American seminary) in Rome, and I had this thought out of nowhere - ‘you could be a seminarian!’” Stinson said. “I imagined myself wearing the black clerics, dressed like a priest. And as soon as I imagined myself as that, I had this great sense of peace from outside of me. It was so striking because I knew it wasn’t from me, because I freaked out,” he said. Stinson said he had always been drawn to the Church’s vision of marriage and fatherhood, and was struggling with this new call to the priesthood. He couldn’t see how he could be happy as a priest if he couldn’t be a biological father.
But a talk at a discernment retreat helped Stinson realize that being a priest did not mean giving up fatherhood, he said.
“There was a priest who was a pastor in a military parish, and he talked about the challenges of being a spiritual father when you’re in a parish where there are a lot of losses,” he said. “Seeing how real the fatherhood of the priesthood was what made me see how I could be fulfilled in spiritual fatherhood in my vocation; that was really pivotal for me.” Besides his parents, Stinson said that one of the most helpful things for him in becoming a priest was watching a close family friend, also a convert, who came into the Church shortly before the Stinson family and eventually became a priest.
“It made the priesthood real for me because I knew a real human being who had gone from not being a priest to going through seminary and being ordained and being a priest,” he said. “I got to see someone I knew go through that process.”
Both Stinson and Dombrozsi had just been ordained deacons last year when the Theodore McCarrick sex abuse scandal broke in the summer of 2018, followed by the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of clerical sex abuse allegations. While the news made them sad and angry, it has also been convicting for them in their vocations, they said.
“There’s a strong negative light in the culture right now towards the priesthood, which to some extent makes it easier and more attractive because that ‘Oh I guess this is nice’ mentality is obviously false,” Dombrozsi said. “You have to be committed...it makes it more radical. And I think for myself and a lot of guys I’ve talked to, the fact that this is a radical, difficult thing is part of its attraction. The recent scandals and difficulties in the church have helped make that real and have helped people to live it and pray with it,” he added. Stinson echoed Dombrozsi’s sentiments, and added that the scandals will shape the ministry of the incoming priests for years to come.
“This is what God has called us to do, to heal the Church,” he said. “Our priesthood is going to be on some level dedicated to the rebuilding and healing of the image of Christ for these people.”
Bringing Christ to people is what it’s all about, Stinson added.
“I think we all signed up to bring Christ to people,” he said. “Everyone who’s becoming a priest at this time in the Church’s history is doing so because they’ve discovered a love for the priesthood and a love for Christ’s presence in the sacraments,” he said.
“So I think everyone is very excited to be getting out into their parishes and living the life of the priesthood.”