YPSILANTI, Mich. — Last Spring, the U.S. bishops made it one of their top priorities to foster more vocations to the priesthood. Soon after, an NCCB press release said, “We need to look at new ways to help create an environment in which someone can say Yes to religious life or the priesthood.”

A new program started at Franciscan University of Steubenville and now duplicated at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., looks like it might be just what the bishops are seeking.

Called the ‘pretheologate,’ a reference to the coursework required for entry to a major seminary, the new program gives young men the chance to study philosophy and theology on a coed campus while they learn about the lifestyle of a priest.

“Every year young men graduating from high school are thinking about the priesthood but are not ready to make a commitment to the seminary. So they get a job, go to college, join the military, etc. These options are not necessarily supportive of a possible vocation,” said Father David Testa, a diocesan priest from Albany, N.Y., who developed much of the Steubenville program.

“A college-level pretheologate is made for these young men,” the priest explained. “It allows them to be ordinary college students, majoring in the field of their choice. There's very little pressure. It's not ‘Johnny's going to become a priest,’ but ‘Johnny's going to college.’ And if they decide they are not called to the priesthood, they haven't lost anything,” he added. “They are still going to college, and all their coursework can be put toward their degree.”

For five years Father Testa ran the Steubenville program, which started 16 years ago. During that time the program drew 80 men from the United States and many other countries. In fall 2000, he moved to Ave Maria to start a pretheologate at the new Catholic liberal arts college, part of Ave Maria University and a sister college to St. Mary's in Orchard Lake, Mich. At Ave Maria, the program has already drawn seven students in its first year.

At Franciscan University, pre Theologate students join one of three faith households: Living Stones, for men 17 to 23; Koinonia, for men 23-28; and Electi Mariae, for older men. Currently, 65 men, ranging in age from 18 to 50, are enrolled.

This year the Steubenville program will graduate its largest class ever, something Bishop Gilbert Sheldon says has helped his diocese of Steubenville, Ohio.

Bishop Sheldon

“I credit the increase in the number of seminarians for the Diocese of Steubenville at least in part to the program at Franciscan University,” says Bishop Sheldon. “I believe if something similar were implemented at other Catholic colleges and universities, it would go a long way to alleviate the present shortage of vocations to the priesthood.”

Adam Hertzfeld, who completed Franciscan's pretheologate and now is a seminarian for the diocese of Toledo, said he gives the same advice to everyone he meets who is considering the priesthood: “If you are thinking about becoming a priest, start living the life of a priest.”

Young men who join the pretheologate will do just that, said Father Testa. They will attend daily Mass, develop a regular prayer life, recite the Liturgy of the Hours, study Catholic thought and develop solidarity with other young men.

They commit themselves to these disciplines six months at a time, the priest added. During the first part of the program, they can even date.

“The newer members must abide by a dating policy that does not allow for a steady dating relationship with one woman,” said Father. “The program's senior members observe a no-dating policy as they prepare to enter a major seminary.”

Joe Lussier of Chelsea, Mich., who graduated from the pretheolo-gate and started at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit last fall, said the situation helped him. Although Lussier attended the program at Steubenville, he grew up near Ypsilanti and is familiar with both campus communities. “There are women at both colleges who would make incredible wives,” he said. “Testing your vocation this way adds a great depth that should be there.”

Lussier said the program helped him examine his recognition that he might have a vocation until he was really sure.

“I took my time in deciding,” he related. “I began to think there was at least the possibility of a vocation, and I felt led to explore it.”

He spent three years at Washtenaw Community College (near Ypsilanti) and Franciscan University before he entered the pretheologate. “My spiritual director at Steubenville said, ‘What are you going to loose by joining?’”

Lussier spent another year and a half living a priest's lifestyle before deciding, he said.

Before enrolling at Sacred Heart this fall, Lussier said he talked with Bishop Carl Mengeling of the Diocese of Lansing and Vocation Director Father J. Thomas Munley about the program. “They were very impressed,” he said.

God Always Wins

Daniel Firmin of Augusta, Ga., now attending seminary at the North American College in Rome, said the program he was part of at Franciscan University was “just a wonderful, prayerful environment to discern the priesthood. It was great having so many other guys around me, everyone supporting each other.”

Stephen Malo of Canada is now part of the pretheologate at Ave Maria. He said he was praying the rosary with his mother one night several years ago when the idea that the Lord might want him to be priest came into his mind. But Malo didn't think of himself as the type of person who could maintain that kind of devotion, and didn't actually know any strong Christians that he admired.

“In my hometown there is a very small Christian community with many overly pious, ‘saved’ types,” he explained. “I always thought that I wished Christian youth could be more like me. Then, after meeting some of the Ave Maria students, I realized that I wanted to be more like them.” So Malo joined the pretheolo-gate a short while after he started college there last fall.

John Ferguson, still part of Franciscan's pretheologate program, said even those who decide to leave benefit from it. “Every semester I have been in it, at least one guy has left the program, and not one of them has ever regretted joining it,” he said.

“God always wins,” agreed Father Testa. “When I run into these men after a few years, they tell me, ‘Thanks, Father, you taught me to pray, your program made a real difference in my life.’ And their wives thank me, too!” said the priest, with a smile.