DENVER—Archbishop Charles Chaput and the Denver archdiocese have two things to celebrate this year.

One is its 60th anniversary this fall. The other is the largest major seminary enrollment in Denver's history.

In today's vocations climate, too often perceived as dreary, the fact merits repeating: This year's 71 major seminarians are the most Denver has ever had.

The high figure, Archbishop Chaput admits, is inflated by the presence in Denver, since 1996, of seminarians from the Spain-based movement known as the Neocatechumenal Way. But since several of the movement's seminarians are themselves Denver natives, and all of them will end up serving the archdiocese, the distinction means little to those who benefit from it most—the Catholic people of Northern Colorado.

Counting those who are studying for the Neocatechumenal Way, Denver has produced 33 of the 71 seminarians on its own. The largest single class in recent years was 19, in 1998. This fall, Denver Vocations Director Father Kent Drotar expects his entering class to be somewhere between 12 and 17, a slight increase over the 10-year average.

“Those are pretty high numbers,” Father Drotar said, noting that many dioceses in the country won't add a single seminarian this year.

Msgr. Samuel J. Aquila, the rector of Denver's new St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, said that seminary enrollment can be expected to climb in the years ahead.

“I think the vocations are present in every diocese, and that if everyone encourages them we will see a real flourishing,” Msgr. Aquila told the Register. “Certainly since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there has been a turnaround in the number of seminarians entering each year for the Archdiocese of Denver.”

Vocations have doubled, he said, and he expects them to more than double again in the years ahead.

Msgr. Aquila's optimism was shared by every diocesan spokesman contacted for this story. All traced their enthusiasm to 1993, the year Pope John Paul II turned Denver into a virtual Rocky Mountain Vatican during his trip there for World Youth Day. Ever since, the archdiocese has emanated the glow of renewal.

Vocations to the priesthood, Denver Catholics say, is just one of its signs.

“World Youth Day had a huge impact on this community and its self-understanding,” Archbishop Chaput said. “It's just a kind of different place than it was before.”

In terms of priestly vocations, Archbishop Chaput said that a number of seminarians “are coming forward now and talking about the impact [World Youth Day] had on them.”

Another sign of Denver's renewal, Archbishop Chaput said, is the high number of adult conversions over the past decade.

This year, Denver received nearly 1,500 adults into full communion with the Church, a figure Archbishop Chaput called “huge.”

Looking only at ordinations, Denver's numbers have been erratic. The archdiocese has averaged three a year for the last five, with seven in 2000. But there were none in 1999 and only one the year before that.

But for a diocese of 116 parishes, these numbers are still strong compared to dozens of larger, urban dioceses.

Archbishop Chaput said that, 30 years after Vatican II, the harvest is ripening.

“I think as we try to declericalize the Church the people want it to be reclericalized where priests and sisters and deacons are part of the leaven that makes the community strong,” Archbishop Chaput said.

“We really do need a lot of priests if we are going to evangelize the culture. Although the Lord has blessed us abundantly, we need a whole lot more—a whole lot more.”

Archbishop Chaput recalled that many people were shocked when he said soon after his installation as archbishop in 1997 that he hoped to have 150 men studying for the priesthood. Using the archbishop's yardstick as a measure, Denver is now about halfway to its goal.

And what kind of seminarians is Denver getting?

“The seminarians who are coming forward are Catholic to the core,” Father Drotar said. “For most of them the only Pope they've ever known is John Paul II,” he said. “They are very faithful to the teachings of the Church, hungry to learn more about them and they are very evangelical. They have a willingness to share their faith with others, and they are not afraid to admit they're Catholic.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput stressed the importance of a confident faith in those striving to become priests.

“I think the most important quality I look for is that he [the seminarian] is a believer—that he has a confident faith in Jesus Christ and a confident faith that Jesus Christ works through his Church,” he said.

Archbishop Chaput said that he's “grateful” to be a part of Denver's renewal. Still, he said the people of Denver should not be too quick to take credit for God's work in the archdiocese.

“As soon you start bragging about things,” he warned, “God will show you who's in charge.”

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