LOS ANGELES — For Catholics, the shortage of priests is far more than a problem of staffing parishes: It touches the very mission of the Church.

“Without priests, the Church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the heart of her existence,” wrote Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis, his 1992 apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, “[nor fulfill] her mission in history,… an obedience to the command to announce the Gospel and to renew daily the sacrifice of the giving of his body and the shedding of his blood for the life of the world.”

So, faced with still-dismal numbers of seminarians in much of the industrialized world, and with growing numbers of diocesan clergy closing in on retirement age, why does the pope confidently forecast “a springtime for the Church” in the near future?

Maybe he has places like Denver in mind.

In the past year, the number of diocesan seminarians has nearly doubled, to 39, in this archdiocese of 340,000 Catholics. The separate Neo-Catechumenal Way diocesan house of missionary formation boasts 16 candidates. And a new experimental religious congregation, Cor Jesu, has set up in a former convent with 11 seminarians and expects four more to join soon.

The Neo-Catechumenal Way, founded in Spain in 1962, is an international movement, centered in parish-based communities that provide religious instruction and fellowship modeled on the example of the early Church. Denver's Neo-Catechumenal seminarians hail from Colombia, Mexico, Italy, Nicaragua, Spain, Venezuela, and the United States. Cor Jesu (Heart of Jesus) is still in its formative stages as a community.

Far from a momentary blip on the vocations graph, trends point to even greater apostolic growth in the future, according to diocesan officials. New Catholic communities and established religious orders alike have contacted the archdiocese to explore the possibility of relocating their apostolates there.

What the archbishop does through his personal witness is to make the priesthood attractive to a lot of people…. It's his highest priority.

In fact, the vocational prospects look so promising in the mile-high city that Archbishop Charles Chaput is considering opening a new diocesan seminary, perhaps as early as next year. Until now, seminary candidates from Denver have been studying at a number of mainly Midwestern institutions. Diocesan officials caution, however, that the final decision about a Denver seminary has not yet been made.

According to Father John Hilton, director of vocations, the rapid rise in seminarians can be attributed to a spiritual year, or “year of discernment” program, developed on the Paris seminary model followed in the archdiocese and, even more importantly, by the relentless efforts of Archbishop Chaput in promoting vocations.

“Young people today want to be called to do heroic things and they see the Church as a sign of hope in the world,” Father Hilton said recently in an interview in the Denver Catholic Register. The spiritual year, he said, is designed to help them explore the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood.

Fran Maier, archdiocesan chancellor, agreed that much of the dynamism behind Denver's new vocations landscape belongs to Archbishop Chaput.

“The medium is the message,” said Maier. “What the archbishop does through his personal witness is to make the priesthood attractive to a lot of people…. It's his highest priority. He raises the issue of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life every time he's with young people.”

In the case of young men, said Maier, “it doesn't hurt that Archbishop Chaput is known to be an aggressive racquetball player, either. He's a good masculine role model.”

What happens is that “the habit of encouraging vocations is catching,” Maier said. “Through the archbishop's example, it spills over into the way the whole diocese works.”

Recently, Archbishop Chaput even initiated an “altar call” for vocations — an invitation for young people to come forward — at a youth rally at a local Catholic high school. Before it was over, more than 150 teen-agers willing to consider a life of service in the Church had crowded around the archbishop.

The other aspect of Denver's new vocations profile that is attracting attention has to do with the spiritual-year program originally developed for the Paris seminary by Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger.

An innovative program of prayer, study and apostolic work, the spiritual year is designed to allow seminarians to come to a deeper understanding of Christ and of their particular vocation in the Church before plunging into formal studies for the priesthood.

Seminarians enrolled in the Denver program live together in a special wing of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization, a 40- acre campus, once a Vincentian seminary, which also houses the chancery office and the diocesan pastoral center. Should the plans to open a formal diocesan seminary pan out, officials hope to set aside a portion of the large facility for the new school.

A giant outdoor Mass venue is under construction at the site, as are state-of-the-art baseball and soccer fields.

Each day of the spiritual year begins and ends with the Liturgy of the Hours; there is also daily Mass and Benediction and all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each Saturday.

Course work consists of a thorough reading of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as a selection of spiritual classics, including works by Augustine, John of the Cross, and Thèrése of Lisieux. Apostolic work includes visiting AIDS patients and the aged and working with the homeless, along with parish assignments.

So far, Denver church officials seem satisfied with the results of the spiritual year experiment, and expect that it will continue to attract increasing numbers of seminarians. Archbishop Chaput and his team are now visiting France, reviewing the Paris seminary structures and curriculum pioneered by Cardinal Lustiger.

“Still,” Father Hilton confided in a recent interview, “there's no way to explain why so many young people here are suddenly considering a vocation — ultimately, it's a mystery.”

For chancellor Maier, Denver itself may also have something to do with it.

“There were tremendous building blocks set in place by [former] Archbishop [Francis] Stafford and the World Youth Day he spearheaded in 1993,” Maier said.

Archbishop Stafford (now the prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome) always described Denver “as the ‘first city of the 21st century,’ and perceived the special contribution that Denver can make to the Church,” Maier added.

The Pope's Invitation

“… To today's young people, I say: Be more docile to the voice of the Spirit, let the great expectations of the Church, of mankind resound in the depths of your hearts. Do not be afraid to open your minds to Christ the Lord who is calling. Feel his loving look upon you and respond enthusiastically to Jesus when he asks you to follow him without reserve” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 82).

Denver is the paradigm of America as a 21st century mission territory, Maier opined: “There's a veneer of Christianity, but Denver's fundamentally a secular environment — anti-institutional, post-Christian, media savvy. It's on the front line of the cultural and spiritual battle right now.”

Maier stressed that Archbishop Chaput would not want to diminish in any way the importance of other sees, “but there's something unique happening here, and, undoubtedly, the rise in vocations is preparing us to meet the future.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.