OMAHA, Neb. –– When Archbishop Elden Curtiss came to Omaha eight years ago, he made it clear what his priorities were: vocations. Since then, he has built one of the nation's top dioceses for getting vocations.
But not everyone appreciated his forthright assessment of priest-shortage problems in the country. Rather than addressing himself to the “vocations crisis” that many Americans spoke of, Archbishop Curtiss denied that one existed, writing at the time, “It seems to me that the vocation ‘crisis’ is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and religious life as the Church defines these ministries.”
After recruiting seminarians (in Omaha, any man between the ages of 18-55 is eligible), Omaha is particular about the seminaries its men attend. For major seminaries, it uses Kenrick-Glennon in St. Louis, Mount St. Mary's in Emittsburg, Md., and the Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
WHAT VOCATIONS CRISIS?
Part One: Omaha
“If you look at all at of them there is a faithful adherence to the teachings of the Church,” said seminarian Deacon James Keiter, who will be ordained in Omaha in June. “There's a zeal that is really captured and fostered in all of these seminaries about the Eucharist, the other sacraments and about serving the people of God.”
Archbishop Curtiss told the Register that unity in the Omaha diocese and the promotion of orthodoxy in the seminaries to which it sends men does not mean rigidity.
“We have a reputation of being conservative. If that means we conserve the tradition, that's fine with me,” he said. “But if that means we are not trying to implement Vatican II or confront the culture, that's not true. We are. We are looking for men who are open to the Spirit, open to formation and willing to grow in faith.”
Trouble in the Ranks?
Last year, a series of articles in the Kansas City Star highlighted a number of cases of priests with AIDS. Some of the priests who spoke with the Star argued against the celibate model of the priesthood, saying it prompts homosexual priests to engage in activities that lead to AIDS.
More recently, in his book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, the rector of Cleveland's St. Mary Seminary, Father Donald Cozzens, discussed what he called “the growing perception … that the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.”
Father Kevin Rhodes, the rector of the Maryland seminary that receives students from Omaha and elsewhere, said the seminaries he attended and those he visits aim at a balance that would make the scenario envisaged in Father Cozzens' book unlikely if not impossible.
“It [the book] gives the impression that a heterosexual would feel uncomfortable because of the homosexual culture in seminaries. That's just not the case,” Father Rhodes said.
“Anyone who comes here would see a very healthy environment.
“It's a healthy community of men who are very prayerful and very committed to serving the Church, eager to serve, have good, healthy relationships and are involved in their studies.”
Celibacy and Success
In fact, Archbishop Curtiss and Father Rhodes both agreed that in the particular area of celibacy, today's seminarians are being taught more effective ways of living celibacy than many of today's priests were 15 or 20 years ago.
“They are dealing with the chastity issues in a much more healthy way than they were dealt with in the past,” Archbishop Curtiss said. “They are learning the ways to live chaste that were not learned years ago. I think it's a much more healthy climate today for chaste living than in the past.”
Said Father Rhodes, “I think there are great improvements in the seminaries so that the men are faithful and happy in their celibate commitment.”
And this has in turn meant great success.
Omaha, with more than 215,000 Catholics, averaged seven ordinations a year between the years 1991-1998. You can pick other Midwest diocese at random and get a different story. For instance, though circumstances there are different in many ways, Madison, Wis., has a comparable Catholic population — and it ordained a total of four men during the entire 1991-1998 period.
Archbishop Curtiss, vocations director Father Gregory Baxter and Deacon Keiter won't compare their own dioceses with others, but even in assessing their own success at drawing men into the priesthood, they speak with one voice.
Organization and a unified community, they agree, are a winning combination.
“We're doing fairly well,” said Father Baxter, who has served as Omaha's vocations director since 1998.
“We range between the low 30s to the upper 30s” in the number of men in seminaries each year,” he said. “We work very hard at maintaining grass-roots support for vocations. We maintain a large database of potential names that I keep in contact with. We have vocations summer camp for fifth- to eighth-graders. We have a good Web site. I visit all of the seminarians twice a year and am in constant contact with all the men and the rectors of their seminaries.”
Training young men for the priesthood in today's culture is difficult. But Archbishop Curtiss insists it is anything but impossible. Father Rhodes agrees.
“It's a heavy responsibility,” he said about training today's future priests, “but joyful too, because our candidates really give us a lot of hope for the future. I'm very optimistic.”