COLOGNE, Germany — If World Youth Day in Cologne is anything like past World Youth Days, it will be a boon for religious vocations.
Of that, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan has no doubt.
“As former rector of the North American College in Rome, every year I would read seminary candidates’ spiritual biographies,” said Archbishop Dolan. “Of the 150 I would read each year, at least half would describe World Youth Day as a pivotal moment in their journey of vocational discernment.
Priests, nuns, and brothers were visible everywhere in Cologne. Specific orders operated their own events throughout the city.
The Family of Mary cooperated with the Franciscan Friars of Renewal and Youth 2000 to offer perpetual Eucharistic adoration at St. Maria Himmelfahrt — Our Lady of the Assumption Church.
The Legionaries of Christ held a “vocation café” at a local hotel with food, music, and a place where young men and women could access the Internet and their e-mail. On Aug. 19 alone, the café was visited by more than 5,000 people.
The Schoenstatt Sisters, which call Germany home, offered their shrine as a place of pilgrimage and prayer during World Youth Day. Marienfeld, where the Aug. 20-21 vigil and Mass were held, was filled with habits of black, white, brown and blue.
“We have had a steady stream of inquiries,” said Sister Luitgard, a Family of Mary sister dressed in the order's distinctive white habit. “We are growing because we are a younger community.”
The Family of Mary is a relatively young missionary order (35 years old) based in Slovakia and much of Eastern Europe. They currently have approximately 200 sisters, the majority of whom are younger.
The number of priests in attendance was nearly double what was expected.
“We expected 5,000,” said Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner. “[Instead,] 9,805 priests registered. We won't have enough stoles for all of them.”
This year's event might also affect vocations in another way. This World Youth Day was unique with the addition of Pope Benedict's separate address specifically for seminarians. The event was held Aug. 19 at St. Pantaleon's Church in Cologne.
A German seminarian, a Kazakhstan priest, and a Canadian bishop each gave a testimony of their vocational discernment process, followed by a speech by Pope Benedict.
“I had asked that the program of these days in Cologne should include a special meeting with young seminarians, so that the vocational dimension which is always a part of World Youth Day would be even more clearly and strongly evident.”
And evident it was. The speech was attended by more than 5,000 priests, bishops, and seminarians.
“The Pope talked about being good, being holy,” said Bishop Zbigniew Kiernikowski, bishop of Siedlce, Poland.
“The talk was completely centered on the priesthood,” said Father Matthew Gamber, a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago. “This will clearly be a pro-priesthood papacy.”
Bishop Lawrence Brandt of Greensburg, Pa. found the talk “closely reasoned and humanly accessible.”
“He conveys truths with images,” said Bishop Brandt, recalling how Pope Benedict compared the three Magi “going into the house” with the Church. “He said that the house is the Church and that it was Mary who showed them the Savior. I thought that was marvelous.”
Bishop Brandt spoke of the importance of having seminarians on the pilgrimage.
“We have 55 pilgrims from our diocese and three seminarians,” he explained. “The seminarians are like leaven in the dough. I know that there are vocations among our group. With the seminarians being with them, and relating with them, that can bring about vocations.”
A pilgrimage group from St. Mary's Church in Visalia, Calif., commented on the impact of encountering a dozen seminarians from Long Beach, N.Y.
“It is so exciting to see so many considering the priesthood,” said Alyson Gaskins, a youth ministry leader. “Their bishop had sent them. It was a real highlight to see 19- and 20-year-olds interested in that life. They're smart, good-looking people considering a vocation.”
Australian seminarian Andrew Benton has desired to be a priest since the age of 12. He said that attending World Youth Day, first in Paris and now Cologne has been helpful in his discernment process.
Chad Koopmeiners, a third-year seminarian for the Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minn., agreed.
“Seeing the youth have so much faith and come together is strengthening for my discernment,” said Koopmeiners. “When you see a lot of people with a lot of faith, you feel like you have a better purpose in being a priest.”
Bishop Brandt also liked what the Pope had to say about the seminary.
“He said it isn't a place,” said Bishop Brandt. “It is a part of one's journey to the priesthood. It was another appropriate way of interpreting the word seminary.”
In addition to his meeting with seminarians, Pope Benedict also raised the issue of vocations during his visit with the German bishops shortly before departing Cologne.
“World Youth Day … is also a laboratory of vocations, because in the course of these days the Lord will not have failed to make his call heard in the hearts of many young people,” said the Pope. “So many of the testimonies of young people and couples show that the experience of these world meetings, when it unfolds within a journey of faith, discernment and ecclesial service, can lead to mature decisions for marriage, religious life, priestly and missionary service.”
“In the light of the shortage of priests and religious, which is reaching dramatic proportions here in Germany, I encourage you, dear Brothers, to promote the pastoral care of vocations with renewed vigor,” he continued.
Father Norbert Schnell serves as a seminary rector in Utrecht, Holland. While he doesn't think the pope's talk will directly lead to vocations, he is confident that it will indirectly.
“For the people who are here, it will boost and cultivate their interest,” said Father Schnell. “We hope that from WYD, people will trust themselves to talk about their faith in their parishes. When more live that way, perhaps people will hear that and perhaps it will get them to ask: What does God want in my life?”
The situation in Holland is dismal.
“We have 12 seminarians for 900,000 Catholics in our diocese,” said Father Schnell.
Yet, he is hopeful.
“I am hopeful about the people who are now active in the Church,” he said. “In Pope Benedict's book The Salt of the Earth, he speaks of this. We have to be faithful and God will do the rest for us. This is the future of the Church.”