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US Seminaries: This School Year, Signs of Strength
Several American institutions report modest increase in young men studying for the priesthood.
By Jonathan Liedl
It’s not uncommon for students, faculty and administrators to be excited for the start of the academic year. But Msgr. Andrew Baker has extra cause for joy this year.
Fifty-two new men have enrolled at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where Msgr. Baker serves as rector. The sizable incoming class brings the total number of men preparing for the priesthood at “the Mount” to 146, a high for the seminary in recent years.
“I was ecstatic when I heard the news,” said Msgr. Baker, who attributes the increase in new seminarians to the intercession of the Blessed Mother and Blessed Father Stanley Rother, who was a 1963 graduate of the Mount. “It is a joy to see so many men enthusiastically respond to a call to the priesthood.”
Mount St. Mary’s isn’t the only seminary showing strong numbers this academic year. In Chicagoland, Father John Kartje tells the Register that enrollment at Mundelein Seminary, where he is rector, is up 17 men from last year, for a total of just over 200 seminarians.
After graduating a larger-than-normal ordination class of 21 last spring, The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minnesota welcomed 25 new men into formation this fall. It is the second incoming class of its size in a row, bringing total enrollment to 79 men.
And at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, enrollment has reached its highest mark since 2004: 43 new seminarians are enrolled this year, bringing the total to 167 men in formation.
“It’s encouraging,” said Father Scott Carl, who serves as vice rector for administration at The St. Paul Seminary, “to see the quality of men God is sending us who are eager to enter formation with open hearts, desiring to be true disciples of Jesus and configured to his heart.”
The strong numbers of new men at some U.S. seminaries this year should be seen not as a dramatic fluctuation, but as another data point supporting the emergence of a consistent trend: Seminary attendance numbers in the U.S. seem to be stabilizing after a precipitous fall during the last third of the 20th century.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, enrollment in major seminaries, where men study graduate-level theology in preparation for ordination, was as high as 8,159 in 1967. But that figure dropped by more than half during the next 30 years, reaching a low point of 3,114 men in 1997.
In the past 20 years, however, the drop has stopped, and enrollment numbers have stabilized. In recent years, enrollment in major seminaries has hovered between a high of 3,723 in 2011 and a low of 3,274 in 2006.
Last year’s total of 3,405 men marked the fifth year in a row of lower enrollment. But if the new figures from seminaries like Mundelein, St. Paul and Mount St. Mary’s are any indication, that slight dip should be viewed as a deviation, not a new normal. In fact, Father Kartje and Msgr. Baker say that this year’s numbers are more consistent with enrollment figures for their respective institutions over the past 20 years, while Father Carl says his seminary is preparing more men for priesthood today than it did in the late 1990s.
While the relative enrollment boost this year might not indicate a dramatic upswing, it does indicate that the call to the priesthood is still being heard by a new generation. Or, put in more practical terms, seminaries are still seen as a compelling place to be for millennials, those born between 1981 and 2000.
In many ways, the factors that have played a role in new seminarians’ discernment and decisions to enter seminary are the same as they were for most generations that came before them: service to others in the community, the powerful witness of holy priests and other Catholics in their lives, and time devoted to prayer, especially adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Patrick Wille, a new seminarian at Mundelein, says that living in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s House of Discernment after graduating from college was a decisive factor.
“It cemented my desire to enter seminary and intentionally discern this vocation,” said the 22-year-old native of Peoria, Illinois, who worked for The Boeing Co. before entering seminary.
For Zane Langenbrunner, a new seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s, his decision to enter seminary came when he realized that his desire to explore the priesthood “wasn’t going away” and that seminary was the best place to discern that call more intentionally.
“I felt that Christ was calling me to follow him, and I wanted to respond to that call without delay,” recalled the 23-year-old from South Bend, Indiana, who left graduate school in speech-language pathology to pursue the priesthood.
As with any generation, millennials come with a set of strengths and challenges that shape their seminary experience. Rectors note that making a firm commitment to a vocation is something that can be difficult for young men today. And Father Kartje observes that many millennials’ overexposure to digital media can pose a challenge when it comes to fully entering into the kind of quiet, unmediated prayer with Christ needed to discern his will, what he calls “visual silence.”
Langenbrunner agrees. “The balance of staying ‘in the know,’ while not becoming over-connected is particularly challenging for my generation,” he said. “So learning healthy detachment from social media and technology is really important.”
While rectors of these seminaries are happy to have more men considering a call to the priesthood, they stress that the quantity of candidates will never be as important as the quality. Fortunately, they report good news in that department, as well.
“The men coming in have a desire to be evangelizers,” said Father Kartje. “They want to share their faith and bring it to others.”
Msgr. Baker added that many of the newcomers “have great enthusiasm and great desire” for the priesthood.
“They see what the secular world offers them and discover that it is unsatisfying. They know their hearts have been made for something greater.”
Another aspect of new seminarians that Father Kartje finds compelling is a missionary spirit. The men entering nowadays want to bring Christ to the margins.
“Jesus was a great preacher and teacher, but he was also great at going out and being with people,” he said. “I see men increasingly coming through who are both sides of the coin.”
Cause for Hope
Though the modest increase in enrollment seen by U.S. seminaries this year is unlikely to erase the perceived “priest shortage,” especially given high rates of retirements from public ministry expected in the next couple decades, there’s still reason for hope.
“You can never have too many seminarians,” said Father Kartje. “But even with the number we have, I’m hopeful. Men are coming for the right reasons, and seminaries are providing them with a good formation.”
Father Kartje also believes that other factors might alleviate some of the expected discomfort of a priest shortage, namely allowing priests to focus on their ordained ministry by empowering laypeople to take on greater responsibility for parish management and by pursuing healthy consolidation of parishes.
Regarding the numbers of future priests in the U.S., Msgr. Baker prefers to look to the past for guidance.
“Don’t panic. Jesus didn’t. I know that sounds trite, but he started the Church with only 12. It’s not about — and has never been about — the numbers. ... If we remain faithful, vocations to the priesthood will come.”
Jonathan Liedl writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.
Editor's Note: This story was updated after it was posted
to correct Seminarian Wille’s name.
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