National Catholic Register


‘Pre-Theologates’ Offer a Promising Solution to Vocations’ Crisis

A financially prudent and spiritually sound idea catches on at some Catholic universities

BY Brian O'Neel

May 17-23, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/5/99 at 2:00 PM


Last year, for the first time since the 1960s, the total number of seminarians in the United States increased slightly. Considered alone, 147 more seminarians doesn't sound like much to get excited about, but further evidence suggests a slow reversal of the long-standing vocations crisis in this country.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reports that for the third straight year, the number of college seminarians also increased. And the decline of high school seminarians, while still dropping, has slowed compared to the precipitous drops of the 1980s.

By all indications these positive trends will continue. No matter how small, these changes should receive a warm welcome in the United States where more than 2,000 parishes have no full-time pastor.

As bishops look for ways to further boost the number of vocations, they find typical means don't provide much hope. For instance, men have traditionally fulfilled their formation prerequisites for entrance to a major seminary in one of three ways: (1) they can receive their bach-elor's degree and then enter a minor seminary, sometimes called a “pre-theologate”; (2) they can enter a stand-alone college seminary and graduate with their bachelor's degree and their pre-theologate requirements fulfilled (but since 1969, the number of these college seminaries has dropped from 120 to 15); or (3) they can enroll in other programs that allow seminarians to study for the priesthood by taking classes at independent colleges and universities. Twenty-six seminaries around the country currently have educational agreements with schools such as the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas.

College Seminary Decline

Just as the number of college seminaries has dropped, however, the number of men in such programs has either dropped or, in some cases, held constant (e.g., Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas once had 45 to 50 men in its collegiate program; today it has 35).

Father James King CSC, vocations director for the Congregation of the Holy Cross at Notre Dame, says 30% of the men ordained for his order come from their collegiate program. This, however, draws just 10 to 20 men in any given year.

Given these facts, it seems obvious that the Church can't look for a solution to the vocation crisis from its traditional sources for future priests. A solution, though, might come from a fourth way.

Schools such as Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, now offer unique opportunities for men to reflect on their vocation says Brian Froehle, executive director of CARA. Because of the shortage of priests, he believes the role these institutions play in forming men for the priesthood could prove crucial.

Like Notre Dame and Dallas, these two schools offer priestly formation in a regular college environment. The difference is they have no connection with a particular diocese or order.

According to Froehle, this gives students the ability “to spend some time discerning the priesthood, yet if they later decide against it, their decision is not as etched in stone as it might be in a more traditional situation. The same costs — financial and otherwise — aren't involved.”

What's more, because a solid support structure is in place, the young man has both rewards and incentives.

“He has the identity of a seminarian and he receives formation, but at the same time, he's living with his fellow students — he's not set apart,” says Froehle. “While many will enter such programs because they're sponsored by their bishop, some are merely exploring the possibility of the priesthood. An option like this offers more latitude and less pressure.”

This aptly describes the situation at Franciscan University. Nearly two decades ago, its president, Father Michael Scanlan TOR, was asked to start a seminary on campus. Recognizing that a seminary wasn't possible, he agreed that the school should do more to foster vocations. As a result, the university founded its pre-theologate program in 1981.

By 1994, some 20 undergraduates were taking part in the program. At that time, Father David Testa, a priest from the Diocese of Albany, took over as program director. In the four years since, the school's pre-theologate ranks have swelled to 65 men. Next year, Father Testa expects 80 men to participate. The program will graduate 12 men this year, who will then continue their studies for the priesthood at major seminaries.

“If things keep going the way they are,” the priest speculates, “at 12 men a year over the next 20 years, that's a lot of priests, assuming they all stay in.”

Academic and Spiritual Demands

Like their peers in more traditional situations, pre-theologians at Franciscan University must complete a number of requirements. Academically, they must take 24 hours of philosophy and 12 hours of theology. Spiritually, each attends daily Mass, prays the rosary, attends twice-daily communal prayer, and goes to confession regularly.

They must choose a spiritual director and meet with Father Testa every two weeks to discern their progress. As the priest points out, “this is the minimum required by the bishops for ordination.”

At graduation, the future seminarian receives a certificate as “a guarantee by Franciscan University that this man is prepared to enter the major seminary,” says Father Testa.

Due to the rapid growth in size and reputation of the program, five dioceses will send their young men to Franciscan University next year for formation, including the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Savannah, Ga.

“People come for this program,” says Father Testa, “because of the orthodoxy and the spirituality present at the university. We take an evangelical outlook here, emphasizing the spread of the Gospel, especially by the way we live. It's a great environment to discern a vocation in because, for instance, everyone here goes to daily Mass.”

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap., says he sends men to Franciscan University's pre-theologate program because he believes the campus “provides a strong environment and outstanding educational opportunity,” even though it is not a seminary.

“Franciscan University offers them [pre-theologate students] an opportunity to be challenged by the spirituality of the laity, which is so evident throughout the campus,” he adds. “I prefer college students to live in an environment that promotes contact with a large number of their peers. I believe this helps them grow as persons and will provide a strong support for these men in their future ministry.”

Christendom College also has a priestly formation program that admits juniors and seniors (unlike Steubenville's program, which is open to all years). Approximately 30 men participate each year.

Theology department chairman Father Robert Skeris describes the program as having a Thomistic nature in its core curriculum and stresses that because the men must know ecclesiastical Latin, the result is a well-prepared seminarian and a better priest. He proudly relates that 20 of the school's alumni have received the Sacrament of Holy Orders since Christendom's founding in 1977. Father Skeris points out that some ordinaries, such as Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., send young men to Christendom for their pre-theological training. And he mentions that the school recently graduated 11 men who will study next year at major seminaries throughout the country.

“My own experience,” he says, “inclines me to believe vocations are there even in dioceses where the figures indicate otherwise. What we do is blow the ashes off the fire and then the flames that are subdued there rise. The vocations are out there, I'm convinced of that.”

Joseph Williams, a 23-year-old member of Franciscan University's pre-theologate program agrees.

“God is not outdone in generosity,” he says. “If you give him the sacrifice to discern his call to you, you will hear his voice and respond appropriately. The pre-theologate program is a perfect example of giving something to the Lord. I'm doing as much as I can to place myself in an environment where I can truly hear God's voice. After all, God can't steer a parked car.”

Brian O'Neel writes from Steubenville, Ohio.