Ordinations 2023: Eucharistic Path to the Priesthood
73% of Class of ’23 spent time before the Blessed Sacrament prior to seminary.
Deacon Nathan Hopper’s encounter with the Blessed Sacrament during a high-school retreat not only inspired him to recommit his life to the Lord but also to make regular Holy Hours, where he later heard God calling him to the priesthood.
“The priest actually carried the monstrance around in front of each of us individually for about a minute or so,” said Deacon Hopper, 28, who will be ordained a priest on May 27 for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, with three other ordinands.
“I realized how much the Lord loved me and had done [for me], and I began to realize how little I have shown that love back. I decided at that moment in adoration that I wanted to make some changes,” he recalled to the Register.
Deacon Hopper’s weekly Holy Hour in high school became a daily hour when he started college at Illinois State University in Normal. He soon discovered that a Holy Hour was the best way he could spend an hour a week — or a day — and said he will continue trying to keep a daily hour after he’s ordained.
Like Deacon Hopper, 73% of U.S. ordinands who responded to a 2023 survey participated regularly in Eucharistic adoration before entering the seminary, while 66% regularly prayed the Rosary.
The survey, “The Class of 2023: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood” by the Washington, D.C., based-Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), tracks the prayer habits and also demographic, educational, discernment, family and other information about many of this year’s ordinands who make up a slightly younger U.S. class — the largest ordination class since 2015.
The 458 men scheduled to be ordained in 2023 as diocesan and religious priests are part of a significantly larger class than those during the COVID-19 pandemic; 334 members of the 2023 class participated in the CARA survey.
In contrast to this year’s increase and the somewhat larger size classes some seminaries and dioceses are seeing this year, another recent study by Vocation Ministry revealed a nationwide 24% decline in priestly ordinations, a 9% decline in active diocesan priests and a 14% decline in religious priests nationwide between 2014 and 2021.
The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, is preparing to ordain nine men to the priesthood on June 3, but classes fluctuate, and there will be only two men in next year’s class, said Anne-Marie Minnis, coordinator of events and communications for the diocese’s vocation office.
Mount St. Mary’s
This year, 23 men who’ve been especially enthusiastic and engaged will be ordained to the priesthood from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which is a typical class size for the seminary, according to the rector, Msgr. Andrew Baker. Seminarians come from 25 dioceses and religious institutes.
Msgr. Baker said he has noticed that campus ministries are making a greater effort, and some diocesan vocation directors are serving as campus ministers. “They’re on campus a lot, so they’re really concentrating the focus of vocational efforts on college men and, also, that they make a decision soon after college,” he said.
In his home parish in Normal, Illinois, Hopper was active in his high-school youth group, as were 52% of CARA survey respondents. In college campus ministry, in which 27% of survey respondents also were involved, he met priests and learned more about the priestly vocation.
At the Society of the Divine Word’s college seminary in Epworth, Iowa, Deacon Quang Pham, 32, had a different experience studying for the priesthood with members of the Rome-based missionary order of priests and brothers.
He became interested in community life, as were 19% of the CARA survey respondents who are being ordained as religious priests.
When Deacon Quang is ordained in a Chicago suburb on May 27, with two other members of his congregation, he will join two of his uncles as priests in the family. Meeting one of his uncles, Father Peter Son Le, who is a priest in the society, shortly after his family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam 11 years ago helped start him on the path to priesthood.
Deacon Quang’s other priest-uncle is in Vietnam. Of the religious ordinands responding to the CARA survey, 38% also had a relative who is a priest or religious.
Before discerning priesthood, Deacon Quang did general studies at the college seminary for two years; and when he returned to the college after a visit to Vietnam, he decided to join the congregation.
“The moment I decided to stay was when I returned to the seminary on the first day, and I went to the cafeteria and I opened the cafeteria door, and I saw everybody there,” he said. “A hundred something people in the dining room: I opened the doors, and I saw all of them there, and I felt like I was at home.”
Last September, Deacon Quang professed perpetual vows in the society. His first priestly assignment will be at a parish in the San Bernardino Diocese in California, where he will minister to Latinos, Vietnamese and other parishioners, while probably also doing communications work for the society.
“I think regardless of where we are, regardless of what we do, we are there to bring love, to spread God’s love and to feel the love that people have for us,” Deacon Quang said.
Another seminary the Society of the Divine Word ran during the 20th century was the only one in the U.S. that accepted Black candidates when it was founded. From 1923 to 1967, St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, offered priestly training to hundreds, including nine bishops, said Divine Word Father Michael Somers, southern province provincial.
Some of the priests trained at the seminary served in other countries, but many ministered to African Americans at some of the society’s U.S. missions, Father Somers said.
St. Augustine seminary closed as more seminaries became accessible to Black men, he said. Six percent of CARA’s 2023 survey respondents were Black.
A celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the seminary’s founding is planned for October.
‘To Be There for the People’
From his home in Cameroon, Africa, to the Baltimore Archdiocese, Deacon Paul Kongnyuy’s journey to priesthood has been long — in both miles and years. His June 24 ordination as a priest, along with eight other ordinands for the Baltimore Archdiocese, will culminate roughly 17 years of study in both the U.S. and Cameroon.
Deacon Kongnyuy, 33, arrived in the United States with his identical twin brother, Peter, in 2017. Both were studying for the priesthood but were placed in different seminaries, he said. His brother was ordained to the priesthood a year before him because the seminary programs were structured differently. The brothers were separated, “maybe because we are too identical,” Deacon Kongnyuy said.
Both brothers discerned priesthood while they were attending a minor seminary in Cameroon but didn’t tell each other right away.
The CARA survey respondents considered a priestly vocation at an average age of 16; and, on average, they were 33 when scheduled for ordination.
Also, like two-thirds of survey respondents, Deacon Kongnyuy has prayed the Rosary regularly since before entering the major seminary. He also has a devotion to the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the saints.
Deacon Kongnyuy will serve as a priest in the Baltimore Archdiocese for at least five years.
“My hope is just to be there for the people,” he said. “As a priest, you need to be there for the people, especially those who are suffering. I’m excited to work anywhere. You put me anywhere, I will be sure to do my best.”
Seeing God’s Providence
Deacon Matthew Knight, 27, is also ready to serve in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, after his ordination on June 3 with two other ordinands.
“I hope to be assigned with a good pastor,” said Deacon Knight. “I hope he will be a good mentor for me. I’m just excited to serve the people of God.”
At 27, he is among the 53% of diocesan CARA survey respondents who are under 30 — an increase from the past two years.
A native of Roseburg, Oregon, who was raised Methodist, he began exploring Catholicism and other religions as a high-school sophomore. While still in high school, he entered the Church on his own.
Himself one of the CARA survey respondents, Deacon Knight was among 7% who became Catholic later in life and also among the 6% for whom neither parent was Catholic when they were children. Since his conversion, Deacon Knight’s mother has entered the Church.
Sometime after becoming Catholic, Deacon Knight prayed for God’s will for his vocation. “After I prayed that prayer, as I remember, it seems like everybody started coming out of the woodwork and asking me if I was going to be a priest,” recalled Deacon Knight, who saw it as a sign.
Each ordinand’s journey to priesthood is unique. Although Deacon Knight said it seems a little unreal that he once dabbled in Buddhism and Taoism before converting to Catholicism and then entering seminary, he sees God’s hand all through his story.
“It’s beautiful to look back and to see, even before I knew or had any idea, the Lord had this in mind,” he said. “There are so many ways he was preparing me along the way in my story … from my childhood. I could just see so beautifully the shape of his providence to prepare me for this life.”