Ordinations ’22: How Seminaries Prepared the New Class of Priests

Clergymen’s calls differ, but they hold in common a desire to share the Gospel.

Clockwise from top: Father Daniel Lopez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, shown smiling with some of the Trinitarians of Mary, was ordained on June 4. Father Jerome Kleponis was ordained June 4 by Bishop Ronald Gainer at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. All smiles, Father Joseph Menkhaus was ordained May 21 for the Diocese of Cleveland.
Clockwise from top: Father Daniel Lopez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, shown smiling with some of the Trinitarians of Mary, was ordained on June 4. Father Jerome Kleponis was ordained June 4 by Bishop Ronald Gainer at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. All smiles, Father Joseph Menkhaus was ordained May 21 for the Diocese of Cleveland. (photo: Courtesy of Father Joseph Menkhaus, Victor Alemán/Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Harrisburg)

The men ordained to the priesthood this spring and summer have distinct backgrounds and journeys to the sacrament of holy orders, but they share a fervent desire for evangelization, said Father John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. 

While the seminary’s 23 ordinands representing 13 dioceses may have entered with particular ideas about evangelization, they have come “to realize there’s a whole range of ways that the message of Jesus Christ needs to be communicated,” said Father Kartje. Mundelein has been training priests-to-be for decades, having recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Among the ways seminarians learn to communicate the Gospel to today’s Catholics are through  exposure to, and understanding of, Catholics of other cultures, pastoring multiple churches and caring for isolated parishioners, said Father Kartje, noting that 40% of Mundelein’s students are of Hispanic/Latino heritage. While being formed for priesthood, this year’s class has also had to deal with the clerical abuse scandal and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Evidence of future priests’ desire for evangelization is the fact that 33% of the transitional deacons preparing for ordination surveyed this year served in campus or youth ministry before entering seminary, while 27% have served as confirmation sponsors or godfathers. 

Of a total of 419 ordinands identified by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., 317 participated in “The Class of 2022: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood” conducted for the U.S. bishops.

Overall, this year’s class has 53 fewer ordinands than last year’s class. Of the survey respondents, 75% are preparing to serve a diocese or eparchy, while the remaining 25% belong to religious institutes. 

Father Daniel Lopez, 31, was ordained for the Los Angeles Archdiocese on June 4, along with seven others. Even before the Hacienda Heights, California, native was baptized at age 19, he sensed that he might be called to the priesthood. 

During his first experience of Eucharistic adoration before entering RCIA as a college freshman, he heard the Lord say, “Just give me your life and trust me and what I’m going to do with it.” 

Father Lopez responded, “Lord, my life is yours.” From then on, he received signs that holy orders would follow his sacraments of initiation.

“No matter what I would do, I would always have this sense of God’s calling me to be priest,” Father Lopez said. 

His relationship with the Lord was awakened when, as a high-school sophomore in 2006, he tragically lost two friends and in the same year watched his father die from cancer. While some turn away from God during tragedy, Father Lopez said he ran toward him, after finding his father’s rosary and learning to pray the Sorrowful Mysteries. He began attending Mass, though he didn’t understand it.  

“I remember being frustrated with this concept of God,” he said. “‘How does he exist? How is it possible he has allowed this suffering? He has taken my dad away from me.’ But I could never get away from the Rosary.”

Father Lopez entered seminary in 2015 and said the experience was fruitful. He looks forward to helping Catholics grow in holiness, especially those of own his generation. He also hopes to help others who experience tragedy and loss. “Our Lord really impacted my life in one of the most sorrowful times of my life, and I want to help people to find Our Lord in dark times, too,” Father Lopez said, “that he’s there. He’s totally present.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is written into the seminary experience of this year’s class, and it has heightened their awareness of parishioners who may be isolated because of illness or lack of mobility, Father Kartje said. 

But the men may have been better prepared to endure the pandemic because of what they had already been through their first year of major seminary studies: the removal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick from public ministry in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. 

“I think that, again, their ability to recognize, in spite of human faults, failings and sinfulness in crimes that can happen, the irrepressible strength and beauty of the Holy Spirit — but not be naïve and say, ‘We’ve got to take this seriously.’ I’m sure every seminary did,” the Mundelein rector said. “Without being naïve, how do we build the Church structure and governance so that we can hopefully minimize and ideally eliminate these kinds of things that were happening, but, again, to not sink into despair or defeatism?” 

Father Joseph Menkhaus, 27, experienced the consequences of the abuse crisis when he was assigned during his pastoral year to work with former Cleveland diocesan priest Robert McWilliams, who last November was given a life sentence for child-sexual-exploitation crimes. The former priest later committed suicide in prison in February. 

Father Menkhaus, who was ordained on May 21 for the Cleveland Diocese with two other men, said such an experience might make men have second thoughts about becoming priests, but he still had faith in Jesus’ priesthood, which hasn’t been tainted by individuals’ wrongdoing. 

“It just made me dig deep even more surely,” said Father Menkhaus. “Yes, I want to be a good and holy priest to bring the love of Jesus, the mercy of Jesus to people in a world that very obviously desperately needs it.”

Father Menkhaus heard a call from the Lord when he was 17 while he listened to a priest preach at Mass. 

“Out of nowhere I heard a voice in my heart say, ‘You would enjoy doing this, and you would be good at it.’” Later that day, Father Menkhaus passed priests hearing confessions and heard the same message.

After prayer, the feeling didn’t go away, so Father Menkhaus contacted the diocesan vocation director and very quickly received a response. 

In seminary, he found opportunities for fraternity and growth in Christ’s love. He has also benefitted from human formation and seeks to meet people where they are to share the Gospel. 

“I found that I was exposed to so many different types of people in my pastoral experience and different types of culture that have really opened my eyes to see not just the Church in Cleveland, but the universal Church, is so much bigger than my little single parish growing up.”

Learning to understand how other populations in the Body of Christ practice the faith better prepares men to pastor those communities, even if they didn’t grow up in that heritage, Father Kartje said. During their formation, Mundelein seminarians benefit from experiencing the cultures and ethnicities represented in the Chicago Archdiocese, along with their coursework.  

There also is variety in the ages of seminarians at Mundelein, from those right out of college all the way to several widowers in their 50s, the rector said, adding that a number of the seminarians are in their early to mid-30s and have some career experience.

“Almost always there has been a nascent calling there,” he said. “It just takes different times to move forward.” 

Father Jerome Kleponis, 66, believes that his decades in dentistry provided the maturity he lacked when he first thought about priesthood in high school. In 28 years of working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he treated the disabled, incarcerated and mentally ill at institutions across the state.

Father Kleponis was ordained on June 4 for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, along with four others. 

As he considered the next stage of his life after retirement, Father Kleponis wondered again about the priesthood. As a young man he recalled, “I really didn’t think I had a calling at that point. Looking back on it, I just see how God has worked in my life.” 

Father Kleponis was inspired by stories of priests ordained later in life and discovered Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts. Founded in 1964, the seminary forms seminarians who have discerned a possible vocation later in life. He sensed that through his experiences in his career he now had the maturity to be a priest that he had previously lacked. 

But the Diocese of Harrisburg told Father Kleponis he was too mature for priesthood. John XXIII Seminary encouraged him to approach his bishop. When the bishop asked why he should receive an exemption to the age limit, Father Kleponis responded that the Church needs to reach out to marginalized populations like those he had served as a dentist. 

The bishop approved his application and assigned him to John XXIII Seminary, where he wasn’t the oldest in his class of about 14. 

When he offered his first Mass on June 5, dentists from 10 states were there to support him. A general dentist during his career, Father Kleponis said he wants to be a general priest: “I want to do it all.” 

He plans to care for his parishioners as he did his patients. “People who are hurting and have issues, it gives me a sort of empathy with these people that hopefully I’ll be able to reach out and help them as a priest.” 

The men being ordained this year are aware of challenges in the Church and are ready to get to work, Father Kartje said. At the same time, he added, they don’t feel it’s all on their shoulders. “I see that there’s a healthy humility, but it’s a humility that the fire in their hearts is the fire of the Holy Spirit.”