After years of worrisome trends showing that the numbers of priests are declining, there is now a very encouraging sign for the Catholic Church. The number of men who are currently studying to become priests in the United States has taken a remarkable, positive reversal. Reports show that there are currently more men enrolled in U.S. graduate-level seminaries, the main pipeline to the priesthood, than in almost the last two decades. This past year’s tally of men in graduate-level theology studies totaled more than 3,694. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, these numbers represent a 10 percent increase since 2005 and a more than 16 percent increase since 1995. The report also shows how annual ordinations are slowly increasing as well, with more than 500 a year, while the Church itself is also growing each year. 78.2 million people in the U.S. currently identify themselves as Catholic.
Kevin Fox, a seminarian pursuing studies at St. Mary’s Seminary, Wickliffe, Ohio, shared his story with Region News Service. He walked away from his degree in engineering and a well-paid job simply because he did not feel fulfilled and because he believed he was being called to another vocation. After many discussions and conversations with his pastor and other priests and guided by intense prayer, he made the decision to enter the seminary and has not regretted it. He is now immersed in pure theological studies and loving every minute of it. The Rev. Mark Latcovich, St. Mary’s rector and president, cites these young men as those who are interested in helping others and thus want to serve the greater glory of God. They desire to give of and dedicate themselves to something true, beautiful and good. They have discovered the beauty and power of God and they want to dedicate their lives to spreading this good news to others.
There are several explanations for this increase, including leadership from the top. Many seminary directors have cited the leadership of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a top reason for the increase. Benedict spent much of his time addressing this important matter, making it a main priority to ensure that there were more priests available to serve the people of God. His example of true faith, strong courage and adherence to the Church’s rich tradition has also been cited in attracting men who are devoted to Christ and eager to demonstrate His love through acts of faith and service. Many also believe that Pope Francis’ personality and warmth will only add to this and also help individuals become attracted to becoming God’s shining light in the lives of so many.
Leaders of dioceses have also focused many efforts on this important matter. Recognizing the decline in priests in the last several years, bishops and vocation directors have refocused their aims. Using new resources such as updated technology, they have been able to reach out to young men who may be confused or nervous because they may truly be feeling a call to the priesthood. They have also incorporated special programs such as retreats and days of reflection to bring men together who are feeling this similar call of serving their church through devotion to the Blessed Trinity. While church leaders have definitely made an impact, many believe much of this encouragement is coming from regular parish priests. People are watching priests in their communities serving as pastors, leaders, teachers and more, and they are impressed by what they are seeing. They are witnessing these priests leading communities of faith and how the work starts with them. Priests are right in the middle, rolling up their sleeves and leading their flocks by example. Young men are noticing firsthand how in times of secularism and modernity, the priest still remains important and visible in the lives of so many. He is still the person to whom many go to in times of crisis or when they are in need of counseling, and he is always there willing to listen.
Through his busy life of saying Mass, presiding at weddings, celebrating baptisms, hearing confessions, anointing the sick and providing comfort at funerals, the priest remains a constant presence in the lives of his people.
Even combined with busy tasks of administrative work, priests still rejoice in being able to pray with others and lead them to discovering God. It is also important to remember that this is not a career, but rather a 24-hour 7-days-a-week call to act as Christ’s presence in the lives of others.
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