By Maria Wiering for The Catholic Spirit
They've increased their housing; they've increased their staff; they've increased the rigor.
And the men keep coming.
St. John Vianney Seminary's enrollment is at an all-time high, with 154 men from 28 dioceses, which currently gives it the largest college seminary enrollment in the United States. It has more than doubled in size in the last six years.
Seminarians at college seminaries are typically in their late teens and early 20s, studying for their bachelors degrees and gaining backgrounds in philosophy. This preceeds major seminary, which is where seminarians study theology and work toward ordination. Not all major seminarians have attended college seminary.
An attitude of adventure
"There is a strong heroic sense of calling among these young men," said Father William Baer, SJV's rector since 1998. "They have a love for the church and the Catholic faith that strikes them as a mission, a battle, an adventure."
It's no secret SJV life is challenging. The men attend a 6 a.m. holy hour daily; they fast from technology including phones and e-mail - on Fridays until the evening; they fast from the - Friday midday meal; they undergo room inspections and maintain a tightly ordered schedule. They're encouraged to embrace difficult studies with prayer, grow in fraternity with the other men, get in shape, and face their social fears.
And the men rise to the occasion, said Father Rolf Tollefson, a "formator" and spiritual director, who lives with seminarians on SJV's fifth floor. "The men don't want to live a life of mediocrity," he said.
Matt Kuettel, 19, a freshman seminarian from Maternity of Mary in St. Paul, said that seminary is an adjustment.
"They throw a lot at you at once, they expect a lot of you," he said. "A lot of times you're more busy than you think you should be. But, if I had to do this all over again, there's no doubt in my mind that I would.
"It's not that you're busy and you regret it, it's that they give you the skills and they give you the help to accomplish more," he added.
If seminary were easy, a healthy man would leave because he wasn't challenged, added Father John Klockeman, who also serves SJV.
"The initiatives and the heroism sound too strong for some, but that's exactly what young men and women want," he said. "They want a faith to die for. They want a faith for which to live. And they want a God that is real."
The local seminary's enrollment upturn mirrors national trends, which indicate an uptick in the number of Catholic seminarians in undergraduate college programs, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University.
Father Baer attributes the seminary's growth to an increase in students coming from other Midwestern dioceses. This year 35 of SJV's seminarians are from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. This is the largest group of archdiocesan seminarians at SJV in at least 25 years, Father Baer said.
He credits the increased number of archdiocesan seminarians to Archbishop Harry Flynn's dedication and support, vocations director Father Tom Wilson's work, and parishes and families encouraging vocations.
"There is a renewed commitment to the Catholic faith by high school and college students," Father Baer said, attributing the phenomena to events like World Youth Day, more young people participating in eucharistic adoration and vocation directors and bishops actively promoting vocations.
A cut above
More dioceses are sending their college seminarians to SJV than ever before, Father Baer said.
Father Burke Masters, vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., has 11 men at SJV. He said he is impressed with Father Baer's leadership and the personal attention he gives the men. "He's able to talk about each of our 11 guys in a way that they're not just numbers," Father Masters said.
Father Jerry Vincke, the vocations director of the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., described Father Baer as dynamic, faithful and courageous, listing his leadership as one of the greatest reasons his diocese sends their 21 college seminarians to SJV.
"The seminary is centered on Christ," Father Vincke said. "Our seminarians love it there."
Their SJV graduates are well prepared to begin their theology studies in major seminary, and they are formed in the spiritual, academic, pastoral and human levels, both Father Masters and Father Vincke said.
"St. John Vianney is very well respected among the bishops," Father Masters added.
The seminary has outgrown its own building at the University of St. Thomas: 103 men live in the on-campus seminary dorms, 41 live in six rectories and houses in nearby neighborhoods and 10 men are currently studying in Rome.
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