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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Priests hope Pope Benedict visit inspires vocations

From Detroit Free Press


When Pope Benedict XVI addresses 20,000 youths at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium next month, many priests will be crossing their fingers that the pontiff urges -- demands, even -- that young Catholic men consider a collar.

Like the Detroit area, the Archdiocese of New York is in serious need of new priests. Of the 176 Catholic dioceses in the U.S., the Archdiocese of New York ranks 170th in terms of the ratio of seminarians to the total Catholic population, according to a December study by Catholic World Report.

Detroit also ranked in the bottom 20 in the report, but unlike New York, will not be receiving a papal visit.

Right now the main seminary at St. Joseph's is preparing only 23 seminarians for possible ordination as diocesan priests over the next four years.

And not a single man is scheduled to enter the seminary program next fall.

Bishop Gerald Walsh, rector of St. Joseph's, said that the absence of a freshman class could be a good thing if it forces New York's Catholic community to face the dire need for priests.

"It is a wake-up call," Walsh said. "We have to do something. I'm a believer that difficulties can be opportunities, not disasters. It depends on what you do with them."

The hope is that the visit by Pope Benedict will inspire young men to listen for God's call to the priesthood and rouse Catholic families to mention the priesthood around the dinner table.

"His mission is really to encourage us in the faith, to strengthen us in our belief and commitment to Jesus Christ, make us better disciples," said the Rev. Luke Sweeney, vocations director for the archdiocese. "If he does that and that alone, vocations will come from it."

But Sweeney hopes the pope will go a step farther when he's speaking directly to New Yorkers.

"I presume that the Holy Father will make an appeal to some of them, to say that God wants you to be priests," he said. "That, coming from the pope, will mean a world of difference to young people."

Nationally, the number of diocesan priests dropped from 36,000 in 1975 to 28,000 last year. But the number of seminarians, after falling sharply since the 1960s, rebounded in the last decade to 3,300.

In big-city archdioceses like Detroit, the seriousness of the shortage tends to be hidden because priests just work harder and longer, even though they are more isolated than ever before, said Dean Hoge, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

"You can muddle through with one priest for many, many Catholics," said Hoge, a leading expert on the priest shortage. "But it's still a monster problem. There is no way we can continue to go ahead much longer with parish life as we know it when there are so few priests and so many Catholics."

Many insist that the frenetic pace of modern life, combined with a growing social emphasis on individualism and secularism, may discourage young men from listening.

"I think the odds are stacked against us in the age in which we live, more than in any other age," said Brian Graebe, 27, from Staten Island, a first-year student at St. Joseph's. "We have a tough battle. How do we counter all of these trends that are working against this timeless message, this august call to the priesthood? The message is there, it's strong, it speaks for itself. We just have to allow them to hear it."

New York's Irish community has provided the vast majority of parish priests for 200 years. Part of the problem facing the archdiocese is that an estimated 40% to 50% of Catholic New Yorkers are Hispanic, but Hispanic communities are not producing priests.

Dominican-born Alex Reyes, 24, of the Bronx, a third-year seminarian, said many Hispanic young men told him they might be interested in becoming priests if not for one thing.

"I know a lot of young Hispanic guys who are very interested in the priesthood, but to tell you the truth, the big problem is celibacy," Reyes said. "That is the main reason they hold off."

This is where Pope Benedict comes in. He is visiting the U.S., in part, to inspire the faithful.

The Rev. Michael Morris, professor of church history at St. Joseph's, said he was among many seminarians during the 1980s who became sure of their call after Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979.

"I discovered when I got to seminary, that I wasn't alone," he said. "Other guys felt the same way that I did. Hopefully, this will happen as a result of this papal visit. Hopefully we'll be filled again someday."

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