By DAVID GONZALEZ
Photo by Todd Heisler
PHOTO SLIDESHOW accompanying this article.
(Emphases and comments mine -BW) Be forewarned the spin and bias in this article is terrible.
The banners hanging in the main corridor of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers declare, “Through Faith We Grow.” The class portraits that line that very same corridor tell the opposite tale. Half a century after the halcyon days when several hundred men at a time studied to be ordained as priests for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, only 22 are enrolled.
Even more alarming to Catholics, although six men expect to be ordained in May, none are entering the first-year theology program. While seminary officials attribute the sudden drop to extra preparatory course requirements that went into effect this year, it is nonetheless a jarring development.
“You do what you can, as well as you can, for as long as you can, and hope it works,” said Bishop Gerald Walsh, the seminary’s rector. “I’d be optimistic if we had enough clergy present for young people and willing to talk to them.”
He will have enough — and then some — on Saturday, when Pope Benedict XVI visits the seminary for a prayer service and youth rally. The pope’s mere presence will be a jolt of encouragement to the seminarians. It will also offer them and other priests and nuns the chance to mingle with 20,000 young people and plant a seed for vocations.
There will be flashy videos, with quick cuts, stirring sound tracks and fearless priests on New York streets. Goody bags will include glossy post cards of the pontiff emblazoned with the word “Willkommen!” — and the Web address nypriest.com, the seminary’s recruiting site. In coming weeks, the archdiocese will send its schools posters that announce, “The World Needs Heroes,” including one of black-suited priests crossing an intersection — looking like “Going My Way” meets “Reservoir Dogs.”
Officials of the archdiocese do not apologize for embracing Madison Avenue marketing to counter a sharp decline in vocations.
An increasingly secular and materialistic culture, reluctance among the young to accept lifelong celibacy, and anger over the church’s handling of sexual abuse scandals have all contributed to the precipitous drop, the officials say. (an increasingly materialistic culture yes, celibacy perhaps for some, but I haven't spoken with any young men discerning a vocation to the Priesthood or Religious Life who have "anger" about the Church's handling of the sex abuse scandals that is an obstacle to their call from God to serve the Church.)
Vocational directors recognize that the public’s confidence has been shaken by the scandals. (Perhaps things are different where I am, but I don't speak to many people in the Church whose confidence is shaken by the scandals. Upset by them yes, and rightly so. The acts committed by a very small percentage of bishops, priests, deacons, and religious in the Church were evil, and every effort should be made to make sure they never happen again, but I don't think people confidence is shaken to the point that vocations are suffering as a result. Quite the opposite - many of the young men I have spoken with feel a resposibility to be a part of the change in current perception of the Priesthood and restore to it an untarnished dignity.) They have chosen, however, to focus their marketing campaign on an upbeat message. (Again, this makes it sound as if we in vocations promotion are somehow ignoring a great tragedy and callously focusing on "marketing campaigns". Give me a break.)
The Rev. Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the archdiocese — which covers the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and seven counties west and north of the city — says the church must make its case if it hopes to reinvigorate a priesthood that is increasingly elderly. “How do we get the ‘cool’ factor back into the priesthood?” Father Sweeney said. “If we don’t sell the priesthood, we can’t legitimately ask a young man to consider the priesthood as a vocation.”
What the seminary lacks in numbers, it may make up for in intensity and eagerness. The seminarians speak of finding a joy and purpose that eluded them in secular careers.
“We live in a very confusing world, a world where there is a lot of evil in it, and good men need to step forward,” said Brian Graebe, a former high school teacher who is finishing his first year. “You can stick your head in the sand, or you can do something to change it. What more heroic life is there than to touch these eternal mysteries?”
St. Joseph’s Seminary — informally known as Dunwoodie, after its neighborhood — is hardly alone in its diminished fortunes. Nationally, the enrollment of seminarians in four-year theology programs has been flat for the last decade, currently numbering 3,286, said Sister Katarina Schuth, a professor at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, part of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. More than a quarter of those seminarians, she said, were foreign born.
“It’s a tough time for the church,” Sister Schuth said. “Dunwoodie has lost proportionately more than most. It really is a puzzle, given the huge population of New York and the boroughs.”
When St. Joseph’s opened in the late 1800s, its stone castle, topped by a gleaming cupola and perched majestically atop a hill, was described by Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester as “the grandest seminary building in Christendom.” It was also, according to the Rev. Thomas J. Shelley, a Fordham University professor, one of the most progressive seminaries of its age, with an intellectual tradition to rival the best Catholic universities, until a Vatican crackdown on modernist thought a century ago led to a more orthodox approach. (Seriously? Come on. A Vatican crackdown on modernist thought? If it happened, this must have been one of the few places in the western world.)
Still, priests who were seminarians during the 1940s and ’50s recall a tranquil place whose daily rhythms were marked by the clanging of the bell for classes, meals and Mass. Many came from immigrant, working-class homes where the religious life was seen as a step up.
The Rev. Gerard J. DiSenso, who grew up poor in the Bronx, said the first time he had a room all to himself was when he entered the seminary in 1947.
That he was surrounded daily by more than 200 seminarians was encouraging and humbling.
“You sensed that you were not absolutely needed,” said Father DiSenso, who is now retired. “There were enough candidates that the seminary could afford to discharge people.”
He still goes to the seminary weekly to use its library, though he has little contact with the few men who are now there. “It’s like a shell of itself,” he lamented. “It’s completely different.”
Yet some changes have been for the better, he and other priests of his generation say. Unlike past years, when seminarians hardly left the grounds, today’s students come and go. They are assigned to work in parishes each summer to learn the demands they will encounter upon ordination.
And while enrollment is down, it better reflects the city’s changing demographics, in that there are more Hispanic candidates, both at the seminary and in a program aimed at cultivating high school students for the priesthood. In addition to the 22 seminarians to be ordained for the archdiocese, 14 candidates were sent to Dunwoodie by religious orders.
The biggest change, however, is in the age and backgrounds of seminarians. Decades ago, young men entered the seminary in their teens. (This makes it sound as if men in their teens no longer enter seminary - hundreds of teenage men in the United States study in college seminary every year. In fact, college seminaries have seen a steady increase in enrollment in the last several years.) Today, many have college degrees and have worked in business, science or even the military — experiences that can give them an added measure of empathy for their congregants.
“They have more experience in the world, more than we had,” Bishop Walsh, the rector, said. “They’re probably a little more secure in their choice.” Among the current seminarians are former teachers, engineers, executives and even a funeral director.
At 39, Ronald Perez is the oldest candidate for ordination next month. A former paralegal at a Midtown law firm, he moved to New York from Los Angeles 10 years ago to change his life. By the time he decided to become a priest, he had worked at a failed manufacturing company and a dot-com that missed the boom.
His decision to become a priest was gradual, he said, coming after years of involvement in activities at his home parish, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He credited the talks he had with visiting seminarians for nudging him closer to the religious life. Like many other contemporary candidates for the seminary, he started studying philosophy with other prospective priests.
“The door was open, so if it was for you, go on, but if not, leave, no questions asked,” he said. “That first year was crucial. It gave me a chance to look back at my life and the world around me. Nothing I could have done as an engineer or a paralegal would give me contentment and happiness. Something was missing. I realized what it was: becoming a priest.”
The other great shift in recent decades has been a growing conservatism among seminarians, marked by an emphasis on ritual and on being set apart from the laity. (I know I shouldn't be surprised that a New York Times article would spin this, but come on. I don't even know where to begin with this one. The tone of this is terrible. The reality is that a component of the decline in vocations to the priesthood is in part a result of the fact that for years there has been a concerted effort by some in the Church to tell those discerning and in seminary that they are not really set apart from the laity. Well then, no wonder men wouldn't choose the sacrifices of the Priesthood if they are being told they are no different than the people in the pews. Yes, priests are set apart from the laity, by nature of their ordination the are ontologically different, but that is not a negative change as the sentence above would have you believe. And yes, thanks be to God, there is a return to tradition and a renewed emphasis on ritual - that's what makes us Catholic!) In interviews, some older priests said their ministry was rooted in a deep understanding of the social and material needs of their congregants. Younger priests and seminarians emphasized the sacramental aspects of their vocation.
“Something that attracted me was the priest’s proximity to Christ at the Mass,” said Steven Markantonis, a second-year student. “He is using the same words Jesus used 2,000 years ago, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.”
He said that after ordination, he expected to be “nothing more” than a parish priest tending to his congregation’s spiritual life. (I'm just not sure what to make of this sentence. My guess is that it has been taken out of context from the rest of what this seminarian was saying to the reporter. By doing so, I think the reporter is trying to frame him as the stereotypical negative archatype of a priest that only dispenses the Sacraments (tending to their spiritual life), and then hides in the rectory. Again, my experience with young, orthodox and more traditional priests, is that they are radically involved in the lives of their parishioners and none that I know would characterize themselves as "nothing more" than a parish priest tending to his congregations spiritual life. Increasingly they seem to be all things to all people.)
“Regarding their social needs, it is a fine line,” he said. “You have to know where your job ends and another person’s job begins.”
Dean R. Hoge, a sociologist at Catholic University who has studied recently ordained priests, said there were indications that they were less collaborative with the laity. “They are more concerned about their status of being set apart,” Dr. Hoge said. “The younger ones are more concerned about moral teaching. The old guys hate to even talk about that.” (Unbelievable.)
He cautioned that the American laity, now the most educated in history, want to have a bigger say in parish decisions. (Newsflash: The Church is not a democracy. That said, please show me somewhere in the Church today where the laity don't have a voice in parish decisions. From my own personal experience I can certainly make the case that some of the most liberal priests I have known, are also the most tyrannical of ayatollahs. They talk, talk, talk about the laity, but when it comes down to it, it's a one man show and they make all the decisions. In some cases they might listen to opinions of those who agree with them, but should you express more traditional Catholic opinions and there is no further conversation. By contrast some of the younger "conservative" priests are actually the ones who listen to everyone.)
Bishop Walsh, who once served as a pastor in Washington Heights, home to many struggling immigrants, said the church had to be understanding of its members and their burdens.
“Many people in the parishes I was in had jobs on Sunday that they had to do to put food on the table,” he said. “That is a religious value, too, raising a family. We can’t say, if you do not go to church 52 Sundays a year, you are failing as a Catholic.”
His seminarians, he said, should be gentle to the people in the pews. “People will never forget the priest who is nasty to them,” he said. “They could care less about who knows theology.” (I'm beginning to regret posting this article, but I'm too far in to stop.)
However conservative the younger generation of clergy may be, Bishop Walsh said, it is increasingly committed to working with young people. For winning new recruits to the priesthood, no brochure or video can compete with the friendship and example of a parish priest.
Anthony Mizzi-Gili Jr. still remembers the priests of his childhood, men who graduated from Dunwoodie and earned his trust and admiration. After years of indecision, he ultimately followed in their footsteps and is now a third-year seminarian.
During midday Mass last week, he played the organ with gusto, as the chapel reverberated with “Sing With All the Saints in Glory.”
Afterward, he took lunch in the refectory, which was built to hold hundreds but now could fit the entire student body at a few tables. Mr. Mizzi-Gili looked around but refused to sound discouraged. “It shows vocations are still there,” he said. “Regardless of the numbers, we’re still there.”