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Saturday, April 26, 2008

"More older men drawn to priesthood"

From World Wide Religious News
By Melanie Lefkowitz ("Newsday", April 25, 2008)
(Comments mine - BW)

Huntington, USA - For Robert Holz, the question always lingered.

He had worked as an accountant for nearly two decades. He was basically happy. He was 40 years old.

Still, the question was there.

"Is God calling me? Or not?" he said.

Partly because he felt unfulfilled, partly in hopes of resolving that nagging question, Holz quit his job and inquired about becoming a priest. He has spent much of the past five years inside the yellow brick walls of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, a sprawling estate on Long Island Sound where peaceful days are marked by tolling bells.

"The idea of the future is a lot bigger now," said Holz, now 47 and in his final seminary year. "You come into the seminary and suddenly you really start looking at eternity. As opposed to when I was younger: Is there enough in the IRAs to retire? What if this, what if that, is my house paid for? Each of those long-term goals got longer and longer, and when you bang up against eternity, there's not a lot of turning back."

Questions of eternity, faith and personal mission are as old as the priesthood itself, but Holz is among a vanguard of older priests-in-training who are energizing an institution that has faced stiff recruitment challenges for decades.

He's one of nine men expected to be ordained in June, in what church officials say is among the largest classes of incoming priests in the nation. The size of the class is a huge leap from a low nine years ago, when the Rockville Centre Diocese ordained only a single priest.

Bishop William Murphy declared the priesthood a priority when he came to Long Island in 2001, and now the number of Rockville Centre seminarians, once in the single digits, is up to 31. More than a third of those studying to be priests on Long Island are older men such as Holz.

To help attract would-be priests, the diocese holds events such as weekend retreats at the seminary, where Murphy hosts question-and-answer sessions, and it has strengthened its outreach operations at local college campuses.

Although these efforts may help demystify the seminary and the priesthood, church officials say, the decision to become a priest is an intensely private one. Monsignor James McDonald, the seminary's rector, suggested that the cause for the upswing in ordinands is nothing less than divine.

"Everything is personal interest and God's grace," McDonald said.

The Sept. 11 attacks helped to inspire some of these men to enter the priesthood; for others, the balance swung after an illness or the loss of a parent. Many said they considered the priesthood as children but were distracted, uncertain or afraid.

Amid growing concerns about the priest shortage, seminarians all over the country are growing up. For the past decade, the median age for priests at ordination has hovered around 38 -- a big difference from the 1960s, when it was 26. A seminary in Weston, Mass., Blessed John XXIII, is dedicated to training second-career priests, but experts say they are entering dioceses nationwide.

The Rev. Paul Sullins, a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said the trend is probably driven by modern priests' additional years of education -- they generally finish seminary with a master of divinity degree, rather than a bachelor of divinity -- and the fact that people in general increasingly wait longer before settling on a single path.

"Priesthood being a career (the Priesthood is NOT a career - BW) that requires a lifetime commitment, it's becoming more and more common for men to choose (God chooses His Priests, not the other way around) that as their second or third career in their life," he said.

Older priests come with more maturity, life experience and business skills, Sullins said. But they don't offer the church as many years of service in return for the church's investment in their training. "However, on balance, parishioners tell us they're very happy to have these men," he said.

New priests of any age are sorely needed. As the number of Catholics in the United States has risen, the number of priests has steadily dropped. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are nearly 29,000 priests, about 20 percent fewer than 40 years ago.

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