The Journal News
YONKERS - The grounds of St. Joseph's Seminary - covered by more than 25,000 faith-fueled teens only three weeks ago for the papal youth rally - are now quiet, bare and still.
The fields behind the seminary, where young Catholics waited on impossibly long lines for sodas and rosary beads, are barren. Grass and dirt.
Even seminarians, whose numbers are way down in recent years, are getting some time off before dispersing for their summer parish assignments.
One of the few people who is still experiencing the papal visit, in a sense, is the Rev. Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of New York.
Normally, he receives a couple of inquires each week from young men considering the priesthood. But during the last three weeks, he has received dozens. Some of them are quite serious and come from men who say that Pope Benedict XVI's visit has inspired them to consider taking a step they have avoided.
One 20-year-old college senior wrote to Sweeney:
"I have prayed and continue praying that God will let me not be afraid to do his will and that I will accept any vocation he has in mind for me. I have to say having the chance to see the Holy Father in person on his visit to the U.S. was out of this world and his words had a great impact on me."
Another wrote that after watching the pope in New York, "I can't help but be brought to tears of joy with the simple thought of becoming a priest."
This was the hope. The Archdiocese of New York is facing a worsening shortage of priests and is in great need of seminarians. The archdiocese has only about 470 active diocesan priests — compared to 1,200 four decades ago — and about 40 percent are between 65 and 75.
Cardinal Edward Egan was to ordain six new diocesan priests yesterday at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The main or upper seminary at St. Joseph's will be training a total of fewer than 20 men next fall.
"It's always been my gut feeling and belief that there are guys out there thinking about it," said Sweeney, who talks about the priesthood at high schools, colleges and parishes. "The idea has been kicking around for a while, maybe years, but for whatever reason - work, fear, simply pushing it out of their minds - they can't take the step. My hope was the Holy Father's visit would knock some people off the fence and give us the shot in the arm we need.
"It seems to be happening," he said.
Sweeney is excited, but cautiously so. Of the men who have contacted him, some will get cold feet right away. Others will need to finish college or to take a few years to consider their vocation or get up their courage. Others will prove to be a poor fit for the priesthood.
"We want to avoid flash-in-the-pan conversions," Sweeney said. "We really monitor applications. But I want to talk to them as soon as possible to get a sense of their vocation, of whether they are a promising candidate."
Sweeney believes that at least several young men may be ready to enter St. Joseph's minor seminary this fall, where students study philosophy and other subjects before entering the main seminary to study theology.
The true impact of the papal visit, though, won't be known for more than a decade, Sweeney said. The hope is that men who enter the seminary years from now will look back on the papal visit as a formative experience - and a counter to the sex-abuse crisis that has certainly weighed on the minds of young Catholic men in recent years.
"I'm hopeful that in the coming years, young men will say, 'That's the first time I thought about the priesthood, when the pope was in New York,' " Sweeney said.
The early signs are good. Sweeney's new Web site - www.nypriest.com - got 8,000 hits during and immediately after the pope's visit.
Sweeney is also talking to Egan about launching an advertising campaign with the slogan: "The world needs heroes."
In the meantime, he keeps getting e-mails like this one:
"After spending the day at the rally, seeing the Holy Father and even just as importantly seeing so many young men in seminary, all my fears and concerns about entering seminary have escaped me and I cannot shake the feeling of joy over the idea of becoming a priest."
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