Prospective priests embrace leader's traditional beliefs
By Manya A. Brachear
Nick Blaha was singing in a Peoria choir loft three years ago when he sensed God's call to surrender his life and become a priest.
Pope Benedict XVI heartened him even more in 2005 when, in the pontiff's first words to the faithful, he called himself "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."
Those words echoed the same self-doubt, devotion and deep desire to serve God felt by Blaha and others contemplating the priesthood.
"He struck me as one more way in which God is providing for his people," said Blaha, 28, a student at Mundelein Seminary. "The simplicity of this man—amid all this pomp and world politics, it didn't matter. It was so clear it was God's choice."
Meet the B16 generation—a wave of young Catholics raised in a church divided by teachings about sexuality and battles over whether women and married men should become priests. Unlike the generation that came of age under Pope John Paul II, which embraced the empowerment and freedom granted by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many in the B16 group wish to re-anchor the church in its core traditions.
Pope Benedict, who arrived in the U.S. Tuesday, will speak to these young Catholics on Saturday at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., where he hopes to inspire more of them to serve the church, whether as nuns and priests or husbands or wives.
The need for clergy is great. A severe shortage of priests already threatens to cripple the American church, with seminary enrollment steadily declining over the last four decades to 3,274 students from 8,325, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Some believe the only solution is for church leaders to initiate candid conversations about ordaining married men and women and reconsider church teachings for today's era. Celibacy remains the primary reason why most men leave seminary, yet seminarians rarely engage in open debates about that issue or the exclusion of women.
The church has another view, believing that post-Vatican II reforms resulted in a weakened institution that doesn't inspire. What's needed, church leaders say, is restoring the church's foundation.
That philosophy guides the students now at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago. Reflecting their back-to-basics bent, the most sought-after class is on the Doctrine of God, or the theology of the Trinity.
"It's surprising to see how animated they are in returning back to that, their zeal in wanting to get to that clarity," said Rev. Dennis Lyle, rector of Mundelein Seminary.
Pope Benedict likely would approve. Cardinal Francis George, head of the Chicago archdiocese and the church's top U.S. leader, recalls meeting with the pope at the same time Vatican inspectors were visiting Mundelein. In that talk, Pope Benedict stressed the importance of avoiding moral relativism by correctly teaching moral theology.
"We don't make up our own laws," George said. "We don't make up our own way to the Lord. We don't make up our own morality. . . . He's very clear on that."
Some experts wonder if the traditionalist trend will produce priests who inspire an increasingly sophisticated American flock, many of whom want priests to meet them as equals.
"Younger clergy right now in seminaries are intrigued and interested in a model of clerical authority that doesn't fit with the realities of the American church," said Robert Orsi, Catholic studies chair at Northwestern University.
But George said past failures to emphasize absolutes have resulted in the "unraveling of Catholic moral discipline, a sense of finding reasons for things that, before, we used to ask forgiveness for, a sense that we couldn't trust the tradition which affects a lot of things."
That distrust, even among priests, might explain why many clergy fail to encourage other young men to consider the priesthood, George said. It might also explain why fewer men have expressed interest in becoming priests.
George also points to cultural and demographic shifts that make it more difficult for the church to attract priests. With fewer children in middle-class families, which have historically generated priests, it is more difficult for men to figure out if seminary is where they belong.
"God is as generous in this generation as he's always been," George said. "There are all kinds of cultural and social phenomena that make it harder to hear the call. But the call is there and it's our job to see to it that those whom the Lord desires in this way of life will cooperate with his grace."
En route to the U.S. Tuesday, the pope touched on the topic of vocations as he expressed deep shame about the church's sex abuse crisis and noted efforts to ensure that "only really sound persons" are admitted to the priesthood. The church recognizes "it's more important to have good priests than to have many priests," he said.
Pope Benedict said he was referring only to men who commit sexual abuse and leaving those who are gay out of the discussion. But the first major policy statement of his papacy barred seminarians with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies."
In light of the nationwide priest shortage, Chicago church leaders have focused on urging Catholics to discern their calling, including the vocations of marriage, lay ministry and raising a family.
"The most endangered vocation of the church is Christian marriage," George said, adding that fostering strong families will help men find their way to the priesthood. "If you don't have good family life, it's hard to live a good life yourself, let alone to hear what God is calling you to."
Rev. Joe Noonan, director of vocations for the archdiocese, said weekend retreats at Mundelein allow men to tune out daily distractions and seriously contemplate how God is stirring in their souls.
Seminary teachers sometimes ask in jest: How do you sell a career that offers low pay, no sex, long hours and obedience to someone else? Answer: You don't.
Instead of a career, Noonan said, it is a relationship with God cultivated by conversations with him.
"Hopefully, clarity begins to develop," he said. "John Paul II called young men and women to step back and reflect on their own specific call in life and I think vocation directors picked up on that."
But Pope Benedict as well as Pope John Paul have inspired many of the latest men who have heard the call and entered the seminary.
"We're an extension of him . . . we're all working for this common goal of salvation of souls," said Mike Chenier, also at Mundelein.
On Friday, dozens of the seminarians will board a bus for Yonkers to see the pope firsthand. For many, his spiritual journey emboldens their own.
"He's mastered so much history and theology. That integration gives me a great deal of inspiration in navigating the morass we're in, the pluralism that's pulling us in many directions," Blaha said. "Where is the light? He very clearly points the way."
Tribune reporter Margaret Ramirez contributed.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
If you are actively discerning a vocation to the Priesthood, Diaconate, Consecrated Life, or Marriage and you are looking for information to help in your discernment, BE SURE TO CHECK the section at the bottom of the right sidebar for the "labels" on all posts. By clicking on one of these labels it will take you to a page with all posts containing that subject. You will also find many links for suggested reading near the bottom of the right sidebar. Best wishes and be assured of my daily prayers for your discernment.