By Paul Vitello
The big recruiters talk about him as if he were future Hall-of-Fame material — the kind you build organizations around. They talk about his “skill set,” the leadership qualities that make the young ones double their commitments.
They speak of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, the gregarious, football-coach-size prelate whom the Vatican named on Monday to take the helm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
They hope he helps attract more men to the priesthood.
“He’s a professional extrovert, a banterer, a sports fanatic,” said the Rev. Edwin H. Obermiller, director of vocations for the Congregation of Holy Cross at the University of Notre Dame. “He knows how to talk to young men.”
In his first foray after being introduced as New York’s next archbishop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday, Archbishop Dolan visited St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers — where three diocesan priests are to be ordained in May, compared with the 30 or 40 who graduated each year in the 1960s — and promised to make recruitment one of his top priorities.
The depth and difficulty of the struggle to overcome a decades-long and nationwide priest shortage can be measured by how church officials define success.
Three graduates from St. Joseph’s this year is considered a disappointing number. On Monday, Cardinal Edward M. Egan referred to the lagging ordinations there as one of the chief disappointments of his nine-year tenure as New York archbishop.
But at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee, where the rector, the Rev. Donald J. Hying, credits Bishop Dolan’s “radiant joy” and “charismatic nature” with bringing new vigor to recruitment efforts, the graduating class this year will be six.
“We haven’t ordained six priests since 1992,” Father Hying said. He said the seminary expected to graduate “five or six each year for the next few years.”
Recruiting young men to make the commitment to become priests is a complex process that involves guidance by priests as well as the self-explorations of the candidates, said the Rev. Luke M. Sweeney, director of vocations at St. Joseph’s. An important if intangible factor is how a candidate imagines himself in the future, a priest in full — and his bishop can be an important role model.
“Whenever he met with them, Cardinal Egan did an excellent job of connecting with our seminarians,” Father Sweeney said. But Archbishop Dolan brings “a different skill set” to that meeting.
“Each man brings to the job his own abilities, and Bishop Dolan is obviously blessed with a particular ability to reach out and inspire potential recruits,” Father Sweeney said.
On Monday evening, after a vespers service at St. Joseph’s chapel in which Archbishop Dolan addressed the seminarians as “the future of the priesthood I love,” many of them stood around gaping with what seemed a mixture of curiosity and awe as he held court in a scrum of television cameras and sound booms, answering questions from reporters.
The bishop laughed a lot. He spoke glowingly of the Green Bay Packers, the Mets, the Yankees, hot dogs and jelly doughnuts. At one point he shouted over reporters’ heads: “Hey, when’s opening day at Yankee Stadium?”
One seminarian, standing with his chin resting on his closed hand, smiled broadly when asked by a reporter what he thought of the new guy. “They asked us not to make comments,” he said, turning to walk down a hall to a dinner in honor of Cardinal Egan and his successor.
“But I like him.”
A moment later, Archbishop Dolan followed him down the same hallway, a long stone corridor whose walls were lined with class photos, beginning with the classes of the 1950s and ending with 2008. The gallery told the whole story: With each passing year, the camera angle of the class picture gets tighter to frame the recent classes of three and four.
Archbishop Dolan’s qualifications as a recruitment magnet for young priests include a stint in the late 1990s as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the seminary in Rome for American priests pursuing post-ordination studies. He has also written a book, “Priesthood in the Third Millennium,” composed mainly of a series of lectures he gave while in Rome, which is used in some seminaries in the United States as a textbook.
It is hard to recruit people to the Catholic priesthood these days, experts say. Many social trends work against it, from declining church attendance to the declining size of Catholic families that once happily dedicated one in the bunch to the seminary.
Father Sweeney, who visits high schools and colleges to talk to young men about the job, said that most young men have the same questions: “Will I be able to live a celibate life? Will I be able to give up on having a family? Or on the idea of making lots of money.”
The biggest question, “Is this what God really wants for me,” he said, is the hardest.
What seminarians and prospective seminarians see in Bishop Dolan, said Father Hying of the Milwaukee seminary, is “a man who has answered all these questions and who is an obviously happy person with holiness and peace inside him.”
“That’s always good for us,” he added.