BY Amy Flowers Umble
As a young adult, Keith Cummings felt God calling him to become a Catholic priest.
He responded by leaving the church.
"It was a radical way of life, and one that I was not ready to embrace," Cummings said.
Overwhelmingly, young Catholic men are turning away from the priesthood.
The number of American priests began dropping in the late 1970s and has declined ever since, creating a priest shortage in the country, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Religious scholars and the Vatican offer a number of reasons for the decline: smaller Catholic family sizes, a tarnished image of Catholic clergy following sex-abuse scandals, a cultural shift in American priorities and the celibacy requirement.
But the impact is pretty similar. Parishes often struggle without priests. Some share clergy. Some shut down.
But this isn't much of a problem in the Arlington Diocese of the Catholic Church, which extends from Northern Virginia through Spotsylvania County. In fact, while nationally the priesthood has declined, the diocese has had a growing number of priests since its formation in 1974.
Now, more than 160 diocesan priests serve in 68 parishes. The number is adequate, but if more priests came on board, the diocese could open more parishes for the growing Catholic population.
With that goal, the diocese has an active vocations program to help those who, like Cummings, may feel a calling but hesitate to take the leap of faith.
Over the course of 20 years, Cummings came back to the church occasionally. In 2005, after the death of his mother, he began attending Mass several times a week. He knew he would probably end up a priest.
Still, Cummings--who worked as a computer scientist in King George County--doubted his worthiness. Priests, he thought, were a lot like the saints: extremely holy.
He brought his concern to the Rev. Brian Bachista, vocations director for the Arlington Diocese. It's a common worry.
"What we say off the bat is that you're not worthy enough, and you're not holy enough. There are no perfect priests," Bachista said. "We're all called to be faithful Christians and the reason one explores the priesthood is not their level of holiness but because they believe this is what God created them for."
On Easter 2006, Cummings said he definitely felt God calling him to be a priest with a very strong, peaceful feeling.
It took nearly a year to apply to seminary. The proc-ess involves a 38-page application, eight letters of reference, a criminal background check, a psychological evaluation, two essays and a 10-page biography.
"The process is similar to applying to a college, with a much more detailed analysis on our personalities and spirituality," said Jason Burchell, a Courtland High School graduate studying to be a priest.
The application is long and difficult, but Cummings said he understood.
"The church takes very seriously the problems of the past," he said.
The process weeds out the majority of applicants, Bachista said. They are not asked to continue to seminary if they've committed any sexual abuse or if they have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, he said. Also, anyone who comes to the priesthood immediately after a job loss or breakup is asked to wait a year.
After making it through the screening process, potential priests enter seminary. The diocese sends priests to one of six seminaries. Cummings attends a Massachusetts seminary, geared toward older men. Burchell, 29, attends one in Maryland.
For most men who, like Cummings and Burchell, already have college degrees, it takes about six years of study to become a priest. The diocese pays the $30,000 annual tuition. About 75 percent of those with degrees will go on to become priests. About 50 percent of those without college degrees will finish. Those who become priests serve in the sponsoring diocese.
Most of the 33 men now studying to become priests first finished college and had another career. The trend, Bachista said, has been for older men to enter the priesthood.
But he sees that changing and attributes it to Pope John Paul II's outreach to youth.
Burchell said that many of his generation felt closer to the recent pope and this, in turn, changed them from a "me-first" generation to one prepared to serve.
The sacrifices of the priesthood are great, he and Cummings said. Even now, they spend much of their time in class, teaching and and serving. And in the future, they expect to work hard as priests.
"All of our life is a balancing act between the sacrifices we make and the compensations we get from those sacrifices," Cummings said. "This is a radical sacrifice but we are compensated by Christ himself."
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