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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Catholic seminary has 20-year enrollment peak

St. Meinrad, in Indiana, is ahead of national averages.

From The Associated Press
ST. MEINRAD — The nation's sixth-largest Catholic seminary is reporting its highest enrollment in two decades as more men flock to the southern Indiana campus to pursue the priesthood.

The influx of students has left the St. Meinrad School of Theology straining to find classroom and living space for students at the campus, 65 miles west of Louisville, Ky.

St. Meinrad, which trains future priests for dioceses in Kentucky, Indiana and across the nation, began the year with 121 students - its highest number since 1988.

Church leaders and seminarians said a combination of spiritual and practical factors are behind the growth.

The Archdiocese of Louisville's seminarian ranks were all but depleted in 2002 and 2003 at the peak of the child sexual abuse scandal involving numerous priests.

Some of the seminarians at St. Meinrad said that crisis actually prompted them to consider the priesthood. They said they believed the church would avoid repeating such scandals through more rigorous screening and training of would-be priests.

“I think that there is a sense of hope in the church” now, said Adam Carrico, of Pewee Valley, Ky., who is studying at St. Meinrad for the Louisville archdiocese.

“We've experienced some troubles,” he said, “but I think we've learned from what happened in the past, and there's kind of a sense we can move forward and there is a tomorrow.”

Part of St. Meinrad's growth also reflects increasing arrangements with dioceses around the country to train their seminarians.

Both the Louisville archdiocese and the seminary are ahead of the national average in seminarian enrollment, which has remained largely the same in the last 15 years as the Catholic population has grown, while the ranks of priests have aged and declined.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz credited archdiocese leaders for starting to reverse declines in seminarians even before he arrived in 2007 from Knoxville.

When Kurtz arrived, six men from the archdiocese were starting in seminary.

Kurtz said there's “no magic number” for recruitment goals, but he said ordaining four or five priests per year would “be a great blessing” toward easing the priest shortage.

The archdiocese has two priests working with recruits in addition to their parish duties.

Kurtz holds an annual “dinner with the archbishop” to encourage youths to consider joining the priesthood or religious orders. This year, the event drew hundreds of teenagers, the most in recent memory.

Jerry Byrd, a student from the Indianapolis archdiocese, said his path to the seminary began more than a decade ago as he converted to Catholicism as a teenager.

“My whole concept of a priest was based on priests I knew,” he recalled. “They were old and bald and slow.”

But one such priest told a class of people converting to Catholicism that “we need young men” in the priesthood, because “without the priests, we don't have the sacraments; if we don't have the sacraments, then we're not a church.”

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