Monday, August 06, 2007

The calling of this Love, part three

The philosophy team gets psyched up before taking the field against the theology team for a friendly game of baseball during the seminarian convocation at St. Leo University.

~from the St. Petersburg Times

Felipe Gonzalez traces his dreams of becoming a Catholic priest to a childhood Halloween costume: a priest's robe and hat. Karl Schmidt sees the priesthood as a way to help others. And Jonathan Stephanz takes his inspiration, in part, from the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal.

"The scandal has strengthened that calling because it makes me want to show that all priests are not bad," said Stephanz, 18, of Riverview. "It makes me want to help out."

This week, the young men will take the first step toward becoming diocesan priests as they head to St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami for their first year of study. In all, 11 recruits from the Diocese of St. Petersburg plan to enter the school this year.

Nearly half, like Gonzalez, Schmidt and Stephanz, are freshly minted high school graduates. Their enrollment represents a small but growing national trend.

Despite years of flagging numbers of seminarians in the United States, recruits to the priesthood appear to be on the rise. And the biggest gains are among new high school graduates, with high school recruits in 2006 up 5 percent to 1,365 across the nation, Catholic researchers say.

St. John Vianney, the state's only free-standing college seminary, plans to welcome seven seminarians directly out of high school. Five of them come from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which covers the Tampa Bay region. The others are from dioceses around the state.

Priests around the country cheer the increase, particularly in light of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that continues to reverberate throughout the church.

"I don't think it's an increase as such that would rally the numbers that we had back in the 1950s or '60s," said Monsignor Edward Burns, executive director of Vocations and Priestly Formations Secretariat for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "But it's an increase in some of the lower numbers that we've experienced in the past. ... I've been impressed by the fact that young men continue to step forward and answer God's call unabashedly saying that they want to become a priest."

Influx at seminaries

This fall, several Catholic seminaries around the country boast of record incoming classes. At St. John Vianney, leaders expect 31 new students, a 19 percent increase from last school term. "I really think there's a new springtime happening," said the Rev. Michael Carruthers, St. John Vianney's rector and president.

Still, researchers urge caution.

"It's a promising sign, but I certainly wouldn't call it a turnaround," said Mary L. Gautier, a senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostalate at Georgetown University. "There's a long way between seminary and ordination."

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