Scandals in the Catholic Church, ranging from pedophilia to drug abuse to money-laundering, are apparently not deterring men from choosing the priesthood.
A rising number of candidates have enrolled in St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach and in seminaries nationwide.
This counterintuitive trend has not gone unnoticed by church leadership, who are rejoicing at the news and making sure the newly ordained are well-vetted and committed to a life of being questioned and judged for a controversial choice.
Although the number of American priests dropped to a record low last year, 38,964, down from 58,632 in 1965, the number of seminarians has been increasing modestly over the past few years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
At St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, which feeds parishes in Florida and several other states, enrollment has also been steadily rising, from 61 students in 2010 to 85 this year.
"We are going to have to expand if this trend continues," said the Rev. David Toups, the seminary's rector and president. "We can always use more priests. There will never be a shortage of work."
Seminary officials say these future priests are desperately needed. While the number of American priests has plummeted, causing a shortage in many dioceses, the Catholic population is growing steadily, with an estimated 66.3 million in the United States last year, up from 57.4 million in 1995.
Because of the shortage, almost 3,400 of the 17,000 parishes in the United States lack a resident priest.
St. Vincent de Paul seminarian Joseph Gates, 29, said he has been following church controversies closely, but they had little effect on his decision to become a priest.
Instead, priests he encountered as a child and a college student, who projected joy and positive images of the vocation, made an enormous impression, he said. Still, he admitted to many internal conflicts.
"To be a celibate man is not easy in our world," said Gates, the oldest of eight children who thought he would get married one day. "I struggle with these questions. When I hear about another scandal, I ask myself, 'Where did these guys miss the mark?' "
Seminarian Bryan Holtz, 33, said a Jacksonville priest told him in seventh grade he would make a good priest and he never forgot it. When he lost his construction management job after 9-11, Holtz decided to reconsider life in the priesthood, and spent six years with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York.
"They were guys I would want to hang out with. They were men who gave up everything to serve the poor," said Holtz, a University of North Florida graduate whose sister is a nun. "I was sad to see priests separating themselves from what they were supposed to be and falling away and getting worse and worse, but it didn't discourage me from hearing what the Lord was asking of me."
American seminaries are at their fullest since the 1970s, said the Rev. Roger Landry, chaplain of Catholic Voices USA and former editor of the diocesan newspaper of Fall River, Mass.
"When the going gets tough, good Catholic young men begin to recognize how important it is to have good and holy priests," Landry said. "Dioceses have done a good job in putting their best priests in vocations offices as the first point of contact."
Seminarians are acutely aware of the challenges and judgments they are likely to face in contemporary society, said the Rev. Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Seminaries have gotten better at filtering the types of candidates that are strongly committed to assisting the church," McKnight said. "The crucible of the scandal has molded our prospective seminarians. They are not expecting an easy life. They are not expecting to be applauded."
Seminarian Scott Adams, 45, said he made good money as an accountant but felt a spiritual void satisfied only by increasing attendance and involvement in church. He said frequent vetting by spiritual advisors and clergy, which continues even though he is in his fourth year at the seminary, confirms he made the right choice.
"I don't let what goes on in the world discourage me," said Adams, who was raised Baptist. "There are so many good, solid priests devoted to Christ and the church. Those are my role models."
Toups, the St. Vincent de Paul rector, said steadfast recruitment efforts aimed at grass-roots Catholics have succeeded in cultivating fervor for the priesthood among young men despite constant disgraces. At his seminary, the average age at ordination has fallen from about 38 in 2006 to 30 today, thanks to this vigorous encouragement, he said.
"You might say, 'How on Earth do you have any vocations when 4 percent have marred the other 96 percent?'" Toups said. "It's men who are devout who are stepping up and saying, 'That's not my church and I want to make a difference.' "
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