Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien has asked four individuals to serve as guest columnists in August. The third is Sulpician Father Thomas R. Hurst, the president-rector of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore.
In the months of May and June the church in the United States was blessed with the ordination of more than 400 men to the priesthood. Thanks to a survey of these men by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), we know a number of facts about these new priests that help to give us a picture of men who are in the seminary at this time.
The average age of the men ordained is 37, with half between the ages of 25 and 34. Ninety percent of the men ordained have been Catholic since birth and most of these report that both their parents are Catholic. While one third of our new priests were born outside the United States, with the largest numbers coming from Mexico, Columbia, the Philippines and Vietnam, most have lived in the diocese they will serve for an average of 16 years. Half of the men would have attended a Catholic elementary school and less than half a Catholic high school.
We also know a few other things about these men from seminary admissions. Some of the men grew up in families that have experienced the divorce of their parents or the drug and alcohol addiction of siblings. Others feel a real closeness to parents and friends who have encouraged their vocations in difficult times. As they began their seminary formation many experienced the lack of a comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the faith.
Numbers and statistics tell us some things; experience of seminarians and young priests fill out this basic picture in substantive ways. I have ministered in a seminary as a teacher and administrator for more than 30 years. I have experienced this generation of seminarians and young priests as dedicated, prayerful, hard-working men who are filled with a spirit of service for God and others. They are sometimes different in their approach to certain aspects of church life and ministry than those ordained in the 1960s and ’70s but they share the same concern for others.
What stands out to me is the zeal and courage these men have. Their courage is evident as they choose to become priests as the scandals of sex abuse have been in the press while they were discerning a vocation and during all of their time in the seminary. Their zeal is apparent as they seek ordination into presbyterates that are shrinking and likely will get smaller in the near future. They know that they will take on the responsibility of being pastors, sometimes of more than one parish, in the early years of their priesthood. They know that many of them will have to be the pastor of more than one parish or combine two or three older and established parishes. They are aware that they may have to minister to multi-ethnic groups of parishioners in languages in which they are not fluent.
In spite of these issues, or perhaps because of them, they embrace the priesthood with enthusiasm and a willingness to be of service to their bishop and God’s people. They know that they cannot do all of the ministerial work alone. They will have to be cooperative with fellow priests and lay people in new and creative ways to meet the changing situation of Catholic parishes.
At the ordination ceremony the bishop asks the priest presenting the candidates, “Do you know them to be worthy?” We all know that no one is worthy to be ordained apart from God’s call and grace. However, my experience is that these newly ordained men bring worthy gifts and talents to the priestly ministry that they share with their brother priests from many generations. I continue my work as a seminary rector with great hope for the future and trust in the men who will be priests in that future that God holds in his hands.