A rising number of candidates have enrolled in St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Bean, FL and in seminaries nationwide.
This counterintuitive trend has not gone unnoticed by church leaders, 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 the past few years, according the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
At St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, which feed 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, 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 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?’”
American seminaries are at their fullest since the 1970’s 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,” he said.
By Lois K. Solomon Orlando Sentinel Staff writer