Diocesan seminarian stats buck national trend
By Paul Dusseault
COLORADO SPRINGS. When a parish sends a young man to seminary, it’s an occasion for rejoicing. When a parish sends two, it’s a special blessing. Currently, Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Colorado Spring’s Old North End has eight (!) young men in various phases of seminary formation.
“That’s the most seminarians from one parish that I am aware of,” said Janet Zabukovic, president of the Serra Club of Colorado Springs, a group that fosters vocations to the priesthood. “But given the growth of the diocese, we can’t have too many seminarians.”
As American Catholics prepare to observe National Vocations Awareness Week, which this year takes place Nov. 5-11, a recent report by the Vocation Ministry paints the perennial priest shortage as especially urgent. The total number of diocesan priests in the U.S. has fallen by 9% (1,468) since 2014, with religious priests falling by 14% (1,654). The total number of seminarians has fallen from 3,853 to 3,012 (22%). Result: There now are more than 3,000 parishes in the U.S. without a resident priest.
The national statistics make the recent surge in the Diocese of Colorado Springs’ numbers all the more encouraging. “For years we’ve been averaging about 12 men in seminary,” said Father Kyle Ingels, Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. “This year we’re blessed to total 17. That’s a 10-year high for our diocese.”
“I credit the families,” said Father Brian Roeseler, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish. “Families that are prayerful, partake of the sacraments, participate in the parish ministries and activities . . . these are the families from which seminarians come. And that atmosphere of support is contagious in a parish. Sometimes all it takes is for some respected figure in a young man’s life to say, ‘You would make a really good priest.’”
Father Ingels concurs. “When a young man expresses interest in the priesthood, he can sometimes be met with skepticism or discouragement, but when he is met with praise for having the courage to explore a religious calling and being open to the will of God, that makes all the difference. In parishes where priestly vocations are considered normal, even expected, you see more young men entering the seminary.”
Corpus Christi Parish, described by Bishop James Golka as the “altar server capital of the diocese,” has the largest and most rigorous program for altar servers in the region. But many priests, regardless of their home parish, have cited their experience serving on the altar as being a key factor in their discernment.
“Being an altar server certainly contributed to my own vocation, and I’m certain it’s a major factor in the vocation of others,” said Father Roeseler, a St. Louis native who was invited to the Diocese of Colorado Springs by the late Bishop Michael Sheridan. “Many of our altar servers know the Roman Missal — sometimes better than the celebrant. That’s bound to get young men thinking about religious life.”
Indeed, the altar server program at Corpus Christi is explicit in its intention. The parish web page describes the program’s screening, training, and behavioral expectations. It unambiguously proclaims the program’s mission to “foster and encourage vocations to the priesthood.”
Deacon Anthony Ambuul, whose priestly ordination is schedule for next spring, credits the program with contributing to his vocation. “My years as an altar server made the step of entering seminary less daunting because I already knew what goes on near the altar,” he said.
“We haven’t been keeping careful count (as some altar servers have since moved to other dioceses or entered religious orders), but we know over the years there have been dozens of vocations among former altar servers,” said Justin Watson, director of the parish program which now totals more than 45 boys. “Close proximity to the Blessed Sacrament and deeper understanding of the liturgy has a profound impact on young men contemplating their life’s direction, which results inevitably in discernment of a vocation.”
Vocations director Father Ingels also noted that the program of seminary formation in the diocese recently has undergone some strategic adjustments.
“We’ve been trying to keep more of our Colorado contingent together rather than spread them across multiple seminaries around the country, a practice that sometimes left our men studying alone,” he explained. “Now we try to concentrate them at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Nebraska, and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, where they can pursue their studies as a group. They support each other, pray with each other, root for each other. It adds to the comradery and, we believe, increases the likelihood of sticking with the rigorous program through ordination.”
Joseph Hourigan, who entered St. Gregory the Great this fall, said that he benefitted from this policy almost immediately upon entering seminary.
“We got an early assignment to approach strangers on a college campus and invite them to Eucharistic adoration,” he recalled. “I felt unsure about it, and so did the other Colorado students. We didn’t know what kind of reception we would get. But we decided, as a group, that this was the call of the Holy Spirit . . . God’s way of helping us be courageous enough to invite others to be with Jesus. It turned out great. I loved the feeling of just starting a relationship with someone and leading them to faith. But we seminarians talked each other into it. That happens a lot. We serve as an anchor for each other.”
Other recent changes in the diocese’s program of priestly formation have come directly from the Vatican.
“We’re currently in the inaugural propaedeutic segment, or ‘spirituality year,’ prescribed by Rome,” said Father Ingels. “It gives our men some extra time early in the process to prayerfully contemplate and examine their vocation, working in ministry before jumping whole hog into demanding, university-level academics. It adds a little time to the experience but increases the chances of delivering the best-formed and highest-quality clergy to our congregations.”
First year seminarian Hourigan said he is both a participant and a fan of this new segment.
“We are in the field, working in ministry, feeding the homeless, and then in special classes on the Catechism, Catholic liturgy, and the Bible. It’s really increased my love for Holy Scripture, and left me looking even more forward to living as a priest, bringing others to a relationship with Christ through the sacraments.”
Video interviews with each of the diocese’s new seminarians can be seen on the diocesan YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0FNPYlDQgw. Or search YouTube for “Webmaster Diocese of Colorado Springs” and click on the graphic below.