Recruiting for God
The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock has more than 30 seminarians, the most since the ’60s, outperforming much larger districts, according to a diocese official.
LITTLE ROCK — While other U.S. dioceses are struggling to find potential priests, the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock has more seminarians than at any time in the past four decades.
At its low point in 1990, the diocese, which encompasses all of Arkansas, had only seven seminarians.
In 2009, there are more than 30 - the highest number since the 1960s, when the state’s Catholics still had their own seminary.
Today, the biggest problem isn’t finding seminarians. It’s coming up with the money to train them all.
The diocese has so many seminarians, the endowment traditionally used to pay for their studies, which can take up to eight years, can’t be counted on to support
all of them. Tuition, room and board and other costs are about $32,000 a year for each seminarian.
The numbers are heartening to Arkansas Catholics in an era that has seen a decline in the number of priests in the American church and a sex-abuse scandal that undermined confidence in the institution and cost more than $2 billion in settlement costs and attorneys’ fees.
“In the next four years, we will ordain 11 new priests,” said Monsignor Scott Friend, the vocations director for the diocese for the past four years. “It’s an opportunity to experience some growth. It’s exciting.” The Serra Club of Little Rock, a group of laymen who help foster vocations, has seen an increase in its membership, said Paul James, a Little Rock lawyer who is the organization’s outgoing president. It has added 15 members in the past couple of years and now has about 70 members, he said.
James attributes the increase in part to Friend, who he said has createdexcitement with the increase in seminarians and a renewed emphasis on developing vocations.
“I don’t know how you gauge someone’s level of spirituality,” but it’s clear that Friend’s commitment is deeper than most, James said. “You just know by being around him he is in touch with his spiritual side. It’s contagious. It’s obvious.”
Friend downplays his own role in the renaissance, saying that religious leaders and laymen across the diocese have redoubled their efforts. “The priests are the ones who have to be open to look” for young men who might be interested in the priesthood, Friend said.
Catholic educators are also helping.
Friend has developed a close relationship with Catholic High School for Boys, a college preparatory school in Little Rock. Two young men from the school recently committed to becoming seminarians.
Friend also credits the parish youth ministries, which he said are stronger than when he was a young man. The youth ministries help young people “develop an interior life,” he said.
Some parishes, such as Christ the King Catholic Church in Little Rock, are putting an emphasis on developing vocations. The parish, which has a vocations committee, is sending three of its parishioners to the seminary next fall.
It is part of a strategy to develop a “culture of vocation within our diocese,” Friend said.
‘LOT MORE OPEN’
Lastly, he points to the young people themselves. “The kids of this generation are a lot more open to consider a vocation.”
And the reason? Jason Sharbaugh points to the late Pope John Paul II, whose papacy was a “big part of this generation.” He showed that a “strong man, good looking, intelligent” could have a fulfilling life as a priest.
Sharbaugh, 33, a native of Morrilton, is one of six seminarians spending the summer in a “discernment house” in Little Rock. The house, in the city’s Leawood subdivision, is a place where would-be priests live together while they ponder their call to the ministry.
Sharbaugh, who is scheduled to be ordained next year, is spending the summer working in the pastoral care ministry at theUniversity of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center.
He graduated from Subiaco Academy, a private Catholic boarding school, before attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he earned a degree in political science.
“It was a slow process” to decide to study for the priesthood, Sharbaugh said.
After graduating from the UA, he thought he had discarded the notion of becoming a priest and began law school.
“The moment I got there I knew I should have gone to the seminary,” which he did a year later, he said.
Juan Guido, 22, also is another seminarian spending the summer in Little Rock and reflects the increasingly Hispanic face of Arkansas Catholics. He is a native of Mexico, but moved to Arkansas as a young boy. He is the oldest of four children and graduated from Hall High School.
Guido said he had wanted to be a priest while growing up in Mexico, but his father insisted he move to America to study English.
“I was disappointed,” said Guido, one of a growing number of Hispanic seminarians in the diocese. “I didn’t want to come over here, but I think it was where God meant me to be. In Little Rock.”
Part of the reason for the increase in vocations is simpleMonsignor Scott Friend demographics, according to Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. The center focuses on social science studies related to the Catholic church.
In 1950, just a quarter of U.S. Catholics resided in the South and West. Nearly half lived in the Northeast and 30 percent in the Midwest. By 2007, the numbershave reversed. Nearly half of all Catholics now call the South and West home. Catholics were just following a demographic shift as more people moved to the so-called Sun Belt states. As a result, Catholic populations in those states are younger.
“If you’re going to attract young men into the priesthood, you’re going to have to go to where the young men are,” Gautier said.
GROWTH IN SOUTH, WEST
Indeed, Gautier said other dioceses in the South and West have seen enrollment of seminarians increase similar to that of Arkansas. Overall enrollment in seminaries has increased 2 percent.
But Friend points out that Little Rock outperforms much larger dioceses, even in the South. The Diocese of Houston has 10 times the number of Catholics than Little Rock yet has about the same amount of seminarians, Friend said.
It also helps that Friend’s position is full time, which hasn’t always been the case in a diocese struggling to have enough priests to serve in its parishes.
The church in Arkansas has a registered population of 121,748. It has 136 active and retired priests to serve in 126 churches, which include 88 parishes that warrant a full-time priest and 38 mission churches, which have a priest only part time.
But Friend also not only has to work to recruit more seminarians, he must work to keep the ones the diocese has. The duties keep him on the road throughout the state and around the world.
The diocese has seminarians studying in Italy, Mexico and several U.S. states.
The men hail from Morrilton, Marche and Jonesboro, Nigeria, Tanzania and Colombia.
Friend is a mentor for those on the pathway to the priesthood. And he travels the entirestate promoting vocations and recruiting future leaders.
“At the end of the day, vocations work is very labor-intensive, one on one,” Friend said.
The clergy sex abuse scandals seem to have strengthened the church in Arkansas rather than weakened it, in terms of the number of seminarians and the support Arkansas Catholics are willing to extend to the seminarians, Friend said.
“In all reality, vocations has increased since that point,” he said. “They saw it as a personal call to change the church. Catholics acted differently than the outsiders thought they would.Instead of becoming less faithful, they became more faithful. They want to build up the church.”
He also said the episode speaks well of the parish priests, “who stayed committed in spite of the scandal. Look, it’s been painful for everybody. But to see the priests. They led us through that. It’s been inspiring for the people.”
Friend sees that inspiration reflected in a new collection the diocese began on Holy Thursday, part of the Easter Holy Week. The collection is expected to help augment the endowment used to support the seminarians.
The monsignor thought it would be a fitting time to devote a collection on behalf of seminarians because “Holy Thursday recognizes the initiation of the priesthood at the Last Supper.”
The first Holy Thursday collection raised more than $400,000, “which is incredible,” Friend said. “People really, really responded.”
“The collection is not just to raise money but to raise awareness,” he added. “The media has tended to play up the fact that numbers are down. We are bucking all the trends, but people don’t hear that.“We pulled in a lot of money this year at a time when we are in a difficult economic climate. It speaks well for the Catholics of the diocese.” The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock has posted many of the seminarians’ photos and biographies online.