An uptick in men studying to be priests has emerged as a bright spot for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo – challenged for years by membership declines, parish mergers and school closings.
Next week, Christ the King Seminary in the Town of Aurora will welcome its largest contingent of seminarians in two decades. Thirty-nine men – including 11 new enrollees – are expected to arrive at the 132-acre campus to study for the priesthood.
The seminary at 711 Knox Road hasn’t had that many priest candidates on campus since 1994, when 42 seminarians were enrolled. Seminary enrollment fell to 16 men in 2005 and ranged between 18 and 28 men in more recent years.
Seminary officials also expect to have the school’s largest population of lay students on campus this academic year for graduate theological studies.
The latest crop of recruits looms large not only in numbers, but also in character, said the Rev. Walter J. Szczesny, who directs priest recruitment for the diocese.
The class comprises five men who have had success in other endeavors, including a professional cellist who is choosing the priesthood over an aspiring career in an orchestra.
“They’re all quality guys. They’re just special,” he said.
The diocese, which ordained many “second-career” priest candidates in recent years, also is starting to see a return to younger candidates, either fresh out of college or a year or two after graduating.
“They are younger, but still very mature and focused guys,” Szczesny said.
The youth movement has prompted seminary officials to renovate the campus tennis courts and make other improvements.
Rooms in the residence halls are being enlarged and remodeled into “suites” that include study and living space.
The encouraging numbers for Christ the King come amid a modest upswing nationwide in seminarians – after decades of steep declines in the number of men seeking to become priests.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reported 3,631 graduate-level seminarians in the U.S. in 2014, up from 3,483 in 2010.
In 1965, during the hey day of Catholic religious vocations in America, there were 8,325 graduate-level seminarians.
At one time, Christ the King, formerly known as St. John Vianney Seminary, housed nearly 200 seminarians in six residence halls.
No one anticipates those numbers again, but Bishop Richard J. Malone said he is committed to keeping the seminary open and devoting the resources necessary to make it thrive.
In March 2013, seminary officials were warned the school’s accreditation status with the Middles States Commission on Higher Education was in jeopardy if the seminary’s financial prospects didn’t improve.
Middle States granted the reaccreditation this March.
“They gave us areas we have to work on, building up the enrollment, building up the finances and all of that. But we feel very strongly we’re going to be able to do that,” Malone said.
The seminary, with a budget of about $3.6 million and a $5 million endowment, also was recently reaccredited by the Association of Theological Schools.
Last fall, Malone picked the Rev. Joseph C. Gatto to serve as the seminary’s president and rector.
Gatto, formerly pastor of St. Gregory the Great, the diocese’s largest parish, began in his new post June 1 and has reached out to bishops across the Northeast and Canada trying to attract more seminarians from other dioceses. Two new faculty members also have been hired.
Not every Catholic diocese has its own seminary – there are 47 in the country – and for years, other dioceses sent their priest candidates to Christ the King for training, helping to boost the seminary’s bottom line. More recently, however, few seminarians from outside the Buffalo Diocese have enrolled at the Aurora campus.
“I think what made some area bishops reluctant to send their candidates for the priesthood to Christ the King was there was this question mark over its future, and I’ve tried to erase that question mark. In fact I’ve written to all kinds of bishops. We used to get candidates at Christ the King from Hartford, Conn., from Scranton, Pa., from all kinds of places,” Malone said.
The Diocese of Hamilton, Ont., already has agreed to send its priest candidates to Aurora, and one of the new enrollees scheduled to be on campus Aug. 22 for orientation is from Hamilton.
Malone said he views the seminary as the “beating heart” of the Buffalo Diocese, and he wants Gatto to expand the ways to use it, “without diluting its primary focus on forming men for the priesthood.”
Gatto already is talking about the possibility of organizing a large faith festival, akin to what has been done in the dioceses of Toledo and Cleveland. The Cleveland Diocese’s FEST, featuring national Christian bands, food and fireworks, attracted nearly 40,000 people Aug. 3 at its seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.
“There is absolutely no reason this cannot become a spiritual center for the diocese in so many ways,” Gatto said. “We recognize this piece of property has been underutilized.”
In addition to the residence halls, the campus features a large dining hall, dozens of classrooms, a chapel, a 183,000-volume library, athletic fields and a small lake.
Being able to show off the bucolic campus, which sits less than a mile outside the Village of East Aurora, serves as a useful recruiting tool for Szczesny.
Szczesny couldn’t pinpoint a single reason for the recent bump in local priest candidates, but, he said, “A good part of it, I think, is Pope Francis.”
The down-to-earth former Argentinian cardinal has been largely lauded for projecting a happier, more welcoming church than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and for eschewing luxuries in favor of a humble and modest lifestyle.
In addition to his administrative duties, Gatto serves on the faculty at Christ the King. The seminary, he said, will play a key role in helping strengthen faith among area Catholics, as well as welcoming lapsed Catholics back into the faith.
Gatto said he hopes to train future priests how to reach Catholics and others who don’t necessarily walk into churches on a regular basis.
“I want our guys to be serving priests,” he said.