Twenty-two seminarians are preparing to become priests in the Diocese of Richmond, the largest contingent of candidates in decades, church officials said.
In 1997, only three candidates were in training to become priests.
The Rev. Michael Boehling, who oversees clerical vocations for the diocese, said the increase is a promising sign for the future.
There has been a nationwide priest shortage since the 1960s, but “the Lord continues to call young men to serve the church” in Virginia, he said.
Today’s seminarians are younger, better educated and more devoted to traditional church teachings than many of their predecessors.
“They are articulate and bright, well-rounded individuals who are mature for their age,” Boehling said.
They also seem more committed to doctrinal orthodoxy, combating abortion and defending traditional marriage. Priests ordained in the 1960s tended to be drawn to issues of war and peace and social justice, he said.
“The call to the priesthood has always been a countercultural impulse,” Boehling said. “In the ’60s, they were responding to a culture that said, ‘Let’s go to war.’ Race issues were intense at the time.”
Today, he said, “young people see a world of secularism and relativism where anything goes and your truth can be different from my truth, whereas the church would say there is one truth. The world changes, so what they are countercultural to has changed as well.”
Danny Cogut of Falls Church thought he was set for life when he took a job as a defense analyst after graduating from the College of William and Mary in 2007 with degrees in mathematics and computer science. Then he was drawn to the priesthood.
“There was no lightning bolt moment, no sign in the heavens,” he said. “I can only describe it as a little tug at the heart” to consider a life of service to the church.
He began to pray about it and had several conversations with his priest. Finally, he decided to apply to the diocese to begin the discernment process for the priesthood. He started at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 2010 and will finish in June 2015.
Matt Kiehl, 25, a fifth-year seminarian at Theological College in Washington, also thought he would have a secular career when he graduated from George Mason University in 2009 with degrees in government and international politics.
“I always had a remote interest in the priesthood but nothing serious,” said Kiehl, who grew up in Midlothian. But after graduation, he said, “I didn’t have a sense of peace I was expecting about my career choice.” He began to pray about the direction his life would take and found himself drawn to the priesthood.
“It’s a decision that’s been affirmed many times,” he said. “It’s a decision I make every day.”
Kiehl and Cogut said the clergy sex-abuse scandal had little impact on their decision to become priests.
“I knew priests were fragile human beings, and some — unfortunately — have deep psychological illnesses that were not addressed,” Cogut said. “To our shame, some leaders in the church didn’t do what they should have to prevent these things from happening. But I think we’ve learned from that.”
Kiehl said it gave him “a resolve to be a holy and healthy priest who reflects the love of Christ to those we serve.”