If you’re feeling a bit down about the future of Catholicism in the United States, ask yourself these questions: Why haven’t American seminaries emptied over the past 16 months, as Crisis 2.0 continues to roil the U.S. Church and an aggressive media regularly puts Catholicism in the worst possible public light? Why haven’t the McCarrick affair, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Bransfield affair, and other revelations of episcopal misgovernance (and worse) caused a mass exodus of young men from priestly formation? Can you name another profession, regularly subjected to media ridicule and popular caricature, to which young men are applying in greater numbers than 20 years ago?
I’ve been in and around seminaries and seminarians for 54 years now. I knew seminaries and seminarians during the Really Bad Patch of the post-conciliar years. And I have watched with admiration as seminary formators—not unlike the relatively junior officers who reformed the U.S. military after the debacle of Vietnam—have taken a set of severe problems in hand and put a venerable institution, essential to the Catholic future, on a much more solid foundation. Is there more to be done, in refining recruitment of students for the priesthood and reforming American seminaries? Undoubtedly (and a few suggestions will follow below). But a great deal has in fact been accomplished in the last 15 years, and it’s important that the people of the Church know it.
Last month, I had the pleasure of working with two seminarians in the 28th annual meeting of the seminar on Catholic social doctrine I am privileged to lead in Cracow. Like other future priests who have been part of the program over the past quarter-century, these men were impressive: intellectually alert and engaged; deeply pious without being cloyingly sentimental; able to interact with (and offer a real witness to) fellow students in a multinational context of Catholic men and women; and much more mature than I remember seminarians being four decades ago. If there has been a winnowing of candidates for the priesthood since Crisis 1.0 in 2002, and if that sifting has continued in the wake of Crisis 2.0, then what has remained, and what is coming through the pipeline, is very good news indeed.