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Seminary 'product' still scarce: but church officials say quality is better.

But church officials say quality is better

VATICAN CITY -- Unpacking trunks, overcoming jet lag, visiting Assisi and beginning Italian lessons were on the agenda as back-to-school time came for the North American College's incoming class of 37 men earlier this month.

With 125 students expected at the U.S. seminary, built on a hill overlooking St. Peter's Square, the total enrollment is now at an all-time low. The college had 127 students at the beginning of last year.

The Vatican's 1991 Statistical Year-book, published this summer, said the number of U.S. diocesan seminarians enrolled in philosophy and theology programs grew from 3,676 to 3,777 during 1991.

The increase of 101 seminarians, who are in the last six to eight years of their preparation for the priesthood, wasn't sounded as an all-clear signal, but it was welcomed after a decade of declining numbers.

At the college, where all students have finished their philosophy studies before enrolling, the increase is not evident yet, but it is expected. "I think we have bottomed out," said Msgr. Edwin F. O'Brien, rector. "The fact that we are holding steady is a hopeful sign."

Part of the reason for this year's dip is that a big class left last year. North American College gave back to the United States a bumper crop of 28 new priests last spring. Six seminarians left to spend a year doing required pastoral work prior to ordination. The students themselves are the greatest sign of hope, O'Brien said.

Changes in seminary education resulting from a study of U.S. seminaries in the late 1980s are now showing positive results. The U.S. seminaries where the students are doing their philosophy and pretheology studies are doing a better job of screening and educating the students, O'Brien said.

The average age of a seminarian at North American College is now 27, he said, and the students' abilities and vocations have been challenged and tested.

O'Brien said he has noticed since he took over as rector in 1990" a greater respect for the traditions of the church" among those enrolled. "They are open to new ideas, but are not so ready to cast off the old," he said, and they place a great emphasis on their spiritual lives.

"This generation has seen a lot of confusion," he said. It's not like the seminarians are fighting for a pre-Vatican II church, because they have had no experience of that, he said. But they do know that "a lot of what is peddled as religion" isn't the real thing. "They want the solid stuff."

Two worrisome statistics reported by the Vatican in its annual report are the number of seminarians per 100,00 Catholics and the number of seminarians per 100 priests. Europe, which is seen as having a vocations crisis every bit as severe as in the United States, shows a rate of 10 seminarians per 100,000 Catholics. In North America, the figure is just over nine, while in Africa it is almost 16. The statistic is one indication of how well Catholic communities are calling forth their future leaders.

Of even more concern to O'Brien is the statistic on seminarians in relation to the number of priests. Low numbers cause worry not just because they show that a local church will have trouble replacing priests who die or retire, but because it hints at the fact that priests are not encouraging young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

The Vatican statistics for the year ending Dec. 31, 1991, reported 9.49 seminarians in philosophy and theology studies for every 100 priests present in North America. The figure is 13.36 in Europe, 44.6 in South America and 70.54 in Africa.

Twenty years ago, Vatican statistics showed 18.8 seminarians per 100 priests in North America, as opposed to 11.6 in Europe, 18.6 in South America and 69.4 in Africa.

The figures show that in North America "priests don't push the product," O'Brien said. Often priests in the United States are unhappy with the tasks that take up most of their time, and don't see their life as something others would be attracted to, he said.
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Author:Wooden, Cindy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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