This fall, St. Paul Seminary welcomed 100 men studying to be priests, the most in more than three decades. The increase follows years of work.
To become a Roman Catholic priest, Alaska native Arthur Roraff could have attended any seminary in the country.
He chose St. Paul Seminary, joining a priestly pipeline that is raising the St. Paul school's national profile and building enrollment to its biggest in decades.
"Even though I had looked at some other seminaries, including regional seminaries, when I came here, there was just such a fit," Roraff said. "To be honest, I think it was the hospitality, the warmth. I felt ... a belonging. I was fortunate that my archbishop has roots here as well."
Roraff is among 100 seminarians enrolled this fall at the seminary, up from 92 last fall and the school's largest enrollment of men studying for ordination in more than 30 years.
Much of the seminary's growth the past several years stems from its efforts to recruit candidates beyond the Midwest by tapping connections with alumni and former seminary staff and board members. This fall, the seminary is welcoming 30 new seminarians from 19 dioceses in the United States, Ghana, Uganda and Peru.
It also marks the payoff for years of work to attract men to vocations in the priesthood.
"What these men are seeing today, they see a broken, suffering divided world. And they want to do something about it," said the Rev. Aloysius Callaghan, rector of St. Paul Seminary.
Of 45 graduate-level seminaries that prepare men for the priesthood in the United States, St. Paul Seminary ranks in the top third in size and is one of several with growing enrollments.
Catholic church leaders are grateful for the uptick in seminary growth, but they know that the number of new seminarians won't solve the priest shortage.
This spring, 480 men were ordained in the United States. That figure has steadily decreased since the 1960s, when it hovered around 1,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. About 1,500 priests die or retire each year.
All total, there are about 40,000 active or retired priests in the United States.
"Theology [seminary] enrollments have been very stable over the last 15 years," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the research center. "The problem is the numbers that are being ordained this year are still only about a third of what we would need in order to compensate for the numbers of priests that are retiring, dying or leaving the church."
At the same time, the number of Catholics continues to grow by about 1 percent each year.
St. Paul's seminarians are sent there by bishops in their home diocese. The diocese pays half the cost -- about $25,000 a year -- and through fundraising efforts the seminary covers the rest, about $25,000.
Seminarians don't pay, but once they're ordained, they're expected to return to serve the diocese that sponsored them. Of the 100 seminarians in St. Paul, 43 are preparing to serve the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
To expand their network, St. Paul Seminary leaders say they ask bishops what they're looking for in a seminary and what programs might be helpful in preparing men for the priesthood.
One example: Bishops thought it would be helpful for seminarians to experience farm life because they may one day minister in rural areas. So the seminary began taking seminarians on trips to rural parts of Minnesota, where they talk to farmers and residents to get a sense of what it's like to minister in less-populated regions.
Finding the right fit
Alaska does not have a seminary, so when Roraff, 44, was deciding on where to go, his options were wide open. While visiting Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz one day, Roraff happened to run into the Rev. Peter Laird, who at the time was vice rector at St. Paul Seminary. Schwietz is a St. Paul native who served on the seminary board from 1997 to 2006.
"My archbishop said, 'Here's this young man, what's he supposed to do? He's kind of discerning [about going into the priesthood]. He's asked all the questions. What's the next step?' And Father Laird said, 'Just go.' For some reason it resonated."
Roraff visited St. Paul Seminary for a few days, liked it and became its second seminarian from Anchorage. Roraff is starting his third year at the seminary.
Callaghan, who has served as rector of St. Paul Seminary for nearly seven years, credits much of the seminary's growth to Archbishop John Nienstedt and former Archbishop Harry Flynn, "who both had visions of what seminaries should be like." Catholics praying for an increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood hasn't hurt either, he said.
Incoming seminarian Mark Pavlak, 24, grew up in the Minneapolis area and attended the University of St. Thomas. Pavlak said he spent a semester in Rome and got to know some men from St. Paul Seminary who were also studying overseas.
Committing his life to the church as a priest means forgoing a wife and children, living a simple, nonmaterialistic life and obeying church leaders; it was a decision Pavlak heavily weighed. But interacting with the seminarians made the priesthood seem "less scary," he said.
"Their example really just stuck with me," he added. "They're just normal guys who became good friends. I think people on the outside of the seminary think the guys are just different ... who are interested in things that aren't normal. Or who don't enjoy sports. Or who don't enjoy TV. We do all those things. Figuring that out and seeing that really made me click a lot more to it."
The Rev. Peter Williams recently spent three years as vocations director for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and is now a parish priest. He said he would visit Catholic high schools and work closely with parish priests to find young men interested in going into the priesthood.
The archbishop also hosts a dinner for young men interested in becoming priests, he said. "It's just something that's borne fruit over time," Williams said.
"I just really believe that no matter what kind of strategy we have, or technique, that it's really something God gives. God gives a vocation. We can't determine that we want so many, and we're just going to go find them. It just doesn't work that way."
Rose French • 612-673-4352