Katherine Kersten: Young Catholics hear call to serve

With ancient truths, religious service provides comfort in a material age.

The Catholic Church's days are numbered. At least, that seems to be the view of opinionmakers, who see it as hopelessly out of step and pushing a moral code that few want to be saddled with these days. Add to that clergy sexual abuse. Isn't this an institution on its last legs?

Paradoxically, here in the Twin Cities, young Catholics are responding with a hearty "no." This fall, St. Paul Seminary -- which prepares men for the priesthood -- has its largest enrollment since 1981: 92 seminarians.

Many are entering after successful careers. This year's class -- average age, 29 -- includes men with degrees in civil and electrical engineering, TV production, geography, animal science and criminology.

Well, maybe some older men are showing interest, but younger guys just want to party, right? Down the street at St. John Vianney Seminary (SJV) on the University of St. Thomas campus, 140 young men -- ages 18 to 22 -- are considering the priesthood. SJV is the largest collegiate seminary in the nation. Seminarians there may blast rock music, but they start the day at 6:15 a.m. with an hour of silent prayer, attend Mass daily and on Sundays sing the ancient "Salve Regina" in Latin before an icon of the Virgin Mary.

This phenomenon of young people devoting themselves to religious life is not confined to the Twin Cities. Mary Anne Marks, a 2010 summa cum laude graduate of Harvard University, is entering the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Marks delivered a commencement address in Latin at Harvard's graduation in May. She will join an entering class of 22 young women looking forward to a life of teaching, prayer and evangelism.

What draws young people to devote their lives to the Catholic Church -- widely regarded as intolerably judgmental and on the wane?

The Rev. Joe Bambenek, who has a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has an answer. He graduated from the St. Paul Seminary in May 2010, and is associate pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul.

Bambenek suggests that disillusionment with today's culture of consumption and self-seeking is a powerful factor drawing young men and women to religious life.

"We've seen that a focus on materialism doesn't bring happiness," he says. As a result, "There is a hunger for things of God, an openness to God's word in our lives." It's precisely because this generation is so self-indulged, he adds, that "people are more willing, when they see the truth, to run after it." And when they experience the love and joy the truth brings, they want to share it.

Robert Kennedy, who teaches at the seminary, agrees. "Young men there sometimes tell me, 'We've had a career. Now we want a life.' They mean a vocation, a calling," he says.

Bambenek is a case in point. Before entering the seminary, he worked for an electric power company. In 2002, he racked up 230 plane flights, negotiating rules for high-voltage transmission system use.

Then his boss' wife came down with terminal cancer. "I discovered that walking with him through that experience was more meaningful and more satisfying than negotiating power rules," he says.

Seminarians study ancient wisdom and timeless truths to be best equipped to take on vexing contemporary problems. Their reading list includes Greek philosophers and the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. In a society obsessed with the latest thing -- from smart phones to celebrity gossip -- this lineup may sound strange.

But there's a good reason for it, says Bambenek. While the world around us may change, human beings do not. We struggle with death, suffering, loneliness, disappointment, rejection -- always have, always will.

"As human beings, we're called by God to be good," says Bambenek. "But we also have the weakness of sin. Both our goodness and our sinfulness, at their core, don't change. That's why the truths God has revealed to us are always relevant."

In the end, today's seminarians have made a choice that is profoundly countercultural.

"Every generation forgets that young people want to be inspired by a big challenge," says Kennedy. For baby boomers, being countercultural meant wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and flashing the peace sign. It carried no risk, no cost.

"But there's nothing bigger and more challenging than the life these young people are taking on," says Kennedy. "They are getting ready to go out and engage a culture -- by their garb, their occupation, their very countercultural embrace of celibacy. It's very public, and it carries a lot of risk."

For today's seminarians, this is true freedom. "The Gospel message is a joyful message -- the message of freedom through God's truth, God's grace," says Bambenek. "When we're acting as God designed us, we're able to be all he made us to be. That's true freedom."

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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