What is Minnesotans' image of a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis today? Many likely think of gray-haired men performing empty rituals for dwindling congregations in the shadow of the recent clergy sex-abuse scandal. They may imagine young men recoiling from the prospect of a life of "thou shalt nots," leaving seminaries empty.

Folks with this view probably haven't met the Rev. Andrew Brinkman, 29, assistant pastor of Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul. As a boy, Brinkman dreamed of becoming a professional skateboarder and thought being a priest was "the scariest thing I'd ever heard of." Today, he still rides his board weekly, doing "360 flips" while wearing his priest's collar.

Or how about the Rev. Marcus Milless, 27, of All Saints Church in Lakeville? At 15, an acquaintance asked him to help with a child with a disability. "I was 4 foot 11, weighed 85 pounds and had a big mouth," he says. His first thought was mercenary: "How much money could I make?" But over time, his work of feeding, bathing and caring for children with disabilities taught him the power of love and helped lead him to the priesthood.

Then there's the Rev. Spencer Howe, 28, of St. John Neumann Church in Eagan. As an adolescent, he says, he was a rebel, searching for something on which to stake his life. On a trip to England at age 18, he was inspired by the English martyrs of the 16th century — priests who risked their lives to bring the sacraments to others in a hostile environment.

"I realized this was a lot more dramatic than I had thought — it was not 'a church for grandmothers,' but had a kind of fighting spirit," he says. "Standing before a cathedral, looking up at that great edifice of faith, I recognized the call extended even to me."

These twenty-something priests — and others like them — are the future face of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. In an increasingly secular culture, they have their work cut out for them, but they say they are undaunted.

Today, almost 140 young men are discerning the priesthood at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas. The St. Paul Seminary has nearly 100 seminarians, who flock here from dioceses around the country.

In many ways, today's young priests resemble their peers in the millennial generation. They play Ultimate Frisbee, jog, or play the drums. Originally, many aspired to become professionals, such as architects or accountants. But in the end they chose not an occupation but a vocation — a comprehensive way of life. Their wholehearted desire to challenge the prevailing culture, and their vow of celibacy, mark them as cultural radicals.

Howe — with a wry smile — puts it this way. "I'm a walking contradiction, a walking perplexity. I'm living a life that the larger society says isn't possible."

"Many Minnesota Catholics think they know what to expect from clergy — a now-familiar mix of soft social criticism and gentle moral encouragement," says Robert Kennedy, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at St. Thomas. "But many of the younger clergy take a very different approach. Their voices will not be soothing and predictable, but challenging and supported by personal witness. They are out for souls, not social change."

How do these young men characterize their mission?

They say they have experienced the life-transforming love of Jesus Christ, and the truth and joy of the Gospel, and they want — more than anything — to share it with others. Christ said he came to "proclaim freedom to captives, to heal the brokenhearted, to set at liberty the oppressed," so that humans "might have life, and have it more abundantly." These young priests want to be instruments in that work.

But wait. "Freedom?" "Liberty?" Doesn't the church — with what many view as its constricting rules and doctrines — stand for the opposite?

Not at all, says Brinkman. It was precisely his love of freedom that led him both to skateboarding and to the Catholic priesthood.

When he fell in love with skateboarding at age 9, he explains, he yearned for the freedom to achieve his ultimate goal — the ability to do the difficult tricks that looked effortless when performed by highly skilled skateboarders. But achieving that freedom to fly on the board required discipline and self-sacrifice.

It's the same in any domain of life, he says. To do an activity of importance well — from hitting a three-point shot on the basketball court to playing a Beethoven sonata on the piano — demands sacrifice, and entails saying "no" to other things along the way. Paradoxically, it's this self-denial that equips — that liberates — a person to achieve real progress toward his or her ultimate goal.

The church's rules for living are the same. They are not intended to punish or constrict, but to provide a structure that helps us overcome our weakness and self-absorption — a structure of faith in which love and "abundant life" can flourish.

Does that mean we sometimes need to give up things that are pleasurable in the moment? Sure, says Brinkman. "But the reason we say no to those things is that we've said yes to something greater."

The twenty-something priests explain their vow of celibacy in terms of freedom as well. Though the larger society may find it hard to understand, they make this "gift of self" joyfully and willingly, they say, because it frees them to devote their entire lives to the service of others.

That service can take many forms. For example, the Rev. Evan Koop, 33 — now Hispanic chaplain at two Twin Cities-area parishes — lived in Venezuela when he was preparing for the priesthood. There he often ministered to the poorest and sickest people in the barrios.

At times, people shed tears at the mere sight of his collar. "They saw it as the presence of God coming to meet them in their most desperate moments," he recalls. The opportunity to be an instrument of God's love in this way was both humbling and deeply fulfilling, he says.

The poor aren't the only ones who need the Gospel. All humans struggle with suffering, death, loneliness and rejection, and religious faith can bring hope, peace and joy even when despair seems nearest.

No one knows this better than Milless. At 21, he was diagnosed with cancer and endured 29 chemo and radiation treatments. Two years later, he had another brush with death — a horrific car accident in which he was extricated from his vehicle by the Jaws of Life and airlifted to the hospital. He has seen firsthand the remarkable sustaining power of faith and hopes his personal experience gives him the insight to comfort others, he says.

The mission is great. But has the recent clergy sex-abuse scandal prompted these young priests to question their vocation?

"I am grieved and saddened and offended by the atrocious acts that some of my brother priests have committed in the past," says the Rev. Marc Paveglio, 29, of Our Lady of Grace Church in Edina. "All the more so I believe that God is calling me to be as holy as I can be, so I can be an agent of beauty and light and truth — especially to those who may have been wounded by the acts of a priest."

"My classmates and I have not let this define our life as priests," adds Howe. "The priestly life is defined by Christ, who called us, ordained us, sends us."

The work of the twenty-something priests will likely focus heavily on evangelization.

"We are living in a culture in which the thought of God has been almost completely obscured," notes Koop. "And when the spiritual perspective is truncated, something integral to the human heart is lost."

In his view, this presents "an opportunity as a priest to be a signpost of the presence of God in the world."

"When I'm flying on a plane and people see me wearing my collar," he says, "it may be the only time in their day, week or month that the thought of God crosses their mind."

The millennial generation may prove to be the most fertile mission field for these young priests.

Many of today's youths are disillusioned with the contemporary culture of consumption and self-seeking, which generally fails to bring lasting fulfillment. They crave a mission — a challenge — and in response the young priests cite Pope Benedict's call to youths: The world offers you comfort, but you are not made for comfort. You are made for greatness.

The Rev. Kevin Manthey, 27, of St. Stephen's Church in Anoka is a former teenage garage-band drummer who still plays in his rectory basement. He keeps the words of Pope John Paul II on his office wall to remind him of this mission:

"Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops."

Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at kakersten@gmail.com.