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Seminarians Reflect on Dearth of Priests


We turn now to one of the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church in the U.S.: the shortage of men pursuing the priesthood. Seminary enrollment is down 60 percent since 1968. That's according to a study from Georgetown University.

We're going to spend some time now with two men who have enrolled in seminaries. Matthew Malone(ph) is a Jesuit seminarian of the New England Province of Jesuits. Orlando Asso(ph) attends St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, just outside of Philadelphia.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. MATTHEW MALONE (Seminarian, New England Province of Jesuits): Thank you very much.

Mr. ORLANDO ASSO (Seminarian, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary): Thank you.

NORRIS: I'm interested in hearing why you both decided to choose this path. And, Matt Malone, I'm going to begin with you. I was looking at this Web site called newyorkpriest.com. And in an area called The Signs, there's this interesting question: How do I really know if God is calling me? He hasn't exactly sent me an e-mail or called me on the phone. How did you know?

Mr. MALONE: Well, I think fundamentally it came through a prayer, through process of discernment both in private prayer with God, with spiritual counselors, with priests that I knew. It also grew out of my own experience of spending a number of years after college working in politics and really feeling my heart pulled in a different direction and wanting to effect a different kind of change in the world.

NORRIS: May I ask your age?

Mr. MALONE: I am 36.

NORRIS: And Orlando, I guess that's an invitation for me to ask your age?

Mr. ASSO: Sure. I am 34.

NORRIS: And when did you feel the call to the priesthood?

Mr. ASSO: Well, I think that what triggered it was the death of my mom, a sudden stroke she suffered back into 2002. Up until that point, I had been working in New York for the Federal Reserve Bank for about eight years, living a very comfortable bachelor lifestyle. And what happened was, when she passed away, she was basically the glue of our family, religiously. That made me realize how empty I think my life really was up to that point.

And so through a steady process of about three years after my mom's passing, you know, praying the rosary every day, you know, basically commuting to and from work, going to daily Mass during my lunch breaks, All that culminated, really, with a trip to Lourdes, a Marian shrine in France. And in speaking with a priest there during confession, that's when it was really hit home that perhaps I had calling to the priesthood.

NORRIS: In churches and parishes and dioceses across America right now, there is a debate over this issue on the shortage of priests, how did the church got to this point. Why aren't more men enrolling in seminaries?

Mr. MALONE: I think it's hard to say. There's just a whole range of sociological factors at work. I think part of it has to do with a kind of hyper-sexualized culture in which we live, and people having misunderstandings of what celibacy is and what it requires. I think that it has to do with the fact that Catholic America has emerged from the ghetto in the last 50 or 60 years. Families are becoming smaller. Communities have sort of lost their Catholic identity because we're now dispersed out into the larger world. You know, so I think there's a whole range of factors that are at issue.

NORRIS: Do you think in any way a different world awaits you - a different world in terms - not just to the parish that you ultimately serve but also within the outside world and how it views Catholicism?

Mr. ASSO: This is Orlando. You know, the reality of the parish priest in my diocese of Allentown is that we are one of those dioceses that is undergoing a consolidation of parishes. And the reality is, when I'm ordained, you know, God-willing, four and a half years from now, the ratio of priest to people is decreasing, one priest to more or many people. And the reality of becoming a pastor rather than assistant pastor waiting in the wings, so to speak, that time frame is also accelerated. So, those are realities for the parish priests in my diocese, for sure.

NORRIS: Is that daunting?

Mr. ASSO: You know, I'm very simple-minded in my approach. It's all daunting to me. I still marvel at the fact that I'm actually sitting here doing this interview when just a few years ago I was, you know, in my Hoboken apartment maybe playing Xbox or having a poker game with friends. It is daunting. But when I go into prayer, I bring all these large problems and seemingly insurmountable things into prayer, and I know it's only God who can take care of them, so I give it all to him through the Blessed Mother.

NORRIS: You know, Americans tend to have a rather cloistered view of priests, even observant Catholics know very little about the priest at their own parish. What don't we know about the daily life of priests? Do you have to live in the rectory? Are you paid? Can you pursue hobbies? Orlando, for instance, will you continue - can you continue to play with your Xbox if you wanted?

Mr. EISO: I probably won't be playing the Xbox, you know, in the near future. But what I am surprised, when I came into the seminary, is how many of the things that I don't really need to give up, that if I use them in a healthy way they're fine. But, you know, to distinguish a parish priest from, say, the monastic life, I think it would be unhealthy for a priest doing all his free time to sit in a rectory all day praying. We need to develop healthy relationships with all people, not only pastorally with the congregation we may be with, with other priests, with our family members, and friends that we've had in the secular world. They're all important to developing a healthy priest.

NORRIS: Orlando Asso attends St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. That's just outside of Philadelphia. Matthew Malone is a Jesuit seminarian of the New England Province of Jesuits.

Thanks to both of you. Peace be with you.

Mr. MALONE: And also with you.

Mr. ASSO: Also with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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