The largest incoming class of seminarians in a decade arrived this week at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and that is before the Archdiocese of Philadelphia launches a major new initiative in the fall to drive up priestly vocations.
Bishop Timothy C. Senior, rector of St. Charles, said Wednesday, Aug. 19 that of the 52 “new men” – those entering seminary to study for the priesthood for the first time – 20 will be studying for the Philadelphia Archdiocese at its seminary.
“That is the highest number in more than 10 years,” he said. Only six new men for Philadelphia entered last year, he added.
The new Philadelphia seminarians are part of a new class of 52 men from various dioceses and religious orders, including two congregations sending seminarians to St. Charles for the first time: the Vincentians and the Oblates of St. Joseph.
The new men enter the seminary in different stages including college, pre-theology studies or a relatively new one-year program of immersion in Catholic spirituality.
The breakdown by academic class for the new Philadelphians follows: eight in first college (i.e., college freshman class); three in second college; one in first theology (the graduate theology program); one in pre-theology (a preparatory program for college graduates before beginning theology studies) and five in the spiritual year program, also preceding theology studies.
Overall, the seminary is seeing a 20 percent enrollment increase to 145 seminarians this year, up from the 120 at the end of the last term in June.
The student body is also showing “increasing diversity,” the bishop said. Four of the new seminarians for Philadelphia are Vietnamese and one-third of the seminarians in the College Division are of Hispanic heritage.
The bishop said increasing that diversity is a vocations priority, especially among African Americans in the archdiocese and newly arrived Catholics from Africa.
“Our church must continue to reflect the ethnic diversity of our world and especially our region,” Bishop Senior said. “These new seminarians will make us even more sensitive to the spiritual needs of our parishioners.”
Bishop Senior speculated that the reason for more men responding to God’s call to priesthood may be the “Francis effect” – a perceived rejuvenation of church life as a result of the magnetic and popular pontiff – or a combination of that and a zeal for service by young people in the millennial generation.
“Young people are turning away from consumerism,” he said, and toward a life of service to Jesus Christ and the people of the archdiocese “over a society that is increasingly secular and experiencing the emptiness of a world without God.”
The site of the upbeat announcement was not at the seminary but instead at a parish church, St. Cyprian’s in West Philadelphia. It was also the setting for an announcement of a new vocations initiative titled “Called by Name” launching this fall in all 219 parishes of the archdiocese.
Archdiocesan vocations director Father Stephen DeLacy said after the program is introduced at parishes during Masses on the last weekend of October, parishioners will be invited on the first and second weekends of November to write the name of a young man they believe has the qualities of a good priest on a card available at the end of pews, and to place the cards in collection baskets.
The next week his staff will collate the cards and, in following weeks, Father DeLacy, Bishop Senior or the parish pastor will personally invite those men to discuss their possible vocation. Vocation retreats in December, January and February are planned at the seminary as a follow up for discernment.
The initiative is modeled after similar successful efforts in the Albany and Brooklyn dioceses in New York.
As for how many positive responses he hopes to see, Father DeLacy said he would be disappointed if there were not 200 such men open to exploring their vocation further. “I have full confidence that vocations are out there,” he said.
While it is not intended as an annual event, the hope is that the habit of personally inviting young people to consider a religious vocation will itself catch on among all Catholics.
That personal invitation was the spark of the vocation for the pastor of St. Cyprian Parish, Msgr. Federico Britto. Ordained 33 years for the archdiocese, he today leads a vibrant parish composed primarily of African-American Catholics and those recently emigrating from several African countries.
After 15 years of consolidations among other West Philadelphia parishes, St. Cyprian has grown to become the largest black Catholic parish in the archdiocese, with more than 1,000 registered families.
The priest grew up non-Catholic, attending the former Gesu Parish School. The parish’s Jesuit pastor asked the young student if he had ever thought about the priesthood. When he replied that he had, along with possibly becoming a musician or a teacher, the priest advised that he ask God to increase his vocation.
Msgr. Britto did pray for that intention every night, and after becoming Catholic and completing studies at Roman Catholic High School, he entered St. Charles Seminary to prepare for priesthood.
“It’s a pleasure to be a pastor, and to focus on my vocation,” he said.
“Called by Name” appears to have a heavenly intercessor besides a solid plan. Father DeLacy said the program is dedicated to the memory of Jose A. Serrano, a Philadelphia seminarian who died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 40.
His parents Sara and Jose attended the Wednesday press conference at St. Cyprian Church and watched a video on their son’s inspiring yet tragic vocation journey. In the beautiful and emotional production narrated by Sara, she said her son “just wanted to be a holy priest.”
(Watch the video on Jose below.)
After only his first year at the seminary he told his family about his cancer diagnosis. He decided to stay in the seminary and, his mother said, “his faith grew as his cancer went into remission.”
But the cancer returned a year later. After losing his eyesight and spending much of the year in a hospital, he died on Palm Sunday two years ago, Sara Serrano said.
The video ended with an inspirational message for the success of the program: “We entrust Called by Name to Jose’s prayerful intercession.”
Learn more about vocations in the Philadelphia Archdiocese at HeedtheCall.org.