Millennials fuel resurgence in priesthood

CINCINNATI — The Rev. Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh looks out his office window at the courtyard below, marveling at how much his view has changed in just a few weeks.

Once home to green grass and well-manicured shrubs, the courtyard is now a muddy mess. Heavy equipment rumbles throughout the day and temporary fences surround ditches and overturned earth.

O’Cinnsealaigh thinks it’s beautiful. As president of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary at The Athenaeum of Ohio, he knows what this big construction project means for the Catholic Church in Cincinnati.

“We have a future here,” he says.

The $11.5 million building going up behind O’Cinnsealaigh’s office is the first expansion of The Athenaeum’s Mount Washington campus in almost 60 years. The new apartments and conference rooms are necessary because the seminary has a problem no one saw coming: It needs more room.

To say the seminary has struggled for years to attract men to the priesthood would be an understatement. Enrollment plummeted from about 200 in the 1960s to less than 40 in 2011.

Then something changed. Enrollment started to surge in 2012 and has more than doubled in the past five years.

Today, 82 seminarians study here. Their numbers are up nationally, too, though the increase is not as dramatic.

More surprising than the sudden growth is the source of it. Millennials, or those roughly between the ages of 18 and 34, make up the vast majority of new recruits.

This is notable not just because seminarians are getting younger, but also because polls and statistics show no generation has strayed further from the Catholic faith than millennials. They are less likely than their parents and grandparents to attend Mass, to marry in the church or to identify as Catholic.

Their generation came of age as society was becoming less religious overall and as the Catholic Church was suffering through a yearslong clergy abuse crisis that tested their faith in Catholic institutions.

Yet no generation today is providing more men to lead the church than millennials. Nationally, three of every four seminarians are 34 years old or younger. At the Athenaeum, where seminarians in their 30s and 40s once dominated the ranks, the average age is 28.

So how did the church begin to turn things around with a generation that seemingly wants little to do with it? By using millennials’ skepticism as a selling point to young men wary of the changing culture around them.

The message is one of sacrifice: This is a big job and not everyone is cut out for it, but maybe you are.

The new breed of seminarians has embraced the notion they are taking on a secular world that’s sometimes hostile to their beliefs. They see themselves as part of a counter-culture movement, pushing back against consumerism, greed and other forces, which, in their eyes, make America a less faithful nation.

“They came from that culture. They lived in that culture,” O’Cinnsealaigh says. “They know that culture doesn’t have the answers they were looking for.”

The image of Catholic seminarians as rebels takes some getting used to, considering they’re members of a 2,000-year-old institution with more than 1 billion followers worldwide.

Yet these future priests say society has shifted so much they now are the outsiders, the ones with the radical agenda.