Influx of new seminarians raises financial challenges
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA welcomes a steady increase in the number of young men entering Catholic seminaries who would like to become military chaplains and thanks the many Catholic bishops who have agreed to co-sponsor them. When the 2011-2012 academic year rolls around later this month, the number of co-sponsored and military-affiliated seminarians will stand at 31, up sharply from just three in 2008-2009; 12 in 2009-2010; and 23 in 2010-2011.
Co-sponsorship means that a diocesan bishop agrees to accept the young man as a seminarian, and that the seminarian will participate in the Chaplain Candidacy Program of one of the branches of the U.S. armed forces. The bishop agrees to release him for service as a military chaplain after three years of pastoral experience as a priest in his diocese. When the priest leaves military service, he returns to the diocese.
Father Kerry Abbott, OFM Conv., Director of Vocations, said, “This is one of the ‘untold stories’ of the blessings of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and those Faithful fervently seeking to respond to the Voice of God. Catholic seminaries in the United States, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, are straining to accommodate the influx of seminarians entering formation programs leading to presbyteral ordination and military chaplaincy. Many seminaries have found it necessary to convert guest rooms to seminarian quarters.”
The outlook for future vocations is just as bright. The archdiocese is currently processing hundreds of inquiries from prospective military chaplains. Father Abbott expects anywhere from five to 10 more to enter seminaries next year, with still more to come in years to follow.
The timing could not be better. The U.S. armed forces have seen a steady decline in Catholic military chaplains over the past 10 years as priests reach the military retirement age of 62. Their numbers are down from more than 400 active in 2001 to 274 this year.
Father Abbott says the increase in vocations is due mainly to the support of Catholic bishops, “for which this archdiocese is most grateful,” and successful recruiting over the past three years. The recruiting, which began under his predecessor, Father John McLaughlin, is taking place largely among a pool of candidates that has contributed substantial numbers to the priesthood in recent years—the U.S. military. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, nearly 10% of men ordained as U.S. Catholic priests over the past two years had previously served in the military. Another 10% came from military families.
“When you think about it, this makes complete sense,” Father Abbott said. “Both the military and the priesthood rely on a largely common set of foundational values, including a commitment to service, self-discipline and a higher calling. So it should come as no surprise that so many of our seminarians come from a military background and a growing number are looking to go back to the life they know after ordination.”
For the archdiocese, the growing influx of new co-sponsored seminarians poses a dilemma – that is, how to pay for its 50% share of their five-year education. The archdiocese splits tuition and related costs evenly with each diocese where the co-sponsored seminarian is educated and ordained. In just three years, the archdiocese’s annual seminary bill has climbed from less than $40,000 to more than $350,000. The Knights of Columbus recently announced a new “Venerable Father McGivney Military Chaplain Scholarship” that will provide $200,000 a year over the next five years. The archdiocese is now in search of additional funding sources to make up the difference.
Father Abbott remarked, “What a delightful dilemma to have!”
For more information about Catholic priestly vocations in the U.S. military, go online and visit http://www.milarch.org/site/c.dwJXKgOUJiIaG/b.6561041/k.FA6D/Vocations.htm.