God’s Whisper

Pope Benedict’s visit to St. Joseph Seminary in New York sparked an interest in religious life. Meanwhile, across the US other signs of vocational hope appear.



The vocation director for the Archdiocese of New York was facing a dilemma. For the first time in its 108-year history, New York’s St. Joseph Seminary would have no new students, Father Luke Sweeney realized.

It was expected that only 23 seminarians would be ordained during the next four years, following decades of decline in the ranks of priests serving the archdiocese. The last 40 years have seen the number of active priests in the city cut in half—down to only 648— while the number of Catholics they serve has increased to 2.5 million. New York’s ratio of priests to congregants is among the worst in the United States.

Then Pope Benedict arrived on April 19.The Pope’s appearance that day at the seminary in Dunwoodie would prove to be an amazing confluence of dire need and papal presence.

On that afternoon at St. Joseph, Pope Benedict XVI put a question to the gathered multitude of 25,000, which included seminarians, religious sisters, and young adults: “Who bears witness to the Good News of Jesus on the streets of New York, in the troubled neighborhoods of large cities, in the places where the young gather, seeking someone in whom they can trust?”

Later in his address, the Pope pursued the matter further, saying, “Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ.” He urged them to seek the “particular vocation God has for you” and, whatever calling they discover, to “embrace it with joy.”

As Father Sweeney remarked later, “We were hoping the Pope would convince many who were considering the priesthood to make the next step. It looks like he did.”

“It’s been like a tsunami, a good tsunami of interest,” he says, referring to the response following the Pope’s visit. “I’ve been meeting people all week and have a lot of e-mails I haven’t had the chance yet to respond to. It has been incredible.”

“One [applicant] said he came, saw the crowd, heard what the Pope said, and then called us,” Sweeney recalls. “He said his questions and concerns were answered when he heard the Pope speak.”

Father Sweeney believes that the main reasons for the sudden interest in priestly vocations in New York are “our concerted efforts to get out the story about vocations, along with the Holy Father’s visit; the fact that Pope Benedict’s address to seminarians took place at St. Joseph Seminary, and the reality that we have a very aggressive campaign—‘The World Needs Heroes’—and a great follow-up with [the website] NYPRIEST.com.”

As for the applicants who responded after the Pope’s visit, “a number have been referred to other dioceses or other seminaries, depending upon their situations.” He said that others “might prove to be good candidates for New York in the future (after college or after greater involvement in the Church).” Sweeney believes that there will be “another handful of promising young men who might be ready for application this fall … but not any New York candidates in their ranks.”

“We expect no new first theology students this fall for New York. Part of this is due to the new two years of philosophy that were instituted,” he explains. “Part of this is due to the fact that we have no graduating college seniors in our St. John Neumann Program. We actually have two prospects for second theology (one from our own ESL track).”

As for candidates for the college and pre-theologate program, Sweeney noted that there are “some candidates with whom we were in process before the Holy Father’s visit.”

But along with the Holy Father’s presence at events at the seminary and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the other factor influencing young men during the papal visit was the presence of numerous current seminarians from New York and all over the country.

Sweeney said one man told him that he was impressed by “the tremendous joy these seminarians radiated; he knew it was not artificial.” He was affected by what he saw, Sweeney said, because “this joy that drew him was divine. He wants to be a priest and have what he saw in those seminarians.”


The vocations director stated that he felt that Pope Benedict’s words made an impression, but that it was mainly the Holy Father’s presence that really had an effect “among those who were ‘on the fence.’”

Sweeney stressed that “these men are looking for the grace of courage to take the next step.” The Holy Father certainly stirred up their faith and courage, he emphasized, while putting “their real, but human, concerns into a broader context of eternal life.”

Sweeney emphasized that the true sign of the effectiveness of vocations work in a diocese is whether or not these applicants “are homegrown.” That is to say, were they “raised in our parishes, [did they come] through our Catholic schools or CCD programs, were they in our Newman Centers?”

He also credited the rise of “good, strong Catholic families” and the homeschooling movement, as well as the film Fishers of Men (produced by Grassroots Films, which also designed the archdiocese’s website for priestly vocations, NYPRIEST.com), for contributing to the increase of interest in priestly vocations.

Sweeney hopes that the Catholic Church in the United States has been able to turn a corner and can now offer a more positive view of the priesthood. Since those entering seminary today are about 20 years old, or a little older, many were teenagers when the priest sex scandals broke.

Sweeney wonders how many vocations were killed off by the scandals. But he feels confident that the visit by the Holy Father has renewed the Catholic Church’s image in our country, and along with it, the image of the Catholic priesthood.

The New York archdiocese’s media campaign, “The World Needs Heroes,” was created to keep a “positive priestly image before young Catholic men, their families and the general population,” Sweeney says. The effort will hopefully renew a “culture of vocation, the foundation of which is prayer, sacrifice, and essential priestly support … one where vocations are seen as a real and worthy profession for all young Catholics.”

When asked if he knew if this vocations phenomenon after the papal visit was happening anywhere else, Father Sweeney mentioned that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal “are trying to keep up with increased inquiries, as well.”

But the story doesn’t begin and end with the Pope coming to Washington, DC and New York. A rise in vocations can be seen across the country.


According to his recent newsletter, the prior of Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Father Daniel Mary of Jesus Crucified, M. Carm., is frantically trying to build a new monastery, as more and more applicants appear at the Carmelites’ cramped quarters in Cody, Wyoming.

“As our efforts towards Irma Lake [the location of the building effort] progress, we find ourselves with an overwhelming number of vocational inquiries.… Easter week alone brought two new postulants to us, so there are 10 of us now. We have three young men who have completed the application process and will be entering, May through August.… Every last space in our small rectory is someone’s bedroom … even the new house next door … is unable to accommodate our rapid growth. What a blessed problem!”

Included photos show small buildings rising in a treeless, windswept valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks, a breathtaking location for contemplation and prayer. But it also appears an unlikely location for a lot of foot traffic; it is far from populous areas, and is not easily reached. This community of Carmelite monks is also unusual in that they live a cloistered life. But these factors haven’t discouraged a steady stream of applicants from finding their way to the prior’s door.

The Wyoming Carmelite priory is by no means unique in its blessed problem. From the desert, there has sprung up a wellspring of possibilities.

In the Pittsburgh diocese, Bishop David Zubik said that he believes his prayers for increased vocations are showing signs of being answered as well. In early May, over 80 men and boys from around the diocese attended an inquiry meeting for those interested in the priesthood, according to a May 12, 2008 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Attendees ranged in age from older grade school students to professionals, the oldest of whom was 51.

A cookout for those interested in the priesthood was followed by a standingroom- only hour of prayer for vocations that drew a crowd of 600 people.

“I have never seen the seminary auditorium so packed,” said Bishop Zubik, who moved from his official residence last year to St. Paul Seminary in order to be close to the seminarians. “The spirit is moving,” the bishop believes.

The Pittsburgh diocese currently has 27 seminarians. Four of them attend St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which currently has students from 13 dioceses, 12 Benedictine monasteries, and several other religious orders.


Young men are not the only ones hearing the call. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the vocations director for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, Sister Joseph Andrew, OP, finds she “cannot build fast enough to keep up with the number of women coming.” She stated in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that “we are bursting at the seams with young, well-educated women.” The sisters presently have 70 women studying at their monastery, with an additional 20 on the way. Her warning that the novices may end up sleeping on the floor hasn’t discouraged this wave of newcomers.

Several women responded to the question of what prompted them to join by saying that “the vows really meant something,” and “radical witness is what we are hungering for.” One applicant’s email read: “I’ve had it with the loneliness and emptiness in my life.”

On a trip to Tennessee earlier this year, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, took time out for a visit to another order of nuns experiencing a sudden increase. On the feast of St. Dominic, the cardinal said Mass for the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville. The event took place in the new chapel of the sisters’ motherhouse, which was part of a $45 million renovation and expansion completed less than two years ago—a renovation and expansion needed to accommodate the sudden growth in numbers of new applicants.

All 228 sisters in the congregation— the highest number in its history—were on hand for the Mass on the feast day of the order’s founder. Mother Ann Marie remarked that “there seems to be a real surge in vocations now.”

In speaking to the media, Cardinal Bertone made a point of telling reporters that the average age of the Dominican sisters in the community is 33, a contrast to many religious orders both in the United States and Europe whose memberships are aging. “This presents a beautiful face of the Church here,” he said.


The timing of this growing interest in the religious life can be attributed, in part, to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Many who have joined religious orders or who have been ordained are now referred to as “John Paul II vocations.” Father Matthew Lamb, chairman and professor in the department of theology at Ave Maria University, knows first-hand that this is true: “Students have told me how their interest in graduate theological studies was sparked by the visits of Pope John Paul II.” But, he added, “I am sure there will be others in the future whose interest in graduate theological studies was sparked or assisted by Pope Benedict’s visit.”

New York’s recent experience points to the skills of Pope Benedict, the humble servant and devoted teacher, who continues in John Paul II’s footsteps by reaching out to the young and drawing them in with his ability to capture their youthful curiosity about the faith. This younger group of papal admirers is sometimes referred to as the “B16 Generation.”

In a recent article for Newsweek, “How Benedict XVI Will Make History,” papal biographer George Weigel discusses the Holy Father’s gifts as a teacher.

“Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most learned men in the world; he is also a master teacher who can unpack complex Christian doctrines in an accessible way,” Weigel wrote. He noted that Pope Benedict “continues to draw enormous crowds to his Wednesday general audiences, some larger than those drawn by his predecessor…. Benedict’s skills as a teacher have certainly touched a significant 21st-century yearning for solid religious food.”

Weigel wrote that the Pope’s first two encyclicals, on love and hope, “were consciously framed to speak to the fears of a deeply conflicted world by reminding the world of Christianity’s basic message.” He said: “Popes matter by changing lives and changing history” and they do this through “the power to propose and persuade, religiously and morally.”


Certainly that power to propose and persuade was witnessed and experienced by the young who were caught up by the Holy Father’s words to them at Dunwoodie. But before there was a Pope Benedict or a Cardinal Ratzinger, there was Father Joseph Ratzinger, a newly ordained priest who inspired a twelve year-old girl living in a nearby town in Bavaria.

Even at her young age, Emma Hofbauerwas moved by the simultaneous ordination of the two Ratzinger brothers. Their decision to become priests, especially following the suffering caused by the Nazi regime, became her inspiration to join religious life. She chose the Discalced Carmelite Sisters in the faraway state of Washington in the US, where she would spend her life following the Carmelite’s charism of praying for priests.

“I wanted to give my life to this [prayer for priests], and it all started with those two, Georg and Joseph [Ratzinger],” she recalled.

That friendship, which started so long ago, remains strong today. Sister Emmanuel of the Virgin Mother, OCD, as she is now called, was given the nickname “the Pope’s pen-pal” when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. They still keep in touch today.

It comes as no surprise to Sister Emmanuel that Pope Benedict could sway a crowd of young people into considering religious life. She recently spoke of the essence of his message to those young adults and seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary.

“Pope Benedict brought out the idea that Christ is a person—not a thing, not something we’ve imagined, but a real person,” she said. Understanding that, she continued, “It is very important that we have a personal relationship with him.” We can accomplish this by “living a life of prayerfulness,” which is “living a virtuous life of charity, humility, patience, and faith.”

Sister Emmanuel says that we must allow ourselves “to be God’s instruments.” “We are put here to reveal him to others,” she explained. And if we are successful, “everyone we come in contact with will see him.”

That is what the young people at St. Joseph Seminary saw in the Pope, she believes. “They saw his Christ-likeness, his gentleness, his humility. This all came through to those who saw him.”

Father Luke Sweeney agrees.

“I have always believed that the Holy Father’s visit would impact vocations in the short term, but more importantly, his visit would impact them for the long term,” he said.

“As young people reflect on their encounter with His Holiness, as they put into practice his plea to pray and to encounter Jesus in silence, as they become better Catholics in the Church with other young people who were inspired by the Holy Father, vocations will sprout over the long term,” Sweeney says.

“There will be some young men who were at Dunwoodie on April 19 who were thinking about the priesthood, and in good time will take the next step, the encounter with Pope Benedict XVI having been one of a number of providential aspects in their vocation journey,” he says.

“However, there will be others who were there that day, who never previously considered the priesthood.”

For those young people, Sweeney explained, “When they saw the number of seminarians, priests, and religious, when they saw a seminary for the first time, and when they heard the Holy Father’s words, the seed of a vocation was planted in them that will come to maturity many months or years from now.”

Pope Benedict XVI completed his comments at St. Joseph Seminary with a final challenge: “You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine his light upon this great city and beyond…. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.”


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