Why has Duluth, which has one of the fastest declining Catholic populations in the nation, been producing such a crop of seminary students? For its population of Roman Catholics, more young men from the Duluth Diocese have become priests than in most other dioceses in the country. In a report to be issued this fall, the Duluth Diocese will come in at number 21 out of the country's 176 ranked dioceses.
For a while, Brandon Moravitz was "duking it out with God."
Was he meant to be a married man? Perhaps a youth minister? Moravitz, now 29, tried both those suits on, but they didn't feel quite right.
What about the priesthood?
"What, God? Really?" Moravitz, of Ely, remembers asking. And God, for now, has told him yes.
Moravitz is in the middle of eight years of seminary education and soul-searching, a process that all priests go through to discern if God has chosen them to be priests. Brandon's younger brother, Ryan, is set to be ordained as a priest next year.
The Moravitz brothers are two of 20 young men enrolled in seminary and committed to serving in the Duluth Diocese, a collection of 93 parishes across northeastern and central Minnesota. For its population of Roman Catholics, more young men from the Duluth Diocese have become priests than in most other dioceses in the country.
The seminarians are spread among schools and universities across the country. But once a year they gather in Duluth for a weekend of fellowship and bonding. It's a time for the men who might one day be priests to get to know each other and the people of their home diocese.
When he tells people he is part of that group, Brandon Moravitz sees two reactions.
"Some people are very intrigued and inspired," he said. "And to others, you're going against the grain of our culture, you're giving up the ideal."
Perception of priests
People can't believe priests would choose to forgo marriage, sex and a career where they are free to make their own choices, seminary students say, but that's a narrow lens with which to examine the priesthood.
"There's an impression that when a man goes into celibate priesthood, they are shutting themselves off from joy," said Dan Weiske of Duluth. He was working toward a master's degree in public administration when he decided to enter seminary.
"But a man that goes into seminary can have very, very full joy, a joy that flows out of relationships with other people, but especially God," Weiske said. He said he is excited about being able to bring that joy out in others.
Why has Duluth, which has one of the fastest declining Catholic populations in the nation, been producing such a crop of seminary students?
Some chalk it up to prayer, others to the bishop, deacons and priests who actively encourage men to consider the priesthood, still others to the "John Paul II generation" of young Catholics who were energized by the popular pope.
It's a tricky thing to predict how many young men from the diocese might enter seminary in a given year, said Duluth Diocese Deacon Mike Knuth. People often think about seminary for years before they enter, and there is much that can happen to encourage -- or discourage -- them along the way.
"You plant the seed, put in fertilizer, and wait," Knuth said. "Some years are abundant while other years are real lean."
Knuth chalks it up to prayer and an active, involved vocations team, which includes Bishop Dennis Schnurr, the Rev. Richard Kunst and himself.
Between 450 and 500 new Catholic priests are ordained every year, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. But the church as a whole needs about three times that number to replace the priests who retire, die or otherwise leave the priesthood during that same period, she said.
The center periodically ranks dioceses based on the number of newly ordained priests over several years. In a report to be issued this fall, the Duluth Diocese will come in at number 21 out of the country's 176 ranked dioceses, Gautier said.
Hearing the call
There is no one road that leads these men toward the church, Knuth said. Some, like 19-year-old Adam Isakson of Cloquet, have been traveling that path since they were very young.
Isakson, who attended his first day of undergraduate seminary classes at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity this month, has felt called to the priesthood since sixth grade, when he witnessed Bishop Schnurr's ordination.
"I felt a sense of peace in my heart; I felt a sense of belonging" during Schnurr's ordination, Isakson said.
Just once did Isakson really question if he was meant for the priesthood.
"Maybe I'm called to married life," Isakson wondered. "But then God gave me a slap in the face at Eucharist. I asked, 'God, can you please give me a sign?' And right when I prayed, a lady I didn't know turned to me and asked if I had ever thought about entering the priesthood."
And just once did Isakson's mother, Christine, question whether her only child should devote his life to the church. When she asked Adam if he was sure he wanted to enroll in seminary school this fall, "he looked at me and said, 'And not go into the priesthood?"' Christine Isakson recalled. "So I left it at that; I didn't say anything more. I leave it in God's hands."
Whenever seminary students talk about being ordained, they automatically add "God willing." The phrase is an acknowledgement that a handful of students leave seminary each year and that no matter how sure they are now that the priesthood is for them, that could change.
Ryan Norrell, 23, formerly of Meadowlands, entered seminary with a sense of "peace and joy" in his heart, and when he left seminary two years later, his heart was filled with the same emotions.
"I had been praying about it for a while, just wanting guidance about where I should go," Norrell said. After months of prayer, he discerned the right decision was to leave. The hardest part was walking away from the 50 young men he had spent years praying, learning and living with, Norrell said. Six months later, he met his future wife. Both now live in Grand Forks, N.D., where Norrell is enrolled in law school.
"If everyone who went into seminary became a priest, the seminary wouldn't be doing its job," Norrell said. "Not everyone is meant to become a priest."
Questioning whether they are meant to be priests is a normal part of seminary. When the current class of seminarians met in Duluth this year, they seized on a rare opportunity to ask the diocese's newest priests about the lifestyle.
The young men dragged chairs into a rough circle and slowly began to ask the Revs. Francis Kabiru, Gabriel Waweru and Thomas Galarneault the most practical of questions.
How do you find time to prepare a meal?
What if you run out of spiritual sustenance?
And, by the way, how's the whole celibacy thing?
Many of the answers focused on finding the time for prayer, and making that time your center.
"If you allow yourself, you'll be run into the ground," Bishop Schnurr said. "What you have to do is structure in, all the time, the need for prayer. If you remain faithful to that time of prayer, it's amazing. Everything gets done."
During the days that followed, there was time to talk about faith and about the diocese's resources, time to pop a beer by a campfire and play a mean game of ultimate Frisbee. For Isakson, it was a chance to meet his fellow seminarians before the rigors of the school year began.
"You want to be a man of God, and that's what the seminary does," Isakson said. "It takes you from being a boy into being a man of God." Rochester Post Bulletin