He vowed to make recruitment of priests a priority on his arrival
The Rev. Kyle Schnippel was excited last year when he told his boss, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr [former Bishop of Duluth], that he had recruited 10 young men to become priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The new class of seminarians was double the size of the one two years earlier and Schnippel saw the 10 recruits as proof the church was ending a long, downward trend.
But Schnurr seemed unimpressed.
"Well," he said. "Why not 20?"
The conversation reminded Schnippel - and anyone else who has watched the new archbishop work - that Schnurr has great expectations when it comes to finding, training and ordaining more priests.
• Photos: Tour Cincinnati’s Catholic seminary
He arrived here in 2008 with a vow to make priest recruitment a priority and he has spent the past 18 months trying to make good on that promise through fundraising and outreach.
His goal is to take on one of the biggest challenges facing the church today: a shortage of priests that threatens parishes, programs and the spiritual life of the region's half million Catholics.
Part of Schnurr's campaign went public last week when he made a fundraising pitch on behalf of the Athenaeum of Ohio, which is home to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Mount Washington. The plan is to complete a $15.75 million renovation of the Athenaeum while doubling or even tripling the number of seminarians there.
But the archbishop's push to recruit priests is about more than raising money for brick-and-mortar projects. He's also leading an aggressive recruitment program that has changed the way the church urges devout men to consider a "call" to the priesthood.
Church leaders no longer shy away from tough issues - celibacy, long work hours, the clergy abuse scandal - and instead embrace those challenges in their pitch to prospective seminarians.
The message now emphasizes the life of a priest as a life of sacrifice and encourages men to heed their call because their church and their fellow Catholics need good priests, now more than ever.
"They want to hear the challenge," Schnurr said. "They want to know they will spend their life making the world a better place. To soft-pedal anything, young people are not going to be interested in that."
The new approach to priest recruitment, also known as vocations, was underway before Schnurr arrived, but his involvement has intensified those efforts. He sought out Schnippel, the archdiocese's vocations director, the day he came to Cincinnati in late 2008 and made clear he would be active in the recruitment campaign.
"From the first moment, he said vocations are very important to me," Schnippel said. "And he's backed that up. Everywhere he goes, he talks about the impact of vocations."
The results so far are promising. The Athenaeum already has raised about $14 million, almost 90 percent of its goal, and outreach efforts have in two years helped increase the annual number of new seminarians from five to 10.
Schnurr mounted a similar drive to recruit priests as bishop in Duluth, Minn., from 2001 to 2008, when the number of seminarians there increased from eight to 24. The archbishop has no delusions about the difficulty of the job ahead, given that the number of priests in the archdiocese has fallen from 466 to 278 in less than four decades.
But he rejects the notion the decline is inevitable or that the church will have to learn to make do with fewer priests.
"There is a mentality that has to be turned around," Schnurr said. "We have watched the numbers diminish over the years and there has been a mentality that we just have to accept that.
"I don't accept that."
Seminary needs work
The work already under way at the Athenaeum hints at Schnurr's ambition.
The number of seminarian apartments will increase from 46 to 72 once construction paid for by a previous fundraiser is completed in a few years.
"I'm committed to filling them," Schnurr said of the new rooms.
The next round of work at the Athenaeum, which currently houses 36 seminarians, is meant to bring the 80-year-old stone-and-tile building into the 21st century. The Cincinnati landmark is packed with historic books and artwork, but it also has a leaky roof, drafty windows and inadequate wiring.
Those running the fundraiser say the building is crucial to priest recruitment in the same way training facilities and state-of-the-art labs are important to colleges trying to recruit scholars or athletes. They say good facilities send a message that the school is supported and that the church considers its seminarians a priority.
"It's critical," said Greg Ionna, a Mason businessman and co-chairman of the Athenaeum's capital campaign. "We all know our priests are aging and we need people to come in and replace them. We in the Catholic community are stewards of that place.
"If we're going to have priests for our children and our grandchildren, we've got to support the seminary."
Ionna said that support seems to be there, judging from the money raised in the first year of the campaign.
"A lot of people said this is crazy, let's delay this," said the Rev. Edward Smith, president and rector of the Athenaeum. "No one could have foreseen how well we've done. It showed me that people really love this place, love their priests, love their deacons.
"They see this as an investment in their future."
Recruitment a priority
The future of the seminary and the priests it trains has been on Schnurr's mind since he became co-adjutor archbishop in 2008. That's when he asked now-retired Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk if he could play a greater role in vocations, and Pilarczyk told him to "take it over."
Schnurr has continued that involvement since becoming archbishop in December.
He routinely attends events involving young people and makes a point of introducing himself and shaking hands with everyone. The idea is to make the church a bigger part of their lives and to encourage them to think about their future role in the church, be it as a volunteer, an active parishioner or, maybe, as a priest.
He also meets regularly with seminary candidates and those already in the seminary, urging them to embrace their call and to carry their message to others. He even encourages the seminary basketball team, the "Minor Prophets," to play an occasional scrimmage against a school or youth team.
The basketball isn't always great - the Prophets lost to an eighth-grade team this year - but the games are about more than hoops. Schnurr sees them as an opportunity to dispel the image of priests as lonely men detached from the outside world.
"They meet the seminarians and they play basketball with them," Schnurr said. "They see that they're normal guys."
Perhaps Schnurr's most effective outreach occurs during Andrew Dinners, where men considering the priesthood can meet with him and other priests. The dinners are named for St. Andrew, who in the Gospel of John brought his brother, Simon Peter, to meet Jesus.
The dinners are held all over the 19-county archdiocese and often attract 20 to 30 young men, a big improvement over the 15 who used to show up for an annual retreat at the seminary.
"Rather than trying to bring them here, we go out to them," Smith said.
A sense of mission
The approach is attracting a new breed of seminarians. They are older now than their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s, when many entered seminary as teenagers.
Some have gone to college, held jobs and considered married life, but they say a spiritual yearning led them to the priesthood.
They also speak with a sense of mission about their work and about the culture they believe has distorted the image of the Catholic faith, especially after a decade of media coverage of the clergy abuse scandal.
"I think most of us, this new generation of men coming in, we have a strong sense of getting the Catholic story out on our terms," said Chris Conlon, 28, a Norwood man who just completed his second year at the seminary.
"Our story is being told, but by the wrong people."
Ionna said the success of the fundraising campaign suggests Catholics appreciate these new priests and Schnurr's determination to fill the seminary with more of them.
When he introduced some seminarians to Catholics at a dinner last week, Ionna said, he was struck by the loud ovation they received.
"I think people do understand the importance of what's happening, and I think people appreciate it," he said. "They're sticking with their priests." Cincinnati Enquirer