The number of young men at college seminaries has plummeted since the 1960s, but St. John Vianney at the University of St. Thomas has doubled undergraduate enrollment since 2001. The St. Paul school hopes it's on the leading edge of a trend.
Tim Lange once thought he'd settle into a "normal" college life after high school.
God, he said, had a different plan.
"I was not thinking of seminary," he said. But after he spent a summer volunteering at a Bible camp, counseling younger teens and sharing his faith, it hit him. "I thought: 'This is so fulfilling. I could do this for the rest of my life.' "
It's one story, but it helps explain why Lange, 19, came to St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas - and why the seminary's undergraduate student body has quietly doubled in six years.
Officials expect 155 students this fall. They say they are seeing more students like Lange - Catholics energized by local youth ministries - who seek a deeper bond with their faith and nurture a desire to lead. The number of young seminarians is no longer declining.
Nationally, college seminary enrollment has plummeted from more than 13,000 in the late 1960s to about 1,300 students, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The increase at St. John Vianney is a small but important change that's gone largely unnoticed.
"This is sort of the new trend," said the seminary's president, the Rev. William Baer. "It's kind of a response by young Catholics saying, 'Let's get back on track ... I'm not ashamed of being a Catholic."
Still, it is not a typical college campus experience for young men. They agree to live as though they will become priests.
That means practicing celibacy and not dating, among other things.
Initially reluctant to take on that life - he'd been accepted to the University of Notre Dame and wasn't planning to be a seminarian there - Lange said he became attracted to the "discipline and life centered on Christ."
And, really, the Brainerd man added, the "normal" college experience is not so great as to be missed. He finished his first year at St. John Vianney and said it went well.
The seminarians take classes across campus like other St. Thomas students and earn undergraduate degrees, ultimately, with a concentration in philosophy. Many students, Baer said, are still like him - men who came in mid-life to seek the priesthood. The younger men he's seeing come from small towns with strong parishes. Most do not come from Catholic high schools.
They might not become priests. About 35 percent to 40 percent continue on to the priesthood, Baer said. Others choose law school or other secular paths.
Marcus Milless, 19, grew up in a strong Catholic family with an older brother who had gone to the seminary. But the Coon Rapids teen decided instead to take classes at a local community college and was thinking of enrolling in accounting at Minnesota State (Mankato). He also had thoughts of becoming a doctor.
"I thought it was too much of a sacrifice, giving up dating, my job," he said of the seminary. But God, he said, brought him to the idea of becoming a priest. He also liked the sense he got at St. John Vianney that "they are forming men here."
Some of his friends were skeptical and worried that "we can't hang out anymore, which is not the case."
Milless, though, said he is a different person from his high school days.
On campus, he said, the seminary students are easy to pick out in khaki pants and collared shirts. Sometimes, he said, students he doesn't know will buttonhole him with "faith-filled questions." He likes that.
But he's not sure whether he'll become a priest.
"Right now, I'm really intrigued by the priesthood, but I'm not completely there yet," he said. "God is calling me for four years at St. John Vianney, but after four years I don't know."
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