But this year St. Louis will graduate the largest seminarian ordination class in 25 years. So some things are going right.
Once or twice a year, each student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary will drop by Archbishop Raymond Burke's residence in the Central West End at 4:30 p.m. From there, they set off down Lindell Avenue and into Forest Park.
"The walks," as the seminarians call them, are opportunities for young men to have heart-to-hearts with a man who regularly meets with the pope, a heady prospect for a young priest-in-training. The conversations are usually casual, and the seminarians get to see a more personal, human side of Burke — like when he gets a little skittish around off-leash dogs.
Kenrick officials organize the walks using time sheets. When the sheets are posted, there's a rush to sign on.
"It's like when you throw pellets at the Japanese fish at the Botanical Gardens," said seminarian Edward Nemeth, 26. "Guys falling over each other to get their names on the list."
On May 24, Nemeth and eight of his colleagues at Kenrick will be ordained as priests in the St. Louis Archdiocese — the largest St. Louis ordination class in 25 years and one of the largest in the U.S. It's also the same number of ordinations in St. Louis as the last three years combined.
Since the 1980s, declining interest in the priesthood has been a growing crisis for the Roman Catholic church in the U.S., a situation that was compounded by the clergy sex-abuse scandal earlier this decade. One church study suggested that 80 percent of parents whose sons are considering the priesthood try to dissuade them, fearing their child is entering a life of loneliness and unhappiness.
Burke is credited for helping to address such concerns at Kenrick. He is active in recruiting priests and knows the seminarians — their names, their life stories, their joys and their fears. He's also a frequent visitor to the seminary, sometimes dropping by unannounced for lunch with the students.
"He's the center and the core of this whole thing," said the Rev. Michael Butler, the vocations director for the archdiocese.
The student body at Kenrick-Glennon, which includes the undergraduate Cardinal Glennon College and graduate-level Kenrick Theological Seminary, is 112 students, the largest enrollment in two decades and a 50 percent increase over last year.
Monsignor Ted Wojcicki, Kenrick-Glennon's president, said he hopes to enroll 120 students next year, which would double the size of the seminary population from a decade ago. Last year, the archdiocese announced plans to expand the seminary.
The archdiocese officially attributes its recent success with vocations — Latin for vocare, which means, to call — to a higher power. More men are hearing God's call to the priesthood, they say. But God has had a hand from Burke, who decided vocations would be a high priority since he arrived in St. Louis in 2004.
"A bishop's principal responsibility is to provide priests for the people in his pastoral care," Burke said in an interview last week from Rome. "Ordinations have to be absolutely right at the top of my priorities."
During a Vatican meeting just months before his death in 2004, Pope John Paul II told Burke and other Midwest bishops to do more to increase the number of men training for the priesthood.
"No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the church in the United States," the pope told the bishops.
John Paul was not exaggerating. The number of diocesan priests in the U.S. has declined 22 percent since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In the same period, the number of graduate level seminarians has fallen 60 percent.
In 2005, the St. Louis Archdiocese estimated that by the end of 2008 it would have only 230 active diocesan priests, down from 313. The number has decreased, but not as precipitously as predicted three years ago and stands at 286.
At Kenrick, it's not just Burke's involvement that is cited for the turnaround in enrollment. The archbishop's conservatism, too, is an appealing aspect to young seminarians.
"The people who are attracted to the priesthood today tend to be much more conservative than their peers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. "Even in the 1950s, the people attracted to seminaries were more conservative than their peers, but not to the degree they are today."
Seminarians say Burke's conservatism helps him connect with them. The seminarians openly discuss how they see Burke as a spiritual father and embrace the traditional atmosphere Burke has championed in the archdiocese and the seminary.
Burke, for example, is considered one of the most devoted supporters of the old Latin Mass among U.S. bishops, and last year, Kenrick began celebrating the traditional liturgy on Fridays. More formal vestments are now required at morning and evening prayers. Burke said such "little things" help him "encourage a strong identity among the seminarians, especially with the celebration of the sacred liturgy."
Noah Waldman, 39, a former architect, was studying with a traditionalist group of priests a number of years ago. Eventually, he felt called to be a diocesan priest rather than part of an order. The problem, he thought, was that most bishops would think he was too conservative.
"I was told there were two bishops in the U.S. who would be interested in me," he said.
Burke, at that time the bishop of La Crosse, Wis., took Waldman in. The architect entered the seminary but decided Wisconsin was not a good fit and applied to a philosophy program in England. Burke "told me I was making a big mistake," Waldman recalled.
After the death of Pope John Paul II, Waldman decided the priesthood was indeed his calling, and Burke, since installed in St. Louis, invited Waldman to Kenrick. "Because of his support, I was able to make it through," said Waldman, who will be ordained on May 24.
Burke, however, plays down the notion that he's the main attraction. "More traditionalist men have come on their own; it's not that I've gone out to look for them," he said. "When men say they feel very confident in my leadership, I tell them that they have to come to the archdiocese of St. Louis because they're devoted to the archdiocese, not me."
Michael Houser, 26, began considering the priesthood when he was 13. He is the oldest of 10 children born to parents in Chesterfield who took their children to Mass every Sunday and prayed the rosary together as a family every night.
The Housers were part of a lay group tied to the conservative Legion of Christ congregation of priests. Houser attended elementary school at Gateway Academy, run by the Legion of Christ in Chesterfield, then attended the Legion's seminary high school in New Hampshire.
Houser decided the life of a diocesan priest fit him best. "It appealed to me a lot to be able to have a connection to a particular diocese — there's more stability in diocesan priesthood," Houser said. "When Archbishop Burke came to St. Louis, I was in my first year (at seminary), and he was a real godsend to me."
Butler, the head of the archdiocese's vocations office, said he doesn't like to think of the call to the priesthood in terms of numbers, but the future of the archdiocese necessitates it. Based on priests' rate of retiring and advancing age, the archdiocese needs to ordain about 10 to 12 men each year, Butler said.
To reach that goal, Butler said, the archdiocese needs to bring in 20 to 24 men each year. That's about double the current level. Next year, the seminary expects a more typical ordination class of five, though with larger entering classes, the days of five-member ordination ceremonies might be a thing of the past.
Nemeth remembered when Burke first got to St. Louis, the archbishop promised to make the seminary the heart of the diocese. Nemeth believes Burke has made good on that promise, and in doing so, has become "like a father" to the seminarians.
Nemeth said his most difficult moment at Kenrick-Glennon was when he was a college sophomore during the clergy sexual abuse crisis that emerged in 2002. "I remember being so angry at priests," Nemeth said. "Anywhere I went I felt like I was under a microscope with people thinking, 'Is he one of them?'"
Strength, Nemeth said, came from watching Burke deal with controversy in the succeeding years, an example the archbishop continues to set for future seminarians.
"He stands for truth when he knows that's not going to be easy," Nemeth said, "so we know he'll support us when we have to do the same." STLtoday