The Diocese of Little Rock is emerging from a 41-year priest vocations slump.
Currently the Vocations Office is overseeing 29 seminarians in seven different schools in the United States, Rome and Mexico. The diocese has not seen numbers that high since 1966, the last full school year before St. John Home Mission Seminary closed in Little Rock.
Msgr. Scott Friend, vocations director, is continuously busy these days meeting prospective seminarians, helping the men complete entrance paperwork and visiting each seminary or college to check on the men. His workload has increased significantly compared to vocation directors in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s who oversaw as few as seven seminarians a year.
This year the diocese accepted eight new seminarians.
"I would like to get at least five new guys each year," Msgr. Friend said. "Ideally we want to get as many guys as we can take.
Different factors have been attributed to the increase.
"I do think there are a lot of factors," Msgr. Friend said. "They are all interdependent. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a Church to raise a priest."
Among the factors cited by Msgr. Friend are: family support, Catholic schools and parish religious education, peer-to-peer youth ministry, good priest role models, Knights of Columbus, Serra Club and lots of prayers.
Msgr. J. Gaston Hebert, who served as diocesan administrator from June 2006 to June 2008, often praised Msgr. Friend's efforts, recalling that when priests gathered they often asked how many seminarians the diocese had. The often-repeated answer came back 12 or 13.
Seminarian Andrew Hart of Little Rock said, "At a practical level, Msgr. Friend has been a dynamic and engaging vocations director and certainly has had an inspirational influence on both seminarians and those considering seminary."
While not taking credit for the seminarian increase, Msgr. Friend admits that having a priest working full-time as a vocation director is a big influence.
"A lot of time and resources is necessary to raise priests," he said. "A full-time director in vocations is critical. The dioceses that do that are doing better."
Since he took on his new job, Msgr. Friend has said he believes the vocations are present in the Church, but the diocese wasn't doing an effective job of helping young men discern their calling. He believed that once a "vocations culture" was modeled in parishes, more men would step forward.
"We need to do our part to make sure the question is heard -- to help them hear God's call," he said in 2005.
Four seminarians interviewed by Arkansas Catholic said the increase is the result of prayer and God's intervention.
"Without a doubt I believe it is a result of the prayers and sufferings of the people of our diocese offered to God for humble and holy priests," said Eddie D'Almeida of Vilonia, who attends the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Hart said young men are different today.
"I think more people are attuned to the challenges that the Church faces today and feel a personal calling to respond to that in priestly service," he said. "We come from different backgrounds and cultures, but all of us are trying to listen to that voice of the Holy Spirit inviting us to be 'another Christ' for the Church he founded."
"Many men are viewing the world today and are attempting to find out how they fit in as Catholic men in today's society," said seminarian Shawn Klatt of Clinton. "Those same men attempting to find their identity in the world soon learn that as Catholics there is something deeper than trying to find that 'niche on the mantle.'"
Shortly before Msgr. Friend's appointment as vocation director, more Mexican and international seminarians were accepted. Of the 29 attending seminary now, 14 of them were born in other countries or were raised by foreign-born parents.
Victor Ruben Quinteros, a native of Argentina, became a diocesan seminarian two years ago. He said God is calling Hispanic men to the priesthood to reflect the new reality in the state. For many of these men, it is a difficult transition from Latin America to Arkansas.
"When I arrived at Little Rock I could not communicate myself in English," he said. "I had to learn not only a new language but also a new culture, very different from Argentina. Learning and accepting all this is part of the answer we give to God's call. Today I can look back and contemplate God's grace in everything. God is teaching me to love a new family, a new home and a new country. Among our seminarians there is a sense of brotherhood, and this helps me in projecting the future of the diocesan presbyterate, in which I include myself."
The jump to 29 seminarians is not without some growing pains. Some of the men are not fluent in English. Most of the contact they have with each other is during the summer, especially at the annual seminarian retreat in Hot Springs.
"Going into my sixth and last year of study I have found it difficult to keep in touch with my fellow brother seminarians because we are already spread thin across many seminaries, but I have found that, unlike many seminarians for other dioceses, all of us from the Diocese of Little Rock get along very well together," D'Almeida said.
With the increase in seminarians, the hope is that more men will be ordained after they complete six to eight years of college and theology classes. In the past 19 years, Bishops Andrew J. McDonald and J. Peter Sartain ordained 20 men. In at least five of those years no one was ordained. The most to be ordained was two.
On July 11, two men -- D'Almeida and James Melnick of Cabot -- will be ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock.
If those currently enrolled remain in the seminary, Bishop Taylor could ordain three men each in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The Little Rock bishop has not ordained three priests in a year since 1988.
Msgr. Friend said with the current group already enrolled in the seminary, the diocese could potentially have 22 priests ordained in the next six years.
Even in September, Msgr. Friend is already looking to the new seminarians entering in the fall 2009.
"We have some really good prospects for next year," he said.
Msgr. Scott Friend said he believes the diocese needs to introduce at least four new components to ensure that the number of seminarians continues to grow.
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