Only strong souls willing to accept challenge of priesthood

The Baltimore Sun

The men studying at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park today really impress me by their strength and spirituality. After 27 years as president-rector of the seminary, it's the one legacy I wanted to leave. They have received a religious calling that some scorn, many overlook, and not a few members of their own church struggle to appreciate.

Members of the Seminary Class of 2007, recently ordained as priests, entered St. Mary's just as the clergy sex-abuse scandals hit the papers, first in Boston and then in other cities. They began their work to become priests under a huge cloud, but they were exemplary in their courage and determination to learn from this adversity and move beyond it. Moreover, they have gracefully faced the understandable suspicion they encounter nowadays. They know they have a reputation to rebuild for society at large and for those who follow them. Only time will tell if they can. But merely in entering the seminary and priesthood, they are sacrificing much more than I did.

When I came to St Mary's in the early 1960s to begin studies for the priesthood, my family and friends were bursting with pride. A unique mixture of religious awe and social prestige enveloped the priesthood. My paternal grandfather, a Protestant freemason, didn't understand Catholicism, much less like it. But he thought my calling special. His outsider vote counted more for that.

Youths pursue callings and careers because people they respect - family, teachers, friends - think those occupations are socially significant. Personal aptitude, interest, and making a good living matter. But the perception that one is engaged in work that is influential and consequential - this counts most of all.

The young don't need to guess what we respect. We tell them. Many told me. It's a small but real reason I wanted to be a priest.

A steady erosion of social admiration for the priesthood as a way of life was under way for three decades or more before the recent scandals broke. It explains why religious ministry in general, I think, suffers on the career scorecard. For Catholics, it explains more about the vocation's downturn than individual factors such as celibacy.

For now, the scandals have summoned the church and the priesthood back to some spiritual basics: wholesome human character and sacred promises. That's what's I've seen in the new men entering St. Mary's.

People naturally wonder today whether seminaries might be accepting unqualified candidates to fill the ranks. I tell them it's just the opposite. Only stronger souls will risk the new scrutiny. The strictures are tighter than ever to get into the seminary and to stay there. There's psychological screening, criminal background checks, extensive annual evaluations, tough academics, and close supervision of seminarians in parishes and schools.

Becoming a priest today is swimming upstream start to finish. Staying a priest at this time in history requires fidelity and heavy lifting. But here's the good part: That's what builds character and strong men. It's just what the priesthood needs. The church needs it, and society needs it too.

At a tribute in my honor at the seminary last April, three seminarians spoke. Their comments were about me, but their character and their courage stole the show. In the receiving line afterward, a Protestant couple, friends of mine, spontaneously said, "We'd take any one of them for our pastor in a heartbeat!"

Recently, I asked a student at Food For Thought Tutoring Center what he wanted to be when he grew up. He answered, "Either the guy that makes the wedding cakes or a priest!"

I didn't mind his third-grade career dilemma. He'd seen a chef do an amazing, multi-tiered creation on the Food Channel. But, then again, he'd also met some of our best seminarians. These guys impress him too.

The Rev. Robert F. Leavitt recently stepped down after 27 years as the president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore. His e-mail is

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