Seminarians Reflect on Dearth of Priests Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States comes at a time when Roman Catholic seminary enrollment is down 60 percent since 1968. Two seminarians talk with Michele Norris about the shrinking pool of priests and other issues facing the U.S. church.

Seminarians Reflect on Dearth of Priests

Seminarians Reflect on Dearth of Priests

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States comes at a time when Roman Catholic seminary enrollment is down 60 percent since 1968. Two seminarians talk with Michele Norris about the shrinking pool of priests and other issues facing the U.S. church.


We turn now to one of the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church in the U.S.: the shortage of men pursuing the priesthood. Seminary enrollment is down 60 percent since 1968. That's according to a study from Georgetown University.

We're going to spend some time now with two men who have enrolled in seminaries. Matthew Malone(ph) is a Jesuit seminarian of the New England Province of Jesuits. Orlando Asso(ph) attends St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, just outside of Philadelphia.

Welcome to both of you.

Mr. MATTHEW MALONE (Seminarian, New England Province of Jesuits): Thank you very much.

Mr. ORLANDO ASSO (Seminarian, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary): Thank you.

NORRIS: I'm interested in hearing why you both decided to choose this path. And, Matt Malone, I'm going to begin with you. I was looking at this Web site called And in an area called The Signs, there's this interesting question: How do I really know if God is calling me? He hasn't exactly sent me an e-mail or called me on the phone. How did you know?

Mr. MALONE: Well, I think fundamentally it came through a prayer, through process of discernment both in private prayer with God, with spiritual counselors, with priests that I knew. It also grew out of my own experience of spending a number of years after college working in politics and really feeling my heart pulled in a different direction and wanting to effect a different kind of change in the world.

NORRIS: May I ask your age?

Mr. MALONE: I am 36.

NORRIS: And Orlando, I guess that's an invitation for me to ask your age?

Mr. ASSO: Sure. I am 34.

NORRIS: And when did you feel the call to the priesthood?

Mr. ASSO: Well, I think that what triggered it was the death of my mom, a sudden stroke she suffered back into 2002. Up until that point, I had been working in New York for the Federal Reserve Bank for about eight years, living a very comfortable bachelor lifestyle. And what happened was, when she passed away, she was basically the glue of our family, religiously. That made me realize how empty I think my life really was up to that point.

And so through a steady process of about three years after my mom's passing, you know, praying the rosary every day, you know, basically commuting to and from work, going to daily Mass during my lunch breaks, All that culminated, really, with a trip to Lourdes, a Marian shrine in France. And in speaking with a priest there during confession, that's when it was really hit home that perhaps I had calling to the priesthood.

NORRIS: In churches and parishes and dioceses across America right now, there is a debate over this issue on the shortage of priests, how did the church got to this point. Why aren't more men enrolling in seminaries?

Mr. MALONE: I think it's hard to say. There's just a whole range of sociological factors at work. I think part of it has to do with a kind of hyper-sexualized culture in which we live, and people having misunderstandings of what celibacy is and what it requires. I think that it has to do with the fact that Catholic America has emerged from the ghetto in the last 50 or 60 years. Families are becoming smaller. Communities have sort of lost their Catholic identity because we're now dispersed out into the larger world. You know, so I think there's a whole range of factors that are at issue.

NORRIS: Do you think in any way a different world awaits you - a different world in terms - not just to the parish that you ultimately serve but also within the outside world and how it views Catholicism?

Mr. ASSO: This is Orlando. You know, the reality of the parish priest in my diocese of Allentown is that we are one of those dioceses that is undergoing a consolidation of parishes. And the reality is, when I'm ordained, you know, God-willing, four and a half years from now, the ratio of priest to people is decreasing, one priest to more or many people. And the reality of becoming a pastor rather than assistant pastor waiting in the wings, so to speak, that time frame is also accelerated. So, those are realities for the parish priests in my diocese, for sure.

NORRIS: Is that daunting?

Mr. ASSO: You know, I'm very simple-minded in my approach. It's all daunting to me. I still marvel at the fact that I'm actually sitting here doing this interview when just a few years ago I was, you know, in my Hoboken apartment maybe playing Xbox or having a poker game with friends. It is daunting. But when I go into prayer, I bring all these large problems and seemingly insurmountable things into prayer, and I know it's only God who can take care of them, so I give it all to him through the Blessed Mother.

NORRIS: You know, Americans tend to have a rather cloistered view of priests, even observant Catholics know very little about the priest at their own parish. What don't we know about the daily life of priests? Do you have to live in the rectory? Are you paid? Can you pursue hobbies? Orlando, for instance, will you continue - can you continue to play with your Xbox if you wanted?

Mr. EISO: I probably won't be playing the Xbox, you know, in the near future. But what I am surprised, when I came into the seminary, is how many of the things that I don't really need to give up, that if I use them in a healthy way they're fine. But, you know, to distinguish a parish priest from, say, the monastic life, I think it would be unhealthy for a priest doing all his free time to sit in a rectory all day praying. We need to develop healthy relationships with all people, not only pastorally with the congregation we may be with, with other priests, with our family members, and friends that we've had in the secular world. They're all important to developing a healthy priest.

NORRIS: Orlando Asso attends St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. That's just outside of Philadelphia. Matthew Malone is a Jesuit seminarian of the New England Province of Jesuits.

Thanks to both of you. Peace be with you.

Mr. MALONE: And also with you.

Mr. ASSO: Also with you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eager Catholics Flock to Their Shepherd

Eager Catholics Flock to Their Shepherd

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Pope Benedict XVI arrives Tuesday night for his first trip to the U.S., and although most American Catholics know little about their new pontiff, they're still flocking to New York City and Washington, D.C., to see him.

The enthusiasm was quite unbridled among the 250 singers gathered at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Hyattsville, Md., on a recent Monday evening. They were not professionals — just people from parishes in the Washington metro area — but they were motivated: They auditioned for the choir, practiced for hours and memorized 134 pages of music. All for a chance to sing for the pope Thursday at Nationals Park, the new baseball stadium.

At a rehearsal three weeks before their performance, choir director Tom Stehle ran a tight ship, stopping singers mid-note to correct their pronunciation, scolding them for still reading when the music should be memorized.

During a break, Ann Ingram described her anticipation for the stadium Mass. "We come on Sundays and we get premium gas," she said of a routine Mass. In comparison, she hopes the stadium Mass will be "premium high octane for a Lamborghini."

Mark Hammett, a science teacher, says he knows little about the current pope. But Hammett missed the chance to see his predecessor, John Paul II, who he says became "part of my life."

"Now, Pope Benedict is still early in the papacy," Hammett says. "I doubt he'll have as long a papacy as John Paul the Great had, but I still feel that affinity. He's the pope. He's the papa."

Benedict has grown on choir member Jennifer Colosi.

"At first, honestly, I thought he was more strict and legalistic," she notes. "But the encyclicals that he's been writing are on hope and love and all these wonderful virtues."

Pope's Image Softening

Like the singers and their music, Pope Benedict is working on his image. He has a lot of ground to cover. Before he was elected pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as a dogmatic disciplinarian.

"I think people will be surprised by his grandfatherly personality," says George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and author of a biography of the pope. "People who don't know who this man is, who have the cartoon Ratzinger in their heads, will be surprised by what a mild-mannered, gentle, friendly soul he in fact is."

Polls suggest American opinion is already softening toward Benedict. Surveys sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggest that many people, including church-going Catholics, know virtually nothing about this pope. But those who do know about him like him: 74 percent of those polled say he's doing a good job.

"Now that's still 10 percentage points lower than the high point of the American public's view of John Paul II," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "But it is comparable to American's favorability toward Billy Graham."

A Church in Transition

When Benedict arrives, he will see a large U.S. Catholic Church, but one that is changing. A Pew Forum survey shows 24 percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholic, a percentage that has been constant since the 1970s. Latino immigrants have stabilized that amount, because many native-born Catholics have left the faith of their childhood.

At Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C., junior Maria Malvar says she used to be involved in church. She thought Pope John Paul was a rock star, but she dislikes Benedict's strict theology.

"I believe Pope John Paul II did a lot to bring youth back to church," Malvar says. With Pope Benedict, she says she feels "a regression."

The observation draws a nod from her friend, Billy Dumay. "I feel he'll do the Catholic guilt trip," Dumay says, laughing.

Dumay sees faith as personal worship, not a set of rules. And he's not thrilled with Benedict's battle against secular culture. "Ending secularism to him means actually going to church, going through formal motions, and if you don't do that you're not a good Catholic," Dumay says.

Setting a Bad Precedent?

Other students at Georgetown disapprove of the pope's stances on such issues as birth control, women's ordination and outreach to other faiths. Then there's the sex-abuse scandal. At least two bishops asked Benedict to meet with victims and to visit Boston, where the scandal broke.

He declined, which disappoints graduate student Lindsay Pettingill.

"Perhaps by ignoring the issue, he's setting a bad precedent," Pettingill says.

But Sarah Kinsella, a medical student, believes Benedict is delivering God's message to a materialistic nation. "He strikes me as a holy man of God and I feel very proud to be a Catholic with him leading the church and being the face of Christ on this earth," Kinsella says.

Rob Chedid, a sophomore and business major, says the pope must be tough.

"Otherwise the dogma of the church falls apart," Chedid says. "It's everything we're founded on."

Chedid hopes the visiting pope will focus on foundational teachings of love, hope and harmony — precisely what the choir members rehearsing at St. Mark's parish are striving to achieve.

"I hope he imparts how much God loves us, but at the same time encourages people to take their faith seriously," choir member Colosi says. "He can inspire that in us."

Paula Casey pauses for a beat: "I'd like to hear him say he loved the music," she says.