The Archdiocese for the Military Services in the U.S. is welcoming a steady increase of priestly vocations after declining numbers in recent years.
The upcoming fall academic year will greet 31 new seminarians compared with 23 last year, 12 in 2009 and only three in 2008.
Father Kerry Abbott, OFM Conv. and director of vocations, noted that the rise in numbers is due to recruiting efforts as well as Catholic bishops around the U.S. agreeing to co-sponsor seminarians.
Fr. Abbott said that the archdiocese “is most grateful” for the bishops' support and explained that co-sponsorship involves a diocesan bishop accepting a young man as a seminarian who will then participate in the Chaplain Candidacy Program of one of the branches of the U.S. armed forces.
The process then requires a bishop agreeing to release the seminarian for service as a military chaplain after three years of pastoral experience as a priest in his diocese.
When the priest leaves military service, he will return to the diocese.
“This is one of the ‘untold stories’ of the blessings of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and those faithful fervently seeking to respond to the voice of God,” Fr. Abbott said in a statement Aug. 15.
The vocations director said he expects anywhere from five to 10 more men to enter seminaries next year, and that the archdiocese is currently processing hundreds of inquiries from prospective military chaplains.
He also said that the timing couldn't be better in light of the U.S. armed forces experiencing a steady decline in Catholic military chaplains over the past 10 years as priests reach the military retirement age of 62.
The number of military priests is down from more than 400 active in 2001, to 274 this year.
Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, show that nearly 10 percent of men ordained as U.S. Catholic priests over the past two years had previously served in the military with another 10 percent coming from military families.
“When you think about it, this makes complete sense,” Fr. Abbott said. “Both the military and the priesthood rely on a largely common set of foundational values, including a commitment to service, self-discipline and a higher calling.”
“So it should come as no surprise that so many of our seminarians come from a military background and a growing number are looking to go back to the life they know after ordination.”
Fr. Abbott said the influx of seminarians poses a “delightful dilemma” on how to pay for the 50 percent share of the students' five-year education.
In just three years, the archdiocese’s annual seminary bill has climbed from less than $40,000 to more than $350,000.
The Knights of Columbus recently announced a new “Venerable Father McGivney Military Chaplain Scholarship” that will provide $200,000 a year over the next five years for the seminarians.
The archdiocese is now in search of additional funding sources to make up the difference.