Chris Geiger likes to say that he felt dragged “kicking and screaming” on the path toward becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.
The 29-year-old grew up Catholic in Mason, where he always wanted to have a wife and children. But his mind was changed by some friends with strong faith and through his own hours of praying before the Blessed Sacrament, the wine and bread used in Mass that Catholics believe becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Now, Geiger is an ordained deacon and is set to graduate in May from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Mount Washington, the training institution for priests in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. After his ordination as a priest, he hopes to serve either as the pastor of a parish or as a teacher in a local Catholic high school.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to say Mass and hear confessions,” he said.
Geiger is one of 68 men studying to be priests at Mount St. Mary’s, the most priest candidates the institution has had in 33 years. And that’s good news for the archdiocese, which has dealt with a shortage of priests by closing smaller parishes or having some priests oversee multiple parishes.
You could say that the seminary is approaching its capacity, because it has rooms for just 76 men. However, as seminary spokeswoman Mary Massa said, “if God sends more men, we will find ways to house them.”
A little more than 10 years ago, the seminary had only half as many priest candidates. But numbers have been increasing fairly steadily in recent years, said Father Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh, the seminary president/rector.
The numbers are also on the rise in the Diocese of Covington. There are 22 seminarians preparing for ordination as priests, almost double the total of 12 from 10 years ago. Father Gregory Bach, the diocesan vocations promoter, could not be reached for comment on this story.
Nationally, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Washington, D.C.-based Catholic think tank, the number of theology students in Catholic seminaries fell from a peak of about 8,000 in the 1967-68 school year to a low of 3,114 in the 1997-98 school year. Since then, the numbers have risen and peaked again at 3,723 in the 2011-12 school year, and then fell to 3,631 last year.
Why the increase locally?
Geiger attributes it to the work of the Holy Spirit. There are as many reasons as there are seminarians, he said, but all their stories have one thing in common: hours spent praying before the Blessed Sacrament, which he thinks there are more opportunities to do now than in previous years.
Also, young men like a challenge and want to sacrifice themselves for others, he said, and the priesthood offers them that opportunity.
Marty Arlinghaus, 23, a first-year seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s, believes the increase is part of a general renaissance of Catholicism in the U.S., with more young men understanding that Christ is not just a moral teacher but life himself.
O’Cinnsealaigh believes than in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many priests questioned the priesthood as a legitimate life choice, as well as their own relevance to society. But that has changed with the most recent three popes, he added, each of whom helped raise the stature of the Church in his own way.
The priest sex abuse scandals tarnished the image of the priesthood, O’Cinnsealaigh said, but they also showed young Catholic men the need to have good men in the priesthood.
He thinks numbers will continue to increase at the seminary, he said, because the archdiocese could do more to promote decisions for the priesthood, especially in its campus ministry. But many more decisions would be needed to supply the demand for priests in the archdiocese, he added.
If the archdiocese wanted to have a priest in all of its 214 parishes, 86 elementary schools, 19 high schools and nine hospitals, O'Cinnsealaigh said, it would need between 300 and 350 priests. There are currently 176 active priests in the archdiocese, he said, and many of them are ready to retire.
“We will have a big crunch in the next few years," he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is that the archdiocese staffing needs are based on churches built and parishes created during the early years of the Baby Boom, when there were more Catholics with more money than they ever had. In those days, every parish had at least one priest and a school. Larger parishes had convents.
Smaller geographically than the archdiocese, the Diocese of Covington appears to be in better shape with regard to priests. There are 67 active priests to cover 47 parishes and seven missions. Since Roger Foys took over as bishop in 2003, he has ordained 29 new priests.
If Mount St. Mary’s could graduate 10 priest candidates a year, O’Cinnsealaigh said, that would begin to recover some of the losses. Last school year it graduated four, and this school year O’Cinnsealaigh expects seven to graduate.
He added that it’s not enough to keep the archdiocese from making some tough decisions, such as closing down smaller parishes. So the increase in priest candidates is good news, he said, but good news in the midst of a great challenge as well.