CINCINNATI -- The Athenaeum of Ohio is one of the oldest Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States, but its incoming classes of postulants are getting younger.
It's part of a nationwide reversal of a decades-long trend in the priesthood, which spent years watching its new groups of priests grow older and smaller and struggling to capture the attention of younger Catholics.
"I never wanted to be a priest," said 31-year-old Father Chris Geiger. "This is never what I would have picked for myself (growing up). … I wanted to teach high school math."
Geiger admitted he was afraid he had made the wrong decision even after committing to seminary when he was 23, and stereotypes about old, lonely priests added to his worries.
"One of the things I was afraid of when I was going into the seminary was that I was going to live a life of loneliness and a life without love," he said. "But my life is full of love and I am the furthest thing from being lonely."
Many other young priests and seminarians said the same thing when interviewed by NPR. The pool of Catholics who commit themselves to priesthood and other forms of dedicated religious life is still small, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, but the number of men under 30 studying to become priests increased by about 46 percent between 2005 and 2017. These men now comprise about 75 percent of all American seminarians.
Although the general climate of the United States has become increasingly secular and even many self-identified Christians are not as devout as they might have been decades earlier, those who do enter religious life often do so, like Geiger, in response to a perceived shallowness of modern culture.
"We live in a world now where there's social media everywhere," Geiger said. "There's a lot of entertainment, but I think a lot of it's empty."
The Rev. Thomas Baima, dean of a seminary in the Washington Archdiocese, told NPR he believed life within the church could fill that emptiness with mostly-abandoned pleasures of silence, contemplation and critical self-study.
"Is it because more traditional worship provides more quiet and reflective experiences in an age when information just crashes over them like waves?" he asked. "These are only hypotheses, but it's a question."