CINCINNATI, Ohio — Father Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh looks out his office window at the courtyard below, marveling at how much his view has changed in just a few weeks.
Once home to green grass and well-manicured shrubs, the courtyard is now a muddy mess. Heavy equipment rumbles throughout the day and temporary fences surround ditches and overturned earth.
O’Cinnsealaigh thinks it’s beautiful. As president of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary at The Athenaeum of Ohio, he knows what this big construction project means for the Catholic Church in Cincinnati.
“We have a future here,” he says.
The $11.5 million building going up behind O’Cinnsealaigh’s office is the first expansion of The Athenaeum’s Mount Washington campus in almost 60 years. The new apartments and conference rooms are necessary because the seminary has a problem no one saw coming: It needs more room.
To say the seminary has struggled for years to attract men to the priesthood would be an understatement. Enrollment plummeted from about 200 in the 1960s to less than 40 in 2011.
Then something changed. Enrollment started to surge in 2012 and has more than doubled in the past five years.
Today, 82 seminarians study here. Their numbers are up nationally, too, though the increase is not as dramatic.
More surprising than the sudden growth is the source of it. Millennials, or those roughly between the ages of 18 and 34, make up the vast majority of new recruits.
This is notable not just because seminarians are getting younger, but also because polls and statistics show no generation has strayed further from the Catholic faith than millennials. They are less likely than their parents and grandparents to attend Mass, to marry in the church or to identify as Catholic.
Their generation came of age as society was becoming less religious overall and as the Catholic Church was suffering through a yearslong clergy abuse crisis that tested their faith in Catholic institutions.
Yet no generation today is providing more men to lead the church than millennials. Nationally, three of every four seminarians are 34 years old or younger. At the Athenaeum, where seminarians in their 30s and 40s once dominated the ranks, the average age is 28.
So how did the Church begin to turn things around with a generation that seemingly wants little to do with it? By using millennials’ skepticism as a selling point to young men wary of the changing culture around them.
The approach is similar in some ways to military recruitment, which extols the virtue of taking on a challenge that few others will. The message is one of sacrifice: This is a big job and not everyone is cut out for it, but maybe you are.
“I admire their courage,” Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr says of the young seminarians. “It is a much more secular society. It’s more tough going than when I was contemplating the priesthood.”
The new breed of seminarians has embraced the notion they are taking on a secular world that’s sometimes hostile to their beliefs. They see themselves as part of a counter-culture movement, pushing back against consumerism, greed and other forces, which, in their eyes, make America a less faithful nation.
“They came from that culture. They lived in that culture,” O’Cinnsealaigh says. “They know that culture doesn’t have the answers they were looking for.”
The image of Catholic seminarians as rebels takes some getting used to, considering they’re members of a 2,000-year-old institution with more than 1 billion followers worldwide.
Yet these future priests say society has shifted so much they now are the outsiders, the ones with the radical agenda.
“We’re going to be preaching the Gospel to a culture that’s badly in need of it,” says Jarred Kohn, a 27-year-old from Coldwater, Ohio, who will be ordained this spring. “Trying to beat a culture is going to be difficult, but we can win it back.”
The task is complicated, in part, by a faith that doesn’t align neatly with the political or cultural views of many Americans.
The church opposes gay marriage, abortion, the death penalty and contraception while advocating for immigrants, improved health care and aid to the needy. Try selling that combination in today’s hyper-partisan America.
“Certainly, it’s going to be rough,” says Andrew Smith, an Air Force veteran who, at 35, is one of the seminary’s older students. “It’s not going to be all peaches and cream.”
Getting to the seminary isn’t easy, either. While prospective priests might once have found their way here because society and families expected them to, that’s not the case today.
“Years ago, if a family produced a priest, the whole family got to share in that,” says Father Dan Schmitmeyer, who’s in charge of recruiting priests for the archdiocese. “Now we have families that get very angry at them. They have friends who no longer talk to them.”
Kohn, who worked as a welder before committing to the seminary, said his mother was concerned at first he wouldn’t be happy. She wondered why he didn’t want a house, wife and family like every other young man she knew. She wondered why he didn’t want to live the American Dream.
Her hesitance eventually faded, and she’s now sewing the vestments he will wear when he becomes a priest. “She’s all in now,” Kohn says.
But acceptance took time.
In the long run, the seminarians hope the difficulty of their choice will make them better priests. In the short run, it is every bit the challenge they say they signed up for.
“They want to live radically different than society wants them to live,” Schmitmeyer says. “They want to make a radical choice.”
Every seminarian has a story about being called by God to the priesthood.
For a few, it was a great epiphany, a moment when their mind opened and the voice of God spoke to them. For most, though, there were no bells or bright lights, only a subtle pull, a nagging feeling that life and God had more in store for them.
“As a young man, it appealed to me,” says Jeffrey Stegbauer, a 25-year-old seminarian from Mason. “That higher calling in life was very attractive to me.”
This, of course, does not explain why the number of seminarians nationwide has tumbled from almost 1,000 in 1965 to about 550 last year, or why the number of priests has fallen from almost 60,000 to 37,000 over the same period.
Did God stop calling young men to the priesthood? Schnurr says there’s a more earthly explanation. Society told them to ignore the call, he says, and the Church didn’t encourage them enough to listen.
It is encouraging them now, Schnurr says.
Since arriving in Cincinnati in 2008, Schnurr has made priest recruitment a priority. He ramped up outreach, hired Schmitmeyer to oversee the effort and got personally involved by hosting meetings and dinners with men considering the seminary.
“You can’t wait for the men to come to you,” Schnurr says. “You have to go to the men.”
Schmitmeyer has taken the mission to heart. He puts as many as 2,000 miles on his car every month by crisscrossing the 19-county archdiocese in search of seminarians. Anyone who expresses interest to a teacher or a parish priest can expect a call or a visit, or both.
The contact is crucial, Schmitmeyer says, because not all voices are supportive. “Secular society is giving us so many false leads about where to find true happiness,” he says.
Despite its recent successes, including an uptick in the number of seminarians nationwide, the church still has a long way to go. Weekly Mass attendance has fallen from about 55 percent in 1965 to 22 percent last year, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Catholic baptisms and marriages are down by more than half over the same period.
Millennials are fueling those trends, even as they begin to restock seminaries. The Pew Research Center found 16 percent of America’s youngest adults identify as Catholic, compared to 21 percent of Generation Xers and 23 percent of Baby Boomers.
Zachary Cecil is reminded of the challenge almost every time he leaves the seminary wearing his black shirt and Roman collar.
On campus, where enrollment is growing and the construction behind O’Cinnsealaigh’s office keeps chugging along, it looks like the Church is turning a corner. But when Cecil ventures to the grocery store or the barber shop, the rest of the world is waiting with skepticism and questions.
What’s a seminarian? What do you do? Why would you want to do that?
Cecil, 25, asked similar questions when he started thinking about becoming a priest as a kid growing up in Piqua, so he always does his best to answer. It’s part of his job, he says. He might be talking to a future seminarian.
“People are searching for all kinds of things,” Cecil says. “There is something more out there.”