DENVER – In the wake of a recent Associated Press report on a counter-intuitive surge in attraction to the Catholic priesthood among Millennials at one Ohio seminary, Father Daniel Leonard, rector of Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, said that while he can’t provide exact numbers, he too has noted an “increase in interest.”
Leonard also cautions that you shouldn’t believe everything you read about the Millennials, who can often turn out to be more complicated than the stereotypes would suggest.
There are certainly plenty of those stereotypes out there. The AP story, for instance, which focused on Mount St. Mary’s Seminary at The Athenaeum of Ohio, reports a sort of militancy in the Millennial generation of seminarians.
“The new breed of seminarians has embraced the notion they are taking on a secular world that’s sometimes hostile to their beliefs,” it said. “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.”
Leonard, who’s been a pastor in Denver as well as teaching in the seminary for the last 15 years, knows this Millennial generation fairly well, and said his experience tracks with that of a staff psychologist, who said that Millennials tend to be “overprotected, overserved, overconnected, and overwhelmed.”
Often, however, Leonard said those traits are the external manifestation of some deeper inner human need.
In that light, he said, he’s grateful for a new version of the Ratio Fundamentalis, the Vatican’s guidebook for the training of seminarians, which appeared in 2016, replacing an earlier version from 1970 that was revised in 1985.
The new Ratio, he said, “has a human dimension” while maintaining “the spiritual, the intellectual and the pastoral,” etc. Saying “they’re all important,” he adds that “one of the novelties is it takes away a little from the academic and puts it on the human.”
That novelty, he said, is important.
“That change of emphasis or accent is because of the generation that we have now,” he said. “Sometimes we criticize them, but maybe we shouldn’t.”
Millennials have been characterized often as weak and whiny, but Leonard said, “this generation just has more specific needs in the human dimension. A portion will come in from broken families,” and have other problems that are common to them but haven’t been that common in preceding generations.
He said there is a “need for growth and need for healing.”
In a Pew Research Center study from 2015, the findings were that Millennials are less “religious” than older generations but just as “spiritual.” Attendance at traditional religious services is lower for Millennials, as well as identifying with a particular religious tradition or feeling “religious” at all.
However, the same study found Millennials are almost as likely to feel “a deep sense of wonder about the universe” and think about the meaning of life as older generations. A majority also say they feel gratitude and spiritual peace, and a majority also report believing in Heaven and Hell.
That certainly seems to be Leonard’s understanding of his seminarians.
“Maybe they are a bit disconnected from Catholic culture and practice, but they’re very interested in things like volunteering,” he said. “I read once that they’re more inclined to study theology, philosophy more than previous generations who were more focused on money.”
“The idea that these are the ‘nones’ [people with no religious affiliation] … sociologically that’s true, however it’s a generation that’s very interested in religion in general,” he said. “A lot of them have come from volunteering. Some have participated in FOCUS, volunteering with Jesuits or Franciscans.”
Another possible reason for the increase in interest among Millennials in the seminary, according to Leonard, might be that they are spending more time considering what they want for their future.
“A Millennial is more likely to delay marriage,” he said. “I don’t know if that influences vocations for them too. Maybe they feel the call a little bit later.”
An Irish native, Leonard cautions that whatever surge is going on also strikes him as more an American thing than a European one, saying, “We have more vocations in Denver alone than in Ireland” – offering that less as a hard statistical assertion than an impression meant to capture the lay of the land.
“America is doing well, but America might be an exception. We don’t see the great crisis here,” Leonard told Crux.
One reason for that, he said, is that the Church in the United States simply works harder at it.
“America does better vocational work. We have better retention. We want a person to discern a vocation. When they come in, they’re more sure of what they want,” he said.
When asked whether he’s an optimist or pessimist about the future he said, “I’m optimistic. In America, yes.”
Then, however, he adds a dose of caution about the rest of the West.
“Now, I’m Irish,” he said. “We as Christians have the great virtue of hope, and I wouldn’t use the term ‘pessimistic,’ but Europe has more challenges.”