Meet the new priests of the Catholic church

Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. comes at a time when U.S. Catholic church attendance has plummeted, yet since Francis' elevation to the papacy in 2013, there has been an uptick in the number of men becoming priests. Pope Francis spends his last night in the U.S. at a seminary just outside Philadelphia. Here are the stories of some of its members studying to be the future leaders of the church.

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  • STEPHEN FEE:

    At the St. Charles Borromeo seminary outside Philadelphia, 146 men are on the decade-long path to becoming priests.

    The classrooms look conventional, and you would find some of the courses like Spanish and philosophy at any American college.

    But you'll seldom find women here – as the church still doesn't permit women priests or for its priests to marry. And celibacy is still part of the job description.

    That vow is a worthy sacrifice, according to the seminarians we met during our visit.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Do you think there are misconceptions about who seminarians are and who priests are?

  • MANUEL FLORES, SEMINARIAN:

    Oh yeah.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Like what?

  • STEPHAN ISAAC, SEMINARIAN:

    I just think they think we're not like normal guys in the sense that we don't watch movies, we don't watch TV.

    We don't play sports, you know.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Do you do any of those things?

  • STEPHAN ISAAC, SEMINARIAN:

    Yes!

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Originally founded in 1832 to educate 500 seminarians, today St. Charles enrolls less than a third of that figure.

    That parallels a nationwide trend. Since 1970, the number of American priests has dropped by 40 percent, from nearly 60,000 to just over 37,000 today.

    And as the Catholic population shrinks in the north and east and grows in the south and west, thousands of parishes are without pastors.

    But since 2012, there's been a small increase in ordinations in the U.S., from 457 three years ago to 515 last year. At St. Charles, 20 men enrolled in the seminary this year, up from six men the year before.

    Eighteen-year-old Phil Tran began his studies this fall. The oldest of six children in a Vietnamese-American family, Tran was immersed in catholic teachings from a young age.

  • PHIL TRAN, SEMINARIAN:

    It's funny, because– for most of my life, the priesthood was something I– kind of ran away from.

    I've always had people– going up to me, telling me I'd make a good priest.

    By sixth grade, friends and family jokingly called him Father Phil.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Still, when he finished high school, Tran planned on studying mechanical engineering at Philadelphia's Drexel University, where he was offered a partial scholarship.

  • PHIL TRAN, SEMINARIAN:

    Knowing who I am as a person, knowing that I want to live my life as a man of god, knowing that I have a servant heart, that made me just realize that, you know–

    I love math, I love science, I love engineering, but I couldn't see myself enjoying that for the rest of my life, when I know that I could be touching people's lives in a more direct way, in a way that God might be calling me to do.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Tran is one of four seminarians of Vietnamese origin to enroll at St. Charles this year — a sign of the changing demographics within the church.

    Over the past 40 years, the number of foreign-born Catholics in the U.S. has increased five-fold, with an influx from Asia and Latin America.

    Manuel Flores was born in Puerto Rico and said, at first his mother was disappointed in his choice to become a priest because that meant he would never marry or have children.

  • MANUEL FLORES, SEMINARIAN:

    Being in a Hispanic family, it's about the family. So, you know, she was kind of half expecting me to be a father, you know, to children, be married and such.

    But and she kind of, after I entered, it kind of became more of an accepting kind of thing with my mother. She was very loving about it.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Bishop Timothy Senior oversees St. Charles. As a seminarian here in 1979, he met Pope John Paul II when he visited Philadelphia.

    Today, Bishop Senior is preparing for another Papal visit. He attributes the recent uptick in seminarians to a generational change.

  • BISHOP TIMOTHY SENIOR, ST. CHARLES BORROMEO SEMINARY:

    Well I do think that there's a sense among younger people today, among the millennials, of the importance of service, of a life of service and giving back, and an attentiveness to the needs of those who are less fortunate, an awareness that somehow how I've been blessed is also an opportunity.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Bishop Senior says it's hard to say why the number of seminarians has inched up — but he believes Pope Francis' focus on serving the poor and reaching out to those disaffected by the church might be factors.

  • BISHOP TIMOTHY SENIOR, ST. CHARLES BORROMEO SEMINARY:

    There was for too long — and the Holy Father has said this — I think a presumption that it's like the Catholic faith is the gift of the sacraments: the Eucharist, the confession, all of our tradition.

    It's kind of, here it is, take it or leave it. And it can't be that way. The church needs to turn outward and to again meet people where they are and help them to discover that great gift again.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Are we seeing the clergy change along with the changes in the complexion of the greater church?

  • BISHOP TIMOTHY SENIOR, ST. CHARLES BORROMEO SEMINARY:

    They have to. Our presbyterate needs to reflect the demographics of the people that we serve.

    I'm thinking here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that, you know, St. Charles Seminary today is 16 percent Latino.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    But that diversity doesn't include women, despite the fact that more than half of American Catholics believe the clergy should include them.

    And it doesn't include married men, though other Christian denominations allow pastors to marry. So far, Pope Francis is not prepared to change that.

  • BISHOP TIMOTHY SENIOR, ST. CHARLES BORROMEO SEMINARY:

    We can't change the teaching to solve a personnel problem.

    The sacramental theology that is embedded in the church's understanding of the priesthood is related to gender and so that the priesthood is something that we believe that in the plan of Jesus was something that he shared with the 12 apostles who were men.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    At 36-years-old, Tim Sahd is not a typical seminarian. He worked in journalism and in his family's metal recycling business before deciding to become a priest four years ago.

  • TIM SAHD, SEMINARIAN:

    I bought a house. You know, I thought this was the last kind of move. But there was just something inside of me that, you know, I don't know that I could properly describe it.

    But I think all of us have that moment where we realize that either something feels right or it feels like there's just something quite missing.

    I've given things up. But I don't look at it that way at all. Because the things I've received are so much to me, so much greater than the things, perhaps, that I've given up.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Forty percent of seminarians here at St. Charles eventually decide not to become priests.

    It's not only the sacrifices that make joining the clergy a difficult decision. There is also the cloud of sexual abuse.

    Revelations about decades of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002 implicated more than 4,000 American priests. Some Philadelphia priests went to prison.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    What do you say to a parent who says, I can't trust the church to bring my son into the clergy because of the tarnish that was brought by the sex-abuse scandal and the subsequent cover-ups?

  • BISHOP TIMOTHY SENIOR, ST. CHARLES BORROMEO SEMINARY:

    I say I understand. I understand.

    And it is incumbent upon us to serve the men who are in formation, and ultimately, the church by making sure that our community is serving the needs of these men so that they grow and mature to the men that they can be.

    And that we're discerning a call to the priesthood for someone who can embrace that commitment and is not going to be failing in such a horrific way.

  • STEPHEN FEE:

    Seminarians at St. Charles undergo 'safe environment training,' pastoral psychology courses to be on the lookout for abuse within the church and its institutions.

    They're also trained to use alcohol wisely and understand boundaries between priests and their parishioners.

    The soon-to-be-priests we spoke to say: the abuse scandal compels them to be better priests.

  • NOE RAMIREZ DEPAZ, SEMINARIAN:

    When all that came out, I said I don't want to be that.

    I want to be better than that. There is a lot of trust to rebuild, wounds to be healed. But I think we all are here because we want to do that.

  • STEPHAN ISAAC, SEMINARIAN:

    If anything the priest sex abuse scandal actually motivated me to try to become the best priest I can be in order to bring healing and bring Christ to people and we have a lot of work to do and I think Pope Francis is so wonderfully leading us in this sense, as well as Pope Benedict the 16th of trying to regain the moral credibility that we have lost.

    Tonight, the seminarians of St. Charles Borromeo welcome Pope Francis with song and prayer — and with a hope that his papacy will bring renewed energy to the catholic clergy.

  • MANUEL FLORES, SEMINARIAN:

    There's no sugar coating there.

    He's always free to express himself as he is. He's not hiding behind any kind of bureaucratic kind of, you know, mentality.

    You know, he's being what the church needs him to be.

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