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A small, sturdy band of 'John Paul priests'

Pope John Paul II leaves a legacy of conservative priests rooted in church tradition.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2005

When the Rev. Jeffrey Njus thinks about why he spends his days encouraging other young adults to pray often and make lifelong commitments, he recalls the man who changed his life in 1993.

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Father Njus was a tourist with a group of fellow Protestant college students at the Vatican when Pope John Paul II strolled down the aisle and grasped his hand just long enough to create what he remembers as "an encounter with holiness," one that revealed to him "what God wanted to do with my life."

Twelve years later, Njus ranks among approximately 17,000 men ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in America during John Paul II's 26-year pontificate. And when Njus speaks about what drives him, he echoes their dreams and the pope's as well for a world returned to upright morality.

"Our society is facing different issues than ... in the 1960s and '70s," says Njus, now associate pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Brighton, Mich. "The social revolution from that time left the family wounded. So we priests who grew up in that generation are now addressing that wound."

They call themselves simply "John Paul priests," and they're in short supply. At today's rate, three priests retire for every one ordained, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Young priests provide hope for an American church that has seen priestly ranks drop 26 percent since 1975 to last year's total of 43,304. Among diocesan priests, only 74 percent of the ordained remain active.

What the new generation of priests lacks in size, it makes up in zeal - at least for traditionalist causes that became hallmarks of John Paul II's tenure.

"The younger generation of priests is much more orthodox, and John Paul inspired it," says David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church" and a forthcoming book on the conclave and new pope. "These priests are quite motivated by orthodoxy, belief, personal holiness. They would be akin to the Christian right in the Catholic sphere."

To appreciate the distinctiveness of this generation's concerns, consider what motivated many clerics of the preceding generation. Many who joined up in the 1950s and '60s were second-generation immigrants for whom the priesthood marked a step up from their fathers' mine work or other manual labor, according Mary Gautier, senior research associate at CARA. Another reason for a surge in 1960s ordinations, she says, was that many saw the priesthood as a noble vehicle from which to wage such groundbreaking campaigns as the civil rights struggle or the war on poverty.

The Rev. Jerry Brown, S.S., president and rector of St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, Calif., recalls what drove those ordained with him on the heels of Vatican II in 1964.

"There used to be a lot of barriers to dialogue between denominations and among world religions, and we were asked to be 'bridge' persons ... [to] dialogue with civic leaders, neighborhood associations, etc.," Father Brown recalls. "It required a different kind of leadership."