A small, sturdy band of 'John Paul priests'

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

By the 1980s, Roman Catholic men by and large had multiple options, observers say, so those who chose the celibate priesthood had something other than economics or social status driving them. In this era, Pope John Paul II was taking aim at what he saw as deadly consequences of widespread moral bankruptcy: abortion, assisted suicide, the death penalty, preemptive war. In doing so, he struck a chord with select followers, inspiring them to don the collar and lead the flock back to its tradition.

"I couldn't stand the low-church craziness going on in the Catholic community" as informal services were displacing traditional liturgy, says the Rev. William Prospero, S.J., ordained seven years ago and now assistant director of campus ministry at Marquette University. John Paul II renewed pride in tradition, he says: "He didn't compromise ever. He always proclaimed the truth boldly and clearly and succinctly."

Steven Mattson took similar cues from the pope. As he prepares for ordination to the priesthood in June, his chief goal is evangelization - "of [Catholics] first, then spread it to all of those who have yet to hear."

"It really is a confidence and conviction that John Paul shared," says Mr. Mattson, a student at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, "that what the church has given us through scripture and tradition is worth holding out for the world because it is the answer."

In recruiting priests, America has lagged behind developing nations. Seminarian enrollment is up 73 percent worldwide from the level in 1978 when John Paul II became pope, according to the Rev. Edward Burns, director of vocations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In America, however, enrollment numbers are down about 50 percent over the same period.

A celibacy requirement isn't the core obstacle, Father Burns says. Other professions once revered for serving others - teachers, nurses, emergency personnel - are also struggling to grow their ranks. And he says lifelong vows of any kind are increasingly rare in a society with a high divorce rate that he says is suffering from a "crisis of commitment."

In this challenging atmosphere, seminaries welcome young men with passion for the tradition, but training is needed to steer it properly, Brown says. Where those ordained in the 1960s and '70s at times ran the risk of affirming other paths to the point of blessing an anything-goes ethic of "moral relativism," he says today's priests-in-training must take care not to tip too far the other way into moral absolutism. The healthy priest, he says, asks others: "How can we together find the truth?"

"John Paul inspired them," Brown says. "They want to stand for something.... They say, 'Yes, this is the truth,' and they want to share it with others.... Are they too traditional? Are they rigid? If we get to the end of a person's training and that person is not listening to the perspectives of others, then we wouldn't ordain them."

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