Budding priests in a time of crisis: Seminarians enter scandal-scarred vocation

Two dozen graduates will be ordained into the priesthood, helping to fill a nationwide shortage. During their years of training, they deepen their faith and learn to avoid temptations.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

From behind his desk and wire-rimmed glasses, Monsignor Steven Rohlfs surveyed the class of 24 men. For almost six years, he had led them on the long, difficult path to priesthood, and now, as they stood on the cusp of reaching that goal, he worried.

He knew his seminarians would be entering an institution under fire over clergy sex abuse cases around the world. And he had seen the devastation a single bad priest could cause.

He had often told them about the job he'd held before becoming the seminary's rector -- the one that sent him to bed many nights a broken man. For seven years, he had investigated priests accused of sex abuse in Illinois.

And it was a darkness he was determined to keep out of their lives.

So, as Rohlfs began his last class with them at his rural seminary in Western Maryland, the 59-year-old monsignor raced through his notes, cramming in a long list of last-minute advice. In quick succession, he reviewed everything from the nitty-gritty of administering the holy sacraments to the common pitfalls of first-year priests.

At the end of the hour-long lecture, he paused and looked up from his notes.

He had come to know and love each of the students graduating from his class: the aspiring park ranger, the former Starbucks manager, the Air Force veteran, the newcomer from Nigeria. Many of them had confided their deepest doubts to him.

And in return, Rohlfs had shared the lessons he'd learned from 34 years as a priest. From the outside world, he warned them, they would encounter suspicion and, at times, outright disdain. From within, they would encounter something even more sinister: temptation.

"If you remember nothing else from today, I would boil down all this advice to one thing," he said as the class came to an end. "Fall in love with the Lord, and it will change everything. Fall out of love with Him, and it will change everything."

Sacrifices and suspicion

This year, 440 men will be ordained in the United States. They will enter the Catholic Church at a time of need, amid a decades-long shortage of priests. Two dozen of them will come from Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, a town so rural it only recently acquired a second stoplight.

Six years ago, when most of this year's class arrived, the church was reeling from hundreds of abuse cases emerging across the United States. Now, just as they were preparing to leave for ordination, the church was once again mired in scandal.

They'd already experienced some of the far-reaching consequences of the sex abuse crisis. Getting into seminary had required a battery of psychological tests, long interviews and background checks.

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