In this religious season recent issues of Newsweek (Dec. 17) and Utne Reader (January/February) bear witness to a rebirth of seriousness in faith and worship. Behind this somewhat counter-intuitive if encouraging development, however, is a serious long-term problem, described in depth by Paul Wilkes in The Atlantic (December).

Our seminaries and other schools for priests, pastors and rabbis have changed dramatically even in our lifetimes, and now attract far fewer of the very best young minds -- even as the number of people who say religion is important to them increases.

Seminarians of all stripes today tend to be older and more experienced than before, "and so consider the seminary to be a beginning of a second career" -- or a replacement for a failed marriage. There is concern, Wilkes reports, that "some students have turned to religious training after disappointment in the marketplace or to gain employment in a profession that they hope will bring them the status they have otherwise found elusive."

Women constitute a third of the 56,000 current students in 200 Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and interdenominational seminaries in the United States, and "the academic and intellectual level in seminaries would be mediocre indeed were it not for {their} ever increasing numbers," Wilkes writes. Yet they and their lesbian and gay fellow-seminarians have also given many institutions an atmosphere and theological tilt that drives more traditional students away. For its part, the Catholic Church, where women still have not penetrated the priesthood, is suffering acutely from a shortage of seminarians to lead the nation's largest flock.

Wilkes obviously spent plenty of time listening to these aspiring religious leaders, and to their teachers and their elders, from Episcopalians at Harvard to Jews at Jewish Theological Seminary to Catholics at St Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie) to evangelicals at Fuller Theological Seminary.

"Does this generation of seminarians have the talent and the will to wield moral authority wisely and effectively?" he asks. "Or are today's seminarians an indicator species -- endangered, fragile, sterile -- signaling finally and decisively the end of religion in America as a personal and public force?"

Acid Reindeer

John Leo, in this week's column in U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 24), takes a friendly holiday poke at conservative buzzwords favored by Georgia's Rep. Newt Gingrich -- "We must replace the false compassion of our bureaucratic welfare state with a truly caring humanitarian approach based on common sense," for example -- by "reprinting" Gingrich's recent letter to Santa Claus.

"As we hard-working, freedom-loving children envision you mobilizing your humane pioneer reindeer this pristine holiday season, let us congratulate you on your uniquely principled commitment to sharing your North Pole prosperity with tough but caring pro-family, pro-Christmas children... . I might say that I respectfully disagree with the sick, pathetic, destructive, self-serving, obsolete, radical, sensationalist liberal tax-and-spend Democrats (many of whom believe in you, although they bizarrely and permissively believe in criminal rights and incompetent, insensitive, shallow, stagnating flag-burners ... )

" ... Given half a chance, these hypocritical destroyers of the holiday dream would probably unionize half your elves and turn the rest into corrupt welfare cheats, cynically dependent on patronage from big-city-machine bosses. What a wasteful new paradigm! What a selfish and shameful abuse of elf liberty and empowerment!"

Helping Hands

It is hard to know what Henry Luce would make of the managing editor's page of Time (Dec. 24) being given over to a Russian poet asking for help from Uncle Sam. Accompanied by a "Free Perestroika" poster he also designed, Andrei Voznesensky's essay says "Help us, and today's children will remember you lovingly in the 21st century." The essay is followed by information on how to send help.

Not Cold Enough for You?

People pining for a cold December as they mow their mid-Atlantic lawns yet again need pine no further than Weatherwise ("The Magazine About the Weather") and its reminiscence of December 1989, one of the worst of these holiday months on record, and one of several in the '80s.

A magazine about the weather? Yes, it's an editor's challenge, but the December issue shows evident brainstorms and bolts from the blue: a story on weather factors behind the explosion of the Hindenburg, another on weather themes in children's nursery rhymes ("Rain, rain, go away ... "), tips on photographing rainbows and other weather phenomena, and a tragic tale of mail carriers the swift completion of whose appointed rounds were stayed, permanently, by snow.

For a one-year/six-issue subscription to Weatherwise, send $25 (institutions, $42) to Heldref Publications, 4000 Albemarle St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016.

In Short

Washington's mainstream charity circuit, which ignored or resisted the cause of AIDS research and treatment far longer than those in most cities, is becoming more receptive, according to John-Manuel Andriote's report in the December Washington Dossier. Andriote lays some of the blame for the delay on the capital's stricter segregation between gay and straight communities... . A heart-sinking account of schools and teaching conditions in Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania dominates an interview with Catalin Croitoru, head of the post-revolutionary national Romanian teachers' union, published in the fall issue of American Educator, national organ of the American Federation of Teachers... . The February issue of Men's Health, which is so healthy it's already been published, performs a service by sacrificing the palates of experts to a taste-test of the main nonalcoholic beers. Among the best: Heineken's Buckler and Pabst NA. Among the worst: G. Heileman's Kingsbury ("flat and offensive").