A recent article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch by Tim Townsend has highlighted another American vocations success story along the lines of those previously reported on in AD2000 in dioceses like Denver, led by Archbishop Chaput, and in Lincoln, Nebraska, under Bishop Bruskewicz.
In St Louis, Missouri, Archbishop Raymond Burke has already established himself since his appointment there in 2004 as a forthright, fearless leader, particularly in warning pro-abortion Catholic politicians against receiving Communion.
On Saturday, 20 May, nine young men from the Kenrick- Glennon Seminary were ordained as priests for the St Louis Archdiocese - the largest ordination class in 25 years and one of the largest in the US.
From the time of his appointment, Archbishop Burke has made vocations a high priority. 'A bishop's principal responsibility is to provide priests for the people in his pastoral care,' he said during a recent interview.
Apart from being active in encouraging young men to enter the seminary, the Archbishop knows the seminarians personally - 'their names, their life stories, their joys and their fears'. He is also a frequent visitor to the seminary, sometimes dropping by unannounced for lunch with the students. 'He's the centre and the core of this whole thing,' said Fr Michael Butler, the vocations director.
Once or twice a year, each student drops by Archbishop Burke's residence for a heart-to-heart talk and a chance to see a more personal, human side of the Archbishop.
The student body at Kenrick- Glennon, which includes the undergraduate Cardinal Glennon College and graduate-level Kenrick Theological Seminary, numbers 112 students, the largest enrolment in two decades and a 50 percent increase over 2007.
In 2005, the St Louis Archdiocese estimated that by the end of 2008 it would have only 230 active diocesan priests, down from 313. The number has decreased, but not as steeply as predicted three years ago and currently stands at 286.
At Kenrick, it is not just Archbishop Burke's involvement that is cited for the increased enrolments. His strong orthodoxy also appeals to young seminarians.
'The people who are attracted to the priesthood today tend to be much more conservative than their peers,' said Fr Thomas Reese SJ of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. 'Even in the 1950s, the people attracted to seminaries were more conservative than their peers, but not to the degree they are today.'
Seminarians say the Archbishop's orthodoxy helps him connect with them and openly discuss his role as a 'spiritual father' and their appreciation of the 'traditional atmosphere' he has fostered in the archdiocese and the seminary.
Archbishop Burke, for example, is considered to be one of the strongest supporters of the old Latin Mass among US bishops, and last year, Kenrick began celebrating the traditional liturgy on Fridays while more formal vestments are now required at morning and evening prayers. The Archbishop says such 'little things' help him 'encourage a strong identity among the seminarians, especially with the celebration of the sacred liturgy.'
Noah Waldman, 39, a former architect, was studying with a traditionalist group of priests a number of years ago but eventually felt called to be a diocesan priest rather than part of an order. The problem, he thought, was that most bishops would think he was too 'conservative'.
'I was told there were two bishops in the US who would be interested in me,' he said.
Burke, at that time the bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, accepted Waldman and the architect entered the seminary. However, he subsequently decided that Wisconsin was not 'a good fit' and applied to a philosophy program in England. Burke 'told me I was making a big mistake,' Waldman recalled.
After the death of Pope John Paul II, Waldman decided the priesthood was indeed his calling, and Burke, since then installed in St Louis, invited Waldman to Kenrick. 'Because of his support, I was able to make it through,' said Waldman, who was ordained on 20 May.
Archbishop Burke plays down the notion that he is the main attraction. 'More traditionalist men have come on their own; it's not that I've gone out to look for them,' he said. 'When men say they feel very confident in my leadership, I tell them that they have to come to the archdiocese of St Louis because they're devoted to the archdiocese, not me.'
Fr Butler, the head of the archdiocese's vocations office, told Tim Townsend of the Post-Dispatch that while he doesn't like to think of the call to the priesthood in terms of numbers, 'the future of the archdiocese necessitates it'. Based on priests' rate of retiring and advancing age, the archdiocese needs to ordain about 10 to 12 men annually.
To reach that goal, Butler continued, the archdiocese needs to bring in 20 to 24 men each year. That is about double the current level. Next year, the seminary expects a more typical ordination class of five, though with larger entering classes, 'the days of five-member ordination ceremonies might be a thing of the past'.
One seminarian, Edward Nemeth, aged 26. remembers when the Archbishop first came to St Louis with a vow to make the seminary the heart of the archdiocese. Nemeth believes Burke has made good on that promise, and in doing so, has become 'like a father' to the seminarians.
His strength, Nemeth says, came from watching Archbishop Burke deal with controversies. 'He stands for truth when he knows that's not going to be easy, so we know he'll support us when we have to do the same.'