When Pope Francis meets with American bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, seminarian Stefan Megyery will participate in the midday prayer service.
He can hardly contain his excitement.
"How often do you get the chance to meet the pope?" Megyery says.
A few short years ago, the 34-year-old would have been about the same age as most of his classmates at Theological College, the seminary of The Catholic University Of America, where he is studying to become a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington. But no longer.
"The majority of our seminarians are in their mid- to late 20s, whereas when I started out they would have been in their early to mid-30s — and a number older, much older," says the Rev. Phillip Brown, rector of Theological College since 2011 who's also served on the faculty and staff of theological institutions for more than a decade.
That trend is being reflected at Catholic seminaries across the U.S. Though the overall number of priests-in-training remains small, the declining age of seminarians is welcome news for a church whose population is rapidly aging in the U.S. and which faces a critical shortage of priests. Observers say it may signal the beginning of a period of renewal.
The faithful amid a sea of religious 'nones'
Of the more than 3,000 men in seminary now, the percentage of those 34 or younger has risen to more than 75 percent, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. From 2000 to 2005, that figure hovered around 65 percent. The greatest growth has been among 25- to 29-year-olds.
That's all the more notable because the general religious climate in the country wouldn't suggest it. Among fellow millennials — those born after 1980 — the number who identify as Catholic has dipped from 22 percent in 2007 to 16 percent last year, the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year. During the same period, those who say they're religiously unaffiliated — known also as the religious "nones" — rose 10 percentage points to 35 percent.
But an overwhelmingly secular society and religious ambivalence among their peers may actually help bring clarity to those contemplating entering the priesthood.
"When a society gets open, more liberal, more individualistic, it's harder maybe to make this decision, OK, I want to be a priest, because you have so many other choices and alternatives," says seminarian Megyery, who grew up in Berlin.
In the 1950s and '60s, he says, entering religious life — as a priest or nun — was a viable and common profession for Catholics.
"Nowadays it's much harder. ... You have to defend your decision in front of the world," he says. "When you talk to your friends and they don't understand it, and you have to explain this, sometimes it can be hard. You must be very sure, you must be very steadfast and devout and trust in the Lord."
That's particularly true given the still-raw wounds of the clerical sex abuse scandal and the more rigorous vetting process U.S. seminaries implemented in its wake, which includes criminal background checks, a battery of psychological and physical exams and extensive personal interviews.
A search for meaning, service to others
The Rev. Thomas Baima is vice rector for academic affairs at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., and dean of the school's seminary — the largest in the United States. In order to begin to understand the roots of the change, Baima says it's necessary to examine millennials' culture and their traits as a generation.
"It seems the millennials are very much interested in lives of meaning and purpose, they want to do things that have some significance," Baima says. "So success for them is in some ways being redefined. ... That seems to translate into a set of career choices earlier in their 20s, which somehow relate to finding meaning and purpose. "
Tom Lawrence, a first-year student of pre-theology at Theological College, says that yearning for meaning came for him as a desire to make his life a function of the lives of others.
"It means removing the focus of my life from myself to be the Other," explains Lawrence, of the Diocese of Richmond, Va.
"There's this desire, through creating obligations for myself, for doing this or that or the other, of focusing on how do I help others. It's not an active thought," he says. "And this escalated: How can I spend more time doing something for someone else rather than doing something for myself? ... So that again kept chipping away.
"The only way you can describe it, I think, is a peace," says Lawrence, who notes that at times he felt more involved in the church than connected to it, even as he was tasked with the religious education of others. "Where instead of being anxious in a moment, or being concerned about, well, what's going to happen to me, or ... am I going to be embarrassed, or what will my family think, it becomes a question of I'm justified in the sense that in this moment, I can benefit someone else instead of myself, and that's a more noble, or more useful, goal."
A yearning for beauty and ritual
Baima, the vice rector at Mundelein, also argues that other aspects of contemporary society — its pace, the use of technology, the emphasis on visuals — may also play a role in explaining the demographic shift underway.
"Perhaps a form of worship that stresses beauty and the majesty of God ... is filling a contemporary need that we might not be recognizing," he says. "Is the fact that it's a more visual experience simply lining up with a generation with whom visual communication is far more important because of technology's changes?
"Is it because more traditional worship provides more quiet and reflective experiences in an age when information just crashes over them like waves?" Baima asks. "These are only hypotheses, but it's a question."
Exposure to the physical beauty of Catholic traditions was a powerful draw for Josh Gray, a third-year theologian at Mundelein. Home-schooled on his family's farm in the small town of Early, Texas, the 24-year-old attended daily Mass with his mother from the time he was a baby through high school.
"With all this exposure to the Eucharist, to Mass, to Catholic teachings, I guess I couldn't help but say, 'Wow, I want to be a part of this, this amazing mystery, this beautiful, wonderful celebration," he recalls. "So in this atmosphere of going to church, of learning more about the faith, I just felt drawn toward it."
Strong faith, weak religious foundation
But Baima says his observations suggest this is hardly the rule. In fact, he says that many of the millennials entering seminary now were brought up Catholic, but did not have what he terms a "densely" Catholic experience.
That was the case with Nelson Cintra, a 29-year-old at Mundelein. Despite the fact that his mother was very pious and he attended Mass regularly with her, the second-year pre-theologian says he did not receive a strong Catholic formation growing up in Ohio.
"I did learn about our Sunday obligation, and Our Father and Hail Mary. From first through seventh grade, I went to Catholic school, learned what you learn in religious education class," he says. "I learned what (the Catholic faith) looked like on the outside, but I didn't learn what it meant to have a heart that was attached to the heart of Christ."
As a result, Cintra and many other men of his generation experienced their spiritual awakening as adults — for many, at college. To Baima, that makes sense.
"If one is on a campus where moral relativism is holding sway, and they're looking at their college classmates, who they care about, getting hurt by a lack of an ethical clarity in their life, you can see where they would look for alternatives," says Baima, whose observations draw on 15 years working in various posts at the university.
On campuses, spiritual challenge and community
It was at college at Indiana University that Radley Alcantora first started feeling "a tug on (his) heart from God." Until then, he says, his goals were to go into the business world and "make a lot of money."
"I was raised Catholic, I liked being Catholic, but I didn't have a deep understanding of what that meant, what that looked like," says Alcantora, who is 27 now and a third-year theologian at Mundelein. "So entering college, I did the typical college stuff, you know, going to parties and drinking."
But even as Alcantora was "partying hard," he'd still go to Mass.
"I always went to Mass, every weekend, whether I went to Mass first and then I went out, or I would go to parties and on Sunday I would go to Mass at some point," says Alcantora, who grew up in Portage, Ind., the son of immigrants from the Philippines.
For him, finding a community of other Christians on campus was vital.
"Friends really challenged me: 'You say you're a Christian but you're not living a Christian lifestyle,' " he recalls. "And I didn't really know what that meant. I started going to Bible studies with them, and realizing that I was living inconsistently with what I say that I believe in."
Many collegiate Catholics find a spiritual home at the 2,000 Newman Centers at schools across the country. In the past two decades, many of them have also opened up actual homes — dorm-like residences — to accommodate Catholic students. Mundelein's Baima says in his experience, the centers on secular campuses at big state universities are often the most vibrant.
"We used to joke that the Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana was our best college seminary, because so many young men came out of there and looked to go onto graduate seminary," he says.
Among recent applicants Baima has interviewed, living at one of these residential centers was an important aspect of "their coming to an adult possession in their faith."
"They were able to get into an environment that was supportive for those who had a faith life," Baima says.
A call to 'Go out to the people'
For all the optimism about the uptick in younger men entering seminary, Brown, the rector at Theological College, offers a caveat.
"We see a lot of young people ... who have experienced what they have perceived or experienced as chaos in the life around them and society around them," he says. "Many of them have been looking for a more orderly or safe kind of life that they see that the tradition of the church represents."
That's not inherently a bad thing, Brown says.
"But to the extent that it might represent a kind of retrenchment and unwillingness to engage the world, rather to see yourself as against the world around you, that's not a good thing," he says. "That's not what the Gospel is about, that's not what the Christian faith is about, that's not what the church is about."
And that's not the approach Pope Francis has taken so far during this papacy.
"He radiates a kind of joy and a love for people, compassion, concern, and also of being in touch with the world around him," says Brown.
That, in turn, inspires seminarians like Megyery, a first-year theologian.
"I read about Francis when he was the bishop of Buenos Aires. He traveled on the metro with the people, he had contact with the people," he says. "I would like to be a priest in this way. Not to hide in my rectory, but to go out to the people and to really embrace them, and maybe not only the parish, but all people, because we have good news for everybody, not only for Catholics."
"What Pope Francis does, especially with his emphasis on the poor people, those people who are a little abandoned and live on the outskirts, are neglected by society," Megyery says, "that's where we have to go, he's just following Jesus' example this way."