Midway through the Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dodgeville, the service took a sharp turn toward fundraising.

Monsignor Daniel Ganshert, the parish priest, told parishioners that for years, people in the Madison Catholic Diocese had been praying for more men to be called by God to the priesthood. The Holy Spirit has responded, Ganshert announced jubilantly.

There are now 33 seminarians, or priests-in-training, up from six in 2003 when Bishop Robert Morlino arrived. But that increase comes with responsibility, Ganshert said.

The diocese needs $30 million to educate current and future seminarians — “a serious chunk of money,” he acknowledged.

Ushers distributed pledge cards. The assembled were asked to dig deep.

The same scene is playing out across all 134 worship sites in the 11-county diocese. The effort, which began last fall and will continue through the end of this year, is the first diocesan-wide capital campaign in more than 50 years.

So far, the faithful have responded with vigor. Although the campaign has yet to expand to all churches, parishioners already have pledged more than $28 million.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Morlino said in an interview, giving immense credit to the diocese’s 110 priests who’ve been rolling out the campaign in their parishes. “They love the priesthood and they love the church, and this is the Holy Spirit working through them.”

A priest’s training, called “formation,” doesn’t come cheap, and the diocese picks up much of the tab.

The diocese declined to pinpoint a per-seminarian cost. But back-of-the-envelope calculations, based on interviews and available data, suggest the diocese spends $250,000 to $300,000 to train each new priest, figures diocesan officials did not contest.

Behind the rise

Priestly ordinations are on the uptick nationally after bottoming out in the 1990s, though there is great variation across dioceses, said Anne Hendershott, who has researched the topic as co-author of “Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church.”

The Madison diocese has a “remarkable” number of seminarians for its size, she said.

Why the local success? Morlino has made priestly vocations — the spiritual call to serve — a priority. He increased the position of director of vocations to full time, and he routinely promotes the priesthood at functions.

But there could be more to it. The very traits that have made Morlino controversial may be the reason he’s successful at recruiting new priests, Hendershott’s research suggests.

Bishops who are unambiguous about church doctrine and don’t tolerate dissent tend to inspire the greatest number of vocations, said Hendershott, who references Morlino positively in her book.

“I’d hesitate to call them culture warriors, but they know what they stand for,” said Hendershott, a sociology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “If you are considering the priesthood, you’d want to see that. You don’t want to commit yourself to something that’s backed only halfway.”

Morlino’s traits can cut both ways. Members of the Madison chapter of Call to Action, a national group of progressive Catholics, find him rigidly doctrinaire and lacking in pastoral empathy. They’ve worried in the past that the seminarians recruited under his tenure will be carbon copies.

Jim Green, a leader of the local chapter, said by email the group had decided not to comment collectively or individually on the fundraising campaign. He added, “We will not be donating to the aforementioned cause however.”

When asked if he thought the campaign was a referendum on his tenure, Morlino said, “I hope not.”

Parishioners need to consider the far-distant health of the church, he said, not just one bishop’s leadership.

Becoming a priest takes rigor, typically involving eight to 10 years of higher education and culminating in a master’s of divinity degree.

Hearing the call

Some hear a calling while still teenagers. They apply to the diocese and enter a seminary right out of high school.

Others take more circuitous routes. Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s second-in-command, was pulling down a six-figure salary as a jet-setting financial analyst when he decided to give it up and enter a Catholic seminary at age 34. He jokingly refers to his journey as your typical “riches-to-rags story.”

Dr. Clint Olson of Madison, 36, a current seminarian, is a family physician switching to the priesthood. He believes God will find applications for his medical expertise, and he considers doctors and priests similar in many ways.

“Both provide compassion to people during their most difficult moments,” he said.

Regardless of the path to the priesthood, a man first must attain the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in philosophy — a diocesan requirement — followed by a graduate degree in divinity at a Catholic theology school. The diocese does not operate a seminary, so it sends its students to schools elsewhere, primarily Detroit, St. Paul and Rome.

The diocese contributes an annual stipend of $8,000 to students during their undergraduate years. The student and his family must pick up the rest, which can be substantial, sometimes tens of thousands of additional dollars a year.

At the graduate level, the diocese pays all costs: tuition, room, board and health insurance, plus a monthly living stipend. This usually comes to around $50,000 a year per seminarian, a figure that includes overhead costs of operating a vocations office, Bartylla said.

The diocese takes on this expense because it wants its graduate-level seminarians focused completely on their studies, not on part-time jobs, and because of the nature of the relationship between a diocese and its priests, Bartylla said.

“There are no freelance seminarians,” he said. “It’s not just a degree, it’s a formation period that must be sponsored by a bishop. You become part of a family, and the family sends you off to college.”

In return, the seminarian fully commits to the diocese for the rest of his life. Despite this commitment, there is no financial penalty if a seminarian decides he is no longer hearing a call to the priesthood and drops out before graduating.

“It can cloud discernment if you put that burden on them,” Bartylla said. “You don’t want men staying in the program for financial reasons.”

Annual costs

The diocese spends about $1.4 million per year on its vocations program, Bartylla said. At a 5 percent return rate, a $30 million endowment will generate the needed cash each year.

Parishioners have been asked to pledge over a five-year period, and they’ve been given suggested amounts based on their prior two years of giving. The level of giving is intended to be “sacrificial,” or beyond the usual. Some of the suggested household goals have been as high as $15,000 or more.

“I thought I’d get thrown out on my ear,” said Tim Singer, who attends St. Joseph Parish in Dodgeville and was part of a team of volunteers there who made home visits to encourage their fellow parishioners to donate. “But I was overwhelmed by how this has been received.”

Linda Schoenmann, an end-of-life caregiver in Dodgeville, said she was “shocked” by the sum she was asked to consider giving. But after much praying, she pledged an even-higher sum, she said, convinced that God’s generosity, while unmatchable, should be the inspiration.

The campaign’s success is likely twofold, parishioners say. Priests are the lifeblood of the church — in the Catholic faith, they turn bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. And while seminarians do not necessarily need to grow up in the diocese, many do. These are hometown boys whose stories and sacrifices resonate.

“I think, at a very basic level, this campaign is touching people’s hearts,” said Kathi Klaas of Sun Prairie, whose 24-year-old son, Phil, is a seminarian. He is a former quarterback of the Sun Prairie High School football team and often would rise, on his own, to attend 6:30 a.m. Mass before school, his mother said.

At the current number of seminarians, the diocese is ordaining three to five new priests annually, about the same number that retire each year. “We’re at a rough replacement level,” Bartylla said.

One of the newly minted priests is the Rev. Scott Jablonski, ordained last June. He is an associate pastor at two Watertown churches.

“People want to see Christ, and hopefully, as a priest, I can bring him to them,” said Jablonski, 33, who grew up in Appleton and graduated from UW-Madison. “It’s a beautiful, wonderful, joyful life.”

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