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Pope's death spurs interest in priesthood
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Br. Paul Niebauer is in charge of vocations at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Niebauer says the pope's death may spur some men to think seriously about joining religous life. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Catholic leaders in Minnesota say the attention being paid to the pope's death and the church as a whole, might encourage more men to join the priesthood. They say after years of decline, interest in the priesthood is on an upswing Minnesota. They say the death of the pope appears to be accelerating that trend.

Collegeville, Minn. — Brother. Paul Niebauer from St. John's Abbey in Collegeville says it's obvious the death of the pope has dominated the news. Niebauer is in charge of vocations at St. John's Abbey. That means he's the person men talk to if they're interested in becoming a Benedictine monk or a priest. He says it's rather inelegant, but the death of the pope has been great PR for the Catholic church. And that attention may draw more men to the priesthood.

"It certainly won't hurt. It certainly puts it in the forefront of their psyche," Niebauer said.

Big events, whether it's the death of the pope, a war, or the September 11th attacks, often encourage people to take a leap into religious life.

Getting people to make the life long commitment to become a priest is something the Catholic church has struggled with for several years. The number of priests in the U.S. has gone down over the past 40 years. It's left parishes struggling to fill positions, especially in rural areas.

But the need is less urgent in the Twin Cities according to Fr. Thomas Wilson. Wilson is in charge of recruiting priests with the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese.

"We're doing O.K., it's tight, we're experiencing some of that at this stage, but I don't think it's at a crisis point for us, " Wilson said.

Wilson says the number of priests in the Twin Cities may actually be on the increase. He points to the fact that 15 men are about to graduate from the archdiocese seminary. That may not sound like a lot, but it's the largest graduating class they've had in 60 years.

What will the pope's death mean for the number of priests in the archdiocese? At this point there seems to be more interest in the priesthood, based on the number of calls Wilson received in the last week.

"I've had about seven or eight calls from young people that seem like very serious inquirers. None have said specifically "the pope is dead, I'm thinking about becoming a priest', but I have seen a bit of a spike in the number of people calling the office," Wilson said.

It's not easy to guess where trends in the priesthood are headed. Even if there is more interest now, the process to become ordained can take up to eight years, and lots of seminary students drop out long before they reach ordination.

Father Gregory Mastey is in charge of recruiting priests for the St. Cloud Diocese. Mastey says he hasn't heard yet from anyone who's inspired to become a priest because of the pope's death.

"But I'm expecting it. Because of these emotional events, we could have people who may have been thinking about it for a while step forward and say 'I think it's time for me to start the process'," Mastey said.

Mastey is skeptical of anyone choosing to enter the priesthood just because of an event like the pope's death.

"It's not something where we open up the doors and say 'O.K. everybody who's thinking about it come on in'. It's a long process of discerning," Mastey said.

Mastey says it could be years before the church knows if the pope's death and the election of a new pope has any affect on the number of priests in the U.S.