The men of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary know many Americans think their choice is unconventional. But they think they represent a Catholic revival: a youthful, conservative, energetic, in-your-face love of God and the gospels.
"I want to be the coolest priest possible," said seminarian Michael Nixon, 24, who calls his life before seminary "wild and crazy."
The future priests know about the financial scandals, pedophilia accusations, girlfriends on the side and other lurid accusations that plague the church. Still, they are drawn to Jesus, the rhythm and majesty of Mass, the sacraments and the social work that they believe can change the world.
Parishes in Florida and across the country are in desperate need of these men. While the number of American priests has fallen from about 58,000 to about 42,000 over the past 40 years, the Roman Catholic Church has added almost 1,000 parishes. More than 3,000 churches lack a resident priest, according to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
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St. Vincent de Paul's five-year graduate program, with 64 students, is designed for men who attended college but still need the theological grounding and real-world experience to minister to a parish. Owned by the seven dioceses of Florida, the 43-year-old seminary, surrounded by shopping centers and housing developments on Military Trail, offers theology courses, spiritual direction, retreats and community internships to its future priests.
Because of the shortage, the church has welcomed older men it may not have sought to recruit in years past. The average age at ordination has risen from 32 in 1984 to 38 in 2006.